Collections: The Roman Dictatorship: How Did It Work? Did It Work?

This week, we’re taking a break from the modern world to tackle the ‘runner up’ question from the first ACOUP Senate poll: How did the Roman dictatorship work and was it effective?

This is one of those questions that seems very simple but isn’t. After all, what most people know about the Roman dictatorship is that the last fellow to hold it, Julius Caesar, never gave up his power and this supposedly led to the collapse of the Republic (though in fact, the Republic was already essentially dead and had been for several years when Caesar had himself proclaimed dictator perpetuo, an office he held for all of two months).

Of course the matter is more complicated, because the Roman dictatorship was an institution which endured for centuries, not an institution which collapsed the very first time it was offered to an ambitious man. So how did it work, and why did it stop working?

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Two Institutions

The first important clarification we need to make is that there are, in a sense, two Roman dictatorships. Between 501 and 202 BC, the Romans appointed roughly1 70 different men as dictator for about 85 terms (some dictators served more than once) through a regular customary process. Then, between 201 and 83 BC, a period of 118 years, the Romans appoint no dictators; the office dies out. Then, from 82-79 and from 49 to 44, two dictators are appointed, decidedly not in keeping with the old customary process (but taking the old customary name of dictator) and exercising a level of power not traditionally associated with the older dictators. It is effectively a new office, wearing the name of an old office.

The nearest equivalent to this I can think of would be if Olaf Scholz suddenly announced that he was reviving the position of Deutscher Kaiser (German Emperor) for himself, except without the legal structure of that title (e.g. the Prussian crown acting as the permanent president of a federation of monarchs) or the constitutional limits it used to have. We would rightly regard that as a new office, using the title of the old one.

This point is often missed in teaching Roman history because Roman history is very long and so gets very compressed in a classroom environment. Even in a college course focused entirely on the history of Rome, the gap between the end of the old dictatorship and the start of the new one might just be a couple of weeks, so it is easy for students to accept the new dictators as direct continuations of the old ones, unless the instructor goes out of their way to stress the century-long discontinuity. This is, of course, all the more true if the treatment is in a broader European History (or ‘Western Civ’) course or in a High school World History course – which might be able to give the Roman Republic as a whole only a week of classtime, if even that much. In that kind of compressed space, everything gets mushed together. Which in turn leads to a popular view of the Roman dictatorship that this office was always a time-bomb, ready to inevitably ‘go off’ as soon as it fell into the hands of someone suitably ambitious, because the differences and chronological gap between the old, customary dictatorship and the new irregular one are blurred out of vision by the speed of the treatment.

Just as a side note, this is generally a problem with the Roman Republic. Popular treatments of how the Republic worked – much less pop-culture representations of it – are almost always badly flawed (we’ll come back to this in coming weeks with a bit of a discussion of the recent tactics-RPG game Expeditions: Rome, though Foreign Policy subscribers can read a review of it I wrote for them now). The opening minutes, for instance, of the Crash Course video on the Romans is a series of clear errors, one after another, in describing how the Republic functioned as a matter of law and practice.2 If for some reason you want to not be wrong about the structure of Roman government, the book to read – though it is more than a bit dry and quite pricey – is A. Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic (1999).3 I keep thinking that, as a future series, I might take a look at the basic structures of Greek and Roman civic government (‘How to Polis, 101′ and ‘How to Res Publica, 101′) – especially if I can talk a colleague into providing a companion treatment of medieval Italian commune government – both as a historical exercise but also for the worldbuilders out there who want to design more realistic-feeling fictional pre-modern governments that aren’t vassalage/manorialism systems.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: we’re just looking at the dictatorship today. So first we’re going to look at the Roman dictatorship as it functioned from 501 to 202, what I’m going to call the ‘customary’ or ‘regular’ dictatorship. Then after that, we’ll look at the dictatorship as it functioned from 83 to 44, what I’m going to call the ‘irregular’ dictatorship.

How Did The Customary Dictatorship Work?

It’s important to note at the outset that the Romans had no written constitution and indeed most of the rules for how the Roman Republic functioned were, well, customary. The Roman term for this was the mos maiorum, the ‘custom of the ancestors,’ but Roman practice here isn’t that different from how common law and precedent guide the functioning of something like the British government (which also lacks a written constitution). Later Roman writers, particularly Cicero, occasionally offer theoretical commentary on the ‘rules’ of the Republic (as a retrojected, ideal version), but just as often their observations do not actually conform to the practice we can observe from earlier periods. In practice, the idea here was that the ‘constitution’ of the Republic consisting in doing things as they had always been done, or at least as they were understood to have always been done.

Consequently, as historians, we adopt the formulation that the Republic is what the Republic does – that is that one determines the rules of offices and laws based on how they are implemented, not through a hard-and-fast firm legal framework.4 Thus “how does the dictatorship work?” is less a question of formal rules and more a question of, “how did they eighty-odd Roman dictatorships work?”

The basic idea behind the office was that the dictator was a special official, appointed only in times of crisis (typically a military crisis), who could direct the immediate solution to that crisis. Rome’s government was in many ways unlike a modern government; in most modern governments the activities of the government are carried out by a large professional bureaucracy which typically reports to a single executive, be that a Prime Minister or a President or what have you. By contrast, the Roman Republic divided the various major tasks between a bunch of different magistrates (see chart below), each of whom was directly elected and notionally had full authority to carry out their duties within that sphere, independent of any of the other magistrates. In crude analogy, it would be as if every member of the United States cabinet was directly elected and none of them reported to any of the rest of them but instead all of them were advised by Congress (but in a non-binding manner). Notionally, the more senior magistrates (particularly the consuls) could command more junior magistrates, but this wasn’t a ‘direct-report’ sort of relationship, but rather an unusual imposition of a more senior magistrate on a less senior one, governed as much by the informal auctoritas of the consul as by law.

A chart I made for my students to visualize the Roman offices for a single year. All offices are held for just one year and office holders generally do not hold the same office twice. The quaestorship is the lowest office which provides entrance into the Senate. Offices with names in white have military functions. Offices with a background color in red hold imperium.

In that context, you can see the value, when rapid action was required, of consolidating the direction of a given crisis into a single individual. This is, after all, why we have single executive magistrates or officials in most countries. So, assuming you have a crisis, how does this process work?

The typical first step is that the Senate would issue its non-binding advice, a senatus consultum, suggesting that one or both of the consuls appoint a dictator. The consuls could ignore this direct, but almost never did (save once in 431, Liv. 4.26.5-7). The consuls would then have to nominate someone; they might agree on the choice (which would make things simple) or one of them might be indisposed (out of the city, etc.), which would leave the choice to the one that remained. If both consuls were present and did not agree, they’d draw lots to determine who got to pick (which happens in the aforementioned instance in 431 after the tribunes for the consuls of that year to relent and pick someone, Liv. 4.26.11).

The nominating consul could pick anyone except himself; if you, as consul, wanted to be dictator, you would need your co-consul to so nominate you. There were no formal requirements; of course nominations tended to go to experienced commanders, which tended to mean former consuls, but this was not a requirement. Publius Claudius Pulcher (cos. 249), enraged when the Senate directed him to appoint a dictator (because of his own bungled military command) infamously nominated his own freedman, Claudius Glicia, as dictator (Liv. Per. 19.2; Seut. Tib. 2.2), which was apparently a bridge too far; Glicia was forced to abdicate but his name was duly entered onto the Fasti because the appointment was valid, if ill-advised (despite the fact that, as a freedman, Glicia would have been ineligible to run for any of the offices on the chart above). Nevertheless, dictators were usually former consuls.

Once the name was picked, in at some cases the appointment may have been confirmed by a vote of the Comitia Curiata, Rome’s oldest voting assembly, which was responsible for conferring imperium (the power to command armies and organize law courts; essentially ‘the power of the kings’) on magistrates; not all magistrates had imperium (consuls, praetors, proconsuls, propraetors, dictators and their magistri equitum did; quaestors, aediles, tribunes, both plebeian and military, and censors did not). We do not know of any instance where the Comitia Curiata put the kibosh on the appointment of a dictator, so this step was little more than a rubber-stamp, and may have been entirely optional (Lintott, op. cit., 110, n. 75), but it may have also reflected the notion that all imperium had to be conferred by the people through a voting assembly. It is often hard to know with clarity about pro forma elements of Roman politics because the sources rarely report such things.

The dictator was appointed to respond to a specific issue or causa, the formula for which are occasionally recorded in our sources. The most common was rei gerundae causa, “for the business to be done” which in practice meant a military campaign or crisis. In cases where the consuls were absent (out on campaign), a dictator might also be nominated comitiorum habendorum causa, “for having an assembly,” that is, to preside over elections for the next year’s consuls, so that neither of the current consuls had to rush back to the city to do it. Dictators might also be appointed to do a few religious tasks which required someone with imperium.5 Less commonly but still significantly, a dictator might be appointed seditionis sedenae causa, “to quell sedition;” only one instance clearly under this causa is known, P. Manlius Capitolinus in 368, but several other instances, e.g. L. Quinctius Cincinnatus in 439, also dealt with internal matters. Finally, once in 216, Marcus Fabius Buteo held the office of dictator senatus legendi causa, “to enroll the Senate,” as the Battle of Cannae, earlier that year, had killed so many Senators that new inductions were needed (Liv. 23.23).

The dictator then named a subordinate, the magister equitum (‘master of the horse’). The magister equitum was a lieutenant, not a colleague, but interestingly once selected by a dictator could not be unselected or removed, though his office ended when the dictator laid down his powers. We should note Marcus Minucius, magister equitum for Q. Fabius Maximus in 217 as an exception; his selection was forced by the people via a law and his powers were later made equal to Fabius’ powers. This turned out to be a substantial mistake, with Fabius having to bail the less prudent Minucius out at Geronium – the undermining of Fabius generally during 217 was, in retrospect viewed as a disaster, since the abandonment of his strategy led directly to the crushing defeat at Cannae in 216.

One of the way that legal power was visually communicated in Rome was through lictors, attendants to the magistrates who carried the fasces, a bundle of rods (with an axe inserted when outside the sacred bounds of the city, called the pomerium). More lictors generally indicated a greater power of imperium (consuls, for instance, could in theory give orders to the praetors). Praetors were accompanied by six lictors; consuls by 12. The dictator had 24 lictors when outside of the pomerium to indicate his absolute power in that sphere (that is, in war), but only 12 inside the city. The magister equitum, as the dictator’s subordinate, got only six, like the praetors.

Via Wikipedia, a gold coin depicting the consul (center) with two lictors on either side of him carrying the fasces.

It also seems fairly clear that while dictators had almost complete power within their causa, those powers didn’t necessarily extend beyond it (e.g. Liv. 2.31.9-11, the dictator Manius Valerius, having been made dictator to resolve a military problem, insists to the Senate that he cannot resolve internal strife through his dictatorial powers and instead lays down his office early). The appointment of a dictator did not abolish the other offices (Cicero thinks they do, but he is clearly mistaken on the matter, Cic. De Leg. 3.9, see Lintott, 111). In essence then, the dictator was both a supreme military commander and also expected to coordinate the other magistrates with his greater degree of imperium, though of course in practice the ability to do that is going to substantially depend on the individual dictator’s ability to get cooperation from the other magistrates (but then, on the flip side, the dictator has just been designated as the leader in the crisis, so the social pressure to conform to his vision must have been intense). Notably, dictators could not make a law (a lex) on their own power or legislate by fiat outside of their causa; they could and did call assemblies which could by vote approve laws proposed by a dictator, however.

The dictator served for six months or until the task for which he was appointed was resolved, whichever came first. There is a tendency in teaching Roman history to represent a figure like Cincinnatus, who laid down his dictatorship after just fifteen days in 458, as exceptional but while the extreme shortness of term was exceptional, laying down power was not. Indeed, Cincinnatus (or perhaps a relative) served as dictator again in 439 and again laid down his power, this time in merely 21 days. In practice, the time-limited nature of the dictatorship meant there were few incentives to ‘run out the clock’ on the office since it was so short anyway – better, politically, to solve the crisis quickly and lay down power ostentatiously early and ‘bank’ the political capital than try to run out the period of power, accomplish relatively little and squander a reputation for being public-spirited.

Via Wikipedia, Cincinnatus Leaves the Plough to Dictate Laws to Rome (1806), by Juan Antonio Ribera. Cincinnatus became a commanding figure in Roman literature, the exemplar of the mos maiorum, but if anything his status as a symbol for the Enlightenment was even greater. It is also hard not to read this painting as a not-so-veiled critique of Napoleon who had been ‘consul’ of France in 1804 when he proclaimed himself ‘Emperor of the French.’

Did the Customary Dictatorship Work?

Yes, frankly.

Of the roughly 85 dictatorships in the ‘customary’ period from 501 to 202, 0% of them seized control of the state, led or participated in a major violent insurrection. For comparison, two out of the United States’ 46 presidents have encouraged or been involved in efforts to overthrow the government (John Tyler in his post-presidency and Donald Trump from November 3, 2020 to present), a 4.3% rate of presidential sedition.

