Roman Republic


Timothy Cornell (referenced below, at p. 109) pointed out, in the early Republic (or, more specifically, in the 140 or so years between the start of the Republic and the major constitutional reforms prescribed in the so-called Licinian-Sextian Rogations of 367 BC):

  1. our surviving sources record the appointment of only a small number of dictators (Mark Wilson, referenced below, at pp . 520-533, recorded 20 dictatorships in this period); and

  2. the authenticity of many of these is extremely uncertain

For example, he observed (at pp 109-10 and note 42) that:

  1. “Of the five dictatorships of Camillus [recorded in the period  396 -367 BC in our surviving sources], only the first ... has any serious claim to be historical.”

However, he observed (at p. 110) that, after 366 BC:

  1. “... we can place [more] trust in the historical record.  The first thing that strikes the observer is that, from this point, the dictatorship becomes much more regular and frequent.  Some 40 dictators are recorded in 363-300 BC ... and this period can be seen as the heyday of the dictatorship: ... [thereafter], the [dictatorship] ... virtually disappeared, ... and was only briefly revived during the Hannibalic War [of 218 to 201 BC].”

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 1997, at pp. 41-2) listed 38 dictatorships that were recorded for this period in our surviving sources.  For the subsequent periods, Mark Wilson, referenced below, at pp . 520-533, recorded:

  1. 12 dictators in 300-220 BC, only one of whom (A. Atilius Calatinus, in 249 BC, during the First Punic War) is recorded as commanding an army as dictator;

  2. 12 in 220 - 200 BC, during the Second Punic War; and

  3. none thereafter until 82 BC, when Sulla arranged his own appointment as dictator.

Timothy Cornell (referenced below, at p. 114) noted that Cicero, in his prescription of the ideal republican constitution, asserted that a dictator should be appointed:

  1. “... when a particularly serious war or civil disorder occurs”, (‘On the Laws’, 3: 9).

Cornell’s central thesis was that Cicero’s prescription was rarely applied during the ‘heyday’ of the Roman dictatorship in 363 - 300 BC.  In the sections below, I look at the way that the dictatorship actually evolved over this period, bearing in mind that it included all four of the so-called dictator years, which Cornell (at p.109) characterised as:

  1. “... a blatant antiquarian fabrication by the scholars who produced the ... chronology [that is employed, for example, in the Augustan fasti].”

Dictators of 363 t0 356 BC

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 1997, at pp. 41-2) listed the 6 dictatorships that were recorded in our surviving sources for this 8-year period:

  1. 363 BC: L. Manlius Capitolinus Imperiosus;

  2. 362 BC: Ap. Claudius Crassus;

  3. 361 BC: T. Quinctius Poenus [Capitolinus Crispinus];

  4. 360 BC: Q. Servilius Ahala

  5. 358 BC: C. Sulpicius Peticus;

  6. 356 BC: C. Marcius Rutilus.

Dictators of 353 t0 348 BC

As is clear from the useful list of dictators assembled by Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 1997, at pp. 41-2, a dictator was appointed in each year from 353 to 348 BC (inclusive).  Unfortunately, Livy is our only surviving source for the first three of these dictatorships, since the entries in the fasti Capitolini for 353-1 BC (inclusive) are missing.

T. Manlius Torquatus (353 BC)

According to Livy, since the consuls C. Sulpicius Peticus and  M. Valerius Publicola (both of whom were patricians) were engaged against the Tarquinians and Volscians respectively, a third patrician, T. Manlius Torquatus was appointed as dictator to deal with a rebellion at Caere.   However, the rebellion soon evaporated and Manlius returned to Rome without having done any fighting.  Livy then recorded that:

  1. “At the close of the year, the consular elections were delayed owing to a quarrel between the two orders:

  2. the tribunes declared that they would not permit the elections to be held unless they were conducted in accordance with the Licinian Law; while

  3. the dictator [Manlius] was determined to [ensure the election of two] patricians.

  4. Since the elections had still not been held when [Manlius] resigned his office,  matters reverted to an interregnum.   ... Wearied out with the prolonged agitation, the Senate ordered L. Cornelius Scipio, the [eleventh] interrex, to restore harmony to the State by conducting the consular elections in accordance with the Licinian Law: [the patrician] P. Valerius Publicola was [duly] elected, and C. Marcius Rutilus was his plebeian colleague”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 21: 1-5). 

