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The Dictator's Trust: Regulating and Constraining Emergency Powers in the Roman Republic

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Abstract

This article seeks to explain how it was possible that, until the first century BC, the Roman dictatorship was never abused and turned against the constitution itself. The traditional explanation is that, contrary to its first century imitations, the dictatorship was subject to formal restrictions, such as the six months' tenure, which were strictly applied. By contrast, this article suggests that informal constraints on the dictator's powers, such as moral and religious norms, were as important as formal constraints. It shows, more particularly, how the fides, or the requirement of trust, was essential for preventing an abuse of dictatorial powers.
THE DICTATOR’S TRUST:
REGULATING AND CONSTRAINING EMERGENCY POWERS
IN THE ROMAN REPUBLIC
Marc de Wilde1
Abstract: This article seeks to explain how it was possible that, until the first century
BC, the Roman dictatorship was never abused and turned against the constitution
itself. The traditional explanation is that, contrary to its first century imitations, the
dictatorship was subject to formal restrictions, such as the six months’ tenure, which
were strictly applied. By contrast, this article suggests that informal constraints on the
dictator’s powers, such as moral and religious norms, were as important as formal con-
straints. It shows, more particularly, how the fides, or the requirement of trust, was
essential for preventing an abuse of dictatorial powers.
Keywords: Roman Republic, dictatorship, emergency powers, formal and
informal constraints, fides, trust, fidelity to the constitution.
Introduction
One of the oldest and most influential examples of emergency government is
the Roman dictatorship. In times of crisis, when the Roman Republic was
threatened by war or civil strife, a dictator was appointed with extensive
emergency powers. His task was to protect the Republic, and, for this pur-
pose, he was authorized to take all the necessary measures. He could levy
troops, conduct military campaigns and prosecute those who threatened the
state. Although the dictator’s powers were exceptional and far-reaching, they
were not unlimited. Instead, the authority to use them as well as the way they
were used were regulated by law.2This does not seem to have prevented the
dictatorship from being effective. In fact, the Roman dictatorship has been
called ‘perhaps the most strikingly successful of all known systems of emer-
gency government’.3Indeed, until the Second Punic War, the dictatorship
HISTORY OF POLITICAL THOUGHT. Vol. XXXIII. No. 4. Winter 2012
1Faculteit der Rechtsgeleerdheid, Afdeling Algemene Rechtsleer, Universiteit
van Amsterdam, Postbus 1030, 1000 BA Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Email:
M.deWilde@uva.nl
2As Andrew Lintott points out, the dictatorship was regulated not primarily by stat-
ute, but by legal custom and casuistry. A. Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman
Republic (Oxford, 2009), p. 112. Cf. also M.E. Hartfield, The Roman Dictatorship: Its
Character and its Evolution (Berkeley, 1982), p. 124: ‘Mos not lex restrained the dicta-
tor’s performance’.
3F.M. Watkins, ‘The Problem of Constitutional Dictatorship’, Public Policy,1
(1940), p. 332.
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appears to have been essential for the Republic’s survival over centuries of
warfare and near constant social conflict.4
However, we should take care at the outset to distinguish the traditional
republican dictatorship from its namesakes in the first century BC. The dicta-
torships of the Early and Middle Republic were subject to several formal
restrictions. The most important of these was the limited term of the office; a
dictator was thus appointed for a maximum of six months. In the three hun-
dred years between the first recorded dictatorship of T. Larcius Flavus, in
501 BC, and the last of C. Servilius, in 202 BC, ninety-four dictators were
appointed, and only rarely does a dictator appear to have overstayed his term.
By contrast, when Sulla revived the dictatorship in 82 BC, after it had been
dormant for 120 years, temporal limitations were abandoned and he was
assigned the grand task ‘to write the laws and to restore a constitution to the
state [legibus scribendis et rei publicae constituendae causa]’, a task unprece-
dented in the history of the Roman dictatorship. This led Theodor Mommsen
to conclude that ‘the Sullan dictatorship ha[d] nothing in common with the
older [dictatorships] apart from the name and several outward appearances’.5
Throughout the ages, there has been a remarkable agreement on what
caused the older Roman dictatorship’s success and what set it apart from the
Sulla and Caesar dictatorships. It was thus emphasized that, contrary to its
first-century imitations, the traditional dictatorship was essentially a constitu-
tional institution, subject to formal limitations that were strictly applied.