How could an office with such extensive powers be so apparently stable? Dictators under the customary system simply lacked the tools necessary to overthrow the state even if they wanted to. As noted, all of the other magistrates remained in office and while they were notionally subordinate to the dictator, they didn’t need to be cooperative (and surely wouldn’t be if a dictator announced he was staying on after the end of his term). Dictators couldn’t legislate on their own and so couldn’t alter the constitutional structure of the Republic itself. Moreover, one key magistracy, that of the tribunes of the plebs, remained distinctly outside of the dictator’s power and by the third century were equipped with a range of highly disruptive powers and a mandate to protect the interests of the Roman people which would justify them blocking a dictator’s efforts to seize power.

The dictator’s command of the army was likewise not an effective tool to dominate the state. The Roman army of the early and middle republics was a citizen militia, so the dictator would need to convince the Roman voting assemblies to abolish themselves. Moreover, with a mere six-month command, no dictator was likely to remain in command of his army long enough to foster the kind of iron-clad loyalty he would need to then direct that army against the rest of the state.

In terms of allowing rapid and unified response to a fast-moving crisis, the dictatorship also seems generally to have worked well, allowing the Romans to temporarily suspend whatever political gridlock might exist, but in a context that rarely allowed for one side to win the gridlock by suspending it, since the causa of the dictator was limited and generally externally directed. In cases where a dictator was appointed to deal with internal dissent, they often still had to compromise in the face of popular discontent because they lacked the tools to coerce the political system; P. Manlius Capitolinus (dict. 368) had to push a major compromise in order to get the plebs back on board after the previous dictator, M. Furius Camillus, had attempted to strong-arm the issue. On the flipside, Manius Valerius (dict. 494), being appointed dictator in 494 to deal with a military crisis and a successio plebis, defeated the external enemy and then suggested the senate compromise internally, which it refused to do. He simply resigned his dictatorship, to the acclaim of the people.

While the powers of the dictator are often stated as being ‘absolute’ or ‘extreme’ (and were, compared to the power of a consul), the customary dictatorship was essentially just a unitary executive, something that quite a lot of modern governments have. Customary Roman dictators were, if anything, less powerful than most modern Prime Ministers or the modern President of the United States. Like many ancient civic governments, the Roman Republic was constructed with a lot of worry about monarchy and thus tended to keep its offices short in duration and institutionally weak and the dictatorship was no exception.

How Did The Irregular Dictatorship Work?

And then the dictatorship sleeps, for 119 years. The Romans don’t appoint any dictators at all during the second century, despite appointing, on average, one roughly every four years for the first three centuries of the republic. And then in 82, L. Cornelius Sulla Felix ‘revives’ the dictatorship.

Via Wikipedia, the Munich ‘Sulla,’ probably an Augustan era bust of the dictator, now in the Gylptothek, Munich.

Now, precisely because we are now talking about the irregular dictatorship, there really is no way to lay out its features except to go through its uses. Fortunately, there aren’t that many.

In the spring of 83 BC, Sulla, who had been notionally serving in a proconsular command in the East to fight Mithridates, landed in Italy with his army; Rome had effectively come under the control of a military junta initially led by Gaius Marius (cos.107, 104-100, 86) and after his death by L. Cornelius Cinna, Gn. Papirius Carbo and Gaius Marius the younger (son of the former). Sulla openly fought the consuls of 83 (Gaius Norbanus and L. Cornelius Scipio), pushing towards Rome. As the year shifted over into 82, Carbo and Marius the Younger had themselves elected consuls. Marius was killed in 82 during the siege of Praeneste; Carbo fled to Sicily after Sulla took Rome (where he’d eventually be captured and killed by Pompey in 81).

Now this posed a problem, constitutionally: there were always to be two consuls and consular elections had to be presided over by a consul…but one consul was dead and the other fled. The customary solution to this problem was the appointment of an interrex, a five-day-long office which essentially only had the authority to hold elections for new consuls in the absence of consuls or an already appointed dictator. Prior to 82, the last confirmed interrex we know of was in 216, but there may have been another in 208, in either case this also a long-unused office. All the interrex is supposed to do is hold an assembly of the comitia centuriata which can elect new consuls; they did not have any further authority.

Sulla, sweeping into Rome, convened the Senate and directed them to select an interrex; one wonders if this was the same meeting of the Senate Sulla convened within hearing distance of his soldiers in the process of butchering six thousand captured Romans who had sided against him, in case the Senate imagined they were being given a choice (Plut. Sulla 30.1-3). In any event, the Senate selected Lucius Valerius Flaccus (its oldest member, App. BCiv 1.98) on the assumption he would hold elections; instead, Sulla directed him (with the obvious threat of violence) to instead convene the comitia centuriata and instead of holding elections, propose a law (the lex Valeria) to make Sulla dictator with the remit of rei publicae constituendae causa, “for reforming the constitution of the Republic” – an entirely new causa never used before. Of course with Sulla’s army butchering literally thousands of his political opponents, the assembly knew how they were to vote.

This is, to be clear, a thing that customarily the interrex cannot do. This is also not, customarily, how dictators are selected. The appointment of a dictator had not been recommended by the Senate and in any case has also chosen the wrong voting assembly (the comitia centuriata instead of the comitia curiata) and also the interrex doesn’t have the authority to nominate a dictator or propose a law that nominates a dictator. You may begin to see why I see this as a new political innovation and not a clear extrapolation from previous practice. None of this is how the customary dictatorship had ever worked.

The law also gave Sulla a lot of powers, which was important because most of these powers were not things that customarily a dictator could do. He could legislate by fiat without an assembly, something dictators could not do before. He was given the ability to alter the number of senators as well as choose new senators and expel current senators; a dictator had once been named, Fabius Buteo in 216, to enroll new senators, but had (according to Livy) openly noted he did not consider himself to have the authority to remove senators enrolled by the previous Censors (Liv. 23.23). Sulla rendered his authority immune to the acts of the tribunes, whereas that office had previously been the only office to exist outside of the dictator’s authority. Finally, his appointment had no time limit set to it, whereas previously all dictators had six months and no more.

What Sulla has done here is used new legislation (remember, Rome has no written constitution which could invalidate any new law) to create what was is effectively an entirely new office, which shared neither an appointment procedure, term limit, or set of authorities and powers with the previous version.

Sulla then made a lot of very reactionary changes to the Roman Republic we need not get into here, got himself elected consul in 80, and then resigned his dictatorship (after rather a lot longer than six months, making Sulla, by the traditional criteria, the worst dictator Rome had up until that point, though I doubt he saw it that way), and after that retired from public life. Sulla seems to have imagined the office he created out of thin air in 82 would be a thing sui generis, a unique office to him only, to that moment only. Which was incredibly foolish because of course once you’ve created the precedent for that kind of office, you can’t then legislate away your own example.

And so Caesar utilized the same procedure. M. Aemilius Lepidus (later to be triumvir with Octavian and Antony), the praetor in 49, put forward the legislative measure – once again, proposed as a law rather than through the normal process – to make Caesar dictator for that year (Dio 41.36.1-3), with the same sweeping powers to legislate by fiat that Sulla had. One of the first things Caesar did was openly threaten the tribunes with violence if they interfered with him; as noted the tribune’s powers were not at the discretion of the dictator in the customary system and tribunes were held to be sacrosanct and thus legally immune to any kind of coercion by other magistrates, so this too represented a continuation of Sulla’s massive increase in the dictator’s absolute authority (App. BCiv 2.41, Plut. Caes. 35.6-11).

Via Wikipedia, the Tusculum bust of Julius Caesar, which may date to his lifetime (or perhaps shortly afterwards) and likely does capture, to some degree, the likeness of the dictator.

Caesar’s dictatorship, rather than initially being without time limit, was renewed, presumably every six months, from 49 through February 44, when Caesar had himself instead appointed dictator perpetuo rei publicae constieundae causa, “Dictator forever for the reformation of the Republic,” at this point (if not earlier) reusing Sulla’s made-up causa and now making explicit his intention to hold the office for life. He was assassinated a month later, on March 15, 44 BC, so perpetuo turned out to not be so perpetual.

As an aside, Julius Caesar is sometimes given a rosy glow in modern teaching materials, in part because he got such a glow from the ancient sources (one could hardly do otherwise writing under the reign of his grand-nephew, Augustus, who had him deified). That glow was often reinforced by (early) modern writers writing with one eye towards their monarch – Shakespeare, for instance. This may be a topic for another time, but I think a fair assessment of Caesar strips away most of this glow (especially his ‘man of the people’ reputation), except for his reputation as a gifted general, which is beyond dispute. Julius Caesar’s career was a net negative for nearly everyone he encountered, with the lone exception of Augustus.

Did The Irregular Dictatorship Work?

For the Republic, obviously not. I suspect we don’t need to belabor that point overmuch. But I’d also argue that the office didn’t work for the goals of either of the men that recreated it.

For Sulla, the purpose of using the dictatorship was to offer his reforms to the Republic some degree of legitimacy (otherwise why not just force them through purely by violence without even the fig leaf of law). Sulla was a reactionary who quite clearly believed in the Republic and seems to have been honestly and sincerely attempting to fix it; he was also a brutal, cruel and inhuman man who solved all of his problems with a mix of violence and treachery. While we can’t read Sulla’s mind on why he chose this particular form, it seems likely the aim here was to wash his reforms in the patina of something traditional-sounding in order to give them legitimacy so that they’d be longer lasting, so that Sulla’s own memory might be a bit less tarnished and to make it harder for a crisis like this to occur again.

And it failed at all three potential goals.

When it comes to the legitimacy of Sulla’s reforms and the memory that congealed around Sulla himself, it is clear that he was politically toxic even among many more conservative Romans. A younger Cicero was already using Sulla’s memory to tarnish anyone associated with him in 80, casting Chrysogonus, Sulla’s freedman, as the villain of the Pro Roscio Amerino, delivered in that year. In the sources written in the following decades at best Sulla is a touchy subject best avoided; when he is discussed, it is as a villain. Our later sources on Sulla are uniform in seeing his dictatorship as lawless. Moreover, his own reforms were picked apart by his former lieutenants, with key provisions being repealed before he was even dead (in 78 BC so that’s not a long time).

Finally, of course, far from securing the Republic, Sulla’s dictatorship provided the example and opened the door for more mayhem. Crucially, Sulla had not fixed the army problem and in fact had made it worse. You may recall one benefit of the short dictatorship is that no dictator – indeed, no consul or praetor either – would be in office long enough to secure the loyalty of his army against the state. But in the second and early first century that system had broken down. Gaius Marius had been in continuous military command from 107 to 1006 Moreover, the expansion of Rome’s territory demanded more military commands than there were offices and so the Romans had begun selecting proconsuls and propraetors (along with the consuls and praetors) to fill those posts. Thus Sulla was (as a result of the Social War in Italy) a legate in 90, a propraetor in 89, and consul in 88 and so had been in command for three consecutive years (albeit the first as a legate) when he decided to turn his army – which had just, under his command, besieged the rebel stronghold of Nola – against Rome in 88, precisely because his political enemies in Rome had revoked his proconsular command for 87 (by roughing up the voters, to be clear). And then Sulla has that same army under his command as a proconsul from 87 to 83, so by the time he marches on Rome the second time with the intent to mass slaughter his enemies, his soldiers have had more than half a decade under his command to develop that ironclad loyalty (and of course a confidence that if Sulla didn’t win, their service to him might suddenly look like a crime against the Republic).

Sulla actually made this problem worse, because one of the things he legislated by fiat as dictator was that the consuls were now to always stay in Italy (in theory to guard Rome, but guard it with what, Sulla never seems to have considered). That, along with Sulla having butchered quite a lot of the actual experienced and talented military men in the Senate, left a Senate increasingly reliant on special commands doled out to a handful of commanders for long periods, leading (through Pompey’s unusual career, holding commands in more years than not between 76 and 62) to Julius Caesar being in unbroken command of a large army in Gaul from 58 to 50, by which point that army was sufficiently loyal that it could be turned against the Republic, which of course Caesar does in 49.

For Caesar, the dictatorship seems to have been purely a tool to try to legitimate his own permanent control over the Roman state. Caesar is, from 49 to 44, only in Rome for a few months at a time and so it isn’t surprising that at first he goes to the expedient of just having his appointment renewed. But it is remarkable that his move to dictator perpetuo comes immediately after the ‘trial balloon’ of making Caesar a Hellenistic-style king (complete with a diadem, the clear visual marker of Hellenistic-style kingship) had failed badly and publicly (Plut. Caes. 61). Perhaps recognizing that so clearly foreign an institution would be a non-starter in Rome – unpopular even among the general populace who normally loved Caesar – he instead went for a more Roman-sounding institution, something with at least a pretense of tradition to it.

A chart I made for my students to illustrate just how little Julius Caesar is in Rome during his dictatorships.

And if the goal was to provide himself with some legitimacy, the effort clearly catastrophically backfired. The optics of the dictatorship were, at this point, awful; as noted, the only real example anyone had to work with was Sulla, and everyone hated Sulla. Many of Caesar’s own senatorial supporters had probably been hoping, given Caesar’s repeatedly renewed dictatorship, that he would eventually at least resign out of the office (as Sulla had done), allowing the machinery of the Republic – the elections, office holding and the direction of the Senate – to return. Declaring that he was dictator forever, rather than cementing his legitimacy clearly galvanized the conspiracy to have him assassinated, which they did in just two months.