C. Julius Jullus (352 BC)

According to Livy:

  1. “Owing to a report that the twelve cities of Etruria had formed a hostile league, a good deal of alarm was felt, which subsequently proved to be groundless, and it was thought necessary that a dictator should be nominated.  This took place in camp, for it was there that the consuls received the senatorial decree.  [The otherwise unknown] C. Julius was nominated, and L. Aemilius was assigned to him (sic) as master of the horse”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 21: 9). 

Mark Wilson (referenced below, at p. 346) observed that:

  1. “It is a little mysterious why the consuls were in camp [at this time], since Livy had just noted that the fears that prompted the appointment [of a dictator] were groundless and, immediately after this passage [see below], Livy added that everything was tranquil abroad.  Moreover, the sole notable activity of [the consuls], apart from appointing C. Iulius, was debt reform.  ....  an error in Livy’s sources [might lay behind his record] that C. Iulius was said to have been appointed in camp, although, in that case, it is striking that Livy went out of his way to call attention to the innovation.  [Perhaps] the consuls [had] started preparing for the war with the Etruscans before the call came to appoint a dictator ... ”.

Although it soon became apparent that the Etruscan threat had evaporated, Julius did not immediately resign:

  1. “Everything abroad was tranquil.  [However], at home, owing to the dictator's attempt to secure the election of patricians to both consulships, matters were brought to an interregnum.  There were two interreges, C. Sulpicius and M. Fabius, and they succeeded where the dictator had failed, because the plebs (owing to the pecuniary relief recently granted to them) were in a less aggressive mood.  Both of the consuls elected were patricians: C. Sulpicius Peticus (who had been the first of the two interreges) and T. Quinctius Poenus ...”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 22: 1-3). 

M. Fabius Ambustus (351 BC)

Livy set the scene for Fabius’ appointment by first describing the elections of censors at the end of 352 BC:

  1. “... C. Marcius Rutilus, who had been the first plebeian dictator announced that he was a candidate for the censorship, which upset the harmony between the two orders.  Marcius took this step at what was potentially an unfavourable moment, since both consuls happened to be patricians and they declared that they would allow no vote for him.  However, he resolutely held to his purpose, and the tribunes ...  assisted him to the utmost of their power.  ... There was no division of opinion evident in the elections: Marcius was unanimously elected censor, together with Cnaeus Manlius”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 22: 7-10). 

Thus, Marcius became the first plebeian censor.  Livy then recorded that:

  1. “This year also saw M. Fabius [Ambustus] as dictator, not from any threat of war but to prevent the Licinian Law from being observed in the consular elections.  However, did not make ... the Senate more influential in the election of consuls than it had been in the election of censors”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 22: 10-11). 

Livy is clear that Fabius was appointed specifically to hold the consular elections, in the hope that this would lead to the election of two patricians.  However, he proved to be ineffective in securing this underlying objective: the plebeian M. Popillius Laenas was elected to his third consulship, with the patrician L. Cornelius Scipio as his colleague. 

L. Furius Camillus (350 BC)

According to Livy, at the end of 351 BC:

  1. “Since both consuls were on the sick list, the Senate found it necessary to appoint a dictator to conduct the elections.  L. Furius Camillus was nominated, and P. Cornelius Scipio was associated with him as master of the horse.  He restored to the patricians their old monopoly of the consulship, and for this service he was himself, through their enthusiastic support, elected consul, and he procured the election of Appius Claudius Crassus as his colleague”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 24: 11). 

T. Manlius Torquatus (349 BC)

Appius Claudius Crassus died during the consular year, leaving Camillus as the sole consul.  According to Livy, because Camillus was needed for what was likely to be a protracted campaign against Greek pirates:

  1. “... the Senate authorised him to nominate T. Manlius Torquatus as dictator for the purpose of conducting the elections.  After appointing A. Cornelius Cossus as master of the horse, Manlius proceeded to hold the consular elections. M. Valerius Corvus ... , a young man of 23 years, was declared to be duly elected amidst the enthusiastic cheers of the people.  His colleague was the plebeian, M. Popilius Laenas, now elected for the fourth time”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 26: 12-13). 

Now Unknown Dictator (348 BC)

A fragmentary entry in the fasti Capitolini records a now-unknown dictator comitiorum habendorum caussa (for holding elections) in 348 BC. Livy did not record a dictatorship at this point and nor did he give any reason why the consuls might have been prevented from holding the consular elections.

