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Roman Empire
Ancient Rome

What did the roman republic dictators do?


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December 19, 2014 11:16PM

During the period of the Roman Republic, Rome responded to emergencies by appointing a dictator who was an extraordinary officer of state. The term dictator did not have the negative connotation it has now and did not imply despotism. The dictator was appointed by one of the consuls (the two annually elected heads of the Republic) at times of emergency with a very specific mandate which was established by senatorial decree. His term of office was six months. Usually he was appointed to deal with a military emergency when there was a need for the army to be commanded by one man (normally the two annually elected consuls were both commanders of the army) or to be commanded by a man with better military leaderships skills. During the Second Punic War eight men were appointed for the purpose of holding the election of the next consuls (Comitiorum habendorum causa) and one man was appointed for the purpose of enrolling new senators (Senatus legendi causa) when many of them died at the battle of Cannae. Prior to the Second Punic War a dictator had been appointed to hold the election of the consuls twelve times. One dictator was appointed to suppress a rebellion (Seditionis sedandae causa).

As an extraordinary officer of state, the dictator was not legally liable for his actions and had an absolute authority which went beyond that of the consuls who were ordinary officers of state and had legal liability for their actions after their term of office. A dictator could overrule or depose and sentence to death other officers of state. He could rule by decree and change any law, but these lasted only for his term of office. He could also issue new laws without the popular assembly's vote, but these were usually put through a vote. He could punish without trial and was exempt from appeal. He could act without consulting the senate, but he usually did.

The practice of appointing a dictator for a military puropse was stopped (with the exception of two instances in the second Punic war) after the wars in Italy and Rerome's expasion which followed these because it was feared that a man with such great power would be dangerous if he was far from Rome. It was replaced by the Senatus consultum ultimum, a senatorial emergency decree that allowed the consuls to act as they saw fit and, at times, and to re-elect the same consulif the emergency was protracted, as with Gaius Marius who was elected consul five consecutive times (105-100 BC) to deal with barbarian invasions.

The only exception to the rule that there could only one dictator was in 216 BC after the battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War. Marcus Fabius Buteo was appointed dictator with the mentioned mandate of enrolling new senators. He was appointed because he was the oldest surviving former censor (an officer of state who kept the roll of senators and enrolled new senators). He resigned as soon as he finished revising the roll and enlisting the new senators. The other dictator, Marcus Junius Pera, was appointed with the mandate to fight Hannibal's army and served the full six months of this office.

There were only two exceptions to the six month term of office. Sulla was appointed dictator (legibus faciendis et reipublicae constituendae causa, (for the making of laws and the settling of the constitution) at the end of his civil war against Marius (82 B.C.) with an unspecified term of office. He had thousands of his political opponents executed and resigned after one year. This gave the dictatorship a bad name. In 53 B.C., the senate, mindful of Sulla' precedent, appointed Pompey sole consul instead of dictator, to deal with domestic unrest. This made him accountable for his actions at the end of his office. Julius Caesar was appointed dictator four times. The second time he held the office for one year, the third time he was given a 10-year term and the fourth time he was appointed for life.

During the 482 years of the republic a dictator was appointed 88 times. In total 75 men were appointed dictators.