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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 passed a senatus consultum authorizing the consuls to nominate a dictator — the sole exception to the Roman legal principles of collegiality (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 lictors 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 from office, or put to death other curule magistrates, also possessed of imperium. 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 kingsmarker, 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

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. 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 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, 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 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 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 ("Master of the Horse"), 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. 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. 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 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 Trasimenemarker in 217 BC, when Rome itself was threatened by Hannibal, a Dictator was again needed, and Fabius Maximus was appointed to the office. In the next year, 216 BC, after the battle of Cannaemarker, 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 Marius and Sulla, 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 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 introduced the 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 magisterial office other than 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

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


  1. Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization (1998) Hornblower and Spawforth, eds.:Oxford p.219.
  2. Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 110 online. Moreover, the perception that the dictator was a praetor maximus (supreme praetor) apparently results from confusion about a fragmentary inscription, and a passage in Livy, that imply that, on one occasion, the title-holder acted as dictator; see Lintott, Constitution p. 104, especially note 47.
  3. T. Corey Brennan, The Praetorship in the Roman Republic (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 38–43 online; Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic (Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 109–113 online.

See also

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