It is striking that no one after Caesar, even in the chaotic power-struggle that ensued,7 no one attempted to revive the dictatorship, or use it as a model to institutionalize their power, or employ its iconography or symbolism in any way. Instead, Antony, who had himself been Caesar’s magister equitum, proposed and passed a law in 44 – right after Caesar’s death – to abolish the dictatorship, make it illegal to nominate a dictator, or for any Roman to accept the office, on pain of death (App. BCiv, 3.25, Dio 44.51.2). By all accounts, the law was broadly popular. As a legitimacy-building tool, the dictatorship had been worse than useless.

So what might we offer as a final verdict on the dictatorship? As a short-term crisis office used during the early and middle republic, a tool appropriate to a small state that had highly fragmented power in its institutions to maintain internal stability, the dictatorship was very successful, though that very success made it increasingly less necessary and important as Rome’s power grew. The customary dictatorship withered away in part because of that success: a Mediterranean-spanning empire had no need of emergency officials, when its military crises occurred at great distance and could generally be resolved by just sending a new regular commander with a larger army. By contrast, the irregular dictatorship was a complete failure, both for the men that held it and for the republic it destroyed.

The real problem wasn’t the office of dictator, but the apparatus that surrounded it: the short duration of military commands, the effectiveness and depth of the Roman aristocracy (crucially undermined by Sulla and Marius) and – less discussed here but still crucial in understanding the collapse of the Republic – the willingness of the Roman elite to compromise in order to maintain social cohesion. Without those guardrails, the dictatorship became dangerous, but without them any office becomes dangerous. Sulla and Caesar, after all, both marched on Rome not as dictators, but as consuls and proconsuls. It is the guardrails, not the office, that matter.

  1. We have a pretty complete list of these, but there are a few years where we’re not quite certain who was dictator, which creates some uncertainty about the number of ‘repeats.’
  2. My non-exhaustive list: Senate is a “body of legislators” – wrong, the Senate does not legislate and indeed cannot in the Republic; I literally make my students chant with me, ‘the Senate has no formal powers’ to drive this home. “Chosen from a group of elite families” – no, the Senate was a body of former elected magistrates. These did tend to be from elite families, of course, in the same way and for much the same reasons as our elected magistrates tend to be so. “Rome was divided into two broad classes” – sigh. The Patrician-Plebian distinction is not a class divide and also is functionally meaningless politically post 287. Importing the conflicts of 494-287 into the events of 133-31 is one of the frustratingly common errors in teaching Roman history. “Each year the senate would choose two consuls” – No. Nonononono. Consuls are elected by the popular assembly, the Comitia Centuriata. The people elect their offices, the Senate merely advises the elected! “Once you had served as consul you were forbidden to serve again” – restriction added only in the second century and then almost immediately ignored. Multiple lawful consulships in quick succession (but not consecutive!) were not uncommon early in the Republic. These strike me as fairly substantial and glaring errors – but not atypical ones – for an educational product.
  3. Alternately, for a textbook treatment, Boatwright, Gargola, Lenski and Talbert, The Romans: From Village to Empire (2011) has a very good, careful and precise account of the political structure and practice of the Roman Republic.
  4. Or, to borrow a phrasing from Mogens Herman Hansen, this is a case where “the looseness of some Anglo-Saxon scholars” is more appropriate than “the German scholars’ formalism,” M.H. Hansen, Eisangelia (1975), 20 (in contrast to Hansen’s assertion that formalism was more appropriate for understanding Athenian law) – which is to say our approach is going to be rather less Mommsonian in character and a lot more Fergus Millar. This is, I realize, a footnote only for true nerds; I salute both of you.
  5. clavi figendi causa, ‘for nailing a nail’ in the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, an important ritual, or ludorum faciendorum causa, “for holding the games” for the Ludi Romani or ferarium constituendarum causa, “to establish a festival.”
  6. These longer commands, far more than the professionalization of the Roman army – which was at this point underway but far, far from complete – explain far more the loyalty of the armies in this period, especially since many armies in the early first century continued to be recruited from the propertied classes via the traditional draft system.
  7. More chaotic, than you may think, actually – it was a contest between Cicero and the Senate, Antony (plus his brother, Lucius Antonius, and Antony’s ex-wife Fulvia), Octavian, Lepidus, Sextus Pompey (still alive!), and the liberatores (Brutus and Cassius)

190 thoughts on “Collections: The Roman Dictatorship: How Did It Work? Did It Work?

  1. I have to confess that I had no idea the dictatorship ceased for such a long period of time. One question does occur to me though. Do we have any evidence of attitudes about a dictator (during the customary dictatorship) seeking office later? I know Fabius became Consul a bunch of times after his dictatorship, but those were extraordinary times, and offhand I can’t think of anyone else who got a high office in the cursa honorum. But that might just be my extremely limited knowledge of Roman politics.

    Also, I clicked on the FP link to see what would be involved in getting a subscription, and while I have not looked at it yet, I can clearly read the article, and I know I don’t have a subscription. So it theoretically should be open to everyone, unless I’ve got something going on that I don’t understand.

    1. I tried reading the article and it seems to block you after a certian period of time or a certain amount of scrolling.

      1. I have since read the article, although I do read fairly quickly. The amount of scrolling at least didn’t seem sensitive enough to block me from reading the entire article.

        That article also made me think of something tangentially related. A long time ago, I was playing Europa Barborum 2 (A TW game mod that talks about realism, but at least in my opinion falls short, mostly through staying tied to the TW engine) as the Romans. I was out doing typical Roman things like slaughtering my neighbors, taking their stuff, and installing client governments. Near what’s now the eastern border of France I had one particular puppet king set up, with a reasonably sized local army in case the guys from across the border tried anything.

        They tried something, and while I was scrambling to mobilize an army from Italy to help up, my client king and his local forces broke a siege on the town up there, won a pitched battle, and then marched across the border to sack a German town. I then get a message saying he was eligible for a triumph and he should get back to Rome ASAP to have it.

        I know that such a thing never happened in history. And given how the Roman state tended to treat the local forces of the various client governments such that independent action by them was heavily discouraged if not actually impossible made such a client winning battles on their own profoundly unlikely. I’m curious though, as to what the likely reaction would be if the senate or popular assembly got the news that so and so client king they set up after winning a war some ten years previously has won some major victories on his own.

        1. I wouldn’t think a client king would be eligible for a triumph no matter how much he won.

  2. I believe “Once the name was picked, in at some cases the appointment may” is missing a “least”, or perhaps just has an extra “at”.

  3. Admittedly I’m commenting on dicta, but-
    “two out of the United States’ 46 presidents have encouraged or been involved in efforts to overthrow the government (John Tyler in his post-presidency…”.
    Um, no. Much as it’s fashionable these days to slag off the Confederacy, the Confederate Congress had zero interest in overthrowing the government in Washington or taking over the Union. They just wanted to leave.

    If there is any Roman parallel at all (and a pretty weak one), it would be in a much later era, with secessionist ’emperors’ like Carausius or Allectus.

    1. In any case, the end result was a former US President waging war on or at the very least, aiding and giving comfort to the enemies of the United States, the country which he had sworn to serve. So, it might not have been sedition but treason. In any case, our host’s argument is correct.

      In practice, though, the Confederate States would not have been able to maintain a slave society with a non-slave USA to the north. The functioning of that required active participation from non-slave states. So, the Confederate secession was more like the succession of Plebs: a formal exit to press for a better deal, but not really meant as a permanent thing, so the sedition argument is not bad.

      1. >So, the Confederate secession was more like the secession
        >of the Plebs: a formal exit to press for a better deal, but not
        >really meant as a permanent thing…

        Given the things said by many prominent Confederate leaders during the Civil War…

        Are you sure anyone told them that?

    2. While I’m going t post something mildly (very mildly) Pro-Tyler below, this is a highly suspect reading of events, and assumes much of the Secessionist worldview.

      Leaving aside the central question of slavery, the Confederacy inherently aimed to remove American citizenship from everyone in its territory, removing the right of free movement, trade, speech & etc, and possibly taking the national capital. To expand that last point, the Confederacy open planned on having its northern border sit between Ohio and Pennsylvania, and hoped that all slave states except maybe Delaware would be included. They openly hoped to steal as much western land as could be gained. And functionally Secession nearly broke the structure of government by emptying so many of its political and military offices.

      1. “possibly taking the national capital. To expand that last point, the Confederacy open planned on having its northern border sit between Ohio and Pennsylvania, and hoped that all slave states except maybe Delaware would be included. ”


        1. The Confederacy definitely wanted Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri to be part of it, invading all three states at least once. However, this does not mean that they planned on overthrowing the US government–they just would have hustled them out of DC, and the new capital of the USA would have been…elsewhere.

          Worth noting is that something sort of like this happens in Harry Turtledove’s TL-191 series, where, due to its proximity to Virginia, Washington, DC becomes the ceremonial capital of the US, while the functional capital is placed in Philadelphia.

        2. Yes. Confederates in the initial wave of secession wanted to include all slave-states, *especially* Virginia, and they got their wish on that point. West Virginia didn’t exist at this time (and in fact, would come into existence because of the ACW. Had Virginia been allowed to secede, its northern border lay only 100 miles from Lake Eerie. Additionally, there were slaveowners and Secessionists within Maryland, who engaged in open treason on their own. There were actual armed bands stopping railroads and cutting telegraphs. They lost that fight as the Unionist sympathies of the majority asserted themselves.

          Basically, the geographic reality of the ambitions of Confederates basically made it a mortal threat to the United States. It’s a long story to really explain everything about it though.

    3. A successful Confederacy would have fatally undermined the Union (and itself) by establishing a precedent that the losing faction in a presidential election is allowed to declare independence. Secession was a such a shocking violation of democratic norms and the rule of law that, even if not explicitly aimed at suspending the Constitution or removing Lincoln from power, it would still have destroyed the American system of government by ripping the foundation out from underneath it.

      I guess you can quibble about whether “overthrow the government” is the ideal word choice, as opposed to “overturn the election” or “overthrow the Constitution” or whatever. I think the intended meaning is fairly clear to a history-literate audience, but YMMV.

      1. Yes, it establishes a precedent that you can leave, so what? there’s nothing undemocratic or anti-rule of law about voting not to be part of a polity anymore. Did it undermine democracy when the SSRs broke away from the USSR? South Sudan from Sudan? any number of colonies breaking away from their imperial masters? No. I have 0 sympathy for the confederacy, but the world would be a much happier place if fewer states tried to hold themselves together against the will of large numbers of people than more.

        1. I’d say it’s one thing for a country to have an amicable divorce like Czechoslovakia, in which the process is not rushed and due consideration is given to the interests of stakeholders on both sides. It’s another to dissolve the country in a huff because the last election didn’t go your way. You can’t have a democracy in which neither party is willing to be the minority.

        2. Of course, there is the question of *which* people get to register an opinion. There was a large group of people in each of the seceding states who might have registered a different opinion on secession if they had been consulted.

    4. To add further comment on dicta, Donald Trump mounted a legal campaign to reverse the 2020 election results in several states, on the grounds that those elections had been decided by fraudulent ballots – an act well within the bounds of US law. There is even precedent for it; the 1876 election results were set aside by Congress, giving the Presidency to Hayes, on exactly those grounds. Trump has never, to my knowledge, asked for a revolt against the federal government, much less joined or led one; he has only maintained, ever since 2020, that Biden wasn’t legitimately elected. If that counts as “violent insurrection” in your mind, you have never seen real violence.

      1. There’s also that time he told an angry mob to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell.” That was kind of a big deal.

        1. And they were practically let in, if this was an insurrection why wasn’t the whitehouse burnt down or senators murdered?

          It was a riot like BLM (which formed a secessionist territory i.e. CHAZ) and should not have been allowed to enter the whitehouse. But acting like it was a preliminary attack by the second confederacy is like saying Ukraine is developing Bioweapons. Inaccurate.

          1. I’m not a fan of CHAZ, but secession of a tiny piece of land is small potatoes compared to overturning a presidential election by force.

            No senators were murdered because security got them to safe location.

          2. All of which were left in people’s cars and were not brought to the actual rally or to the riot.

            Seriously, people. This is ridiculous.

          3. The Capital Hill Occupied Protest (sometimes known as the CHAZ) declared this status after city police withdrew from the area entirely. It occupied a single neighborhood, well away from the halls of power even in its own city, and on the opposite side of the continent from the halls of power of the national government. It was an opportunistic move, and one that quite literally went nowhere- they stayed in place rather than, say, moving on to the next police precinct.

            The January 6 riot stormed the Capitol on the very day that votes were to be counted and a new president proclaimed. There was literally no place they could have gone to bring them closer to where they’d need to be to try and overthrow the government.

            But to address your question,

            > “And they were practically let in…”

            Yes, and a wide variety of security forces that could have been on the scene, and often would in response to such a large and potentially polarizing protest.

            These were highly motivated Trump supporters, two weeks before Trump would have to leave the White House. Before the new president, a man held by said Trump supporters to be a communist monster, was to take office. As common sense, they were likely to be a bit… cranky. One would expect a variety of security forces to be present, not only the Capital Police.

            This may be coincidental, of course. But often, when a person in power stages a self-coup to eliminate their enemies and secure their position… Well. One of the most obvious moves is to use your existing influence over the government. Ensure that security forces which might block your play for power are not present- are ordered away from the capital- while your loyal supporters who can be depended on to follow orders do the real work.

