During the Roman Republic, the highest office that someone could aspire to was that of consul. Every year, two men were elected consul, and it was such a high honor it would help your family for generations.
…except that it actually wasn’t the highest office. There was one office that was higher, but you couldn’t be elected to it. Someone could only be appointed, only for a limited amount of time and only in extreme circumstances.
Learn more about the Roman Dictatorship, what the position was, and how it was eventually exploited on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
When I say the word “dictator,” negative things probably come to mind. You might envision people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Idi Amin.
To be sure, all of those men were dictators, tyrants, and despots.
When I’m talking about Roman dictators, that isn’t quite the same thing as the modern definition of a dictator. In the context of the Roman Republic, a dictator was an actual legal position. It was distinct from someone just being a bad ruler and a tyrant, like Nero, Caligula, or Commodus. To be even more explicit, dictators were not emperors. Those were completely different positions that existed at different points in history.
The term dictator comes from the Latin word dictare, which simply means to dictate.
The origins of the position are, like so many things, shrouded in history. It isn’t known when the position developed, but as far as the Romans themselves were concerned, the position was established in the earliest days of the republic, right after the fall of the last Roman king, Tarquinius.
The experience with kings left a bad taste in the mouths of the Romans.
After Tarquinius, they set up a system such that it would be nearly impossible for one person to rule everyone else. Their top elected leaders were known as consuls. They were always elected in pairs, with each one able to veto the other. Consults were only elected for one-year terms, and you couldn’t serve as consul again for ten years.
On top of that, there was a collection of other officials, in particular the Tribune of the Plebs, that could also check the power of the consuls, as well as the Senate.
There were so many checks on power that it is probably easy to see how it might be difficult to get things done.
All of these checks and balances would be a problem in the event of an emergency. If the city is getting invaded or there is some other grave problem, you need someone who can cut through the red tape and make decisions.
Having a person who could make those decisions in crisis was the basis for the position of dictator.
At least in theory, the idea behind the dictator seemed reasonable. During an emergency, you can’t decide things by committee, so you appoint someone you trust to get the job done.
The dictator wasn’t an absolute dictator. They had many powers, but there were limits to what they could do.
For starters, they were, in theory, limited to acting only on the issue that was facing the republic. If you were selected to repel an enemy invader, then you couldn’t reform tax laws and the makeup of the Senate. You could raise an army, however, and order the construction of defensive positions.
If a dictator wanted to take money out of the Roman treasury, he would require the approval of the Senate. He couldn’t just bankrupt the republic by spending money. Other than that, a dictator had the power to do whatever necessary to address the the cause for which they were appointed.
The appointment of a dictator didn’t invalidate any of the other elected offices. A dictator would be ranked higher than a consul, but the consul still held their office.
The period of time that someone was a dictator was limited. It usually had a term limit of six months or the resolution of the issue, which ever came first. Traditionally, a dictator would abdicate their position as soon as possible.
Unlike a consul, a dictator could not be held liable for their actions once they left the office. Basically, a dictator could violate the law and stomp on rights if necessary to solve a crisis.
The process by which someone became a dictator was firmly established, although, as we’ll see, later in the republic the system sort of fell apart.
The first step was acknowledging that there was a problem that needed to be addressed by a dictator. This was actually a bigger deal than it might seem because the on person who could nominate someone to be a dictator was one of the two sitting consuls for the year.
No one else could propose a dictator and one consul didn’t need the approval or consultation of the other.
Usually, but not always, a dictator was former consul. This would be someone that everyone in Rome would have been familiar with, and the members of the Senate would have known well.
Once nominated, they would have to be approved, usually by the senate, but sometimes by the people themselves through the Curiate Assembly.
The causes for which a dictator was selected weren’t always what we would think of as a crisis. There were many cases of dictators being appointed to solve military matters. There were also dictators appointed to hold special elections, which consuls couldn’t do, hold special games, create religious holidays, conduct investigations, and put down insurrections.
As you can guess from the list of possible reasons a dictator could be appointed, sometimes they only served for a few days or weeks.
The technical title of a dictator was magister populi, which translates to master of the infantry.
One of the first duties of the dictator was to appoint a second in command, which was known as the Magister equitum, or master of the horse. While these are military-sounding names, and they did come from a military tradition, they were still used even if a dictator was appointed for non-military reasons.
Once appointed and approved, the dictator was allowed to use certain symbols for the office.
The biggest one is that he was allowed to be accompanied by 24 lictors. Lictors were ceremonial bodyguards who were assigned to magistrates. A consul was normally assigned 12 lictors.
The lictors would hold fasces as a symbol of the power of the magistrate. They were a bundle of wooden sticks which often had an axe head attached when wielded outside of the pomerium, which was the ceremonial boundary of Rome.
