A dictator was a magistrate of the Roman Republic, entrusted with the full authority of the state to deal with a military emergency or to undertake a specific duty. All other magistrates were subordinate to his imperium, and the right of the plebeian tribunes to veto his actions or of the people to appeal from them was extremely limited. However, in order to prevent the dictatorship from threatening the state itself, severe limitations were placed upon its powers: a dictator could only act within his intended sphere of authority; and he was obliged to resign his office once his appointed task had been accomplished, or at the expiration of six months.
Dictators were frequently appointed from the earliest period of the Republic down to the Second Punic War (218–201 BC), but the magistracy then went into abeyance for over a century, until it was revived in a significantly modified form, first by Sulla between 82 and 79 BC, and then by Julius Caesar between 49 and 44 BC. The office was formally abolished after the death of Caesar, and not revived under the Empire.
With the abolition of the Roman monarchy in 509 BC, the imperium, or executive power, of the king was divided between two annually-elected magistrates, known as praetors. In time they would come to be known as consuls, although probably not until the creation of a third, junior praetor in 367 BC. Neither consul was superior to the other, and the decisions of one could be appealed to the other (provocatio). Their insignia were the toga praetexta and the sella curulis, and each was attended by an escort of twelve lictors, each of whom bore the fasces, a bundle of rods topped by an axe; but by custom the lictors had to remove the axes from their fasces within the pomerium, the sacred boundary of Rome, to signify that the people, and not the consuls, were sovereign.
After several years,[i] the fear of impending war with both the Sabines and the Latin League, combined with widespread suspicion that one or both of the consuls favoured the restoration of the monarchy, led to the call for a praetor maximus, or dictator (“one who gives orders”), akin to the supreme magistrate of other Latin towns. According to most authorities, the first dictator was Titus Lartius in 501 BC, who appointed Spurius Cassius his magister equitum.[ii]
Although there are indications that the term praetor maximus may have been used in the earliest period,[iii] the official title of the dictator throughout the history of the Republic was magister populi, or “master of the infantry”. His lieutenant, the magister equitum, was the “master of the horse” (that is, of the cavalry[iv]). However, the use of dictator to refer to the magister populi seems to have been widespread from a very early period.
The appointment of a dictator involved three steps: first, the Senate would issue a decree known as a senatus consultum, authorizing one of the consuls to nominate a dictator. Technically, a senatus consultum was advisory, and did not have the force of law, but in practice it was nearly always followed.[v] Either consul could nominate a dictator. If both consuls were available, the dictator was chosen by agreement; if they could not agree, the consuls would draw lots for the responsibility. Finally, the Comitia Curiata would be called upon to confer imperium on the dictator through the passage of a law known as a lex curiata de imperio.
A dictator could be nominated for different reasons, or causa. The three most common were rei gerundae causa, “for the matter to be done”, used in the case of dictators appointed to hold a military command against a specific enemy; comitiorum habendorum causa, for holding the comitia, or elections, when the consuls were unable to do so; and clavi figendi causa, an important religious rite involving the driving of a nail into the wall of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, as a protection against pestilence.[vi] Other reasons included seditionis sedandae causa (“to quell sedition”); ferarium constituendarum causa (to establish a religious holiday in response to a dreadful portent[vii]); ludorum faciendorum causa (to hold the Ludi Romani, or “Roman Games”, an ancient religious festival); quaestionibus exercendis, (to investigate certain actions); and in one extraordinary case, senatus legendi causa, to fill up the ranks of the Senate after the Battle of Cannae. These reasons could be combined (seditionis sedandae et rei gerundae causa), but are not always recorded or clearly stated in ancient authorities, and must instead be inferred.
In the earlier period it was customary to nominate someone whom the consul considered the best available military commander; often this was a former consul, but this was never required. However, from 360 BC onward, the dictators were usually consulares.[viii] Normally there was only one dictator at a time, although a new dictator could be appointed following the resignation of another.[ix] A dictator could be compelled to resign his office without accomplishing his task or serving out his term if there were found to be a fault in the auspices under which he had been nominated.
Like other curule magistrates, the dictator was entitled to the toga praetexta and the sella curulis. He received a ceremonial bodyguard that was unique in Roman tradition: “[t]wenty-four lictors indicated his quasi-regal power, which, however, was rather a concentration of the consular authority than a limited revival of the kingship.”[x]
In a notable exception to the Roman reluctance to reconstitute the symbols of the kings, the lictors of the dictator never removed the axes from their fasces, even within the pomerium. Symbolizing their power over life and death, the axes of a dictator’s lictors set him apart from all other magistrates. In an extraordinary sign of deference, the lictors of other magistrates could not bear fasces at all when appearing before the dictator.