            The security forces you want to leave in place are the ones who you hope will, say, let your supporters into the place they’re supposed to be guarding. Which certainly isn’t something the Capitol Police normally do with protestors, especially angry ones.

            Again, it might be a coincidence. We can’t know without reading the mail of a lot of people, some of whom mysteriously seem very nervous about congressional subpoenas. But “they were let in” is an odd thing, and not simple, obvious evidence that the riot was just a spontaneous bit of high spirits.

            > if this was an insurrection why
            > wasn’t the whitehouse burnt down

            Because the insurrectionists were strongly in favor of the White House’s current occupant? These were not “rebels without a cause;” they had an agenda whether they were insurrectionists or not. So of course they didn’t burn the White House; the fact that you ask raises odd questions about the picture you’re trying to paint of the events of 1/6.

            > or senators murdered?”

            It would be hard to know without being privy to the internal communications of the 1/6 rioters during and before their actions. Which I am not, and it’s the subject of ongoing criminal investigations, so it may be some time before the truth- whatever form it may take- is revealed.

            I have a theory, but only a theory.

            If, purely hypothetically, a riot had been planned as a way to force the electors to choose Trump as the next president no matter what the votes said (which was the stated demand of the 1/6 protest/riot anyway)… How would you do it while trying to keep some shred of legitimacy? Remember Sulla. People who want to go outside the law to reshape the state often try to preserve as many of the forms of legitimacy as they can.

            What would have been best, from President Trump’s point of view? If Congress had bowed to a protest outside the Capitol and ‘admitted’ that the election was ‘faked’ (despite all evidence to the contrary that Trump, of course, ignores). And that of course Trump was still the real president and, if he wanted to be, always would be.

            What would have been second-best? If ‘nonviolent protestors’ had shoved into the building by sheer force of ‘righteous indignation’ and ‘peacefully’ prevailed upon Congress to proclaim (despite the vote totals) that Trump was the real president and, if he wanted to be, always would be.

            What would have been a very, very distant third-best? If, after securing control of the building by force of numbers and the Capitol Police’s mysterious unwillingness to riddle people charging up the steps with gunfire the way I’d expect if a bunch of anarchists stormed the building… If after that the mob started executing congressmen to force compliance and proclaim Trump president, et cetera, it would hardly be a good look.

            Even worse if the obviously armed mob did get gunned down by Capitol Police who saw armed people coming towards them and decided to open fire in self-defense where they would otherwise have let a self-coup happen rather than threaten the mob with violence. Because the Capitol Police, and anyone else, aren’t robots, and in a situation where violence is potentially on the table they may act unpredictably and not according to plan- as indeed the Capitol Police did not uniformly act according to any conceivable plan, be it “repel the mob” or “let them in to do as they please.”

            If I’d been masterminding something like that, to get a mob to make me president for life, I might very well have decided that my loyal followers would first try to go in unarmed, in the hope of (1) looking at least superficially like honest protestors indignant at a stolen election, even to the extent of perhaps fooling themselves until carefully chosen agents who could be trusted to keep the real plan straight were in position to carry out more aggressive measures. And also (2) securing de facto control of the building without a potentially unpredictable and chaotic shootout in which my followers might (2a) break and run and lose cohesion, leaving me an obvious traitor, or (2b) even if victorious, be so blatantly obviously a pack of murderers that I would lose all legitimacy.

            But it could all be a coincidence, that this is how things played out. It really could, I’m not even kidding. Just… it’s not obvious that this is a coincidence, not really.

          4. The problem is that the above cunning plan implies that Trump is capable of setting up such a cunning plan.

            There is virtually nothing about the man that indicates that he is thoughtful enough to come up with such a scheme.

            And frankly, most of the lousy security preparations are easily explainable by “We thought this was going to be like just about every other political rally, especially the right-wing ones, where everyone shows up, mills about, listens to speeches, and then goes home, and sometimes leave the place cleaner than when they found it.”

        2. As an outsider, it is not quite reassuring that so many people come here to tell us that violent riots with a declared intention to kill are an entirely normal part of American presidential transitions.

          1. Coming back to this much later, I will merely observe that large scale mob violence is not unprecedented in American history as a whole. As an example, we have the Tulsa race massacre, a pogrom that burned down several blocks of prosperous neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and killed scores if not hundreds… Because said prosperous neighborhood was in fact a black neighborhood, you see, and this had grown intolerable to many whites in Tulsa.

            Both the body count and the scale of property destruction in the Tulsa riots far outstrips anything that happened in any city anywhere during the 2020 George Floyd protests, but until recently there was little effort to memorialize them in mainstream American historical awareness, and even now, efforts to memorialize the events in Tulsa meet with resistance.

            There is a tendency, within certain ideologies and historical perspectives, to erase the memory of violence directed against the ‘wrong sort,’ while greatly exaggerating the significance of violence directed against the ‘right sort.’

            An unoccupied Burger King is burned down in one city. A succession of some dozens of storefronts in some dozens of other cities smashed in by opportunistic looters taking advantage of the police being distracted by their efforts to contain and suppress a protest. These are accounted a great offense against law and order.

            Elsewhere, at another time, a man is brutally choked to death over a period of several minutes in front of a crowd of onlookers, or a crowd erecting a gallows outside Congress and charging inside, ransacking congressional offices and only being repelled from the chambers the congressmen themselves occupied after security personnel inside the building opened fire and killed someone. This is accounted to be essentially harmless, or if it isn’t harmless, it’s totally justified because those nefarious “Black Lives Matter” people started it. Clearly, it is no sign of a lasting threat to law and order.

            One wonders how much philosophical distance there is between the mindset it takes to storm Congress and demand that they appoint the loser of the presidential election as the winner while claiming that “Black Lives Matter” started it… And the mindset that the Tulsa race massacre was justified because the black population of Tulsa was ‘uppity’ and needed to be ‘taught a lesson’ by the total destruction of their homes and businesses at the hands of a violent mob.

      2. A coup by any other name? The problem with this argument is that all Trump’s solutions were extra legal and all his allegations lacked a scintilla of evidence.

      3. Trump was caught on tape exhorting an official in a key swing state and trying to intimidate him into “finding” enough votes to tip the state in his favor, at a time when months of investigation had found no evidence of the fraud he was alleging, only repeated zombie lies that fraud had occurred.

        When that didn’t work, he tried a mob. Which I’ll say more about in another comment.

        1. I’m sorry to say, but that isn’t an accurate read of what Trump said in that phone call. In that phone call, Trump was this nations first Fox News-American/Talk Show-American President. By 2020, it’s apparent that he had gone through the process that millions upon millions of other Americans have gone through by rotting his brain with what is some of the dumbest, or at least most illiterate, propaganda this country has to offer. As a consequence, Trump as far as I can tell believes, again along with millions of other Americans, that the election was obviously stolen from him. And in that phone call, he listed various pieces of evidence he picked up from various Right Wing media outlets demonstrating the torrent of fraud that had occurred. And he claimed that so much fraud had occurred, and the margin of victory so small for Biden, that if Raffensperger investigates fully, it would be easy to find enough fraud to overturn the fraudulent results in Georgia and restore the correct result where Trump won.

          In all honesty, I’d find it a lot more comforting if there were clear and incontrovertible evidence that Trump knows that he lost the election and that these allegations that he and the right wing media have made are nonsense. In that case, A) you’d have someone in charge on the other side who isn’t totally out to lunch and B) you’d have some hope at some point of convincing the people who aren’t Trump that believe the election was stolen that it in fact wasn’t. As is, how do you deal with a situation where one side makes such a key and basic part of the democratic process, the legitimacy of an election, a sincere matter of partisan disagreement? And especially to the degree that they are moved to do more than gripe about it but try to combat supposed electoral fraud?

          1. Coming back to this much later, but… When you catch a man showing a long, long pattern of telling utterly self-serving lies, behaving as if he believes them, and demanding that everyone else bow down to the lies and behave as if they are true, you are dealing with a narcissist.

            In my experience of dealing with narcissists in my own life, it is useless- actively counterproductive- to try and draw a distinction between “he was trying to bully this election official into giving him what he wanted” and “he sincerely believed that he had a right to the thing he wanted, and was demanding that the election official give it to him.”

            To a narcissistic man prone to making up lies on the spot (such as Trump, as are widely documented and far beyond the norm for a typical politician), there is no difference between these two states of affairs.

            The narcissist will never admit that he has lost a contest fairly. He will always seize upon whatever justifications are at hand to ‘explain’ both to himself and to others why he actually won, or why the contest doesn’t matter anyway. He’ll say anything to avoid admitting defeat and failure.

            The only way to protect yourself from a narcissist is to stop giving them free pardons, forgiveness, and excuses on the grounds that they “really believed” their lies. Every lie they tell should be interpreted as being exactly as self-serving as it would be if a more conventionally honest person had told it. Their faculty for lying to themselves along with other people makes the practical consequences of their lies worse, not better, and one is defenseless against them if one tries to give them a pass from the consequences of the narcissism on the grounds that they at least seem to believe what they are saying.

            Notice that Trump has never once seized on and publicized a single thing from right-wing media that would require him to admit a mistake, accept criticism, or do any of the other things a narcissist would be averse to doing. He values right-wing media because they feed his ego, but he was already a massive egotist and a self-serving liar long before he became a right-wing media darling.

    5. I think one could add James Buchanan to that list, in that he approved the Secretary of War sending federal arms into the south in his lame duck period – when secession was being openly canvassed. Also, was not van Buren accused by Jefferson of plotting the overthrow of the republic?

  4. A little disappointed your first line wasn’t “Let’s find out!”

    I wonder if you have any quick thoughts on Mike Duncan’s “History of Rome” podcast? It’s over a decade old, but it was the first introduction to a more in-depth Roman history for a lot of folks, myself included. I don’t remember his treatment of the Dictator role, but I’m curious what he generally got wrong or right?

    1. Mike Duncan later wrote a book about the late republic, “The Storm Before the Storm”, which climaxes with Sulla’s dictatorship. He briefly mentions how the office fell out of use in favour of the Senatus Consultum Ultimum (which would also be interesting to talk about), and does try to contrast Sulla’s dictatorship with the previous ones, especially the lack of an expiration date. That would probably be a better contrast than the podcast recorded a decade prior.

  5. How do you fit Pompey’s term as “consul sine collega” (sorry if I spelled that wrong) into all that? My impression is that the traditional explanation for that is that his supporters wanted to give him supreme powers, but didn’t want to officially make him dictator, because of the “everyone hated Sulla” thing. Is that your take as well?

    1. Ramsey, (2016) 65 Historia 298, presents a different theory. The election sine collegia was done to resolve a political impasse. First, the interrex cannot make a dictator (also noted by Devereaux above) except by legislation, which Cato, Bibulus, et al did not want to do. Because there were no consuls – the last year’s consuls having had expired their terms – no dictator could be appointed by normal means.

      Second, they wanted only one consul to prevent Milo – who was the most likely to be elected – from being elected and gaining immunity from prosecution for Clodius’ murder. Cassius Dio and Suetonius related that the sole consulship was to prevent Caesar from being elected, but this is wrong, because Caesar was then engaged in fighting Vercingetorix.

      Doing this allowed everyone to get what they wanted (Milo excepted): normal government would resume after Milo was brought to trial, the Clodians would stop vetoing every single attempt by interreges (there were at least 11) to hold elections, the Pompeians would get a consulship along with the possibility to appoint a friendly co-consul, the Catonians would get their city back (along with possible acquittal for their friend Milo, which ended up not happening).

  6. Two comments:

    Although most countries have a unitary executive, it is common at the state and municipal level for multiple officials to independently elected and not removable by the chief executive. In New York, for instance, the attorney general and the comptroller are elected independently of the governor. In theory, I guess, they serve as checks on the governor, although in practice they are usually from the same party and any checking that they do is in the service of personal political agendas, not principled beliefs..

    Prof. Devereux suggests that only Caesar’s reputation as a general survives close scrutiny, but what about his reputation as a prose stylist?

    1. FWIW, this is a very American thing, so far as I know. As a Canadian, the only positions I vote on are my federal, provincial, municipal, and school board representatives, plus my Mayor. I think most other developed nations are broadly similar, though I’d be curious to hear Europeans/Australians/etc. weigh in here.

      1. I believe that few countries in Western Europe have their people elect executive officers, except perhaps for mayors in some countries. I think France is the only one with direct elections for its chief executive. Mayors are not elected in my country (Denmark) but appointed by the elected city council. Having tons of elected offices seems to be a very American thing.

      2. Westminster systems (UK, Australia, NZ, Canada) don’t formally have a single point of decision. The Prime Minister has no powers to direct Cabinet Ministers in the performance of their duties – they answer to parliament. Of course, the PM has enormous influence, and the backing of a majority in the lower house of parliament, but PMs are quite frequently rolled in cabinet and, in dual-chamber systems like Australia, in parliament as well.

        1. The UK Prime Minister does have the power to hire and fire government ministers, with near-total discretion.

      3. As an Australian it’s pretty similar. I vote for federal representatives (House & Senate) state reps (effectively state house & senate, though not called that) and town council (unicameral). I think some councils have residents elect a mayor directly, but mine’s not one of them.

        No school board elections here that I know of (but I don’t have kids).

        1. No school boards, no elected sheriffs or judges or indeed any other offices than councillor, sometimes mayor and state and commonwealth members of parliament.