Dictators of 353 t0 348 BC: Conclusions

The most striking features of the six dictatorships of this period are that:

  1. they were held in six consecutive years; and

  2. if Livy’s accounts can be relied upon, then:

  3. every one of these six dictators presided over consular elections (albeit that the first two did so unsuccessfully); and

  4. while the first two were appointed primarily for other purposes, the last four were appointed specifically to hold elections: indeed, M. Fabius Ambustus is the first dictator for whom Livy ever made this claim.

The fasti Triumphales, which are complete in the period from 367 BC until 291 BC, record 47 triumphs in this period, of which eight had been awarded to dictators:

  1. 367 BC: M. Furius  Camillus dictator [V], over the Gauls;

  2. 361 BC: T. Quinctius Pennus Capitolinus Crispinus, dictator, over the Gauls;

  3. 358 BC: C. Sulpicius Peticus, dictator [II], over the Gauls;

  4. 356 BC: C. Marcius Rutilus, dictator, over the Etruscans;

  5. 324 BC: L. Papirius Cursor, dictator, over the Samnites;

  6. 309 BC: L. Papirius Cursor, dictator [II], over the Samnites;

  7. 302 BC: C. Junius Bubulcus Brutus, dictator, over the Aequi;

  8. 301 BC: M. Valerius Corvus, dictator [II], over the Etruscans and Marsi. 

Timothy Cornell (referenced below, at pp 109-10 and note 42) reasonably argued that:

  1. “Of the five dictatorships of Camillus (in our surviving sources], only the first (in 396 BC) ... has any serious claim to be historical.”

We can therefore reasonably discount Camillus putative fourth triumph during his fifth dictatorship in 367 BC.  He observed (at p. 110) that:

  1. “... we can place [more] trust in the historical record [after 366 BC].”

The striking thing about the list above is that it includes three of the four so-called dictator years (in bold italics), in which a dictator held office without consuls: Cornell characterised these years (at p.109) as:

  1. “... a blatant antiquarian fabrication by the scholars who produced the ... chronology [that is employed, for example, in the Augustan fasti].”

This does not mean that the either the dictatorships or triumphs of 324, 309 and 301 BC were inauthentic: what it does mean is that, if they were authentic, then they should almost certainly be in the preceding consular year.

Although there might have been dictators who triumphed in the lacunae in the fasti after 291 BC, it is surely significant that:

  1. the fasti Capitolini, as they now survive, record the appointment of 18 dictators in the 2nd century BC, after there is a gap until Sulla’s dictatorship of 81 BC; but

  2. the fasti Triumphales, as they have been reconstructed by John Rich (referenced below, at pp. 248-51) record no dictator-triumphs between 300 BC and 81 BC (when Sulla triumphed as dictator over king Mithridates).

although gaps in the surviving data after 291 BC preclude a comprehensive  analysis thereafter, it is surely significant that none of the records of triumphs that do survive involve a dictator until that of Sulla, in 81 BC.

In short, it seems that the triumph of C. Marcius Rutilus in 356 BC marked the end of an era: as Timothy Cornell (referenced below, 2015, at p. 118) observed, although dictators rei gerundae caussa continued to be appointed throughout the 4th century BC, this was no longer:

“... the preferred form of command in the most challenging military situations.”

Rather (as we shall see), the dictators of this kind appointed after 356 BC:

“... seem to have been more-or-less routine substitutes for the regular magistrates.”

Read more:

Wilson M., "The Needed Man: Evolution, Abandonment, and Resurrection of the Roman Dictatorship" (2017) thesis of City University of New York

Cornell T. C., “Crisis and Deformation in the Roman Republic: The Example of the Dictatorship”, in:

  1. Gouschin V. and Rhodes P. (editors),  “Deformations and Crises of Ancient Civil Communities”, (2015)  Stuttgart, at pp. 101-26

Rich J. W., “The Triumph in the Roman Republic: Frequency, Fluctuation and Policy”, in:

  1. Lange C. J. and Vervaet F. (editors), “The Roman Republican Triumph: Beyond the Spectacle”, (2014 ) Rome, at pp. 197-258

Pelikan Pittenger M., “Contested Triumphs: Politics, Pageantry and Performance in Livy's Republican Rome”, (2008) Berkeley, Los Angeles and London

Oakley S., “A Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X:Volume II: Books VII and VIII”, (1998) Oxford

Oakley S., “A Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X:Volume I: Introduction and Book VI”, (1997) Oxford

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Rome in the Early Republic (509 - 241 BC)

Dictators of 363 t0 300 BC