BMCR 2022.06.12

Dictator: The Evolution of the Roman Dictatorship

, Dictator: the evolution of the Roman dictatorship. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021. Pp. 476. ISBN 9780472132669 $85.00.

The study of Roman republican magistracies has grown fast during the last decades. Corey Brennan’s monumental work on the praetorship was followed by Francisco Pina Polo’s analysis on the civic duties of the consulship and, more recently, on the quaestorship (the latter in collaboration with Alejandro Díaz Fernández).[1] The dictatorship has not escaped this new trend. 2017 and 2018 saw the publication of two collected volumes edited by Luigi Garofalo[2], and now we have this incisive and thorough analysis of Mark Wilson.

Wilson divides the history of the Roman dictatorship in three periods: its creation and early employment (V-III century); its falling into disuse (II century); and its final revival by Sulla and Caesar. For each one of these periods the analysis is conducted through thematic chapters, that take into account specific fields of action of the dictators or particular ceremonies connected with their nomination. Disseminated in these chapters are single case studies of particularly well-known dictators, that help the reader to catch the diachronic framework of the analysis.

Wilson begins with a discussion on our (mainly literary) evidence on the dictatorship. The problem is represented by the fact that while our information is usually divided between general descriptions of the office and detailed narratives of the dictators’ actions, they frequently contradict each other. A clear example of this is Cicero’s presentation of the dictatorship (De Legibus 3.3.9), that is more a prescription for an ideal Republic than a thoughtful description of what the dictatorship had looked like in any moment of its history. However, this discrepancy between general statements on the office and detailed narratives of what dictators actually did, is helpful to understand what the dictatorship had represented for the Romans and how it had contributed to shape their world at different times. And this is actually the path that Wilson wisely decides to follow in his historical analysis.

So, when confronted with the origins of the office, Wilson is able to escape the discussion recently raised by Fred Drogula on the character assumed by early republican offices.[3] The focus of Wilson is not on the more accurate reconstruction of the events of the early fifth century, but on their “perception” by the Roman historical tradition, and how it shaped the representation of the dictatorship. For example, Livy perceived the dictatorship as a collective response to a great danger, deeply connected with the struggle of the orders: this is probably why he – or one of his sources – introduced the principle that the monopoly of the office by patricians (ex-consuls) had to be regulated by a law. Both he and Dionysius agreed, however, that the limits of the office were not set by rules, but by the exemplary behaviour assumed by the first dictators.

The second, long section of the book takes into account several technical aspects of the dictatorship, starting from the “Need” that generated the office. While early dictators were usually called to face dreadful threats, during the fourth and third centuries, when Rome entered in more ongoing and demanding conflicts, the military character of the magistracy changed. Dictators were now used in order to have a supplementary magistrate to face an unexpected threat, or someone particularly expert in military matters to handle a delicate situation while the consuls performed their civic duties. As for the domestic sphere, dictators were called to solve civil conflicts: in this context they acted as arbitrators, trying to promote social reforms and to solve internal crises by crushing solely the revolutionary leaders and not the masses that had followed them. The creation, in 363, of the single-task dictatorship offered a versatile solution to a new era in Roman history, characterized by institutional innovation (likewise the creation of the office in the early fifth century had accompanied the transition from the monarchy to the republic).

The procedure of naming a dictator first involved a “Call”. Our sources are not so much interested in the procedure and they seldom report how much weight was given to the senate’s authority, the popular desires or the consuls’ freedom of action. We gain even less information about the “Nomination”, that was made by the consul alone, during the night and without rumor. It is difficult to understand the rationale behind this scheme, but maybe, as Wilson suggests, it served to emphasize the uncommon nature of the office and its isolation from the other magistracies.

Of the 66 cases we have, there is only one example of a dictator that violated his “Mandate” by trying to stay in office beyond its limits. This exception shows that the rule was working well. There are however some instances when dictators acted beyond the limits of their original mandate, and these are grouped by Wilson into: a) extended mandate: when a (usually military) task was added to the one originally conferred upon the dictator; b) second mandate: when the dictator was requested to perform an action different from the one which had brought to his nomination. The latter included both b1) the conduct of elections, and b2) legislation. The strong adherence to the (original or modified) mandate is explained by Wilson through the “isolation” of the dictator in front of all the community. Dictators, at least until the first century, could not count on a loyal army (although this might be discussed).

In this section of the book, Wilson also discusses the hotly debated question of the dictator’s imperium. Several theories have been advanced in order to explain the nature of imperium, from Mommsen’s theory of dual imperium (consuls as civil magistrates, dictators as military commanders), to Drogula’s supposition of a dichotomy between potestas domi and imperium militiae. Wilson rejects these theories, as the story of the dictatorship shows that dictators had imperium in the domestic sphere and they could also act in civil matters. Wilson accepts the existence of the imperium maius of the dictator, which was limited, however, to the field of action specified by his mandate.

