The dictatorship was an office in the early Roman Republic*. Dictators were appointed by the government, and their powers were limited. During the later years of the republic, however, the position was claimed by leaders who had seized power. The term dictator comes from the Latin dictare, meaning to assert or dictate. The Roman rulers of the late republic helped give the word dictator its modern meaning—an absolute ruler who holds all power in the state and who is above the law.
The Early Dictatorship. During the early republic, a dictator was one of Rome’s magistrates—elected civic officials responsible for enforcing the law. Unlike other magistrates, however, a dictator did not fulfill any regular duties. Only during periods of extreme crisis did the government appoint a dictator. According to the Roman constitution, a dictator came to power only when a regular magistrate publicly named a candidate and the Senate authorized his appointment.
Although most magisterial positions in ancient Rome were held by two or more people at a time, there was only a single dictator. The dictator was superior to all other magistrates and held supreme power. Although other officials remained in office during a dictatorship, they had to follow the dictator’s orders. The first act of a dictator usually was to appoint a deputy. He did this because, under the constitution, the dictator only held the title of “master of the infantry,” or foot soldiers. The dictator’s deputy commanded the cavalry, or mounted soldiers.
Although the dictatorship was a powerful position, it had limits. No dictator could hold office for longer than six months. In addition, after the middle years of the republic, the Senate could overrule the dictator’s orders. A dictator whose actions were deemed unjust or illegal could even be sued after he left office.
For several hundred years, the office of the dictatorship helped Rome cope with various emergencies that the regular magistrates were unable to handle. Some of these crises were military, such as invasions by, or campaigns against, enemy forces. Some were political, such as acts of treason or rebellion within the republic. During periods of public unrest, a dictator might be appointed to keep mobs from rioting or to make sure that elections remained orderly.
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
THE FIRST DICTATOR
Modem scholars are not sure exactly why the Roman Republic appointed its first dictator. Some ancient sources say that Rome's governing body chose the first dictator to consolidate military leadership when the republic was being threatened. Others claim that the dictator was appointed to inspire terror and obedience in the Roman people at a time when rebellion disrupted the general tranquility. Either way, according to tradition, the dictator was named in the middle of the night, in a secret and mysterious ceremony.
Dictators in the Late Republic. Because the dictator served for only six months, the dictatorship was unsuitable for handling long, overseas military campaigns. As Rome grew larger and more ambitious, the dictatorships disappeared. After 202 B.C., dictators were no longer appointed. However, during the final years of the republic, two leaders who had seized power through military means used the title for the sake of appearance—to give the impression that they ruled according to the traditions and constitution of the republic. The first of these two dictators was Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who emerged in 81 B.C. as the victor of Rome’s first civil war. He forced the government to appoint him to the dictatorship— with no time limit. Sulla believed that recent changes in Roman law had weakened tradition and placed too much power in the hands of the lower classes. Wanting to restore the Roman government to what he believed was the greatness of the earlier years of the republic, Sulla wrote a constitution that attempted to strengthen the Roman Senate. Believing his mission complete, Sulla gave up his dictatorship and retired into private life. Without his skill and authority to uphold it, however, Sulla’s new constitution fell apart within ten years.
The next leader to have the title of dictator was Julius Caesar, a brilliant military commander who endeared himself to his troops and won their loyalty. Like Sulla, Caesar believed that Rome’s salvation depended on the concentration of power in a single strong ruler. Backed by his armies, Caesar seized power in Rome in 49 B.C.
Since Rome was in the middle of a crisis, Caesar was able to base his authority on the old office of dictatorship. Instead of being appointed to the position, however, Caesar gave himself the title of dictator. At first, he planned to renew his dictatorship every year, but finally, in 44 B.C., he declared himself dictator for life. He took over the Senate’s decision-making authority and transferred the administration of the government to officers he himself appointed.
By this time, the dictatorship had lost much of its original meaning. A dictator was no longer a temporary ruler, elected for the duration of an emergency, but an absolute ruler, who seized power. (See also Civil Wars, Roman; Government, Roman; Rome, History of; Senate, Roman.)