A dictator was a magistrate of the Roman Republic, entrusted with the
full authority of the state to deal with a military emergency or to
undertake a specific duty. All other magistrates were subordinate to
his imperium, and the right of the plebeian tribunes to veto his
actions or of the people to appeal from them was extremely limited.
However, in order to prevent the dictatorship from threatening the
state itself, severe limitations were placed upon its powers: a
dictator could only act within his intended sphere of authority; and
he was obliged to resign his office once his appointed task had been
accomplished, or at the expiration of six months. Dictators were
regularly appointed from the earliest period of the Republic down to
the Second Punic War, but the magistracy then went into abeyance for
over a century, until it was revived in a significantly modified form,
first by Sulla, and then by Julius Caesar. The office was formally
abolished after the death of Caesar, and not revived under the
4 Powers and limitations
5 Magister equitum
6 Decline and disappearance
6.1 The dictatorship revived
7 List of Roman dictators
8 See also
With the abolition of the Roman monarchy in 509 BC, the imperium, or
executive power, of the king was divided between two annually-elected
magistrates, known as praetors. In time they would come to be known as
consuls, although probably not until the creation of a third, junior
praetor in 367 BC. Neither consul was superior to the other, and
the decisions of one could be appealed to the other (provocatio).
Their insignia were the toga praetexta and the sella curulis, and each
was attended by an escort of twelve lictors, each of whom bore the
fasces, a bundle of rods topped by an axe; but by custom the lictors
had to remove the axes from their fasces within the pomerium, the
sacred boundary of Rome, to signify that the people, and not the
consuls, were sovereign.
After several years,[i] the fear of impending war with both the
Sabines and the
Latin League, combined with widespread suspicion that
one or both of the consuls favoured the restoration of the monarchy,
led to the call for a praetor maximus, or dictator ("one who gives
orders"), akin to the supreme magistrate of other
According to most authorities, the first dictator was Titus Lartius,
who appointed Spurius Cassius his magister equitum.[ii]
Although there are indications that the term praetor maximus may have
been used in the earliest period,[iii] the official title of the
dictator throughout the history of the Republic was magister populi,
or "master of the infantry". His lieutenant, the magister equitum, was
the "master of the horse" (that is, of the cavalry[iv]). However, the
use of dictator to refer to the magister populi seems to have been
widespread from a very early period.
The appointment of a dictator involved three steps: first, the Senate
would issue a decree known as a senatus consultum, authorizing one of
the consuls to nominate a dictator. Technically, a senatus consultum
was advisory, and did not have the force of law, but in practice it
was nearly always followed.[v] Either consul could nominate a
dictator. If both consuls were available, the dictator was chosen by
agreement; if they could not agree, the consuls would draw lots for
the responsibility. Finally, the Comitia Curiata would be called
upon to confer imperium on the dictator through the passage of a law
known as a lex curiata de imperio.
A dictator could be nominated for different reasons, or causa. The
three most common were rei gerundae causa, "for the matter to be
done", used in the case of dictators appointed to hold a military
command against a specific enemy; comitiorum habendorum causa, for
holding the comitia, or elections, when the consuls were unable to do
so; and clavi figendi causa, an important religious rite involving the
driving of a nail into the wall of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus
Maximus, as a protection against pestilence.[vi] Other reasons
included seditionis sedandae causa ("to quell sedition"); ferarium
constituendarum causa (to establish a religious holiday in response to
a dreadful portent[vii]); ludorum faciendorum causa (to hold the Ludi
Romani, or "Roman Games", an ancient religious festival);
quaestionibus exercendis, (to investigate certain actions); and in
one extraordinary case, senatus legendi causa, to fill up the ranks of
the Senate after the Battle of Cannae. These reasons could be
combined (seditionis sedandae et rei gerundae causa), but are not
always recorded or clearly stated in ancient authorities, and must
instead be inferred.
