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date: 26 September 2022



  • Frederik Juliaan Vervaet


Soon after the establishment of the Republic (traditionally dated to 509 bce), an aristocratic democracy marked by collegial rule and limitation of tenure, the Romans introduced the office of dictator, initially to create an additional and ranking military command whenever required. Appointed by the chief annual magistrate by decree of the Senate, the dictator had no equal colleague, the main constraints on his authority being his official commission as defined by the Senate and the obligation to abdicate promptly following the completion of this specific task. From 363 to 301 bce especially, the dictatorship became a frequent fixture of the Republican machinery of state, thereafter being used only infrequently until the Second Punic War, which saw another spate of appointments. Rather than being created to deal with external or internal emergencies, dictators were mostly appointed according to the exigencies of the moment to execute one or more routine tasks ranging from military commands to the conduct of obscure religious rituals normally undertaken by consuls or praetors. Significantly, the office played an important and constructive role in the resolution of the so-called struggle of the orders and the gradual shaping of the Republican polity. Throughout the Early and Middle Republic, the Senate retained close control over the dictator and his activities. After the Second Punic War, as Roman power rapidly expanded across the Mediterranean and prorogation of consular and praetorian power became the norm, the office of dictator lapsed completely. The age of civil war (88–30 bce) saw first Sulla and then Caesar revive the dictatorship, albeit by means of constitutive laws and in vastly enhanced and autocratic form. Since the dictatorship was irrevocably tarnished by the actions of these strongmen, Augustus consistently refused to accept the office, causing it to vanish with the republic it was originally devised to serve.


  • Roman History and Historiography
  • Roman Law

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