The Needed Man:
The Evolution, Abandonment, and Resurrection of the Roman Dictatorship
Mark Wilson

Advisor: Joel Allen
May 2017
Despite being an integral institution of the Roman state, employed frequently and routinely from the Republic’s earliest crises to the last days of the climactic fight with Hannibal, the Roman dictatorship is profoundly misunderstood. Perplexed by the idea of the Roman Republic—a state born out of the rejection of the preeminence of any one man—nonetheless investing the power of the state in a single unelected individual, and reacting to the anomalous first-century BCE dictatorships of Sulla and Caesar, both late-Republic historians and modern scholars have consistently described the office in ominous and fundamentally mythological terms that are largely contradicted by the remembered actions of actual dictators. This study has collated stories and records from various ancient sources, including Polybius, Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and others, into a narrative of 85 pre-Zama dictatorships held by 67 men from a broad range of families and experience and acting to resolve a variety of emergent problems both civil and military. This narrative has furnished insights into how the dictatorship was used and the role that it played in the Romans’ conception of their state. The emerging picture of the archaic Roman dictatorship is of an office that was both rigidly conditioned by an iteratively reinforced body of precedents and, at the same time, flexible enough to adapt to the constantly developing needs of the Republic. On the one hand, the mechanics were fixed at inception and did not change: Rome called for a dictator in reaction to some emergency for which the current magistrates were insufficient; the consuls had both the prerogative and the duty to choose that man who would best resolve the problem at hand and who would act on behalf of all of Rome; the dictator so named, after choosing a junior colleague called the magister equitum, did what was necessary to resolve the need that had created him, after which he resigned immediately, restoring Rome to stability and normality at the earliest possible moment by eliminating the dictatorship along with the crisis that spawned it. Iron precedent bound the consul to choose the needed man and the dictator to cleave his actions solely to the mandate originating in Rome’s call for a dictator and resign on resolution, effectively confining and directing the powers vested in him. On the other hand, the dictatorship, itself a demonstration of Rome’s adaptability by providing early on a second, emergency system to fix what the normal state could not, also adroitly changed as Rome did: new, single-task variations emerged as the Republic reshaped itself in the fourth century, and later it freed consuls to go to war in the third while remaining robust enough to serve as a critical tool in the war with Hannibal. Far from being the all-powerful office depicted in the mythology, however, the dictatorship was tethered both by its imperative to restore ordinary government as swiftly as possible and by its origins in the protection of all Romans; it was therefore superseded by the proliferation of promagistracies, which had no imperative to remove themselves nor to abjure faction, and by the advancing preeminence of the senate, which increasingly sought to safeguard Rome’s traditions and greatness while primarily representing the needs of the conservative elite. Nonetheless, for three centuries of routine operation the dictatorship functioned as an ingenious and highly effective means by which the Republic was able to transcend even those crises, both domestic and military, that it was otherwise unprepared for.