In the earlier period it was customary to nominate someone whom the
consul considered the best available military commander; often this
was a former consul, but this was never required. However, from 360 BC
onward, the dictators were usually consulares.[viii] Normally there
was only one dictator at a time, although a new dictator could be
appointed following the resignation of another.[ix] A dictator could
be compelled to resign his office without accomplishing his task or
serving out his term if there were found to be a fault in the auspices
under which he had been nominated.
Like other curule magistrates, the dictator was entitled to the toga
praetexta and the sella curulis. He received a ceremonial bodyguard
that was unique in Roman tradition: "[t]wenty-four lictors indicated
his quasi-regal power, which, however, was rather a concentration of
the consular authority than a limited revival of the kingship."[x]
In a notable exception to the Roman reluctance to reconstitute the
symbols of the kings, the lictors of the dictator never removed the
axes from their fasces, even within the pomerium. Symbolizing their
power over life and death, the axes of a dictator's lictors set him
apart from all other magistrates. In an extraordinary sign of
deference, the lictors of other magistrates could not bear fasces at
all when appearing before the dictator.
As the kings had been accustomed to appear on horseback, this right
was forbidden to the dictator, unless he first received permission
from the comitia.
Powers and limitations
Dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus
In addition to holding a military command and carrying out the actions
decreed by the Senate, a dictator could summon the Senate or convene
one of the legislative assemblies of the Roman people. The full extent
of the dictatorial power was considerable, but not unlimited. It was
circumscribed by the conditions of a dictator's appointment, as well
as by the evolving traditions of Roman law, and to a considerable
degree depended on the dictator's ability to work together with other
magistrates. The precise limitations of this power were not sharply
defined, but subject to debate, contention, and speculation throughout
In the pursuit of his causa, the dictator's authority was nearly
absolute. However, as a rule he could not exceed the mandate for which
he was appointed; a dictator nominated to hold the comitia could not
then take up a military command against the wishes of the
Senate.[xi][xii] Some dictators appointed to a military command also
performed other duties, such as holding the comitia, or driving a nail
into the wall of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus; but presumably
they did so with the Senate's consent.
The imperium of the other magistrates was not vacated by the
nomination of a dictator. They continued to perform the duties of
their office, although subject to the dictator's authority, and
continued in office until the expiration of their year, by which time
the dictator had typically resigned. It is uncertain whether a
dictator's imperium could extend beyond that of the consul by whom he
was nominated; Mommsen believed that his imperium would cease together
with that of the nominating magistrate, but others have suggested that
it could continue beyond the end of the civil year; and in fact there
are several examples in which a dictator appears to have entered a new
year without any consuls at all, although some scholars doubt the
authenticity of these dictator years.
Initially a dictator's power was not subject to either provocatio, the
right to appeal from the decision of a magistrate, or intercessio, the
veto of the tribunes of the plebs. However, the lex
Valeria, establishing the right of appeal, was not abrogated by the
appointment of a dictator, and by 300 BC even the dictator was subject
to provocatio, at least within the city of Rome. There is
also evidence that the power of the plebeian tribunes was not vitiated
by the dictator's commands, and 210 BC, the tribunes threatened to
prevent elections held by the dictator, Quintus Fulvius Flaccus,
unless he agreed to withdraw his name from the list of candidates for
A dictator was expected to resign his office upon the successful
completion of the task for which he was appointed, or at the
expiration of six months. These sharp limitations were intended
to prevent the dictatorship from too closely resembling the absolute
power of the Roman kings. But the six month limitation may have
been dispensed with when the Senate deemed it expedient; no consuls
are known for the years 333, 324, 309, and 301, and it is reported
that the dictator and magister equitum continued in office without any
Most authorities hold that a dictator could not be held to account for
his actions after resigning his office, the prosecution of Marcus
Furius Camillus for misappropriating the spoils of
exceptional, as perhaps was that of Lucius Manlius Capitolinus in
362,[xiv] which was dropped only because his son, Titus,[xv]
threatened the life of the tribune who had undertaken the
prosecution. However, some scholars suggest that the dictator
was only immune from prosecution during his term of office, and could
theoretically be called to answer charges of corruption.
