Roman dictator

Roman dictator

Overview
In the Roman Republic, the dictator (“one who dictates”), was an extraordinary magistrate  (magistratus extraordinarius) with the absolute authority to perform tasks beyond the authority of the ordinary magistrate (magistratus ordinarius). The office of dictator was a legal innovation originally named Magister Populi (Master of the People), i.e. Master of the Citizen Army.

The Roman Senate
Roman Senate
The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic, however, it was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic...

 passed a senatus consultum authorizing the consul
Consul
Consul was the highest elected office of the Roman Republic and an appointive office under the Empire. The title was also used in other city states and also revived in modern states, notably in the First French Republic...

s to nominate a dictator — the sole exception to the Roman legal principles of collegiality
Collegiality
Collegiality is the relationship between colleagues.Colleagues are those explicitly united in a common purpose and respecting each other's abilities to work toward that purpose...

(multiple tenants in the same office) and responsibility (legal liability for official actions) — only one man was appointed, and, as the highest magistrate, he was not legally liable for official actions; 24 lictor
Lictor
The lictor was a member of a special class of Roman civil servant, with special tasks of attending and guarding magistrates of the Roman Republic and Empire who held imperium, the right and power to command; essentially, a bodyguard...

s attended him.

Only a single dictator was allowed, because of the imperium magnum, the great, extraordinary power with which he could over-rule, or depose
Deposition (politics)
Deposition by political means concerns the removal of a politician or monarch. It may be done by coup, impeachment, invasion or forced abdication...

 from office, or put to death
Capital punishment
Capital punishment, the death penalty, or execution is the sentence of death upon a person by the state as a punishment for an offence. Crimes that can result in a death penalty are known as capital crimes or capital offences. The term capital originates from the Latin capitalis, literally...

  other curule magistrates
Curule chair
In the Roman Republic, and later the Empire, the curule seat was the chair upon which senior magistrates or promagistrates owning imperium were entitled to sit, including dictators, masters of the horse, consuls, praetors, censors, and the curule aediles...

, also possessed of imperium
Imperium
Imperium is a Latin word which, in a broad sense, translates roughly as 'power to command'. In ancient Rome, different kinds of power or authority were distinguished by different terms. Imperium, referred to the sovereignty of the state over the individual...

.
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Encyclopedia
In the Roman Republic, the dictator (“one who dictates”), was an extraordinary magistrate  (magistratus extraordinarius) with the absolute authority to perform tasks beyond the authority of the ordinary magistrate (magistratus ordinarius). The office of dictator was a legal innovation originally named Magister Populi (Master of the People), i.e. Master of the Citizen Army.

The Roman Senate
Roman Senate
The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic, however, it was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic...

 passed a senatus consultum authorizing the consul
Consul
Consul was the highest elected office of the Roman Republic and an appointive office under the Empire. The title was also used in other city states and also revived in modern states, notably in the First French Republic...

s to nominate a dictator — the sole exception to the Roman legal principles of collegiality
Collegiality
Collegiality is the relationship between colleagues.Colleagues are those explicitly united in a common purpose and respecting each other's abilities to work toward that purpose...

(multiple tenants in the same office) and responsibility (legal liability for official actions) — only one man was appointed, and, as the highest magistrate, he was not legally liable for official actions; 24 lictor
Lictor
The lictor was a member of a special class of Roman civil servant, with special tasks of attending and guarding magistrates of the Roman Republic and Empire who held imperium, the right and power to command; essentially, a bodyguard...

s attended him.

Only a single dictator was allowed, because of the imperium magnum, the great, extraordinary power with which he could over-rule, or depose
Deposition (politics)
Deposition by political means concerns the removal of a politician or monarch. It may be done by coup, impeachment, invasion or forced abdication...

 from office, or put to death
Capital punishment
Capital punishment, the death penalty, or execution is the sentence of death upon a person by the state as a punishment for an offence. Crimes that can result in a death penalty are known as capital crimes or capital offences. The term capital originates from the Latin capitalis, literally...

  other curule magistrates
Curule chair
In the Roman Republic, and later the Empire, the curule seat was the chair upon which senior magistrates or promagistrates owning imperium were entitled to sit, including dictators, masters of the horse, consuls, praetors, censors, and the curule aediles...

, also possessed of imperium
Imperium
Imperium is a Latin word which, in a broad sense, translates roughly as 'power to command'. In ancient Rome, different kinds of power or authority were distinguished by different terms. Imperium, referred to the sovereignty of the state over the individual...

. The dictator was appointed to execute and effect Roman State business denominated rei gerundae causa (for the matter to be done), seditionis sedandae causa (for the putting down of rebellion), as in the case of Sulla, who, as dictator legibus faciendis et rei publicae constituendae causa (Dictator for the making of laws and for the settling of the constitution), established the precedents that ended the Roman Republic.

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
Roman Kingdom
The Roman Kingdom was the period of the ancient Roman civilization characterized by a monarchical form of government of the city of Rome and its territories....

, 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 considered necessary, the dictator was appointed by one of the consuls, probably without any witnesses, between midnight and morning.

