Dictator: Roman magistrate with extraordinary powers, appointed during an emergency. The word dictator originally meant 'the one who dictates' or 'gives orders'. The negative connotation is a later development.
Rome's first dictator was Aulus Postumius Albinus, who was appointed in the first decade of the fifth century BCE, when the Latin allies revolted. This was a serious crisis and the Romans thought that only one man with extraordinary powers could solve the problems. This measure was successful and was sometimes repeated. A consul
or (in emergency situations) praetor
could appoint a dictator; this proposal could not be vetoed.
The dictator was more powerful than a consul, which was shown by the fact that he had twice as many bodyguards (24 lictores
) - at least, this is what the Roman historian Livy seems to have said about the dictatorship of Sulla (Periochae
). On the other hand, his magistracy lasted half as long: at most six months.
It was impossible to appeal against the measures of the dictator. In fact, we can summarize his magistracy as a military potentate who briefly took over the government. This can also be deduced from his second title, 'master of the infantry' (his right-hand man was the 'master of the cavalry'). The Greeks correctly translated the title as strategos autokrator
, 'military ruler', or even as monarchos
In the fifth and fourth century, the dictatorship was also used to solve internal problems, e.g., to conduct difficult elections or solve a constitutional crisis. After 202, the dictatorship was abolished; in emergency situations, the Senate
gave extraordinary powers to the consuls (the senatusconsultum ultimum
, the proclamation of the state of emergency). When Sulla and Caesar became dictator (in the first century), their magistracy was nothing but a tool to exercise personal power.
Every year, the Romans appointed a dictator whose only task it was to fix a nail to the wall of the temple of Jupiter (the meaning of this ritual is unclear). One is reminded of the modern custom of King Carnival.