Roman dictator

Roman dictator

Dictator was a political office of the Roman Republic. The dictator was above the three branches of government in the constitution of the Roman Republic as no other body or officer could check his power.

A legal innovation of the Roman Republic, the "dictator" (Latin for "one who dictates (orders)") — officially known as the "Magister Populi" ("Master of the People"), the "Praetor Maximus" ("The supreme Praetor"), and the "Magister Peditum" ("Master of the Infantry") — was an extraordinary magistrate ("magistratus extraordinarius") whose function was to perform extraordinary tasks exceeding the authority of any of the ordinary magistrates.

The Roman Senate passed a "senatus consultum" authorizing the consuls to nominate a dictator, who was the sole exception to the Roman legal principles of collegiality (multiple tenants of the same office) and responsibility (being legally able to be held to answer for actions in office); there could never be more than one dictator at any one time for any reason, and no dictator could ever be held legally responsible for any action during his time in office for any reason. The dictator was the highest magistrate in degree of precedence ("Praetor Maximus") and was attended by 24 lictors. The reasons which led to the appointment of a dictator required that there should be only one at a time and great power was visited upon them— the "imperium magnus", having the ultimate "imperium maius" (a higher degree of imperium), which was the ability to overrule or remove from office the other curule magistrates upon whom imperium was conferred, including the ability to order their death. The dictators that were appointed for carrying on the business of the state were said to be nominated "rei gerundae causa" (for the matter to be done), "seditionis sedandae causa" (for the putting down of rebellion), or ironically in the case of Sulla, considering his actions set precedents that contributed to the end of the Republican system, as "dictator legibus faciendis et rei publicae constituendae causa"" ("Dictator for the making of laws and for the settling of the constitution").

Establishment and history

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 important for the safety of the state that the government should be vested in the hands of a single person, who should possess absolute power for a short time, and from whose decisions there should be no appeal to any other body. Thus it came to pass that in 501 BC, nine years after the expulsion of the kings, the dictatorship ("dictatura") was instituted.

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. There are, however, a few instances in which this law was not observed. When a dictator was considered necessary, the Senate passed a senatus consultum that one of the consuls should nominate a dictator; and without a previous decree of the senate, the consuls did not have the power of naming a dictator. The nomination of the dictator by the consul was necessary in all cases. It was always made by the consul, probably without any witnesses, between midnight and morning.

The senate seems to have usually mentioned in their decree the name of the person whom the consul was to nominate 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. In later times the senate usually entrusted the office of dictator 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; but if this could not be done, a senatus consultum authorizing the appointment was sent to the consul, who thereupon made the nomination in the camp. Nevertheless, the rule was maintained that the nomination could not take place outside Italy. Originally the dictator was reserved for a patrician. The first plebeian dictator was Gaius Marcius Rutilus, nominated in 356 BC by the plebeian consul Marcus Popillius Laenas.

Powers and abilities

The dictatorship was limited to six months, and no instances occur in which a person held this office for a longer time, save for the dictatorships of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix and Gaius Julius Caesar. On the contrary, though a dictator was appointed for six months, he often resigned his office immediately after he had dispatched the business for which he had been appointed. 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 Tribune of the Plebs. It is frequently stated that the duties and functions of all the ordinary magistrates entirely ceased, but this is not a correct way of stating the facts. 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 circumstance. Failure to do so could result in the dictator forcing the magistrate out of office. The Dictator thus served as the chief executive of the Republic as well as its supreme military commander.

The superiority of the dictator's power to that of the consuls consisted chiefly of greater independence from the Senate, more extensive power of punishment without a trial by the people, and complete immunity from being held accountable for his actions. However, what gave the dictator such great control over Rome was his lack of a colleague to counter him. Thus, his decisions did not require ratification from another individual to take effect. Unlike the Consuls, which were required to cooperate with the Senate, the Dictator could act on his own authority without the Senate, though the dictator would usually act in unison with the Senate all the same. There was no appeal from the sentence of the dictator (unless the dictator changed his mind), 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.