This was often preceded by the Senate
Roman Senate
The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic, however, it was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic...

 passing a senatus consultum to that effect. The Senate seems to have usually mentioned in their decree the name of prospective dictator but the consul could disregard that advice as 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 indicated that the consul nearest at hand should become dictator.

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


It was generally accepted that the dictatorship would be 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
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

. 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 appointed, he became the chief executive and supreme military commander
Commander-in-Chief
A commander-in-chief is the commander of a nation's military forces or significant element of those forces. In the latter case, the force element may be defined as those forces within a particular region or those forces which are associated by function. As a practical term it refers to the military...

 of the Republic. The regular magistrates - with the exception of the Tribune of the Plebs - became subject to the higher imperium of the Dictator. They continued to discharge the duties of their various offices under the Dictator, but they were no longer independent officers and were obliged to obey his orders in every circumstance. Failure to do so could result in the dictator forcing the magistrate out of office.

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. Unlike the Consuls, who 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 lictor
Lictor
The lictor was a member of a special class of Roman civil servant, with special tasks of attending and guarding magistrates of the Roman Republic and Empire who held imperium, the right and power to command; essentially, a bodyguard...

s bore the axes in the fasces
Fasces
Fasces are a bundle of wooden sticks with an axe blade emerging from the center, which is an image that traditionally symbolizes summary power and jurisdiction, and/or "strength through unity"...

 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
Rule by decree
Rule by decree is a style of governance allowing quick, unchallenged creation of law by a single person or group, and is used primarily by dictators and absolute monarchs, although philosophers such as Giorgio Agamben have argued that it has been generalized since World War I in all modern states,...

 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
Roman assemblies
The Legislative Assemblies of the Roman Republic were political institutions in the ancient Roman Republic. According to the contemporary historian Polybius, it was the people who had the final say regarding the election of magistrates, the enactment of new statutes, the carrying out of capital...

, but were often put to a vote all the same. An example would be Sulla's introduction of the dreaded proscription
Proscription
Proscription is a term used for the public identification and official condemnation of enemies of the state. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a "decree of condemnation to death or banishment" and is a heavily politically charged word, frequently used to refer to state-approved...

. 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 his independence of office during a dictatorship while the other magistrates 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 he continued to serve in an office that owned imperium. However, once a magistrate left office, he could face trial for his 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 a 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
First Punic War
The First Punic War was the first of three wars fought between Ancient Carthage and the Roman Republic. For 23 years, the two powers struggled for supremacy in the western Mediterranean Sea, primarily on the Mediterranean island of Sicily and its surrounding waters but also to a lesser extent in...

 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
Curule chair
In the Roman Republic, and later the Empire, the curule seat was the chair upon which senior magistrates or promagistrates owning imperium were entitled to sit, including dictators, masters of the horse, consuls, praetors, censors, and the curule aediles...

 and Toga Praetexta
Toga
The toga, a distinctive garment of Ancient Rome, was a cloth of perhaps 20 ft in length which was wrapped around the body and was generally worn over a tunic. The toga was made of wool, and the tunic under it often was made of linen. After the 2nd century BC, the toga was a garment worn...

 also belonged to the Dictator.

Magister Equitum


Along with the Dictator there was always a Magister Equitum ("Master of the Horse
Master of the Horse
The Master of the Horse was a position of varying importance in several European nations.-Magister Equitum :...

"), to serve as the Dictator's most senior official. The appointment 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
Praetor
Praetor was a title granted by the government of Ancient Rome to men acting in one of two official capacities: the commander of an army, usually in the field, or the named commander before mustering the army; and an elected magistratus assigned varied duties...

. 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
Toga
The toga, a distinctive garment of Ancient Rome, was a cloth of perhaps 20 ft in length which was wrapped around the body and was generally worn over a tunic. The toga was made of wool, and the tunic under it often was made of linen. After the 2nd century BC, the toga was a garment worn...

 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. When the Dictator left office, the office of master of the horse immediately ceased to exist.

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
First Punic War
The First Punic War was the first of three wars fought between Ancient Carthage and the Roman Republic. For 23 years, the two powers struggled for supremacy in the western Mediterranean Sea, primarily on the Mediterranean island of Sicily and its surrounding waters but also to a lesser extent in...

 of the nomination of a dictator (Aulus Atilius Calatinus
Aulus Atilius Calatinus
Aulus Atilius Calatinus , was a politician and general in Ancient Rome. He was the first Roman dictator to lead an army outside Italy , when he led his army into Sicily. He was consul in 258 BC and again in 254 BC, a praetor and triumphator in 257 BC, and finally a censor in 247 BC...

), 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 Fabius Maximus
Fabius Maximus
Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator was a Roman politician and general, born in Rome around 280 BC and died in Rome in 203 BC. He was Roman Consul five times and was twice Dictator in 221 and again in 217 BC. He reached the office of Roman Censor in 230 BC...

 was appointed to the office.