      4. Though there are some differences, the parliamentary systems of Scandinavia entail electing representatives, but not offices. This is done on the national level, as well as on the municipal/provincial level.

        The representatives that are elected then distribute offices between them. Whichever block of parties that can find together to form a majority will fill the executive offices (note that Scandinavian parliaments are pretty much always “hung”, so a coalition coming together is always necessary for a majority, and sometimes the actual governing coalition will not have a majority in parliament, but rely on negotiating with other parties to get e.g. budget approval), whereas non-executive offices are distributed proportionally between the parties.

        So there are no elections for school boards specifically, for example. There will be a national secretary responsible for education (though not necessarily “of education” – you could get a “secretary for children” and “secretary for research and higher education” spliting responsibilities, depending on how the governing parties chose to organise), and a parliamentary comitee for education providing advice and oversight. There is usually also an equivalent on the municipal/provincial level at which schools are organised (e.g. in Norway primary school is organised on a municipal level, whereas secondary school on a provincial level). As noted, representatives are not elected to these offices, but rather organise themselves to fill them based on negotiations, needs and proportionality. Much of the responsibilities local school boards (try to) take on in some countries where those are elected, are performed by professionals – Scandinavians would find it absurd (and probably a quite scary) if a local politician tried to dictate the curriculum at the local school, but are fine with the bureaucrats at the department of education making recommendations on the merit of different textbooks.

        I would also note that positions in the judicial branch are not elected in Scandinavia. Ensuring equal treatment by the law, as it is, is viewed primarily as a bureaucratic rather than political task. Hence, assignments are (in theory at least!) based on merit, rather than electability or political alignment. Scandinavians would find it very strange to have elections for judicial offices, as these are ostensibly a-political.

        1. Bureaucrats in the Westminster and related models of representative democracy, are supposed to serve the people first, then follow their political interests and parties. While you’re in the office, you are supposed to leave politics out of the service you offer the people. There’s very little scarier in the Westminster democracy than a bureaucrat wearing his politics on his sleeve and acting in an obnoxiously partisan manner. It’s one of the barriers against the system breaking down. It’s not perfect, but it does work.

        2. I would concur with the assessment above. At the local level the system means electing representatives (by proportional vote) to the local council (depending on the country, there may be one or two levels of local government). The council, then, appoints the local boards, which function like described above.

          In the Finnish system of municipal government, the branch-specific boards and the central municipal board are appointed by proportional vote. That means that all parties are represented in every board. The boards can lose the confidence of the municipal council, but in such cases, the whole board needs to resign, and a new board is appointed, again, with proportional vote. Thus, the local government politics are based on continuous compromise and making of deals.

          This issue, is, however, one where the rules are really country-specific. You can’t easily draw overarching conclusions over Europe based on these examples.

  7. This was quite an eye opening post. Given all this, why was Cincinnatus become such a big deal to Romans (or people in the Enlightenment or people who settled in southern Ohio)?

    1. Cincinnatus was mobilized by later Roman writers as symbolic of the older Roman ideal of republican leadership, particularly by Livy, but also elsewhere. Consequently, that was picked up during the Enlightenment and mobilized, especially in the United States, as an ideal of what leadership in the young American republic ought to look like.

      1. For the young American republic, Washington’s two examples were of fundamental importance.
        (1) After Yorktown, he rejected the suggestion of several of his officers that he declare himself King of American. which they thought would be met with general approbation.
        (2) He declined to run for a third term as President of the new republic, which he thought would set a very bad precedent.

        1. “which he thought would set a very bad precedent”–As indeed it did, when FDR disregarded long-established constitutional norms. A definite step on the road to banana republic-hood, with presidents for life. Fortunately he died and the backlash produced a Constitutional amendment to arrest that problem,

          1. It’s fair to worry about someone who seeks and wins re-election for a third term. Personally, I worry more about someone who seeks election for the first or second term in a rigged electoral system, and even more about someone who (like the Confederate States) refuses to take the verdict of an election for an answer… But if there’s a custom of term limits, then it’s only fair to expect that custom to be followed.

    2. or people who settled in southern Ohio

      Since this blog is devoted to unmitigated pedantry, let me point out that my native city was not named (directly) for Cincinnatus. It was named for a Revolutionary War veterans’ organization called the Society of the Cincinnati.

    3. If the Roman system worked basically by saying “we do things the way we’ve always done” without ever actually writing down the details of a formal constitution… Well, then there’d be a very real need to have oral-history ‘exemplars’ of “how things are done” preserved within the culture. Cincinnatus- or the legend of Cincinnatus- thus becomes the prototype, the archetype, the way that Roman fathers explain to their sons how a dictator is supposed to conduct himself, every time a new dictator is appointed.

  8. as always, a very good post.

    do you think you would do a series on the destruction of the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC? I think lots of people aren’t necessarily well informed on how that happened (like the patrician-plebeian divide and the misunderstanding of the dictatorship you have touched on so well), but are also using it as a way to try and understand some of the problems the United States is doing through right now (and to be fair, if the U.S. is going through an existential crisis the Roman Republic is obviously a better model than, say, our own Civil War is)

    1. Gosh, that’d be a really long post series. My ‘History of Rome’ survey spends essentially 8 of its 15 weeks on the structure of the Republic and the reasons for its collapse.

      I might tackle that at some point, but it’d be a big, big topic.

      1. One thing I’d love to hear a good, competent analysis of would be “How do you prevent the fall of the Republic”? When would you need to start, what kinds of reforms would you attempt, and how do you avoid the fate of the Gracchi and other similar reformers?

        This probably requires you to have done the fall of Rome sequence first, though. Given that you could probably write those posts in your sleep, maybe use that for “filler weeks”. Or if you’re not able to find another teaching job and you make ACOUP your full-time profession, you might have enough bandwidth for more content to make a series like that become practical.

        1. I think the question that needs to be asked first is what do you mean by “saving” the Republic, and which version of the Republic are you trying to save? The Repubic which Cicero was trying to save was not the same as the one Sulla set up a few decades before, which was not the same as the one the Gracchi had been fighting to reform, which was in turn not the one that Fabius had fought to defend, and that was different again from the one that Camillus had supposedly re-founded, and that was rather different from the one from the time of Cincinnatus – and those are just some of the most obvious junctures which the Romans considered turning-points in a progression that was presumably rather more gradual.

          Moreover it is clear that the Republic by the first century BC was not working for everyone and although the pendulum-swings between the different interest-groups (or at least those claiming to represent them) become bigger and more violent it’s likely that it never actually had worked for everyone. So in picking the version of the Republic to save, whose interests do you prioritise?

          If you go back to the “pure” Republic of Cincinnatus and his predecessors (and accept the heavily mythologised accounts of that period from later writers as essentially accurate – I suspect that a lot of the commentary from the Spartan series about early Spartan historiography also applies to Rome) and try to preserve *that*, I suspect the answer is that it’s not possible. Or at least that it’s not possible so long as Rome maintains its trajectory of expansion and conquest and at that point it’s basically an alt-history novel even if you take the view that Rome somehow survives to the first century without being subordinated/conquered by a more powerful rival.

          At least, that’s my suspicion, although I’d be interested to hear Bret’s view all the same.

      2. How much do we know about the early Republic and the development of the structures (the comitia and all the various offices)? Presumably there wasn’t some great constitutional convention, but the mos maiorum developed piece by piece over a long period.

        1. There is very little that is well known. Tim Cornell thinks that the traditional stories are more accurate than not – see Cornell, “Beginnings of Rome” (1995); cf Forsythe, “A critical history of early Rome” (2005) – but scholars differ wildly about them. People disagree about when the republic was formed, whether were was a dual consulship at the beginning, whether the quaestorship is a formerly royal institution, what the consuls (if they existed) did in the early period, etc.

          Eg Fred Drogula argues in “Commanders and Command” (2015) that the early republic’s institutions are mostly reconstructed out of fragmentary records that likely didn’t make any sense back when the Roman antiquarians were putting them together in the first place. Consular tribunes, eg, fit in more if you conceive of them as leaders of ad hoc tribal raiding bands than some kind of plebby replacement for the consulship.

          Then you have Koptev (2010) who argues that the whole early republic is invented from adding up numbers that are suspiciously similar to the great year (about 365 years: days → years). All in all: no consensus.

  9. “if I can talk a colleague into providing a companion treatment of medieval Italian commune government” Dear goodness, yes, please, this.

  10. typo: Cinncinnatus ->Cincinnatus

    You say that a dictator would get more political power giving up his dictatorship as soon as he did his job, rather than hold on to it and try to force more changes. But in Cincinnatus his case, he gave up his dictatorship, but then didnt try to use his political clout to push his agenda. So he is still an icon, taking on the role of dictator to save his republic, renouncing it as soon as he set things straight, and not even using his popularity to push for policies.

    1. I wonder how much of that though is just trying to redeem the family name after the Caeso Quinctius scandal, exile, and the fine on his family. I think you could make a very good argument that by giving up his clout and not doing anything overtly political with it he exactly pushed the agenda he had in mind.

  11. On the subject of Tyler: I’m not sure its entirely fair to include him as being “involved in efforts to overthrow the government”. He was absolutely a pro-slavery Calhounite, but it seems that he wasn’t a Secessionist before the bombardment of Sumter and legitimately tried to figure out some way to compromise and avert war, or Virginia leaving the Union. Like many others, he went along with Secession after the mob had rather clearly and loudly spoken its preference. (This was an awful decision, made for foolish and irrational reasons, but he was hardly alone.) He did work to establish the Confederate Congress thereafter, but in fairness it’s hard to tell how much of this was acknowledging that it appeared the Confederacy was a done deal instead of being Pro-Confederate in principle, and he died in 1862 before (I think) the Confederate Congress even formally met.

    A Better/Worse example, though not strictly presidential is John C. Breckenridge. He was VP under Buchanan and a candidate himself in the election of 1860. Not only was he from Kentucky, hardly the most pro-Secession state to begin with, but Breckenridge went all-in for the Confederacy to the point of openly defying his state authorities and basically trying to conquer his home by force. (Coriolanus, anyone?) Breckenridge later became Secretary of War.

    Although a honourable man in many respects, and among the realists who understood that the Confederacy had completely lost in early 1865, his life also betrays a *massive* hypocrisy, and not just his position on slavery. Having failed to attain the highest office he turned to a violent rebellion. Having proclaimed States’ Rights he tried to subjugate Kentucky against its will. That is, when Kentucky decisively turned against the Confederacy many of those who had advocated for the South accepted this, but Breckenridge did not; he left to join a now-foreign power to oppose his own home. The man was literally serving in the U.S. Senate when he decided to up and join the Confederacy!

    1. Given that the question being discussed is “how dangerous is the *office* of dictator/president to the Republic?,” Tyler isn’t a great example anyway. By 1860 he was long retired from politics, and at the moment he joined the Confederacy he had no formal powers at all. Trump is unique in attempting to use the powers of the presidency to undermine the government (except maybe for Nixon).

      And even in Trump’s case, when push came to shove, his formal powers were much less useful to him than one might expect. He tried to bully some federal officials who were theoretically subordinate to him into helping; they mostly refused, and the ones who didn’t accomplished nothing. Given that these people were his own hand-picked cabinet, staff and Vice President, his inability to compel them to do what he wanted is pretty striking. His attempts to pressure state officials like Raffensperger were even less effective. Ultimately he decided that he best approach was to file a bunch of lawsuits (a thing anyone is allowed to do), which also failed, and after that to sic an angry mob of civilians on his opponents (including a bunch of new enemies he’d made during the previous steps). This last led to his supporters brawling with the Capitol police before ultimately being dispersed by the National Guard, two other entities that were theoretically subordinate to Trump.

      Now, some of this is probably down to Trump being inept, but it’s still striking that he never seems to have even seriously considered using the armed forces or Federal law enforcement to seize power by force. Thankfully, we’ve yet to see what would happen in that scenario.

      1. I think that’s partially because of the “guardrails” Deveraux talks about in the post–the American military and law enforcement apparatuses are heavily conditioned against outright coup attempts, though both are certainly willing to throw their weight around if they think it “necessary” (J. Edgar Hoover, anyone?), and Trump knew that–and partially because, while Trump certainly has authoritarian tendencies, he didn’t really want to be a dictator.

        1. That’s pretty much my point- the military, so far, has been pretty strict about staying out of domestic politics, and without it even the most power-hungry president doesn’t have many levers to go full Sulla. Law enforcement’s much less neutral, but also mostly state/local instead of federal- the patchwork Federal anti-BLM-protest task force that Barr and Trump cooked up in 2020 was barely large enough to occupy downtown Portland, much less the whole country, and the really large and militarized forces like the NYPD don’t report to the executive branch.

      2. He also has galvanized republican state governments to introduce a raft of legislations increasing their ability to directly interfere in elections, from throwing out record number of votes to simply ignoring votes entirely.

        Trump isn’t gone, he hasn’t lost yet, and the republicans are building the legal framework to make his failed attempt in 2020 a successful one later.

        1. Sure, but he’s done all that as a private citizen. The power of the presidency, or lack thereof, has had nothing to do with it.

        2. It is mostly the grassroots activists, not the leadership, of both parties that is fixated on the wholly deluded notion that US elections are rigged. The leadership would prefer to focus on what it considers more important issues (taxes and spending), but is being forced to focus on those issues by its base.