The dictator's imperium granted him the powers to rule by decree and to change any Roman law as he saw fit, and these changes lasted as long as the dictator remained in power. He could introduce new laws into the Roman constitution which did not require ratification by any of the Roman assemblies, but were often put to a vote all the same. An example would be Sulla's introduction of the dreaded proscription. Likewise, a dictator could act as a supreme judge, with no appeal for his decisions. These "judicial" powers made the dictator the supreme authority in both military and civil affairs.

The relationship between the Dictator and the Tribunes of the Plebs is not entirely certain. The Tribune was the only magistrate to continue their independence of office during a dictatorship while the other magistates served the dictator as officers. However, there is no reason to believe that they had any control over a dictator, or could hamper his proceedings by their power to veto, as they could in the case of the Consuls. This is believed to be explained by the fact that the law that created the dictatorship was passed before the institution of the Tribune of the Plebs, and consequently made no mention of it.

Any magistrate owning imperium was not accountable for his actions as long as they continued to serve in an office that owned imperium. However, once a magistrate left office, he could face trial for their illegal deeds after the imperium had expired. This was not the case with the Dictator. The dictator was untouchable during his time in office, but was also not liable to be called to account for any of his official acts, illegal or otherwise, after his abdication of office. The dictator's actions were treated as though they never occurred (at least legally).

It was in consequence of the unstoppable, untouchable imperium possessed by the dictatorship that we find it frequently compared with the power of monarch, from which it only differed in being held for a limited time. There were, however, a few limits to the power of the dictator. The most important was that the period of his office was only six months. He had no power over the public treasury, but could only make use of the money which was granted to him by the senate. He was not allowed to leave Italy, since he might in that case easily become dangerous to the republic; though the case of Atilius Calatinus in the first Punic war forms an exception to this rule. He was not allowed to ride on horseback in Rome, without previously obtaining the permission of the people (a regulation adopted that he might not bear too great a resemblance to the kings).

The insignia of the Dictator 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 Curule chair and Toga Praetexta also belonged to the Dictator.

Magister Equitum

Along with the Dictator there was always a Magister Equitum, the Master of the Cavalry or the Master of the Horse, to serve as the Dictator’s most senior official. The nomination of the Magister Equitum 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. The Dictator could not be without a Magister Equitum to assist him, and, consequently, if the first Magister Equitum died during the six months of the dictatorship, another had to be nominated in his stead. The Magister Equitum was granted Praetorian imperium, thus was subject to the imperium of the Dictator, but in the Dictator’s absence, he became his representative, and exercised the same powers as the Dictator. The imperium of the Magister Equitum was not regarded as superior to that of a Consul, but rather a par with a Praetor. It was usually considered necessary that the person who was to be nominated Magister Equitum should previously have been Praetor, but this was not regularly followed. Accordingly, the Magister Equitum had the insignia of a praetor: the toga praetexta and an escort of six lictors. The Magister Equitum was originally, as his name implies, the commander of the cavalry, while the Dictator was at the head of the legions: the infantry.

Replacement of the dictatorate

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; but this was never repeated, because it was feared that so great a power might become dangerous at a distance from Rome. But after the battle of Trasimene in 217 BC, when Rome itself was threatened by Hannibal, a Dictator was again needed, and Quintus Fabius Maximus was appointed to the office. In the next year, 216 BC, after the battle of Cannae, Marcus Junius Pera was also nominated Dictator, but this was the last time of the appointment of a Dictator "rei gerundae causa". From 202 BC on, the dictatorship disappears altogether. It was replaced by the Senatus consultum ultimum, an emergency act of the Senate that authorized the two consuls to take whatever actions were needed to defend the Republic. The best known "dictatores rei gerundae causa" were Cincinnatus and Fabius Maximus (during the Second Punic War).

A new dictatorate and abolition

In 82 BC, after a 120-year lapse, and the end of the civil war between the forces of Gaius Marius the Younger and Gaius Papirius Carbo and Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, the latter was appointed by the Senate to an entirely new office, "dictator legibus faciendis et rei publicae constituendae" ("dictator for the making of laws and for the settling of the constitution"). This new office was functionally identical to the dictatorate "rei gerundae causa" except that it lacked any set time limit. Sulla held this office for about a year before he voluntarily abdicated and retired from public life.

