A History of Dictatorship in the Ancient Roman Republic
By Sir William Smith
English Lexicographer (1813-1893)
A dictator was an extraordinary magistrate at Rome. The name is of Latin origin, and the office probably existed in many Latin towns before it was introduced into Rome (Dionys. V.74). We find it in Lanuvium even in very late times (Cic. pro Mil. 10). At Rome this magistrate was originally called magister populi and not dictator, and in the sacred books he was always designated by the former name down to the latest times (Cic. de Rep. I.40, de Leg. III.3, de Fin. III.22; Var. L.L. V.82, ed. Müller; Festus, s.v. optima lex, p198, ed. Müller).
On the establishment of the Roman republic the government of the state was entrusted to two consuls, that the citizens might be the better protected against the tyrannical exercise of the supreme power. But it was soon felt that circumstances might arise in which it was of importance for the safety of the state that the government should be vested in the hands of a single person, who should possess for a season absolute power, and from whose decisions there should be no appeal to any other body. Thus it came to pass that in B.C. 501, nine years after the expulsion of the Tarquins, the dictatorship (dictatura) was instituted. The name of the first dictator and the immediate reason of his appointment were differently stated in the annalists. The oldest authorities mention T. Larcius, one of the consuls of the year, as the first dictator, but others ascribed this honour to M’. Valerius (Liv. II.18). Livy states (l.c.) that a formidable war with the Latins led to the appointment; and he also found mentioned in the annals that the consuls of this year were suspected of belonging to the party of the Tarquins; but in the latter case T. Larcius could not have been one of the consuls.
Dionysius relates at length (V.63‑70) that the plebs, who were oppressed by the weight of their debts, took advantage of the danger of the republic to obtain some mitigation of their sufferings, and refused to serve in the army, and that thereupon recourse was had to a dictator to bring them to their duty. But as Livy makes no mention of any internal disturbances in this year, and does not speak of any commotions on account of debts till four years subsequently, we may conclude that Dionysius has in this case, as he has in many others, deserted the annalists in order to give what appeared to him a more satisfactory reason. It is true that the patricians frequently availed themselves of the dictatorship as a means of oppressing the plebs; but it is certainly unnecessary to seek the first institution of the office in any other cause than the simple one mentioned by Livy, namely, the great danger with which the state was threatened. Modern scholars have stated other reasons for the establishment of the dictatorship, which are so purely conjectural and possess such little inherent probability, that they do not require any refutation.
Thus Niebuhr infers (Hist. of Rome, vol. I. p564) from the Roman dictator being appointed only for six months, that he was at the head both of Rome and of the Latin league, and that a Latin dictator possessed the supreme power for the other six months of the year; but this supposition, independent of other considerations, is contradicted by the fact, that in the year in which the dictator was first appointed, Rome and the Latins were preparing for war with one another. In like manner Huschke (Verfassung d. Servius Tullius, p516) starts the strange hypothesis, that the dictatorship was part of the constitution of Servius Tullius, and that a dictator was to be nominated every decennium for the purpose of fixing the clavus annalis and of holding the census.
By the original law respecting the appointment of a dictator (lex de dictatore creando) no one was eligible for this office, unless he had previously been consul (Liv. II.18). We find, however, a few instances in which this law was not observed (see e.g. Liv. IV. 26, 48, VII.24). When a dictator was considered necessary, the senate passed a senatus consultum that one of the consuls should nominate (dicere) a dictator; and without a previous decree of the senate the consuls had not the power of naming a dictator, although the contrary used to be asserted in most works on Roman antiquities. In almost all cases we find mention of a previous decree of the senate (see e.g. II.30, IV. 17, 21, 23, 26, 57, VI.2, VII.21, VIII.17, IX.29, X.11, XXII.57); and in a few instances, in which the appointment by the consul is alone spoken of, the senatus consultum is probably not mentioned, simply because it was a matter of course.