          1. American elections have historically been scrupulously fair in terms of “every vote cast is counted.” Whether they are fair in the sense of “the infrastructure put into place to determine who even gets a realistic chance to show up to vote gives everyone roughly equal access?” Different question.

            Suburbanites who live in $350,000 homes that they are paying down the mortgages on with an eager eye to equity and sizeable retirement savings? They generally don’t have to worry about having to stand in line for six or eight or ten hours at the polls to vote. They show up at the polling place, they cast a ballot, they’re done.

            It’s nearly always those people who have to stand in long lines. It’s those people who are told that ‘to prevent canvassing’ there are now rules against, say, distributing bottled water to people who’ve been standing in line for several hours to vote.

            Their vote will be counted, the election results won’t be faked… The election is scrupulously fair, as long as we accept that there is a difference between ‘fairness’ and ‘equality of opportunity.’

          2. I think historically, the big city (Democratic) machines were generally known to count every vote, and then some. I don’t think anyone even denies that, although liberals usually think it’s funny rather than a cause for concern.

          3. @simon_jester

            the american problem has never been counting too few votes but too many. The history of election stealing in this country is long an colorful. There’s Landslide lyndon stealing tens of thousands of votes to win in texas in 1948, or 60 people going to jail in 1984 for stealing over 100k votes in the 1982 election, a plot that was only discovered because a party worker who didn’t get a job he was promised ratted out his fellows. American elections are laughably insecure according to international standards, and if you really care about everyone being represented equally, a vote getting counted twice is just as bad as one not getting counted.

          4. Coming back to this much later, as a new election cycle will likely revive accusations of cheating… I am compelled to ask whether there is evidence of this scale of election fraud any time in this century.

            We live in an era of cheap, easy video recording, easy communication of fraud to reporters, and computerized tracking of how many people have voted. All make it very, very difficult to “lose” ballots without anything being noticed amiss.

            Republicans in many states and with much of the federal government under their control for much of the past twenty years have had ample time to locate evidence of election fraud in any of a wide variety of ways. If the evidence has not been found, one must question whether the crime was ever committed.

            Given that the accusations of cheating are consistently made, and then seldom if ever substantiated, at what point do we conclude that “but the Democrats commit election fraud!” is a bugbear from a bygone age when party politics was very different?

            The Republican Party of 2022 is not the Republican Party of 1992, nor of 1972 nor 1952 nor 1932. The Democratic Party has changed likewise. Times change, and there is limited value in pointing to something that happened forty years ago as “proof” that the same thing is happening today.

        3. “Republicans are gonna interfere with elections…”

          Like the democrats using the addresses of dead people to post votes, as well as democrats obstructing investigations into the possibility of voter fraud. Biden far more likely to have rigged the elections than Trump secretly being a Russian spy.

          1. If someone gives classified info to Russian officials inside the Oval Office, and publicly cringes in front of Putin in a live press conference, I suggest that ‘secretly’ a Russian agent does not need that particular phrasing.

          2. And if someone privately promises the Russian president that he’ll deliver what is wanted, but he just needs a little time until after the election, he is definitely colluding with the Russians.

          3. Which dead people? Which obstructions? On what scale?

            A lot of accusations along these lines were made in the 2020 election. Such a large proportion later proved to be false or downright farcical (i.e. claiming blatant tampering by Democrats that supposedly took place directly under the nose of multiple Republican observers) that I have to question whether any of them were ever real.

            To be fair, a certain number of paperwork errors and weird edge cases happen in any election. Old people cast a mail-in ballot and then die of a heart attack before Election Day. Someone fills out an address wrong. Someone fills out a ballot wrong. Human beings predictably mess up in both directions and it averages out.

            The question that needs to be asked is, was there in fact electoral tampering by Democrats on a scale remotely commensurate with the scale of the accusations? If 80% or 90% of the accusations are provably fake, then that does not cast the remaining 10-20% in a good light, because it proves that the accusers are spending a lot of time outright making things up. One might reasonably demand a particularly high standard of proof for an accusation that is nearly identical to dozens of false ones, made at the same time and with the same plausible motives.

            Personally, I make a point of never accusing someone of electoral tampering until they’ve admitted it, until their supporters have admitted it, until they’ve got caught in court, or until they’ve openly passed a law entitling themselves to tamper with elections at will (e.g. the Arizona state legislature)

      3. I think General Milley had some *words* with President Trump after the Dreadful Photo-Op Cockup during the summer of 2020. The military was used then to tear-gas protestors to remove them so Trump would walk to the steps of a church and hold a Bible upside down to show how very religious he was. At that time, Milley formally apologized to the public with the overtones of ‘not gonna do anything this stupid ever again’. I believe it was at that time that Trump began making appointments to the Pentagon of more pliable military members, and It was discussed on military blogs how those appointees were being more or less isolated from actual power.

        Trump would have used the military in a heartbeat–he had already proposed that the military seize voting machines–if the military hadn’t already decided Um, No Thanks.

        1. No, civilian law enforcement used tear gas to clear protesters. Just as civilian law enforcement shot an unarmed woman on January 6. There was no military involvement. These things are easily checked, you know.

          1. If a couple of thousand unarmed people come charging into your legislature on the day it counts the votes, yelling “STOP THE STEAL!” you are well within your rights to shout “stop or I’ll shoot!”

            If they don’t stop, well… shoot.

            Because a couple of thousand sufficiently motivated people are quite capable of tearing a bunch of elderly legislators limb from limb. They are even more capable of doing so if you don’t stop them before they get their hands on said legislators.

            And the legislators know it- if nothing else, they certainly aren’t paying you to just stand there and let them do as they please!

            If I had asked you in 2014, “suppose, several years from now, that a couple of thousand apparently unarmed people tried to charge up the Capitol steps during the counting of electoral votes after a presidential election, broke into the congressional offices, and yelled slogans about “stopping the steal…” ”

            I am pretty sure you would say either “they would be riddled with gunfire” or “they would never get that far because they would already have been riddled with gunfire.”

            Honestly, I would think most of the 1/6 rioters themselves would have predicted the ‘gunfire’ option if they’d been asked in 2014

          2. Absolutely, shooting unarmed protesters is sometimes justified. I never said different, although some people have.

      4. Trump “never seems to have even seriously considered using the armed forces or Federal law enforcement to seize power by force” because most of the military leadership disliked him. Sure, he got Mathis on side, but one famous and respected Marine is not enough to get the whole military on-board. Generally, the people in charge of the Army were highly unlikely to want to help Trump, so a military coup was a nonstarter.

        This is like saying. “I never seriously considered asking the neighbor who hates me to come help set up my 4th of July Party.”

        Of course not.

        1. Trump did not have Mattis’ support. He fired Mattis in 2018, and Mattis spoke out against Trump over the next couple of years.

        2. @Satori: I don’t think Mathis was on Trumps side in the sense you use. He accepted a cabinet post to do good for his country and the armed forces. He seemes to have acted like a brake, and unlike many who accepted posts under Trump seems to have kept his honor and integrity.

  12. both as a historical exercise but also for the worldbuilders out there who want to design more realistic-feeling fictional pre-modern governments that aren’t vassalage/manorialism systems.

    Yes PLEASE; I would love to read those essays.

  13. I’m curious, is the reason that the term “dictator” has such negative connotations today primarily due to the PR disasters of Sulla and Caesar’s dictatorships, or did it acquire those connotations later?

    1. I think it’s a more recent development; Marx’s conception of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ seems to be invoking the customary dictatorship with its temporary nature.

      1. I disagree; Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat isn’t a demand for an executive ruler, its set up to contrast with the state that Marx claims to be currently extant – the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (by which he means the bourgeoisie as a collective class ‘dictatorially’ control the functions of the system; and proposes that the proletariat should seize this power for themselves)

  14. At the risk of being a multi-posting nuisance, I also wanted to suggest an alternative reading of Caesar’s last action.s I find it unlikely that he seriously meant to reign as an Eastern monarch, given Rome’s history, but might have thought about it as a way out of the dead-ending dictatorship. He had seen the long-term failure of the Sullan personally. However, I’m also convinced that he was serious in trying to reinvigorate the Republic. Even those who hated Caesar knew that he legitimately worked very hard for effective government. Notably, Caesar aimed to leave Rome entirely and go fight Parthia, a campaign from which he might not return, or at best would only be back after two or three years. During that time his plans essentially required him to be both absent from Rome and functionally out of the political loop instead of maintaining his position at the political center of gravity. In addition, he was going to remove a lot of the military force behind his power as well, giving the Republic the ability to reform without his heavy hand; his mere presence would have affected the process too much.

    Hence my view is that Caesar was intentionally exiting the political stage. I will, however, acknowledge that I tend to have a bias towards Caesar.

    By striking when the did, the conspirators permanently removed the obvious threat: Caesar, the man. But by doing so they failed to re-assess the foundational problems of the late Roman Republic and apparently wouldn’t or couldn’t address them in any meaningful way. That complete failure paved the way for a man who did, and they called him Augustus.

  15. Another interesting post, and one that reminded me of a question which sometimes bugs me: why, in the modern world, is there a near-universal assumption that all polities need a single head of state?

    As the article describes, the Roman republic got on perfectly well most of the time with no one person at the top of its hierarchy. A single supreme magistracy was also absent from most oligarchic or democratic poleis in Greece, and even some semi-monarchical ones (i.e. Sparta with its two royal lines). Why, then, do our modern states invariably place an individual at the pinnacle of their constitutions, despite otherwise differing very broadly in their forms and ideologies? The head of state can be a generalissimo, a president (executive or ceremonial), a monarch, or a cleric, but there always seems to be one and one only. What’s more, I’ve never heard any real debate or discussion of this point; it’s just accepted as an unspoken law of nature that political pyramids have to taper upwards to a singular point.

    The only exception (apart from San Marino’s medieval relic and Bosnia & Herzegovina’s highly specific ethnic compromise) is Switzerland’s Federal Council, whose members collectively serve as the head of state, but in a way this just makes things more puzzling. This Swiss example shows that it’s perfectly possible to be a well-governed polity in the modern world without having one person occupying your highest office, but no-one else seems interested in considering the option. Instead, projects for replicating Swiss success tend to focus on their other polis-like institution, regular policy referenda, which I find a bit counterintuitive; Athenian-style direct democracy has declined because it’s harder to organise now that tight-knit city states have given way to modern nation-sized polities with universal suffrage, but those same trends would seem to point away from the kind of personalised government implied by the one-man-at-the-top model. Similarly, if we hark back to the Roman example, Bret says the dictatorship was useful for agile decision-making in temporary emergencies, then fell out of use as Rome’s empire became larger and more stable; therefore, shouldn’t our modern republics – many of which are rather more populous and peaceable than Rome in the 2nd Century BC – have even less need to concentrate power in one person?

    Anyhow, I’m sure there are genuine reasons why the individual head of state has become so firmly entrenched as the international norm, so I’d be interested to hear people’s takes on what they are!

    1. I suspect it’s in part because the history of most of the world, including Rome from Augustus onward, is monarchical; the most usual evolution of government is from tribal chief to warlord to king (or whatever); this pattern has continued in much of the post-colonial world. From the perspective of the early-modern West, the only examples they had of paired, coequal rulers were the Roman consulship (which was often dysfunctional, as with Caesar and Bibulus or Fabius and Minucius (not exactly consuls or coequal, but the latter was manifestly appointed as a check on the former); and the long, sorry and violent example of “equals in separate spheres,” the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. Those who looked back farther saw the trainwreck that was Athens’ system of multiple elected generals rotating through command. History from the perspective of ca. 1600 seemed to argue that One Man in Charge was the only system that worked. (Note also that Plato’s fulminations against democracy were taken very seriously, right up through the American framers in the 1780s).

      Even the Republican Romans partially would have agreed; not just in the provision for an occasional Dictator when the consuls couldn’t or wouldn’t work in harness, but also in the tradition (one aspect of the mos maiorum which endured) that the two consuls would alternate in power in alternate months, as presiding officer of the Senate, and also that when it came to war and both consular armies operating together, then the senior consul (the one who had received the most votes) was supreme commander.

      1. Actually, one model I am aware of, though sadly not in detail, was the Saxon confederacy that one Charlemagne took thirty years to subdue completely. It had a set of powerful leaders, the aeldormen, who led specific groups in that confederacy. None of them could override the others. (In Anglo-Saxon England, aeldormen were subordinate officers of the king; Lower Saxony had no central authority as such until Charlemagne brought them under his authority.)

      2. Revolutionary French Directorate was a five-man executive so that there wouldn’t be a single Robespierre running around with a guillotine. After a few years the Directorate was ousted and replaced with a Consul, who then crowned himself Emperor, and after he was defeated it was back to monarchy again. When the French ditched the monarchy again, in 1848, they opted for a strong president, apparently opting to follow American example. Who then crowned himself Emperor.

        1. That said, Robespierre wasn’t running around with a guillotine alone: he was part of a 12-man executive committee

    2. Didn’t the roman republic have the concept of “holding fasces”? Where consuls would alternate who was in charge every month, and during campaign they would switch daily. Mr. Devereaux also mentions in his Sparta series that the duarchy of Sparta ended up making the kings fairly weak. The roman republic ended up collapsing into a single head of state as well.