Thus, from Machiavelli and Rousseau to modern theorists such as Carl
556 M. de WILDE
4For instance, it was a dictator who succeeded in stopping Hannibal after his army
had destroyed the Roman legions at Lake Trasimene, and it was a dictator, too, who
helped to bring the Licinian-Sextian controversy, which had dangerously opposed patri-
cians and plebeians, to an end. Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita, trans. B.O. Foster (Cam-
bridge, MA, 1967), bk 22, ch. 31; Plutarch, ‘Camillus’, in Lives, Vol. 2, trans. B. Perrin
(London, 1914), ch. 42, §§3–4 and ‘Fabius Maximus’, in ibid., Vol. 3, ch. 12, §§3–4.
5T. Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht (Graz, 1952), Vol. 2, p. 170. Mommsen’s
claim has been contested by Ulrich von Wilcken. Wilcken argues that Sulla’s dictator-
ship has more in common with the earlier republican dictatorships. He notices five simi-
larities: Sulla maintained the formal procedure of appointment (though, unlike the tradi-
tional dictio by a consul, Sulla had been appointed by popular decree), he emphasized the
duty of abdication (although he remained in office longer than six months), he appointed
a master of the horse and kept twenty-four lictors in accordance with tradition and,
finally, he claimed imperium maius, which had traditionally been the foundation of dic-
tatorial power, although it had been significantly limited over time. However, even
Wilcken concedes that there is at least one essential difference between Sulla’s dictator-
ship and its predecessors’: ‘what sets his dictatorship apart from the earlier ones, is its
entirely different, all-embracing special competence legibus scribendis et rei publicae
constituendae by which he is placed above the existing constitution’. U. von Wilcken,
Zur Entwicklung der römischen Diktatur (Berlin, 1940), pp. 11 and 12. On the compari-
son between the Sulla dictatorship and its predecessors, cf. also C. Nicolet, ‘Dictatorship
in Rome’, in Dictatorship in History and Theory: Bonapartism, Caesarism, and Totali-
tarianism, ed. P. Baehr and M. Richter (Cambridge, 2004), p. 270.
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THE DICTATOR’S TRUST 557
Schmitt and Clinton Rossiter, the idea was advanced that the Roman dictator
could do almost anything except change the republican constitution itself.6
However, as Nomi Claire Lazar recently argued, the idea that the dictator
could not alter the constitution does not find confirmation in the sources.7By
contrast, the sources suggest that several dictators proposed laws that some-
times altered the constitution in quite significant ways.8Moreover, formal
restrictions on the dictator’s powers, such as the six months’ tenure, were not
always strictly observed. Instead, the Romans seem to have adopted a more
flexible approach to these limitations, allowing for exceptions — for instance,
extended tenure beyond six months — if circumstances required it.
The traditional view that the strict observation of formal limitations explains
why the dictatorship was never abused is thus not quite convincing. Instead,
Lazar proposes another explanation: more important than these formal
restrictions were informal constraints that heavily favoured good behaviour
on the part of dictators.9These informal constraints included peer pressure,
political incentives, and moral and religious responsibilities. For instance,
dictators were likely to hold other positions after their dictatorship ended, and
they therefore had great interest in acquiring the political support of the senate
and the Roman people. Moreover, the dictatorship was believed to have a
‘sacred aura’ — from 363 BC onwards, dictators were appointed for explicitly
religious tasks — and religious norms and responsibilities appear to have con-
strained the dictator’s powers as well. Therefore, Lazar suggests that the
Roman dictatorship’s remarkable success cannot be explained by its formal
limitations only, but should be explained, instead, by the particular combina-
tion of formal and informal constraints.