As the kings had been accustomed to appear on horseback, this right was forbidden to the dictator, unless he first received permission from the comitia.
Powers and Limitations
In addition to holding a military command and carrying out the actions decreed by the Senate, a dictator could summon the Senate or convene one of the legislative assemblies of the Roman people. The full extent of the dictatorial power was considerable, but not unlimited. It was circumscribed by the conditions of a dictator’s appointment, as well as by the evolving traditions of Roman law, and to a considerable degree depended on the dictator’s ability to work together with other magistrates. The precise limitations of this power were not sharply defined, but subject to debate, contention, and speculation throughout Roman history.
In the pursuit of his causa, the dictator’s authority was nearly absolute. However, as a rule he could not exceed the mandate for which he was appointed; a dictator nominated to hold the comitia could not then take up a military command against the wishes of the Senate.[xi][xii] Some dictators appointed to a military command also performed other duties, such as holding the comitia, or driving a nail into the wall of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus; but presumably they did so with the Senate’s consent.
The imperium of the other magistrates was not vacated by the nomination of a dictator. They continued to perform the duties of their office, although subject to the dictator’s authority, and continued in office until the expiration of their year, by which time the dictator had typically resigned. It is uncertain whether a dictator’s imperium could extend beyond that of the consul by whom he was nominated; Mommsen believed that his imperium would cease together with that of the nominating magistrate, but others have suggested that it could continue beyond the end of the civil year; and in fact there are several examples in which a dictator appears to have entered a new year without any consuls at all, although some scholars doubt the authenticity of these dictator years.
Initially a dictator’s power was not subject to either provocatio, the right to appeal from the decision of a magistrate, or intercessio, the veto of the tribunes of the plebs. However, the lex Valeria, establishing the right of appeal, was not abrogated by the appointment of a dictator, and by 300 BC even the dictator was subject to provocatio, at least within the city of Rome. There is also evidence that the power of the plebeian tribunes was not vitiated by the dictator’s commands, and 210 BC, the tribunes threatened to prevent elections held by the dictator, Quintus Fulvius Flaccus, unless he agreed to withdraw his name from the list of candidates for the consulship.[xiii]
A dictator was expected to resign his office upon the successful completion of the task for which he was appointed, or at the expiration of six months. These sharp limitations were intended to prevent the dictatorship from too closely resembling the absolute power of the Roman kings. But the six month limitation may have been dispensed with when the Senate deemed it expedient; no consuls are known for the years 333, 324, 309, and 301, and it is reported that the dictator and magister equitum continued in office without any consuls.
Most authorities hold that a dictator could not be held to account for his actions after resigning his office, the prosecution of Marcus Furius Camillus for misappropriating the spoils of Veii being exceptional, as perhaps was that of Lucius Manlius Capitolinus in 362,[xiv] which was dropped only because his son, Titus,[xv] threatened the life of the tribune who had undertaken the prosecution. However, some scholars suggest that the dictator was only immune from prosecution during his term of office, and could theoretically be called to answer charges of corruption.
The dictator’s lieutenant was the magister equitum, or “master of the horse”. He would be nominated by the dictator immediately upon his own appointment, and unless the senatus consultum specified the name of the person to be appointed, the dictator was free to choose whomever he wished. It was customary for the dictator to nominate a magister equitum even if he were appointed for a non-military reason. Before the time of Caesar, the only dictator who refused to nominate a magister equitum was Marcus Fabius Buteo in 216 BC, and he strenuously objected to his own nomination, because there was already a dictator in the field.
Like the dictator, the magister equitum was a curule magistrate, entitled to the toga praetexta and the sella curulis. His imperium was equivalent to that of a praetor (in the later use of the term), in that he was accompanied by six lictors, half the number accorded to the consuls. But like the dictator, he could summon the Senate, and probably also the popular assemblies. His authority was not subject to recall, although if the dictator were compelled to resign due to a fault in the auspices, the magister equitum was also expected to resign, and when the dictator laid down his imperium, so would the magister equitum.