Niebuhr indeed supposes (Hist. of Rome, vol. I p567) that the dictator was originally created by the curiae, like the kings. According to his view the senate proposed a person as dictator, whom the curiae elected and the consul then proclaimed (dixit); and after this proclamation the newly elected magistrate received the imperium from the curiae. But this election of the dictator by the curiae is only supported by two passages, one of Dionysius and the other in Festus, neither of which is conclusive in favour of Niebuhr’s view. Dionysius simply says (V.70) that the dictator should be one “whom the senate should nominate and the people approve of” (ἐπιψηφίσθαι), but this may merely refer to the granting of the imperium by the curiae. In Festus (p198) we read “M. Valerius — qui primus magister a populo creatus est;” but even if there were no corruption in this passage, we need only understand that a dictator was appointed in virtue of a senatus consultum, and certainly need not suppose that by populus the curiae are intended: there can however be hardly any doubt that the passage is corrupt, and that the true reading is “qui primus magister populi creatus est.” We may therefore safely reject the election by the curiae.
The nomination or proclamation of the dictator by the consul was, however, necessary in all cases. It was always made by the consul, probably without any witnesses, between midnight and morning, and with the observance of the auspices (surgens or oriens nocte silentio dictatorem dicebat, Liv. VIII.23, IX.38, XXIII.22; Dionys. X.11). The technical word for this nomination or proclamation was dicere (seldom creare or facere). So essential was the nomination of the consuls, that we find the senate on one occasion having recourse to the tribunes of the people to compel the consuls to nominate a dictator, when they had refused to do so (Liv. IV.26); and after the battle at the lake Trasimenus, when all communication with the surviving consul was cut off, the senate provided for the emergency by causing the people to elect a prodictator, because, says Livy, the people could not elect (creare) a dictator, having never up to that time exercised such a power (Liv. XXII.8).
In the same spirit it became a question, whether the tribuni militum with consular power could nominate a dictator, and they did not venture to do so till the augurs had been consulted and declared it allowable (Liv. IV.21). The nomination of Sulla by an interrex and of Caesar by a praetor was contrary to all precedent and altogether illegal (cf. Cic. ad Att. IX.15). The senate seems to have usually mentioned in their decree the name of the person whom the consul was to nominate (Liv. IV.17, 21, 23, 46, VI.2, VII.12, VIII.17, IX.29, X.11, XXII.57); but that the consul was not absolutely bound to nominate the person whom the senate had named, is evident from the cases in which the consuls appointed persons in opposition to the wishes of the senate (Liv. III.12, Epit. 19; Suet. Tib. 2).
It is doubtful what rule was adopted, or whether any existed, for the purpose of determining which of the two consuls should nominate the dictator. In one case we read that the nomination was made by the consul who had the fasces (Liv. VIII.12), in another that it was decided by lot (IV.26), and in a third that it was matter of agreement among themselves (IV.21). In later times the senate usually entrusted the office to the consul who was nearest at hand. The nomination took place at Rome, as a general rule; and if the consuls were absent, one of them was recalled to the city, whenever it was practicable (Liv. VII.19, XXIII.22); but if this could not be done, a senatus consultum authorising the appointment was sent to the consul, who thereupon made the nomination in the camp (Liv. VII.21, VIII.23, IX.38, XXV.2, XXVII.5). Nevertheless, the rule was maintained that the nomination could not take place outside of the Ager Romanus, though the meaning of this expression was extended so as to include the whole of Italia. Thus we find the senate in the second Punic war opposing the nomination of a dictator in Sicily, because it was outside of the ager Romanus (extra agrum Romanum — eum autem Italia terminari, Liv. XXVII.5).
Originally the dictator was of course a patrician. The first plebeian dictator was C. Marcius Rutilius, nominated in B.C. 356 by the plebeian consul M. Popillius Laenas (Liv. VII.17).