In the next year, 216 BC, after the battle of Cannae
Battle of Cannae
The Battle of Cannae was a major battle of the Second Punic War, which took place on August 2, 216 BC near the town of Cannae in Apulia in southeast Italy. The army of Carthage under Hannibal decisively defeated a numerically superior army of the Roman Republic under command of the consuls Lucius...

, 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
Senatus consultum ultimum
Senatus consultum ultimum , more properly senatus consultum de re publica defendenda is the modern term given to a decree of the Roman Senate during the late Roman Republic passed in times of emergency...

, 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
Cincinnatus
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was an aristocrat and political figure of the Roman Republic, serving as consul in 460 BC and Roman dictator in 458 BC and 439 BC....

 and Fabius Maximus
Fabius Maximus
Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator was a Roman politician and general, born in Rome around 280 BC and died in Rome in 203 BC. He was Roman Consul five times and was twice Dictator in 221 and again in 217 BC. He reached the office of Roman Censor in 230 BC...

 (during the Second Punic War
Second Punic War
The Second Punic War, also referred to as The Hannibalic War and The War Against Hannibal, lasted from 218 to 201 BC and involved combatants in the western and eastern Mediterranean. This was the second major war between Carthage and the Roman Republic, with the participation of the Berbers on...

).

A new dictatorate and abolition


In 82 BC, after a 120-year lapse, and the end of the civil war between the forces of Marius
Gaius Marius the Younger
Gaius Marius Minor, also known in English as Marius the Younger or informally "the younger Marius" , was the adopted son of Gaius Marius, who was seven times consul, and a famous military commander. Appian first describes him as the son of the great Marius, but in a subsequent passage, he is...

 and Sulla, the latter was appointed by the Senate to an entirely new office, dictator legibus faciendis et rei publicae
Res publica
Res publica is a Latin phrase, loosely meaning "public affair". It is the root of the word republic, and the word commonwealth has traditionally been used as a synonym for it; however translations vary widely according to the context...

 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 abdicated and retired from public life.

Gaius Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

 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
Ides of March
The Ides of March is the name of the 15th day of March in the Roman calendar, probably referring to the day of the full moon. The word Ides comes from the Latin word "Idus" and means "half division" especially in relation to a month. It is a word that was used widely in the Roman calendar...

, his consular colleague Mark Antony
Mark Antony
Marcus Antonius , known in English as Mark Antony, was a Roman politician and general. As a military commander and administrator, he was an important supporter and loyal friend of his mother's cousin Julius Caesar...

 introduced the lex Antonia
Lex Antonia
Lex Antonia was a law established in ancient Rome in 44 BC....

which abolished the dictatorship. The office was later offered to Augustus
Augustus
Augustus ;23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) is considered the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled alone from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD.The dates of his rule are contemporary dates; Augustus lived under two calendars, the Roman Republican until 45 BC, and the Julian...

, who declined it, and opted instead for tribunician power and consul
Consul
Consul was the highest elected office of the Roman Republic and an appointive office under the Empire. The title was also used in other city states and also revived in modern states, notably in the First French Republic...

ar imperium
Imperium
Imperium is a Latin word which, in a broad sense, translates roughly as 'power to command'. In ancient Rome, different kinds of power or authority were distinguished by different terms. Imperium, referred to the sovereignty of the state over the individual...

without holding any magisterial office other than imperator
Imperator
The Latin word Imperator was originally a title roughly equivalent to commander under the Roman Republic. Later it became a part of the titulature of the Roman Emperors as part of their cognomen. The English word emperor derives from imperator via Old French Empreur...

and princeps Senatus
Princeps senatus
The princeps senatus was the first member by precedence of the Roman Senate. Although officially out of the cursus honorum and owning no imperium, this office brought enormous prestige to the senator holding it.-Overview:...

— 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
Roman Emperor
The Roman emperor was the ruler of the Roman State during the imperial period . The Romans had no single term for the office although at any given time, a given title was associated with the emperor...

. Thus, dictatorship, as defined by the republican institution, was not a feature of the principate
Principate
The Principate is the first period of the Roman Empire, extending from the beginning of the reign of Caesar Augustus to the Crisis of the Third Century, after which it was replaced with the Dominate. The Principate is characterized by a concerted effort on the part of the Emperors to preserve the...

 or dominate
Dominate
The Dominate was the "despotic" latter phase of government in the ancient Roman Empire from the conclusion of the Third Century Crisis of 235–284 until the formal date of the collapse of the Western Empire in AD 476. It followed the period known as the Principate...

.

Other dictatorates


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).

See also

  • Constitution of the Roman Republic
    Constitution of the Roman Republic
    The Constitution of the Roman Republic was a set of guidelines and principles passed down mainly through precedent. The constitution was largely unwritten, uncodified, and constantly evolving...

  • Dictator
    Dictator
    A dictator is a ruler who assumes sole and absolute power but without hereditary ascension such as an absolute monarch. When other states call the head of state of a particular state a dictator, that state is called a dictatorship...

  • Decemviri
    Decemviri
    Decemviri is a Latin term meaning "Ten Men" which designates any such commission in the Roman Republic...