Main article: magister equitum
The dictator's lieutenant was the magister equitum, or "master of the
horse". He would be nominated by the dictator immediately upon his own
appointment, and unless the senatus consultum specified the name of
the person to be appointed, the dictator was free to choose whomever
he wished. It was customary for the dictator to nominate a
magister equitum even if he were appointed for a non-military reason.
Before the time of Caesar, the only dictator who refused to nominate a
magister equitum was
Marcus Fabius Buteo in 216 BC, and he strenuously
objected to his own nomination, because there was already a dictator
in the field.
Like the dictator, the magister equitum was a curule magistrate,
entitled to the toga praetexta and the sella curulis. His imperium was
equivalent to that of a praetor (in the later use of the term), in
that he was accompanied by six lictors, half the number accorded to
the consuls. But like the dictator, he could summon the Senate, and
probably also the popular assemblies. His authority was not subject to
recall, although if the dictator were compelled to resign due to a
fault in the auspices, the magister equitum was also expected to
resign, and when the dictator laid down his imperium, so would the
In theory, the magister equitum was commander of the cavalry, but he
was not limited to that role. The dictator and magister equitum did
not always take the field together; in some instances the magister
equitum was assigned the defense of the city while the dictator took
an army into the field, while on other occasions the dictator remained
Rome to see to some important duty, and entrusted the magister
equitum with an army in the field. The magister equitum was
necessarily subordinate to the dictator, although this did not always
prevent the two from disagreeing.[xvi]
Decline and disappearance
During the first two centuries of the Republic, the dictatorship
served as an expedient means by which a powerful magistracy could be
created quickly in order to deal with extraordinary situations.
Created for military emergencies, the office could also be used to
suppress sedition and prevent the growing number of plebeians from
obtaining greater political power. In the Conflict of the Orders,
the dictator could generally be counted upon to support the patrician
aristocracy, since he was always a patrician, and was nominated by
consuls who were exclusively patrician. After the lex Licinia Sextia
gave plebeians the right to hold one of the annual consulships, a
series of dictators were appointed in order to hold elections, with
the apparent goal of electing two patrician consuls, in violation of
the Licinian law.[xvii]
After the Second Samnite War, the dictatorship was relegated almost
exclusively to domestic activities. No dictator was nominated during
the Third Samnite War, and the six-month limitation on its powers made
the dictatorship impractical for campaigns beyond the Italian
peninsula. In 249 BC,
Aulus Atilius Calatinus became the only
dictator to lead an army outside Italy, when he invaded Sicily, and he
was the only dictator to hold a military command during the First
Punic War. The last dictators to lead an army in the field were
Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus
Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus in 217, and
Marcus Junius Pera the
following year, during the early stages of the Second Punic War.