Gaius Julius Caesar subsequently resurrected the dictatorate "rei gerundae causa" in his first dictatorship, then modified it to a full year term. He was appointed "dictator rei gerundae causa" for a full year in 46 BC and then designated for nine consecutive one-year terms in that office thereafter, functionally becoming dictator for ten years. A year later, this pretense was discarded altogether and the Senate voted to make him "dictator perpetuo" (usually rendered in English as "dictator for life", but properly meaning "dictator in perpetuity"). Neither the magistrate who nominated Sulla, nor the time for which he was appointed, nor the extent or the exercise of his power was in accordance with the ancient laws and precedents, as is the case with the dictatorship of Caesar.

After Caesar's murder on the Ides of March, his consular colleague Mark Antony passed a "lex Antonia" which abolished the dictatorship. The office was later offered to Augustus, who declined it, and opted instead for "tribunician power" and "consular imperium" without holding any office other than "pontifex maximus," "imperator" and "princeps Senatus" — a politic arrangement which left him as functional dictator without having to hold the controversial title. This novel - though not unconstitutional -arrangement of offices and powers would in time evolve into the office of Roman emperor. Thus, dictatorship, as defined by the republican institution, was not a feature of the principate or dominate.

Other dictatorates

There were actually several different types of dictatorate. The most famous type is the "dictator rei gerundae causa", who was appointed in times of military emergency for six months or for the duration of the emergency, whichever period was shorter. This dictator held absolute military and civil power in the State, and was obligated to appoint as his deputy a Master of the Cavalry ("Magister Equitum"). When the dictator left office, the office of master of the horse immediately ceased to exist. Other types of dictators were occasionally appointed for more mundane reasons: "comitiorum habendorum causa" (for summoning the comitia for elections), "clavi figendi causa" (for fixing the "clavus annalis" in the temple of Jupiter), "feriarum constituendarum causa" (for appointing holidays), "ludorum faciendorum causa" (for officiating at public games), "quaestionibus exercendis" (for holding certain trials), and "legendo senatui" (for filling vacancies in the Senate).

List of Roman dictators

All dates and names are given as they appear in "Magistrates of the Roman Republic" by T.R.S. Broughton.