A fasces held by a lictor guarding a dictator did not have to remove the axe heads when inside the pomerium.
Needless to say, being appointed dictator was an enormous honor. It was something that very few people could claim and it wasn’t something you could actually pursue unlike the rest of the positions on the Cursus Honoram.
There were somewhere around 90 instances during the history of the Roman Republic when a dictator was appointed.
I’ve actually mentioned several of the most famous dictators in previous episodes.
The most famous, and the one who became legendary, was Cincinattitus, on whom I’ve done a previous episode. Cincinattitus was elected consul in 460 BC and was selected to be dictator twice.
Cincinattitus had fallen on hard times financially and was reduced to farming a plot of land himself after his consulship. In 458 BC, Rome was being attacked by their neighbors the Aequi and one of the armies was stranded.
Cincinattitus was nominated as dictator. When he was notified, he reportedly dropped his plow in the middle of the field, put on his senatorial toga, went to Rome, rescued the soldiers, and went back to his farm 15 days later.
He was summoned again to be dictator in 439 BC to address the threat by Spurius Maelius, who wanted to buy off the plebs to make himself king. There had been a famine in Rome and it was believed that Maelius was buying all the grain in hopes of using it to gain power. As dictator, he had Maelius arrested and executed.
Another dictator I’ve done an episode on is Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus. When Hannibal was running wild in Italy, defeating Roman armies, Fabius was called on to counter the Carthigian general Hannibal.
Fabius used what is now called a Fabian Strategy. He avoided direct combat with Hannibal, choosing to just constantly pester him, disrupting his supply lines, and otherwise trying not to lose rather than trying to win.
The Romans didn’t like this approach, and when his dictatorship was over, they abandoned his strategy and were crushed in what was perhaps the greatest Roman defeat in history, the Battle of Canne.
So many high-ranking Romans were killed at the Battle of Canne, a special dictator had to be appointed after the battle just to appoint Senators because so many were killed at Canne.
The position of dictator was used judiciously for several centuries. As you might have guessed, the position was ripe for abuse. The position of dictator was one of the reasons for the Fall of the Roman Republic.
The first major abuse of the position occurred when Lucius Cornelius Sulla was appointed dictator. The reason given for his being appointed dictator was “for the purpose of making laws and establishing the state.”
Unlike previous dictators, Sulla was given extremely broad powers to do almost anything. He also wasn’t a dictator for a few weeks or months. His term of office wasn’t set and was effectually unlimited. He used his position as dictator to issue proscription lists, on which I’ve done a previous episode, where anyone on the list could be legally killed by anyone.
Sulla, to his credit, did, after several years, step down from dictator and retired to his villa.
However, the precedent had been set. Now that he had a dictatorship that extended for multiple years and encompassed complete power over everything, it was just a matter of time before someone else did it and went even further.
That is exactly what Julius Caesar did.
Caesar was appointed dictator four times. The fourth and final time, he was appointed dictator for life.
This was a very clear violation of what the office of dictator was supposed to be. Rather than a temporary office to solve a particular problem, Caesar used the office as a way to achieve perpetual power.
Whereas it was formerly honorable to give up the power of a dictator as soon as possible, Caesar abused it by finding a loophole.
If you are wondering what the difference is between a dictator for life and a king, many high-ranking Romans thought the same thing, which was the reason why he was assassinated.
Immediately after Caesar was assassinated, Caesar’s former master of the horse, Marc Antony, proposed the abolition of the office of dictator. Anyone who proposed, voted for, or accepted the position of dictator was subject to summary execution.
Now, you might be wondering that after the office of dictator was abolished, Rome had emperors who were way more powerful than any dictator. How did that happen?
That is for another episode, but there was never an official position called Emperor per se, at least not at the start. It was a collection of powers and privileges that were bundled together by Augustus without explicitly creating an office like a dictator or a king.
The abuse of the office of dictator gave the word the bad connotation it has today. There was a time when to be called upon to be the dictator was a high honor, and a dictator was thought of more as a hero, not a tyrant.
That is clearly not the case anymore, and that is due almost entirely to a guy by the name of Julius Caesar.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.
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I like to consider myself an opsimath, and finding your podcast recently, helps me continue with that endeavor. Sometimes, you even surprise me with something that I never knew before. Then I’ll go on a deep dive into that subject myself to learn more. Love to learn and the show.
Thanks, TwoBuckHowie! I have to admit, you tossed in a word there that I had never encountered before, opsimath. For anyone else who doesn’t know the definition, an opsimath is a person who begins or continues to study or learn late in life.
So, to all the other opsimaths out there, it is never too late to learn, especially when you consider that most people have totally forgotten what they learned earlier in life.
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