In theory, the magister equitum was commander of the cavalry, but he was not limited to that role. The dictator and magister equitum did not always take the field together; in some instances the magister equitum was assigned the defense of the city while the dictator took an army into the field, while on other occasions the dictator remained at Rome to see to some important duty, and entrusted the magister equitum with an army in the field. The magister equitum was necessarily subordinate to the dictator, although this did not always prevent the two from disagreeing.[xvi]
Decline and Disappearance
During the first two centuries of the Republic, the dictatorship served as an expedient means by which a powerful magistracy could be created quickly in order to deal with extraordinary situations. Created for military emergencies, the office could also be used to suppress sedition and prevent the growing number of plebeians from obtaining greater political power. In the Conflict of the Orders, the dictator could generally be counted upon to support the patrician aristocracy, since he was always a patrician, and was nominated by consuls who were exclusively patrician. After the lex Licinia Sextia gave plebeians the right to hold one of the annual consulships, a series of dictators were appointed in order to hold elections, with the apparent goal of electing two patrician consuls, in violation of the Licinian law.[xvii]
After the Second Samnite War, the dictatorship was relegated almost exclusively to domestic activities. No dictator was nominated during the Third Samnite War, and the six-month limitation on its powers made the dictatorship impractical for campaigns beyond the Italian peninsula. In 249 BC, Aulus Atilius Calatinus became the only dictator to lead an army outside Italy, when he invaded Sicily, and he was the only dictator to hold a military command during the First Punic War. The last dictators to lead an army in the field were Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus in 217, and Marcus Junius Pera the following year, during the early stages of the Second Punic War. All of the other dictators appointed during that conflict remained at Rome in order to hold the comitia;[xviii] the last dictator named in the traditional manner was Gaius Servilius Geminus, in 202 BC.[xix]
The Dictatorship Revived
For the next century, Rome’s ordinary magistrates and promagistrates successfully carried on all Roman campaigns, without the need for a dictator, and the office fell into abeyance. Then, in 82 BC, the dictatorship was suddenly revived by Sulla. Sulla, already a successful general, had previously marched on Rome and taken the city from his political opponents six years earlier; but after he permitted the election of magistrates for 87, and departed to campaign in the east, his enemies returned. In 83 he turned his attention to regaining Rome, and after defeating his opponents decisively the next year, the Senate and the people named him dictator legibus faciendis et rei publicae constituendae, giving Sulla the power to rewrite the Roman constitution, without any time limit.[xx]
Sulla’s reforms of the constitution doubled the size of the Senate from 300 to 600, filling its ranks with his supporters. He then placed severe limits on the tribunician power, limiting the veto and forbidding ex-tribunes from holding higher magistracies. Although he resigned the dictatorship in 81, and held the consulship in 80, before returning to private life, Sulla’s actions had weakened the Roman state and set a precedent for the concentration of power without effective limitation.
The dictatorial power was then granted to Caesar in 49 BC, when he returned to Rome from his campaigns in Gaul, and put the forces of Pompeius (“Pompey the Great”) to flight. He resigned the dictatorship after only eleven days, having held the comitia at which he himself was elected consul for the following year. Late in 48, Caesar was named dictator rei gerundae causa with a term of one year, and granted the tribunician power for an indefinite period. He saw to the impeachment of two tribunes who had tried to obstruct him, and having been granted censorial powers, he filled the depleted numbers of the Senate with his supporters, raising the number of senators to 900. In 47, he was named dictator for a term of ten years. Shortly before his assassination in BC 44, Caesar was named dictator perpetuo rei publicae constituendae, and given the power to appoint magistrates at will.
Caesar’s murder came at the hands of conspirators who presented themselves as saviours of the Republic. In order to maintain popular support, Caesar’s followers took great care to show their own commitment to preserving the Roman state. The month after the assassination, Mark Antony, who had been Caesar’s magister equitum in BC 47, proposed a series of laws, confirming Caesar’s actions, but allowing appeals and formally abolishing the dictatorship. These were passed, as the leges Antoniae.
In 23 BC, when Caesar’s nephew and heir Augustus had attained full control of the state, the Senate offered to appoint him dictator, but he declined, while at the same time accepting proconsular imperium and the tribunician power for life. Thus, Augustus preserved the appearance of respecting Republican forms, even as he arrogated most of the powers of the Roman state. Following his example, none of the emperors who succeeded him ever adopted the title of dictator. When Constantine chose to revive the ancient concept of the infantry commander, he pointedly gave the office the name of magister peditum, “master of the foot”, rather than magister populi, the official style of a dictator.
i. The exact date is uncertain, as are many of the details of this event, but 501 BC is the date generally favoured by historians.
ii. An alternative tradition mentioned by Livy is that the first dictator was Manius Valerius Maximus, although Livy thought this improbable, as dictators were supposed to be consulares, that is, men who had already served as consul; and had a Valerius been desired, Manius’ brother, Marcus (described by Livy as either the uncle or father of Manius), consul in 505 BC, would have been chosen instead. Modern historians generally share Livy’s view, notwithstanding the fact that Manius Valerius was appointed dictator in BC 494, without having first held the consulship.