All of the other dictators appointed during that conflict remained at
Rome in order to hold the comitia;[xviii] the last dictator named in
the traditional manner was Gaius Servilius Geminus, in 202
The dictatorship revived
Bust presumed to be that of Roman
Dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla
For the next century, Rome's ordinary magistrates and promagistrates
successfully carried on all Roman campaigns, without the need for a
dictator, and the office fell into abeyance. Then, in 82 BC, the
dictatorship was suddenly revived by Sulla. Sulla, already a
successful general, had previously marched on
Rome and taken the city
from his political opponents six years earlier; but after he permitted
the election of magistrates for 87, and departed to campaign in the
east, his enemies returned. In 83 he turned his attention to regaining
Rome, and after defeating his opponents decisively the next year, the
Senate and the people named him dictator legibus faciendis et rei
publicae constituendae, giving
Sulla the power to rewrite the Roman
constitution, without any time limit.[xx]
Sulla's reforms of the constitution doubled the size of the Senate
from 300 to 600, filling its ranks with his supporters. He then placed
severe limits on the tribunician power, limiting the veto and
forbidding ex-tribunes from holding higher magistracies. Although he
resigned the dictatorship in 81, and held the consulship in 80, before
returning to private life, Sulla's actions had weakened the Roman
state and set a precedent for the concentration of power without
The dictatorial power was then granted to Caesar in 49 BC, when he
Rome from his campaigns in Gaul, and put the forces of
Pompey the Great") to flight. He resigned the dictatorship
after only eleven days, having held the comitia at which he himself
was elected consul for the following year. Late in 48, Caesar was
named dictator rei gerundae causa with a term of one year, and granted
the tribunician power for an indefinite period. He saw to the
impeachment of two tribunes who had tried to obstruct him, and having
been granted censorial powers, he filled the depleted numbers of the
Senate with his supporters, raising the number of senators to 900. In
47, he was named dictator for a term of ten years. Shortly before his
assassination in BC 44, Caesar was named dictator perpetuo rei
publicae constituendae, and given the power to appoint magistrates at
Caesar's murder came at the hands of conspirators who presented
themselves as saviours of the Republic. In order to maintain popular
support, Caesar's followers took great care to show their own
commitment to preserving the Roman state. The month after the
assassination, Mark Antony, who had been Caesar's magister equitum in
BC 47, proposed a series of laws, confirming Caesar's actions, but
allowing appeals and formally abolishing the dictatorship. These were
passed, as the leges Antoniae.
In 23 BC, when Caesar's nephew and heir
Augustus had attained full
control of the state, the Senate offered to appoint him dictator, but
he declined, while at the same time accepting proconsular imperium and
the tribunician power for life. Thus,
Augustus preserved the
appearance of respecting Republican forms, even as he arrogated most
of the powers of the Roman state. Following his example, none of
the emperors who succeeded him ever adopted the title of dictator.
When Constantine chose to revive the ancient concept of the infantry
commander, he pointedly gave the office the name of magister peditum,
"master of the foot", rather than magister populi, the official style
of a dictator.
List of Roman dictators
Main article: List of Roman dictators
Constitution of the Roman Republic
^ The exact date is uncertain, as are many of the details of this
event, but 501 BC is the date generally favoured by historians.
^ An alternative tradition mentioned by
Livy is that the first
dictator was Manius Valerius Maximus, although
Livy thought this
improbable, as dictators were supposed to be consulares, that is, men
who had already served as consul; and had a Valerius been desired,
Manius' brother, Marcus (described by
Livy as either the uncle or
father of Manius), consul in 505 BC, would have been chosen
instead. Modern historians generally share Livy's view,
notwithstanding the fact that Manius Valerius was appointed dictator
in BC 494, without having first held the consulship.
^ Lintott considers the evidence for praetor maximus as the original
name of the magistracy inconclusive, as it depends on the
interpretation of an ancient law calling for an official of this title
to drive a nail into the wall of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus
Maximus; the law seems to have dated from the period of the monarchy,
and under the Republic was interpreted to mean that this duty should
be undertaken by a dictator, as the highest-ranking magistrate; but
the first to perform it after the expulsion of the Tarquins was a
consul, Marcus Horatius Pulvillus. Nevertheless, the law seems to
confirm the existence of such a magistracy in the time of the kings,
which might be considered the forerunner of the later magister
^ Literally, of the equites, sometimes translated as "knights".
^ A notable exception occurred in BC 431, when the consuls Titus
Quinctius Cincinnatus and
Gaius Julius Mento were directed to nominate
a dictator, probably after having been defeated in an attempt to
Volsci from their fortifications on Mount
Algidus. The consuls, who still felt themselves able to hold the
military command, refused, until the tribunes of the plebs threatened
to have them imprisoned if they did not nominate a dictator.
^ As this was an annual ritual, it must generally have been observed
by the consuls; but
Livy mentions an ancient law calling for it to be
performed by the praetor maximus, apparently a magistrate in the time
of the kings; and on at least one occasion when there was a dictator,
it was interpreted to mean that the rite must be performed by the
dictator, as the magistrate then holding the greatest imperium.