The reasons, which led to the appointment of a dictator, required that there should be only one at a time. The only exception to this rule occurred in B.C. 216 after the battle of Cannae, when M. Fabius Buteo was nominated dictator for the purpose of filling up the vacancies in the senate, although M. Junius Pera was discharging the regular duties of the dictator; but Fabius resigned on the day of his nomination on the ground that there could not be two dictators at the same time (Liv. XXIII.22, 23; Plut. Fab. 9). The dictators that were appointed for carrying on the business of the state were said to be nominated rei gerundae causa, or sometimes seditionis sedandae causa; and upon them, as well as upon the other magistrates, the imperium was conferred by a Lex Curiata (Liv. IX.38, 39; Dionys. V.70). Dictators were also frequently appointed for some special purpose, and frequently one of small importance, of whom further mention will be made below. At present we confine our remarks to the duties and powers of the dictator rei gerundae causa.
The dictatorship was limited to six months (Cic. de Leg. III.3; Liv. III.29, IX.34, XXIII.23; Dionys. V.70, X.25; Dion Cass. XXXVI.34º, XLII.21; Zonar. VII.13), and no instances occur in which a person held this office for a longer time, for the dictatorships of Sulla and Caesar are of course not to be taken into account. On the contrary, though a dictator was appointed for six months, he often resigned his office long previously, immediately after he had despatched the business for which he had been appointed (Liv. III.29, IV.46, VI.29). As soon as the dictator was nominated, a kind of suspension took place with respect to the consuls and all the other magistrates, with the exception of the tribuni plebis. It is frequently stated that the duties and functions of all the ordinary magistrates entirely ceased, and some writers have even gone so far as to say that the consuls abdicated (Polyb. III.87; Cic. de Leg. III.3; Dionys. V.70, 72); but this is not a correct way of stating the facts of the case.
The regular magistrates continued to discharge the duties of their various offices under the dictator, but they were no longer independent officers, but were subject to the higher imperium of the dictator, and obliged to obey his orders in every thing. We often find the dictator and the consuls at the head of separate armies at the same time, and carrying on war independent of one another (Liv. II.30, VIII.29); we see that the soldiers levied by the dictator took the oath of allegiance to the consul (Liv. II.32), and that the consuls could hold the consular comitia during a dictatorship (Liv. XXIII.23). All this shows that the consuls did not resign their functions, although they were subject to the imperium of the dictator; and accordingly, as soon as the dictator abdicated, they again entered forthwith into the full possession of the consular power.
The superiority of the dictator’s power to that of the consuls consisted chiefly in the three following points — greater independence of the senate, more extensive power of punishment without any appeal (provocatio) from their sentence to the people, and irresponsibility. To these three points, must of course be added that he was not fettered by a colleague. We may naturally suppose that the dictator would usually act in unison with the senate; but it is expressly stated that in many cases where the consuls required the co-operation of the senate, the dictator could act on his own responsibility (Polyb. III.87).
For how long a time the dictatorship was a magistratus sine provocatione, is uncertain. That there was originally no appeal from the sentence of the dictator is certain, and accordingly the lictors bore the axes in the fasces before them even in the city, as a symbol of their absolute power over the lives of the citizens, although by the Valerian law the axes had disappeared from the fasces of the consuls (Liv. II.18, 29, III.20; Zonar. VII.13; Dionys. V.70, 75; Pompon. de Orig. Jur. § 18). That an appeal afterwards lay from their sentence to the people, is expressly stated by Festus, (s.v. optima lex), and it has been supposed that this privilege was granted by the lex Valeria Horatia, passed after the abolition of the decemvirate in B.C. 449, which enacted “ne quis ullum magistratum sine provocatione crearet” (Liv. III.15). But eleven years afterwards the dictatorship is spoken of as a magistratus sine provocatione; and the only instance in Livy (VIII.33‑34) in which the dictator is threatened with provocatio, certainly does not prove that this was a legal right; for L. Papirius, who was then dictator, treated the provocatio as an infringement of the rights of his office.