* 501 BC: Titus Larcius Flavus. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 501 BC: Manius Valerius. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 499 BC: Aulus Postumius Albus Regillensis. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 494 BC: Manius Valerius Maximus. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 463 BC: Gaius Aemilius Mamercus? "Clavi figendi causa"? (possibly interrex, not dictator).
* 458 BC: Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (first term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 439 BC: Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (second term). "Rei gerundae causa" or "seditionis sedandae causa".
* 437 BC: Mamercus Aemilius Mamercinus (first term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 435 BC: Quintus Servilius Priscus Fidenas (first term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 434 BC: Mamercus Aemilius Mamercinus (second term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 431 BC: Aulus Postumius Tubertus. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 426 BC: Mamercus Aemilius Mamercinus (third term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 418 BC: Quintus Servilius Priscus Fidenas (second term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 408 BC: Publius Cornelius Rutilus Cossus. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 396 BC: Marcus Furius Camillus (first term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 390 BC: Marcus Furius Camillus (second term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 389 BC: Marcus Furius Camillus (third term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 385 BC: Aulus Cornelius Cossus. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 380 BC: Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus Capitolinus. "Rei gerundae et seditionis sedandae causa".
* 368 BC: Marcus Furius Camillus (fourth term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 368 BC: Publius Manlius Capitolinus. "Seditionis sedandae et rei gerundae causa".
* 367 BC: Marcus Furius Camillus (fifth term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 363 BC: Lucius Manlius Capitolinus Imperiosus. "Clavi figendi causa".
* 362 BC: Appius Claudius Crassus Inregillensis. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 361 BC: Titus Quinctius Poenus Capitolinus Crispinus. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 360 BC: Quintus Servilius Ahala. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 358 BC: Gaius Sulpicius Peticus. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 356 BC: Gaius Marcius Rutilus. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 353 BC: Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus (first term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 352 BC: Gaius Julius Iullus. "Rei gerundae et comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 351 BC: Marcus Fabius Ambustus. "Comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 350 BC: Lucius Furius Camillus (first term). "Comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 349 BC: Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus (second term). "Comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 345 BC: Lucius Furius Camillus (second term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 344 BC: Publius Valerius Publicola. "Feriarum constituendarum causa".
* 342 BC: Marcus Valerius Corvus (first term). "Seditionis sedandae causa" or "rei gerundae causa".
* 340 BC: Lucius Papirius Crassus. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 339 BC: Quintus Publilius Philo. Non military; carried out certain legal reforms.
* 335 BC: Lucius Aemilius Mamercinus Privernas. "Comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 333 BC: Publius Cornelius Rufinus. "Rei gerundae causa"?
* 332 BC: Marcus Papirius Crassus. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 331 BC: Gnaeus Quinctius Capitolinus. "Clavi figendi causa".
* 325 BC: Lucius Papirius Cursor (first term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 324 BC: Lucius Papirius Cursor (second term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 322 BC: Aulus Cornelius Cossus Arvina. "Rei gerundae et ludorum faciendorum causa".
* 320 BC: Gaius Maenius (first term). "Quaestionibus exercendis".
* 320 BC: Lucius Cornelius Lentulus. "Rei gerundae causa"?
* 320 BC: Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus (third term). "Comitiorum habendorum causa"?
* 316 BC: Lucius Aemilius Mamercinus Privernas. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 315 BC: Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus (first term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 314 BC: Gaius Maenius (second term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 313 BC: Gaius Poetelius Libo Visolus. "Rei gerundae et clavi figendi causa".
* 313 BC: Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus (second term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 312 BC: Gaius Sulpicius Longus. "Rei gerundae causa"?
* 312 BC: Gaius Junius Bubulcus Brutus. "Rei gerundae causa" (possibly magister equitum, not dictator).
* 310 BC: Lucius Papirius Cursor (third term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 309 BC: Lucius Papirius Cursor (fourth term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 306 BC: Publius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus. "Comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 302 BC: Gaius Junius Bubulcus Brutus (second term?). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 302 BC: Marcus Valerius Corvus (second term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 301 BC: Marcus Valerius Corvus (third term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* Between 291 and 285: Marcus Aemilius Barbula. "Rei gerundae causa"?
* Between 291 and 285: Appius Claudius Caecus. "Rei gerundae causa"?
* Between 291 and 285: Publius Cornelius Rufinus. "Rei gerundae causa"?
* 287 BC: Quintus Hortensius. "Seditionis sedandae causa" or "rei gerundae causa".
* 280 BC: Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. "Comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 263 BC: Gnaeus Fulvius Maximus Centumalus. "Clavi figendi causa".
* 257 BC: Quintus Ogulnius Gallus. "Ludorum faciendorum causa".
* 249 BC: Marcus Claudius Glicia. "Rei gerundae causa"?
* 249 BC: Aulus Atilius Caiatinus. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 246 BC: Tiberius Coruncanius. "Comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 231 BC: Gaius Duilius. "Comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 224 BC: Lucius Caecilius Metellus. "Comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 221 BC: Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator (first term). "Rei gerundae causa"?
* 217 BC: Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator (second term). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 217 BC: Marcus Minucius Rufus. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 216 BC: Marcus Junius Pera. "Rei gerundae causa".
* 216 BC: Marcus Fabius Buteo. "Legendo senatui".
* 213 BC: Gaius Claudius Centho. "Comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 210 BC: Quintus Fulvius Flaccus. "Comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 208 BC: Titus Manlius Torquatus. "Comitiorum habendorum et ludorum faciendorum causa".
* 207 BC: Marcus Livius Salinator. "Comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 205 BC: Quintus Caecilius Metellus. "Comitiorum habendorum causa".
* 203 BC: Publius Sulpicius Galba Maximus. "Comitiorum habendorum causa" or "rei gerundae causa".
* 202 BC: Gaius Servilius Geminus. "Comitiorum habendorum causa"
* 82/81 to 81: Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix "Legibus faciendis et rei publicae constituendae causa".
* 49 to 45 BC: Gaius Julius Caesar (first to fifth terms). "Rei gerundae causa".
* 44 BC: Gaius Julius Caesar. "Rei gerundae causa" (fifth term), then "perpetuus".

ee also

* Constitution of the Roman Republic
* dictator
* decemviri


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