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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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.
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.
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.
Did the Customary Dictatorship Work?
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.
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).
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.
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.
- 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.’
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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)