We may therefore suppose that the Lex Valeria Horatia only applied to the regular magistracies, and that the dictatorship was regarded as exempt from it. Whether however the right of provocatio was afterwards given, or the statement in Festus is an error, cannot be determined. In connection with the provocatio there arises another question respecting the relation of the dictatorship to the tribunes of the plebs. We know that the tribunes continued in office during a dictatorship; but we have no reason to believe that they had any control over a dictator, or could hamper his proceedings by their intercessio or auxilium, as they could in the case of the consuls. The few instances, which appear to prove the contrary, are to be explained in a different manner, as Becker has shown. That the tribunes continued in office as independent magistrates during a dictatorship, while all the other magistrates became simply the officers of the dictator, is to be explained by the fact, that the lex de dictatore creando was passed before the institution of the tribuneship of the plebs, and consequently made no mention of it, and that as a dictator was appointed in virtue of a senatus consultum, the senate had no power over the tribunes of the plebs, though they could suspend the other magistrates.
It has been already stated that the dictator was irresponsible, that is, he was not liable after his abdication to be called to account for any of his official acts. This is expressly stated by ancient writers (Zonar. VII.13, Dionys. V.70, VII.56; Plut. Fab. 3;a Appian, B. C. II.23), and, even if it had not been stated, it would follow from the very nature of the dictatorship. We find moreover no instance recorded in which a dictator after his resignation was made answerable for the misuse of his power, with the exception of Camillus, whose case however was a very peculiar one (cf. Becker, Römisch. Alterth. vol. II part II. p172).
It was in consequence of the great and irresponsible power possessed by the dictatorship, that we find it frequently compared with the regal dignity, from which it only differed in being held for a limited time (Cic. de Rep. II.32; Zonar. VII.13; Dionys. V.70, 73; Appian, B. C. I.99; Tac. Ann. I.1). There were however a few limits to the power of the dictator. 1. The most important was that which we have often mentioned, that the period of his office was only six months. 2. He had not power over the treasury, but could only make use of the money which was granted to him by the senate (Zonar. VII.13). 3. He was not allowed to leave Italy, since he might in that case easily become dangerous to the republic (Dion Cass. XXXVI.17)º; though the case of Atilius Calatinus in the first Punic war forms an exception to this rule (Liv. Epit. 19). 4. He was not allowed to ride on horseback at Rome, without previously obtaining the permission of the people (Liv. XXIII.14; Zonar. VII.13); a regulation apparently capricious, but perhaps adopted that he might not bear too great a resemblance to the kings, who were accustomed to ride.
The insignia of the dictatorº were nearly the same as those of the kings in earlier times; and of the consuls subsequently. Instead however of having only twelve lictors, as was the case with the consuls, he was preceded by twenty-four bearing the secures as well as the fasces. The sella curulis and toga praetexta also belonged to the dictator (Polyb. III.87; Dionys. X.24; Plut. Fab. 4; Appian, B. C. I.100; Dion Cass. LIV.1).
The preceding account of the dictatorship applies more particularly to the dictator rei gerundae causa; but dictators were also frequently appointed, especially when the consuls were absent from the city, to perform certain acts, which could not be done by any inferior magistrate. These dictators had little more than the name; and as they were only appointed to discharge a particular duty, they had to resign immediately that duty was performed, and they were not entitled to exercise the power of their office in reference to any other matter than the one for which they were nominated. The occasions on which such dictators were appointed, were principally:— 1. For the purpose of holding the comitia for the elections (comitiorum habendorum causa). 2. For fixing the clavus annalis in the temple of Jupiter (clavi figendi causa) in times of pestilence or civil discord, because the law said that this ceremony was to be performed by the praetor maximus, and after the institution of the dictatorship the latter was regarded as the highest magistracy in the state (Liv. VII.3). 3. For appointing holidays (feriarum constituendarum causa) on the appearance of prodigies (Liv. VII.28), and for officiating at the public games (ludorum faciendorum causa), the presidency of which belonged to the consuls or praetors (VIII.40, IX.34). 4. For holding trials (quaestionibus exercendis, IX.36). 5. And on one occasion, for filling up vacancies in the senate (legendo senatui, XXIII.22).