      I think a headless system just doesn’t evolve as easily as a system with a supreme power. Most systems end up electing one person its face. It is just easier to manage when you can push one guy (m/f) forward as your representative. I looked up switzerland on wikipedia and they seem to have a president for the federal council as well. Here in the Netherlands the king is the head of state, but it is mostly ceremonial. The Prime minister is the de facto head of state, but even he is formally the minister of general affairs.
      So in the end it seems to me that western states are a mix, they have a leader, but at the same time the power divided up quite a lot.

      1. Yes, the Swiss Federal Council has a president, but the role rotates between all councillors (indeed, rather like the Roman consuls swapping duties every month) and has limited additional functions. This seems like a reasonable solution which allows for rare scenarios where an instant decision is required (e.g. “we’re being nuked and have three minutes to choose how to react”), without sacrificing the otherwise collegial nature of the executive. It’s a bit different to other models like constitutional monarchy in the Netherlands and elsewhere, in which the roles of head of state and head of government are split but there’s still a constitutional hierarchy whereby one person (the king) permanently outranks everyone else on paper.

        Having thought about it a bit more, I wonder if part of the explanation is that many communist bloc countries did in fact experiment with having multiple supreme officials in the 20th century e.g. the USSR, where the Central Executive Committee and then later the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet nominally exercised the functions of head of state as a collective. The problem was that the communist system didn’t really have the necessary tradition of constitutionalism to make this work in practice, so there tended to be one ‘supreme leader’ who monopolised both actual power and the ceremonial trappings of authority. Perhaps anticommunist sentiment and the fall of the Soviet Union discredited the model worldwide, though I’m not really sure; the governing council was so thoroughly overshadowed by the individual leaders that most people (including myself for a while) seem to have forgotten that it was head of state at all, so I doubt it’s very influential as a negative example.

      2. “The Prime minister is the de facto head of state,”

        The word for this is “head of government”.

    3. I am a layman but I would put forward two partial explanations:

      (1) By the time modern republics were born, there was a longstanding history of European monarchies with a single individual on top. The form of the government adopted by the freshly United States set an example for other modern republics, and the US system was influenced by the UK tradition. Adams did suggest calling the office holder with title “His Majesty”, didn’t he, right?

      The question then becomes, why Europe had monarchies of single individual instead of monarchies with power-sharing arrangements? But Europe had also

      (2) The other famous republics prior to the US that come to mind are the Italian maritime republics. I am no expert, but it looks like they often had a singular head of the government (and had a tendency to get taken ovar by a monarchical prince).

      So this other part of question then becomes, why Europe had so many republics with a singular head of government?

      These questions are definitely above my paygrade. A wild guess for the sake of argument: “founder effect” of sorts [1]. A polity can maintain a collective head of government or otherwise complex arrangement as long as people think it is the legitimate form of government. But once the complex apparatus is toppled or co-opted by a single individual (externally or internally), which is a thing that sometimes does happen, the tradition is weakened or lost. The administrative apparatus and people’s expectations molds itself to rule of single individual. And all the other states in neighborhood go through similar process over time. Thus, if a new republican form of government is set up, there decreasing amount of variety of legitimate non-singular government precedents available (and during a transitory phase, there is always some individual around who would like to be the ceasar/doge/duke/president, thank you very much).


    4. Doesn’t the roman system have the concept of “carrying fasces”? Where the consuls would, informally, pass power between eachother?

      I think most systems have a leader since it is convenient (you can push one person forward as your leader) and because the alternative is unstable. Multi-leader systems tend to collapse into monarchical rule. And monarchical rule tends to sustain itself. Therefore in a kind of survival of the fittest the one leader system ended up the most popular.

    5. I do note that there are a few examples still, France’s semi-presidential system is one example. And argaubly this kind of divison is exactly why the office of prime and parliamentary rule exists.

    6. One point here is the historical development of the actual office of president in Europe: the office was quite often used to take the powers that were of personal nature in monarchies of the 19th century:
      *Granting privilege-like rights (naturalisation, exception from certain legal impediments, pardons) that seemed to require use of individual conscience.
      *Commander-in-chief function, which needed to be singular by military necessity
      *Ratifying laws and treaties, which is a conservative check on democracy
      *Solving governmental and parliamentary gridlocks (with catastrophic results in Weimar Germany)
      *Acting as the protocollary counterpart to foreign monarchs.

      The last point is surprisingly important, because diplomatkc protocol really needs a country go have a single head of state. Otherwise, things become really confusing.

    7. The US does actually split power up quite a lot. The Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader hold a reasonable amount of power.

      I’d argue that this is in fact a bad system because the House, the Senate and the President all plausibly claim to have democratic mandates while also potentially being held by opposing parties and thus able to block each other from doing much. Political scientists have noted that this kind of system is more susceptible to one faction grabbing power and overthrowing the constitution as frustration grows at the inability to get anything done.

      Until fairly recently the two big parties have been willing to compromise to get things done and so avoided this issue for a long time. But starting with Clinton the Republicans have become increasingly less willing to compromise when a Democrat holds the Presidency and Democrats have started following suit. So we’re starting to see more and more gridlock take hold in the system. This doesn’t augur well for the future.

      1. Only if your position is that the government should take over as much as possible. Impending a government from doing things is not always bad.

        1. Impeding the government from actually doing anything isn’t necessarily good either. There are plenty of countries with better systems that don’t involve the government taking over as much as possible (whatever that means). If there are things that you don’t want the government doing that should be codified in the constitution.

          Moreover the things the executive branch struggles to do now is actually pretty broad – including staffing vacancies. For example Republicans are slow walking Biden’s nominations for things like ambassadorships and executive branch appointees.

          The US still having unfilled ambassadorships over such a long time period weakens it’s soft power for no good reason.

          1. We did codify them in the Constitution. The government ignores that all the time. (See what they claim falls under the Commerce Clause.)

      2. This is not really an accurate history of congress. From 1932 to 1994, the democrats overwhelmingly dominated congress. republicans eked out tiny majorities in the house for 4 of those 62 years, the senate 10. The important offices and committee chairs were held by democrats 90% of the time, usually with huge majorities to back them up. What we got wasn’t compromise, it was fights between different factions of the democratic party which republicans sometimes managed to influence from the sidelines. We are seeing more fights between republicans and democrats today because republicans are actually capable of fighting back.

        1. There were Republican Presidents during that period and at a basic level they got to staff their cabinets and appoint judges and diplomats while Democrats held the Senate. Moreover Republican Presidents did get to pass major legislation (such as Reagan’s Tax Reform Act) when Democrats held one of the branches of government.

          The system worked as long as the parties were willing to compromise like that but as soon as that compromise broke down the system showed how poorly designed it was.

    8. The US initially tried to have the president and vice-president both be elected, with the vice-president being the runner up winner. Of course, that system worked poorly because the vice-president would wind up being politically opposed to the president.

  16. I’d love posts about how Greek poleis and an Italian city-states worked! Also, really interesting anecdote about Claudius Glicia, I did not know about that

  17. I’m surprised to see how much Crash Course got wrong, even after their grave misunderstanding of military history laid out in an earlier blog post. I liked to use them as edutainment in the past, but it seems clear that I need to be careful about using them for anything but the very broadest strokes.

    On the subject of edutainment videos, what do folks know about the accuracy, or lack thereof, of Historia Civilis and Overly Sarcastic Productions videos? I’ve watched them a fair bit as well, and I’d hope that the time there was spent somewhat usefully.

  18. Very interested to read the comparison of the Greek and Roman system you talk about. One of the things I come across surprisingly often is the claim that the USA, being arranged on Republican lines after the Roman system is superior to ‘democracies’ assumed to be arranged on lines modelled on the Greek system. This seems extremely unlikely to me, but I’d love to hear the take of someone who actually knows the history.

    1. There are few if any “democracies arranged on lines modelled on the Greek system.” I suppose Switzerland is the closest. Every other “democracy” is one variation or another of republic (even the ones with hereditary heads of state who wear jeweled hats).

      1. Greek and Roman models provided a lot of the names, but west European political evolution owes a lot to ‘barbarian’ (Germanic and steppe) traditions. Assemblies of free men – at local and provincial levels, and on regal or imperial occasions – were a crucial part of Merovingian and Carolingian politics, together with the idea of representation (something the classical world lacked).

      2. There aren’t any republics modeled on the Roman system either, which as Bullseye says, was more like Athenian democracy than either is like representative democracies. At least Rome *did * elect recognizable magistrates and leaders — but in duplicate, or more. Formally, legislation was an act of direct democracy, with laws being approved by assemblies (though they didn’t debate the way Athens or New England town meetings do, and the centuriata at least had explicit plutocratic weighting.) As Bret said, the Senate didn’t have formal power, and wasn’t an elected legislature.

    2. The Roman Republic and Greek democracy resembled each other a lot more than either resembles anything we see today.

      The U.S. constitution is modelled off of the U.K., not Rome. Our Senate, for example, *is* a legislative body with formal power, because it’s modelled after the House of Lords, not the Roman Senate.

      Claims that the U.S. is “not a democracy” are based on a narrow, prescriptivist definition of “democracy”. As far as I can tell, the only reason for that narrow definition is so the Republican party can give the Democratic party a hard time about their name.

      1. Or for far left folk to claim america is inherently evil i.e. Anarchists cliaming america is just an oligarchy.

      2. The older definition of a republic was a form of government that mixed elements of democracy, oligarchy and monarchy.

        By that definition the US government as constructed by the constitution was more of a republic than European style parliamentary systems today. The government of the US has also evolved to include non democratic elements today. For example, the judiciary plays a large role in the system and it is explicitly anti-democratic in nature. Likewise the bureaucracy plays a large role and they are largely insulated from democratic control. And the corporate media plays an outsized role in the political process and they are entirely private organizations.

        Those aspect are not usually what the people that refer to the US as a republic not a democracy have in mind with the phrase.

  19. Everything I know about the Roman constitution I learned from Colleen McCullough ‘s Masters of Rome series. Which though fictional isn’t all that bad a source. She makes quite a point of the Senate not being able to make laws for example. But she idealizes Caesar.

  20. “two out of the United States’ 46 presidents have encouraged or been involved in efforts to overthrow the government (John Tyler in his post-presidency…”

    Just dropping in to say that there have only been 45 presidents.

    1. Joe Biden was legally elected. And even got the popular vote, which your guy failed at last time.

      1. I think that was probably a reference to the fact that while there have been 46 presidencies, two of them were held nonconsecutively by Grover Cleveland.

      2. Of course Grover Cleveland didn’t get the popular vote in the 2016 election, he wasn’t even his party’s nominee!

      3. Joe Biden used mail in ballots to allow him to more easily fake votes… higher percentage of the black vote than Obama my ass.

    2. Are you making some obscure argument that one of the presidents doesn’t count? Which one of the 46 do you think wasn’t actually president?

      1. Take a look at the username of the person you’re replying to… there are, in fact, only 45 distinct people who have been president! All of “the 46” have indeed been president, it’s just saying that there are 46 of them is making a double-counting error.

  21. As someone who teaches ‘deep time’ (in the geological sense) as part of a survey course, I feel your pain regarding the compression of the Roman Republic. I know my history courses discuss the ‘Roman Republic’ in the same way my science classes discussed the ‘Age of Dinosaurs’ – with no real sense of the fact that we (now) live closer in time to Tyrannosaurs rex than Tyrannosaurs rex did to Apatosaurus, or that Apatosaurus in turn lived closer in time to Tyrannosaurus than it did to the first dinosaurs. A *lot* gets swept under the rug by a catchy title.

    1. I honestly think that, even before source criticism, a basic understanding of chronology, of time, and what happens when and at what times, is absolutely critical for understanding historical events. Even when people are aware of the *internal* sequence of events, they too often miss what is going on elsewhere, which often leads to absurdities.

      1. Unfortunately, that runs into a bit of a perception issue, because the way people seem to see time runs something like this:
        Events occur during years in my lifetime, in decades during the lives of my grandparents and parents, in centuries during the last millennium, and before that they either occur during millennia or in this giant amorphous mass. This is really, really hard to overcome.

        (Side note: Assassin’s Creed: Origins actually does a really good job of avoiding this, despite its Hollywood History treatment of Caesar and Cleopatra. To the main character, the Pyramids and the Sphinx were built by the ancients, and he thinks they’re cool and kind of mysterious.)

        1. That’s about right. People also know that things changed a lot during their own lifetime, have an idea that things didn’t change as fast in their parents’ lifetime, project this back to the idea things didn’t change much at all for centuries at a time back when. That ploughs didn’t change much doesn’t mean a lot of other stuff stayed the same. Your ‘amorphous mass’ is reflected in fictions that have kingdoms or empire lasting for millennia, when in fact few manage more than 3-4 centuries at most.

          1. It’s a little complicated, because there was a period, from say 1800 to at least 1970, of rapid technological change on a scale never before seen in human history. (Steam engines, trains, electricity, airplanes, etc.) Some have argued that technological development has slowed since, the date of the stagnation being subject to debate.

          2. We focus on technology – which certainly has brought major social change. But changes in fashion, language, arts, or rulers all affect people. Somebody in Britain, for instance, was probably more drastically affected by the turmoils of the 17th century (roughly 10% of the population killed) than by the changes of the 19th. Or the 16th saw the 5% of the population in orders turfed out, major buildings all across Britain demolished or re-purposed and the countryside re-modelled.