Particularly interesting is Wilson’s discussion on “Renunciation” and the supposed six-months term of the dictatorship. It is true that both Livy and Dionysius speak of this limit for the first dictators, and we may assume that such a obligation might have been prescribed for these men, but it probably went into disuse when these same dictators set a specific action, i.e. to resign from office as soon as the task had been completed. There are indeed cases of dictators that stayed in office for more than six months and the fact that there was not a custom (or a law) that prescribed this limit is revealed by the example of Sulla, who would have not risked breaking this rule and invalidating all his acts as dictator.

The third part of the book begins with a discussion on why the dictatorship fell into disuse during the “long second century” despite the numerous crises the Romans had to face. The first field that Wilson considers is the military. Military competencies of dictators were assumed by promagistrates: as the empire expanded, they were considered more functional by the Roman state. In some ways promagistrates recalled dictators (assignation by the senate of a single task, i.e. provincia), but with the difference that there could be many at the same time.

As for the domestic affairs, the use of promagistrates enabled the Romans to have at least one consul always present at Rome and ready to hold the elections. This resulted in the abandonment of the dictatorship comitiorum habendorum caussa: the consuls and the senate took advantage of this situation by increasing their influence on the working of ordinary politics.

The rise of the senate in the long second century is evident, and it is precisely the collective behaviour of the nobility that explains the desuetude of the dictatorship. When Rome emerged from the Second Punic War, she found herself with many tools to administer her empire. Nobles were constantly called to serve the State, and this emphasized their commitment and the reluctance to entrust to just one man more serious tasks. The nobility as a whole (that is, the Senate) preferred to act collectively.

The last two chapters are devoted to Sulla’s and Caesar’s particular revival of the dictatorship. Sulla’s dictatorship was set in a context that had always called for a dictator. The difference lay not only in the institutional way he followed in order to be elected, but in the fact that he served the interests of one part of the citizenship, though he presented his program as aimed at the restoration of the old republic. Sulla has become synonymous with cruelty, mostly for his proscriptions. Wilson notes, however, that according to our sources the proscriptions were conducted by Sulla when he was still a warlord (proconsul of the republic), while his dictatorship mainly dealt with institutional reforms. Sulla tried to follow the example of ancient dictators, both in limiting the violence (his killing of Ofella resembled the death of Manlius Capitolinus by Cincinnatus’ magister equitum), and in resigning from the office once he thought his task was completed.

On the contrary, Caesar’s dictatorships served as a mean to rule the empire. Wilson analyses Caesar’s several dictatorships, trying to establish when, by which means, and for how long he was nominated. Caesar spent few moments in Rome, due to the civil war and to the fact that his perspective was not on the city (like Cicero), but on the empire. It is sometimes difficult to separate his acts as dictator from the ones he took as general, or consul. Caesar re-enacted the archaic dictatorship with its principles – e.g. abdication was at the dictator’s discretion – and considered Sulla as a breaker of these ancient practices. The difference between the two men lay in the fact that Sulla appealed to those ancient dictators that had used their power to restore Rome to her ancient values, while Caesar considered the dictatorship as a weapon with which he could overcome any opposition and adapt Rome to her new imperial reality. Another difference lay in the fact that Sulla abdicated while Caesar’s last dictatorships were in perpetuo. However, at a first reading perpetuus means “to continue uninterrupted”, which according to Wilson signifies that Caesar wanted to keep his powers as long as he saw fit. It is not inconceivable that at some point he might have decided to resign, in order to pass his powers to his designated heir. After Caesar’s assassination, the dictatorship as an office was banned by Antony, who probably wanted to dissociate himself from the office of dictator. However, it was not forgotten. Augustus was offered the dictatorship in 22, and the reason why he rejected it was that Caesar’s heir had found new ways to acquire absolute rulership on the empire.

In conclusion, Wilson’s book is a thorough and well-informed study of the Roman dictatorship. Quite every aspect of the office is treated and the collection of ancient sources is impressive. A series of Appendices complete both the general picture and the detailed narrative of every dictator’s actions. The bibliography appears on some points too selective, but despite this—and even if the discussion of particular issues will probably generate debate or criticism—he has doubtless provided every scholar interested in the study of this magistracy with an important and compelling work.


[1] T. Corey Brennan, The Praetorship in the Roman Republic (Cambridge, 2000); F. Pina Polo, The Consul at Rome(Cambridge, 2011); F. Pina Polo & A. Díaz Fernández, The Quaestorship in the Roman Republic (Berlin, 2019).

[2] La dittatura romana, a cura di Luigi Garofalo, Tomo primo (Napoli, 2017), Tomo secondo (Napoli, 2018).

[3] Fred K. Drogula, Commanders & Command in the Roman Republic and Early Empire (Chapel Hill, 2015).