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The Roman Dictator Posted by on Sep 25, 2009 in Latin Language

The word ‘dictator’ did not have the same connotations as it does today. For one thing, being a dictator in ancient Roman times meant that you had to relinquish power after a certain period of time. In ancient Roman time, it was generally understood that a dictator’s term would last six months. After around six months the dictator himself would personally resign. Of course, there are instances in history when dictators tried to prolong the timespan of their power; the most famous being Gaius Julius Caesar. Caesar’s desire to extend his dictatorship was one of the reasons he was assassinated.

Moreover, in ancient Roman times, the dictator could not forcefully take power. The dictator had to be nominated by the consuls (high level magistrates) or had to previously be a consul himself. In addition, there was very little job security as a Roman dictator. Dictators were usually appointed in times of national emergency. This meant that once the threat passed, the dictator was no longer deemed necessary. In ancient Roman times dictators were often appointed in times of war. Under the senatus consultum, dictatura (dictatorship) was allowed, so long as the consuls had obtained the permission of the Senate.

Despite all these limitations, the office of dictator was one of the most powerful in the state. The dictator was considered magistratus extraordinarius or extraordinary magistrate, which meant that they had powers that were beyond the powers of an magistratus ordinarius or ordianary magistrate. This meant that the dictator had absolute control and could act on his own without consulting the Senate. The only matter in which he could not act on his own were those concerning public treasury. The public treasury was considered off limits and the dictator’s salary was determined by the Senate.

One of the most powerful tools at the dictator’s disposal was the dictator legibus faciendis et rei publicae constituendae causa which was a precedent that allowed the dictator to make new laws and change them at the dictator’s will. The changes were only in effect during the dictator’s rule, but no one could challenge the dictator’s decision. Disobedience to the dictator meant that the dictator could expel the magistrate from office. In addition, once the dictatorship ended, the dictator was not liable for his actions. Even if his actions were illegal, the dictator was not subject to any accountability for his actions.

In sum, the office of dictator was limited in term, but extensive in the scope of powers afforded to the dictator. The ancient Romans believed that the safey of the state was better protected by a single, absolute authority. Hence, the office was created. It makes you wonder, what if the same limitations were in place for today’s dictators? Would history be any different?

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