^ In 344 BC, "a shower of stones rained down and darkness spread over
the sky in the daytime." This appeared to be a repetition of an
omen that occurred during the reign of Tullus Hostilius, the third
King of Rome, when a shower of stones fell on the Alban Mount after
the war in which Hostilius had destroyed the ancient
Latin city of
Alba Longa, and transferred its people to Rome. In a response, a
nine-day religious festival was decreed, with the intention that it be
repeated should such an omen occur again.
^ The major exception was the ill-starred Marcus Claudius Glicia,
freedman of Publius Claudius Pulcher, who nominated him dictator in a
fit of pique, when the Senate deprived him of his command after he had
ignored ill omens and been defeated in the Battle of Drepana. The
Senate compelled Glicia to abdicate the office, even before he could
name a magister equitum.
^ The chief exception occurred in 216 BC, when
Marcus Fabius Buteo was
nominated dictator in order to fill up the ranks of the Senate
following the Battle of Cannae, even as the dictator Marcus Junius
Pera held the military command against Hannibal.
^ Lintott suggests only twelve fasces were displayed when the dictator
was within the city.
^ For instance, Lucius Manlius Capitolinus was appointed clavi figendi
causa, but wished to lead an army against the Hernici. He proceeded to
levy troops, but was compelled to resign before he could take the
field, and was prosecuted the following year.
^ However, the Senate might request a dictator for a reason other than
the one publicly announced; for example Gaius Julius Iulus was
ostensibly nominated in BC 352 in order to carry on a war against the
Etruscans, but in fact there was no threat from the Etruscans; he was
appointed in order to procure the election of two patrician consuls,
in violation of the lex Licinia Sextia.
^ In this instance, the parties were deadlocked, and agreed to submit
the matter to the Senate for resolution. The Senate decided that it
would be better to allow Fulvius to stand for election, given his vast
experience (before his dictatorship, he had been consul three times,
praetor, censor, and magister equitum).
^ The precise nature of the charges differs according to source;
Broughton lists four reasons given by ancient authorities: "1.
Dictator when his religious duty was done; 2. remaining in
office beyond his legal term; 3. raising a levy with too great
severity; 4. mistreatment of his son, the future T. Manlius
^ The future Titus Manlius Torquatus would himself become dictator
three times; in BC 353, 349, and 320, and consul twice, in 344 and
340. This was the Manlius who won his surname from having defeated a
giant Gaul in single combat, and taking his torque. Despite his
ill-treatment at the hands of his father, so powerful was his respect
for paternal discipline, that when his eldest son disobeyed orders by
engaging in single combat with the leader of the
Latin cavalry (whom
he defeated and slew), the consul commanded that his victorious son be
scourged and beheaded.
^ In 325 BC, the dictator Lucius Papirius Cursor was so furious when
the magister equitum engaged the enemy in battle against his express
orders, that he intended to have young Quintus Fabius Maximus
Rullianus scourged and perhaps beheaded, notwithstanding the fact that
Fabius had won a famous victory; he was restrained only when Fabius
escaped and made his way to Rome, where the entire Roman people
interceded on his behalf and begged the dictator to show mercy. A
century later, when Fabius' grandson, Quintus Fabius Maximus
Verrucosus was dictator, his magister equitum, Marcus Minucius Rufus,
defied him openly, and likewise fled to
Rome in fear for his life,
where he convinced the Senate to grant him imperium equal to that of
the dictator's. But in this case, it was the dictator who came to the
rescue of his rebellious magister equitum, when Minucius improvidently
offered battle and came near to destruction.
^ For example, in BC 352, the dictator Gaius Julius Iulus was
nominated, ostensibly to fight a war against the Etruscans, although
there was no actual threat from Etruria; however he failed to prevent
the election of a plebeian consul. Two years later, the dictator
Lucius Furius Camillus succeeded in procuring the election of two
^ Titus Manlius Torquatus also held the Roman games in 208 BC.