iii. Lintott considers the evidence for praetor maximus as the original name of the magistracy inconclusive, as it depends on the interpretation of an ancient law calling for an official of this title to drive a nail into the wall of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus; the law seems to have dated from the period of the monarchy, and under the Republic was interpreted to mean that this duty should be undertaken by a dictator, as the highest-ranking magistrate; but the first to perform it after the expulsion of the Tarquins was a consul, Marcus Horatius Pulvillus. Nevertheless, the law seems to confirm the existence of such a magistracy in the time of the kings, which might be considered the forerunner of the later magister populi.
iv. Literally, of the equites, sometimes translated as “knights”.
v. A notable exception occurred in BC 431, when the consuls Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus and Gaius Julius Mento were directed to nominate a dictator, probably after having been defeated in an attempt to dislodge the Aequi and Volsci from their fortifications on Mount Algidus. The consuls, who still felt themselves able to hold the military command, refused, until the tribunes of the plebs threatened to have them imprisoned if they did not nominate a dictator.
vi. As this was an annual ritual, it must generally have been observed by the consuls; but Livy mentions an ancient law calling for it to be performed by the praetor maximus, apparently a magistrate in the time of the kings; and on at least one occasion when there was a dictator, it was interpreted to mean that the rite must be performed by the dictator, as the magistrate then holding the greatest imperium.
vii. In 344 BC, “a shower of stones rained down and darkness spread over the sky in the daytime.” This appeared to be a repetition of an omen that occurred during the reign of Tullus Hostilius, the third King of Rome, when a shower of stones fell on the Alban Mount after the war in which Hostilius had destroyed the ancient Latin city of Alba Longa, and transferred its people to Rome. In a response, a nine-day religious festival was decreed, with the intention that it be repeated should such an omen occur again.
viii. The major exception was the ill-starred Marcus Claudius Glicia, freedman of Publius Claudius Pulcher, who nominated him dictator in a fit of pique, when the Senate deprived him of his command after he had ignored ill omens and been defeated in the Battle of Drepana. The Senate compelled Glicia to abdicate the office, even before he could name a magister equitum.
ix. The chief exception occurred in 216 BC, when Marcus Fabius Buteo was nominated dictator in order to fill up the ranks of the Senate following the Battle of Cannae, even as the dictator Marcus Junius Pera held the military command against Hannibal.
x. Lintott suggests only twelve fasces were displayed when the dictator was within the city.
xi. For instance, Lucius Manlius Capitolinus was appointed clavi figendi causa, but wished to lead an army against the Hernici. He proceeded to levy troops, but was compelled to resign before he could take the field, and was prosecuted the following year.
xii. However, the Senate might request a dictator for a reason other than the one publicly announced; for example Gaius Julius Iulus was ostensibly nominated in BC 352 in order to carry on a war against the Etruscans, but in fact there was no threat from the Etruscans; he was appointed in order to procure the election of two patrician consuls, in violation of the lex Licinia Sextia.
xiii. In this instance, the parties were deadlocked, and agreed to submit the matter to the Senate for resolution. The Senate decided that it would be better to allow Fulvius to stand for election, given his vast experience (before his dictatorship, he had been consul three times, praetor, censor, and magister equitum).
xiv. The precise nature of the charges differs according to source; Broughton lists four reasons given by ancient authorities: “1. remaining Dictator when his religious duty was done; 2. remaining in office beyond his legal term; 3. raising a levy with too great severity; 4. mistreatment of his son, the future T. Manlius Torquatus…”
xv. The future Titus Manlius Torquatus would himself become dictator three times; in BC 353, 349, and 320, and consul twice, in 344 and 340. This was the Manlius who won his surname from having defeated a giant Gaul in single combat, and taking his torque. Despite his ill-treatment at the hands of his father, so powerful was his respect for paternal discipline, that when his eldest son disobeyed orders by engaging in single combat with the leader of the Latin cavalry (whom he defeated and slew), the consul commanded that his victorious son be scourged and beheaded.
xvi. In 325 BC, the dictator Lucius Papirius Cursor was so furious when the magister equitum engaged the enemy in battle against his express orders, that he intended to have young Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus scourged and perhaps beheaded, notwithstanding the fact that Fabius had won a famous victory; he was restrained only when Fabius escaped and made his way to Rome, where the entire Roman people interceded on his behalf and begged the dictator to show mercy. A century later, when Fabius’ grandson, Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus was dictator, his magister equitum, Marcus Minucius Rufus, defied him openly, and likewise fled to Rome in fear for his life, where he convinced the Senate to grant him imperium equal to that of the dictator’s. But in this case, it was the dictator who came to the rescue of his rebellious magister equitum, when Minucius improvidently offered battle and came near to destruction.