          3. To ey81, I suspect technological advancement is nowadays as fast, if not much faster. The advancements just happen on scales that are not seeable with human eye, mostly in all the computer chips. The outside form of the chips are mostly remained the same, but internal changes have been massive. Building them requires large machines in clean rooms, and the advancements in those machines is also invisible to most people.

            Internal combustion engines have remained pretty much the same on major scale, nowadays the largest advances happen in the chips and software that control them, or the cylinder lining materials. And the advancement has suffered from diminishing returns for a long time.

        2. The way I often see this is things being taken as contemporary when they are not (assassin’s Creed having druids and vikings coexisting, for instance) often in a “Ireland was christianized in the early middle ages and vikings are in the ealry middle ages so you can mix them up with no problem” disregarding that the period lasts hundreds of years.

          1. This is in reply to ey81: “t’s a little complicated, because there was a period, from say 1800 to at least 1970, of rapid technological change on a scale never before seen in human history.”

            You may be right, but it is hard to be sure about speed of change in the more remote past. For example, David Wengrow argues in “The Archaeology of Early Egypt” that the Nile valley was inhabited by nomadic pastoralists well into the 2nd half of the 4th millennium BCE. Sedentarism, agriculture, state formation, writing and the aggregation of all the mini-states into one giant state, the biggest one in world history up to that point, happened on an incredibly fast scale, mostly in about 200 years from 3400 to 3200 BCE.

        3. People’s sense of time also skews towards the present i that a human lifetime today (say 80 years) seams like a long period of time. A lifetime 300 years ago less so. And a lifetime 2000 years ago even less.

          So the period of time from say Marius’s first consulship toAugustus’s constitutional settlement feels like a couple of decades to moderns when it was the same amount of time as has passed from the start of WWII to Today.

        4. @ Mikko Saukkoriipi
          I would disagree with the thesis that progress is as fast now. Let me rephrase that. It may be as fast or faster but the progress now is cumulative not revolutionary.

          Shocking, revolutionary technical and social change came with the invention of the electric telegraph and the steam-powered railway.

          Before these, information, at best, travelled at the speed of a fast horse[1] and your normal traveller on land probably made 25 to 35 km a day, at best perhaps 50. Gov’t officials or the very wealthy might well do better.

          With the telegraph, information transmission was close to instantaneous and travel times went from days or weeks to hours. I do not have my notes handy but, IIRC, travel time from London to Edinburgh went from roughly 6 or 7 days by mail coach to well under 24 hours by train.

          Of course, to add in one of my favourite hobbyhorses, the bicycle had a huge effect on local/regional transportation. Rather than walking at 5km an hour, a cyclist on a 1890’s safety bicycle could travel at 20km/hour.

          1. I am ignoring semaphore telegraphs here.

    2. There’s a really good book on periodisation which tries to unravel this. Harriet Flower, “Roman republics” (2010). She presents a view that there were multiple republics dominated by different operating modes rather than a single monolithic (never-changing) “republic”. It also helps to understand the very different republic which Sulla tried to establish after c 80 from the republic of the nobiles preceding it.

  22. I, too, would very much like to hear more about Greek and Roman municipal government and Italian communes; this is a subject that I know little about (and about which I have seen little concrete information), but I would love to know more.

  23. On the topic of popular culture set in historical times without accurately representing the history, has anyone read the “Emperor” books by Conn Iggulden?

    I started the first one and it’s…really weird! It’s set in the late Republic, and seems to do a reasonable job of painting life in that place and time. And the heavy hitters are there – so far we’ve gotten up close and personal with Marius and Sulla, and a young Caesar is the main character. And in the case of Marius and Sulla, they mostly seem to be portrayed about how they were – Marius old, gruff, a legendary general and multi-time consul, Sulla younger, glamorous, ruthless, brutal.

    But all the stuff that happens is totally wrong! Like, Marius and Sulla are co-consuls. And, while IRL they did have legions personally loyal to them, in the book they have specific, named legions that are “theirs” with silly names like The Firstborn. And while Sulla does go off to Greece to fight Mithradates, it’s because he’s politically maneuvered into it. Then when he returns he launches a massive *bloody* assault on Rome, killing Marius. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. Like, the people you know, doing things not even close to what they really did.

    I can’t decide if I enjoy the “plot twists” or it’s just annoying and I’m going to stop reading it.

    The best description I can come up with is that it’s like a reboot of the Rome Cinematic Universe. All your favorite characters are back, but the actual history is no longer canon, they have revised origin stories, and the plot lines are totally different. It’s totally unlike any historical fiction I’ve ever seen, and it’s a bit disorienting.

    Just curious if any of y’all had come across this.

    1. I don’t think historical fiction has to stick rigidly to every last fact, but I found that Iggulden’s narrative veered far too frequently into outright nonsense for me to enjoy it. And I’m not sure that Marius and Sulla are portrayed “about how they were”. In real life both were highly ambitious and ambiguous figures who each did much to undermine the republic, and who each violently purged their factional opponents and seized supreme power at swordpoint. However, Iggulden’s versions are utterly black and white; Sulla is a depraved supervillain whereas Marius is a noble defender of the constitution (a change which is not only factually wrong, but also seems to make them much less interesting as characters). I won’t spoil the book’s final revelation in case you haven’t reached it yet, but it was the last straw for me, and I didn’t continue with the series. Maybe treat it something like the medieval Alexander romances; a fun adventure tale, but having only the slimmest connection to historical antiquity.

  24. I’m finishing up Morstein-Marx’s “Julius Caesar and the Roman People” (which may have been recommended by this blog), what are your comments on it? It does seem relatively persuasive on a new view of Caesar.

  25. This post reminded me of a passage from Rosseau where he remarked that the problem with the Roman dictatorship wasn’t its overuse but its underuse; if Marius or Pompey had been appointed dictator to stop Sulla or Caesar, respectively, from marching on Rome, the Republic would have been saved. Thoughts on this?

      1. Well, we do it all the time in fighting wildfires in Northern Ontario. Unfortunately those “controlled burns can get a bit out of control.

    1. In my totally inexpert opinion Marius, Sulla and Caesar were all symptoms of the collapse of the Roman Republic rather than it’s cause. The system was coming unstuck before their time, possibly because a system evolved to govern a city state couldn’t manage a growing empire?

      1. One view emerging from Gabba and Lintott in CAH vol 9 is that the Social war was the main cause of the republic’s eventual demise, with the massive upheaval it entailed along with the armies becoming much more ruthless (at least against their own populations). In general, it doesn’t matter how ruthless or ambitious Sulla and Marius are if nobody will follow them in overthrowing the government. Even for Sulla, when he marched on Rome as consul to defend his proconsulship in Asia, all his officers (save one) refused.

  26. “I keep thinking that, as a future series, I might take a look at the basic structures of Greek”

    Yes please

    “and Roman civic government (‘How to Polis, 101′ and ‘How to Res Publica, 101′)”

    Yes please !

    “– especially if I can talk a colleague into providing a companion treatment of medieval Italian commune government”


  27. “it would be as if every member of the United States cabinet was directly elected and none of them reported to any of the rest of them.”

    To a certain extent this is the way things work at the state level, where secretary of state, treasurer, and attorney general (and sometimes other offices as well) are usually elected directly and can become rival centers of power to the governor (particularly if of the other party, but sometimes even if of the same party, if it should be riven by factions and/or personal rivalries). In a few states even the lieutenant governor is not on a ticket with the governor. But these days there would also be an appointed cabinet responsible to the governor for education, transportation, health policy, etc.

  28. Perception of the past definitely does compress. One of my personal things has been trying to link events together, as in timelines. I made some timelines for friend-nieces, one of US history back to 1500 and one of events in their granparents’ lifetimes; dunno if it made much difference, honestly timelines I looked as a kid tended to just blur together, compared to the associations I make myself. (Haroun al Raschid sent an elephant to Charlemagne! Han China is roughly peak Rome, too.) I’ll sometimes look at a date and stop and think about what else was happening in the world at that time, sometimes to surprise.

    But as for tech… I think there really was an unprecedented burst from 1750-1950, that is now mostly over, though one can quibble about dates. Scientific method and an attitude of experimentation led to plucking a lot of low hanging fruit, particularly in fundamental discoveries about how the world worked, which can’t be made again. We went from being basically clueless to having good explanations for how most of the observable world works, in physics, chemistry, and biology. That doesn’t mean we’re *done*… but there’s little or nothing on the scale of discovering heat engines, electromagnetism, radioactivity, cell theory, germ theory, the periodic table.

    As recently as Jane Austen’s death (1817), even England was pre-modern, apart from some water-powered factories, very basic steam engines (at coal mines, and on not-quite practical steamships.) But then 1830 comes, with actual commercial railroad. 1845, the electric telegraph. Plastics, gas lights, electric light, subways, real steamships, ice making, combine harvesters, more modern factories, guano and then synthetic fertilizers… farming, industry, and town life started changing in huge ways. Airships, radio, planes, refrigeration, TV… By 1950, a well-off American had a lifestyle not too different from today, apart from computers and cell phones: trains and car, fridge, phone, TV, office job, lots of electric light, decent sized house, no fear of famine, antibiotics and some vaccines… I’d say there’s a lot less change from a well-off ancient Roman to Jane Austen then there is from Jane to 1950 middle-class America.

    1. Less technological change, maybe. On the other hand, Jane Austen’s world had no slavery (in Europe) and wildly different ideas about the proper relationship between men and women, the nature of the deity(ies), the geography of the world, etc.

  29. No, he didn’t, and efforts to prove he did have since been quite blatantly outed as conspiracy theories and a pile of fraud, much of it ridiculous nonsense like “Democratic election officials committed blatant forms of fraud while multiple Republican observers were right there in the room, as if they would have let it happen under their noses without documenting it.”

    1. (This post somehow got separated from the post it was a reply to, in the specific context of electoral cheating. I don’t know how. My apologies)

  30. “has never been counting too few votes but too many”

    Lol. Sure, if you ignore the 150 year long effort to disenfranchise black citizens. Poll tax, literacy tests, barring ex-felons from voting and disproportionately prosecuting blacks, shutting down voting stations in black areas…

    1. But that was in the service of ensuring Democratic party dominance, so it didn’t cause much concern among intellectuals.

      1. It should be abundantly clear that none of those efforts have stopped, and that they’re no longer supporting the Democratic Party. Being ignorant of changes over time in an institution that lasted for centuries, but died out millennia, is one thing; being ignorant of changes in an institution which happened within living memory is worse, simply because it’s so much harder to not have heard about how different things used to be!

        Even if we accept that all intellectuals are Democratic Party stans, suggesting that they all overlook historical trends which continue into the modern day because they stan an institution that used to benefit from them is at least as absurd as suggesting that all Republicans support environmentalism because of Teddy Roosevelt. And that initial claim is obvious bunk; many “intellectuals” (however you define that term) have strong disagreements with the Democrats, either because they support the Republican Party or because they find the Democrats too conservative.

          1. Yep. Anything that puts a financial check on your ability to cast a vote is functionally a poll tax.

            Many countries that hold elections have an election day holiday so everyone can take time to go vote.

            The United States does not, nor does it universally require that employers give employees leave to go vote.

            So anyone who dosn’t live in a State with mandatory election leave, needs their job more than they want to vote, and doesn’t have a nice boss who will let them go vote is basically “poll-taxed” out of voting.

            This almost certainly stops more people from voting than a “pay $5 ballot fee pls” would.

          2. We can’t just give the entire country a day off on the same day. There are some things that have to be done every day. What we need is to get rid of the idea of “election day” and make it “election month”.

          3. On top of what others mentioned, specific voting locations for specific people seem bad to me. It would be much better to have all voting stations within the county open to each inhabitant/voter in said county/election district each election day. It is how it is done here and it makes it much harder to make it so a specific demographic is hurt by it since if the line is 2 hours here and 10 minutes in a place 30 minutes away, anyone who has transport can go to the other place. It also allows much easier voting eg. during a break at work or something (which are also by law much longer than in the US)

  31. By my calculations, there was a dictator appointed for about 28% of the years where the “customary dictatorship” was a thing. That’s about as common as years starting on a weekend, and much more common than I’d assumed. I had always gotten the impression that dictatorship was reserved for the big crises, stuff that only happens once a lifetime, that clearly wasn’t the case.

    This may be a topic for another time, but I think a fair assessment of Caesar strips away most of this glow…Julius Caesar’s career was a net negative for nearly everyone he encountered, with the lone exception of Augustus.

    Hot take: Monarchies are bad actually!

  32. Isn’t it maybe a bit optimistic to treat Livy’s accounts of supposed 5th-century events the same way as 3rd-century ones?

    1. Yes, of course. But in the absence of other contemporary sources, Livy is what we have. There are some Roman historians who will essentially throw up their arms, declare we can know essentially nothing before about 300 or so and give up on the early republic, but when trying to answer questions about the long-term shape of political institutions, that’s simply not a workable approach.

  33. I am so frustrated because I can not chop this up and use it as a handout. (With the obviousness of where this is from left in, of course)

    The citing and obviousness of the writers sources, is not good enough.

    Can not use this as a source either in any classes either.

    Pity. Students can only read like 15 minutes in class at at time and this is a good summary.

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