^ Despite the impending end of the war, there was a series of
unwelcome prodigies in Italy; in Cumae the skies darkened at mid-day,
and a shower of stones fell there and on the
Palatine Hill at Rome. A
similar omen in the time of Tullus Hostilius, the third King of Rome,
had led to a nine-day religious festival, and in 344 BC, Publius
Valerius Poplicola had been nominated dictator in response to a second
occurrence; he also organized a religious festival. For the third
occurrence in 202, a nine-day religious festival was held before the
dictator Servilius was nominated, since his chief purpose was to hold
^ The legislation was introduced by Lucius Valerius Flaccus, who had
been appointed interrex at Sulla's request, as both consuls were dead.
Sulla named Flaccus his magister equitum.
^ a b c d e f g Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, p. 509.
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Oxford Classical Dictionary, p. 339
^ Lintott, pp. 109–113.
^ Oxford Classical Dictionary, p. 286 ("Consul").
^ Oxford Classical Dictionary, pp. 429 ("Fasces"), 609 ("Lictores"),
639 ("Magistracy, Roman"), 1080 ("Toga").
^ Broughton, vol. I, p. 9.
^ a b c Livy, ii. 18.
^ Broughton, vol. I, pp. 9, 14.
^ Lintott, p. 104 (note 47).
^ a b Livy, vii. 3.
^ a b c d e f g Lintott, p. 110.
^ Livy, iv. 26.
^ Livy, iv. 27.
^ Livy, vii. 28, Betty Radice, trans.
^ Livy, i. 31.
^ Livy, ix. 27.
^ a b c Livy, xxiii. 23.
^ Broughton, vol. I, pp. 112, 132, 150, 152, 248.
^ Broughton, vol. I, p. 112.
^ Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, vol. II, p.
^ Broughton, vol. I, p. 215.
^ Livy, viii. 15, 17, 23.
^ Broughton, vol. I, pp. 139, 140, 145.
^ a b c d e f g Lintott, p. 111.
^ Livy, xxiii. 14.
^ Plutarch, "Life of Fabius Maximus", 4.
^ a b c d e Lintott, p. 112.
^ Livy, vii. 3–5.
^ Broughton, vol. I, p. 125.
^ Livy, xxxiii. 14.
^ Broughton, vol. I, p. 248.
^ Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, ii. 133–172.
^ a b Broughton, vol. I, pp. 140, 141, 147–149, 162, 163, 169–171.
^ Livy, ii. 18, iii. 20.
^ Dionysius, vi. 58.
^ Livy, viii. 29–35.
^ a b Livy, xxvii. 6.
^ Plutarch, "Life of Fabius Maximus", 9.
^ Broughton, vol. I, p. 118.
^ Livy, vii. 4, 5.
^ a b Broughton, vol. I, pp. 125, 128.
^ Broughton, vol. I, p. 215.
^ Broughton, vol. I, pp. 243, 248.
^ Livy, xxvii. 34.
^ Broughton, vol. I, p. 290.
^ Livy, xxx. 39.
^ Broughton, vol. I, p. 316.
^ Livy, xxx. 38.
^ a b c Oxford Classical Dictionary, p. 1022 ("Sulla").
^ Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, vol. I, pp.
139–155 ("Caesar", no. 18).
^ Oxford Classical Dictionary, pp. 189, 190 ("Caesar").
^ Lintott, p. 113.
^ Oxford Classical Dictionary, p. 601 ("Lex").
^ Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, vol. I, p.
^ Oxford Classical Dictionary, p. 638 ("Magister Militum").
Titus Livius (Livy), Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome).
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Romaike Archaiologia.
Plutarchus, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.
Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, S. Hirzel,
Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, Second
Edition, Harry Thurston Peck, ed., Harper & Brothers Publishers,
New York (1898).
T. Robert S. Broughton, The Magistrates of the Roman Republic,
American Philological Association (1952).
Oxford Classical Dictionary, N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scullard,
eds., Clarendon Press, Oxford (Second Edition, 1970).
Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, Oxford
University Press (1999), pp. 109 ff.
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