Along with the dictator there was always a magister equitum, the nomination of whom was left to the choice of the dictator, unless the senatus consultum specified, as was sometimes the case, the name of the person who was to be appointed (Liv. VIII.17, XXII.57). The dictator could not be without a magister equitum, and, consequently, if the latter died during the six months of the dictatorship, another had to be nominated in his stead. The magister equitum was subject to the imperium of the dictator, but in the absence of his superior he became his representative, and exercised the same powers as the dictator. On one occasion, shortly before legal dictators ceased to be appointed, we find an instance of a magister equitum being invested with an imperium equal to that of the dictator, so that there were then virtually two dictators, but this is expressly mentioned as an anomaly, which had never occurred before (Polyb. III.103, 106).
The rank which the magister equitum held among the other Roman magistrates is doubtful. Niebuhr asserts (vol. II p390) “no one ever supposed that his office was a curule one;” and if he is right in supposing that the consular tribunate was not a curule office, his view is supposed by the account in Livy, that the imperium of the magister equitum was not regarded as superior to that of a consular tribune (VI.39). Cicero on the contrary places the magister equitum on a par with the praetor (de Leg. III.3); and after the establishment of the praetorship, it seems to have been considered necessary that the person who was to be nominated magister equitum should previously have been praetor, just as the dictator, according to the old law, had to be chosen from the consulars (Dion Cass. XLII.21). Accordingly, wefind at a later time that the magister equitum had the insignia of a praetor (Dion Cass. XLII.27). The magister equitum was originally, as his name imports, the commander of the cavalry, while the dictator was at the head of the legions, the infantry (Liv. III.27), and the relation between them was in this respect similar to that which subsisted between the king and the tribunus celerum.
Dictators were only appointed so long as the Romans had to carry on wars in Italy. A solitary instance occurs in the first Punic war of the nomination of a dictator for the purpose of carrying on war out of Italy (Liv. Epit. 19); but this was never repeated, because, as has been already remarked, it was feared that so great a power might become dangerous at a distance from Rome. But after the battle of Trasimene in B.C. 217,º when Rome itself was threatened by Hannibal, recourse was again had to a dictator, and Q. Fabius Maximus was appointed to the office. In the next year, B.C. 216, after the battle of Cannae, M. Junius Pera was also nominated dictator, but this was the last time of the appointment of a dictator rei gerundae causa. From that time dictators were frequently appointed for holding the elections down to B.C. 202, but from that year the dictatorship disappears altogether.
After a lapse of 120 years, Sulla caused himself to be appointed dictator in B.C. 82, reipublicae constituendae causa (Vell. Pat. II.28), but as Niebuhr remarks, “the title was a mere name, without any ground for such a use in the ancient constitution.” Neither the magistrate (interrex) who nominated him, nor the time for which he was appointed, nor the extent nor the exercise of his power, was in accordance with the ancient laws and precedents; and the same was the case with the dictatorship of Caesar. Soon after Caesar’s death the dictatorship was abolished for ever by a lex proposed by the consul Antonius (Cic. Phil. I.1; Liv. Epit. 116; Dion Cass. LIV.51). The title indeed was offered to Augustus, but he resolutely refused it in consequence of the odium attached to it from the tyranny of Sulla when dictator (Suet. Aug. 52).
During the time, however, that the dictatorship was in abeyance, a substitute was invented for it, whenever the circumstances of the republic required the adoption of extraordinary measures, by the senate investing the consuls with dictatorial power. This was done by the well-known formula, Videant or dent operam consules, ne quid respublica detrimenti capiat (cf. Sall. Catil. 29).
(The preceding account has been mostly taken from Becker, Handbuch der Römischen Alterthümer, vol. II part II. p150, &c.; cf. Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, vol. I p563, &c.; Göttling, Geschichte der Römisch. Staatsverfassung, p279, &c.).
Excerpted from A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, by William Smith, published by John Murray (London, 1875), also available online at the University of Chicago.