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Pompey’s Third Consulship (52 B.C.): Elected or Appointed?

John T. Ramsey

The aim of this paper is to demonstrate that Pompey was, in fact, elected, not appointed, to his third, sole consulship in 52 B.C.

            Many scholars have drawn the opposite conclusion, influenced by the sheer weight of the textual evidence¸ which tends to portray Pompey’s third consulship as an office conferred on him by the Senate tout court. This view emerges especially in Greek authors writing under the Empire, when it was the norm for the consulship to be voted by the Senate (e. g., App. BCiv. 2.23; Dio 40.50.3-4; more nuanced Plut. Pomp. 54.3-4, cf. Caes. 28.5, Cato Min. 47.2-3, 48.1). The Perioche of Livy book 107 baldly credits Pompey’s third consulship to an act of the Senate (a senatu consul tertio factus est absens et solus; cf. Suet. Iul. 26.1). Among modern scholars who adopt this line, representative are Gruen p. 153, “The patres canceled elections for 52 and installed temporary authoritarian rule” (likewise, Neuendorff p. 70; Holmes p. 168; Seager p. 134; Pelling p. 153). On the contrary, the following scholars state, with little or no discussion, that Pompey was “elected” consul in 52:  Gelzer p. 174; MRR 2.234; Jahn p. 180; Wiseman p. 410.

            The best and least ambiguous evidence is found in Asconius (p. 35-36C), who writes that after much rumor about the need for Pompey to be appointed dictator (creari dictatorem), later, by a decree of the Senate, on the motion of Bibulus, “Pompey was made consul (consul creatus est) by the interrex Sulpicius on the 24th of the intercalary month.” The same verb creare is used in Asconius in two distinct senses:  to refer first to the appointment of a dictator (OLD 5a), whom an interrex would simply have named, without convening the people; and next to an interrex presiding over an electoral assembly (OLD 5b). The date specified by Asconius, because it happens to be a dies comitialis on which an assembly could be held, fits the conclusion that the interrex presented to the people a slate of one, and did not simply appoint Pompey as he would have, if the office had been a dictatorship. Normally at a consular election, the first person elected (Pompey, as slated in this instance by the Senate), would have taken over the conduct of the assembly from the interrex to fill the second vacancy (Plut. Marc. 6.1). What the Senate did in 52, under the conservative leadership of Cato and his followers, was to introduce the provision that Pompey was to hold the expected sequel to his own election any time after two months had elapsed (Plut. Pomp. 54.3-4), thereby modifying the mos maiorum by installing only one, not two consuls, but not utterly abandoning past practice.

            Undoubtedly what has caused confusion in the sources and among scholars is the resemblance of Pompey’s sole consulship to a dictatorship. The sources make it clear, however that the Senate wanted to avoid a dictatorship, tainted as it was by the recent memory of Sulla’s tyranny. There was every reason, therefore, for the interrex not to follow the procedure for appointing a dictator but instead to go through the motions of consulting the Roman populus in the comitia centuriata. There simply is no precedent for an interrex to “appoint” a consul. What is unique about the election in 52 is that it was split into two parts, separated by a gap of at least two months, and only one candidate was offered to the people by the interrex.

           This particular innovation constitutes a unique and important chapter in Rome’s constitutional history and in the evolution of the bond that developed between Pompey and the coalition of Caesar’s enemies in the Senate, a coalition headed by Cato and his son-in-law Bibulus. Those two senators were the supporter and sponsor, respectively, of the decree authorizing Pompey to occupy the unprecedented position of sole consul.

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Roman Politics and Culture

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