xvii. For example, in BC 352, the dictator Gaius Julius Iulus was nominated, ostensibly to fight a war against the Etruscans, although there was no actual threat from Etruria; however he failed to prevent the election of a plebeian consul. Two years later, the dictator Lucius Furius Camillus succeeded in procuring the election of two patricians.
xviii. Titus Manlius Torquatus also held the Roman games in 208 BC.
xix. Despite the impending end of the war, there was a series of unwelcome prodigies in Italy; in Cumae the skies darkened at mid-day, and a shower of stones fell there and on the Palatine Hill at Rome. A similar omen in the time of Tullus Hostilius, the third King of Rome, had led to a nine-day religious festival, and in 344 BC, Publius Valerius Poplicola had been nominated dictator in response to a second occurrence; he also organized a religious festival. For the third occurrence in 202, a nine-day religious festival was held before the dictator Servilius was nominated, since his chief purpose was to hold the comitia.
xx. The legislation was introduced by Lucius Valerius Flaccus, who had been appointed interrex at Sulla’s request, as both consuls were dead. In turn, Sulla named Flaccus his magister equitum.
- Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, p. 509.
- Oxford Classical Dictionary, p. 339 (“Dictator”).
- Lintott, pp. 109–113.
- Oxford Classical Dictionary, p. 286 (“Consul”).
- Oxford Classical Dictionary, pp. 429 (“Fasces”), 609 (“Lictores”), 639 (“Magistracy, Roman”), 1080 (“Toga”).
- Broughton, vol. I, p. 9.
- Livy, ii. 18.
- Broughton, vol. I, pp. 9, 14.
- Lintott, p. 104 (note 47).
- Livy, vii. 3.
- Lintott, p. 110.
- Livy, iv. 26.
- Livy, iv. 27.
- Livy, vii. 28, Betty Radice, trans.
- Livy, i. 31.
- Livy, ix. 27.
- Livy, xxiii. 23.
- Broughton, vol. I, pp. 112, 132, 150, 152, 248.
- Broughton, vol. I, p. 112.
- Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, vol. II, p. 276.
- Broughton, vol. I, p. 215.
- Livy, viii. 15, 17, 23.
- Broughton, vol. I, pp. 139, 140, 145.
- Lintott, p. 111.
- Livy, xxiii. 14.
- Plutarch, “Life of Fabius Maximus”, 4.
- Lintott, p. 112.
- Livy, vii. 3–5.
- Broughton, vol. I, p. 125.
- Livy, xxxiii. 14.
- Broughton, vol. I, p. 248.
- Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, ii. 133–172.
- Broughton, vol. I, pp. 140, 141, 147–149, 162, 163, 169–171.
- Livy, ii. 18, iii. 20.
- Dionysius, vi. 58.
- Livy, viii. 29–35.
- Livy, xxvii. 6.
- Plutarch, “Life of Fabius Maximus”, 9.
- Broughton, vol. I, p. 118.
- Livy, vii. 4, 5.
- Broughton, vol. I, pp. 125, 128.
- Broughton, vol. I, p. 215.
- Broughton, vol. I, pp. 243, 248.
- Livy, xxvii. 34.
- Broughton, vol. I, p. 290.
- Livy, xxx. 39.
- Broughton, vol. I, p. 316.
- Livy, xxx. 38.
- Oxford Classical Dictionary, p. 1022 (“Sulla”).
- Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, vol. I, pp. 139–155 (“Caesar”, no. 18).
- Oxford Classical Dictionary, pp. 189, 190 (“Caesar”).
- Lintott, p. 113.
- Oxford Classical Dictionary, p. 601 (“Lex”).
- Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, vol. I, p. 428 (“Augustus”).
- Oxford Classical Dictionary, p. 638 (“Magister Militum”).
- Titus Livius (Livy), Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome).
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Romaike Archaiologia.
- Plutarchus, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.
- Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, S. Hirzel, Leipzig (1876).
- Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, Second Edition, Harry Thurston Peck, ed., Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York (1898).
- T. Robert S. Broughton, The Magistrates of the Roman Republic, American Philological Association (1952).
- Oxford Classical Dictionary, N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scullard, eds., Clarendon Press, Oxford (Second Edition, 1970).
- Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, Oxford University Press (1999), pp. 109 ff.
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