Although Lazar is right to emphasize the importance of informal con-
straints on the dictator’s powers, she does not analyse how these functioned in
practice. Nor does she explain which informal constraints, or combination of
constraints, proved most effective. In this article, I argue that one constraint in
particular, the requirement of fides or trust, was important for regulating and
constraining the dictator’s powers. The role the fides has played in preventing
an abuse of dictatorial powers has not yet been researched. However, I believe
it was crucial, because it required dictators to exercise their powers with mod-
eration and restraint, and to demonstrate their fidelity to republican institu-
tions. Moreover, it was the fides, which justified a more flexible approach to
6Cf. N. Machiavelli, Discourses, Book 1, §§34–5; J.-J. Rousseau, Du Contrat Social
(Paris, 2001), Bk 4, ch. 6, §4; C. Schmitt, Die Diktatur (Berlin, 1994), p. 3; Rossiter, Con-
stitutional Dictatorship, pp. 24–5. For a contemporary version of this argument, cf.
J. Ferejohn and P. Pasquino, ‘The Law of the Exception: A Typology of Emergency
Powers’, International Journal of Constitutional Law, 2 (2) (2004), p. 212.
7Nomi Claire Lazar, States of Emergency in Liberal Democracies (Cambridge,
2009), p. 121.
8Cf. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 4.24.4–7 and 6.42.10–11.
9Lazar, States of Emergency, p. 128.
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formal limitations, allowing for deviations as long as the dictator remained
faithful to the constitution itself. Thus, a dictator was sometimes allowed to
remain in office for longer than six months, but only if his task required it and
if he acted in good faith. In sum, I argue that an analysis of the fides may con-
tribute to explaining how the Roman dictatorship could develop into an insti-
tution that was both well-regulated and flexible, and thus highly effective.
Before analysing the Roman dictatorship in more detail, a cautionary
remark must be made. Although quite a large amount of sources on the
Roman dictatorship is available,10 their historical reliability is limited. No
sources contemporary to the Roman dictatorships before the second century
have survived. Instead, we must rely on late republican and imperial sources
that show important gaps of knowledge and interpolations, often using late
Roman terminology, literary and narrative tropes that distort the original
meanings. In this article, I will focus more particularly on Livy’s Ab Urbe
Condita, which contains the most complete description of early republican
dictatorships. We must keep in mind, though, that Livy’s intention was not
primarily to give an accurate historical description of these dictatorships, but
to illustrate a system of values. He thus tends to present these dictatorships as
exempla, edifying or didactic examples.11 Such sources tell us more about late
republican values than about the early constitutional practices which they
claim to describe. However, if we discarded these sources as historically unre-
liable, we would be left with little at all. Therefore, instead of discarding
them, I will regard them as evidence of how the ancient writers themselves,
albeit several centuries removed from the events they described, understood
and explained the dictatorship.12
Formal Constraints on the Dictator’s Power
Although the dictatorship was considered part of the republic’s constitution, it
was an exceptional institution in several respects. Under the constitution,
magistrates were, as a rule, elected by the citizenry of Rome. Contrary to this
principle, a dictator was not elected, but appointed. He was appointed by any
one of the consuls after the senate had decided that a dictator was required.
There was no check on the consul’s decision to name a dictator; it could not be
vetoed by his colleague or by the tribunes. However, a consul could not
appoint himself, and only rarely was a magistrate in office appointed. As the
nomination to the dictatorship was considered among the highest honours the
republic could bestow on a man, those selected for the office were invariably
well-known and prominent citizens who had demonstrated their ability and
trustworthiness. They were often of senatorial rank and, after 320 BC,had
558 M. de WILDE
10 These sources include the Fasti Capitolini, Livy, Cicero, Plutarch, Dionysius of
Halicarnassus, Appian, Cassius Dio, Festus, Zonaras and the Digests.
11 R.M. Ogilvie, A Commentary on Livy: Books 1–5 (Oxford, 1965), p. 686.
12 Cf. Hartfield, Roman Dictatorship, pp. 8–9.
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THE DICTATOR’S TRUST 559
invariably held consular office.13 If successful, a man could be appointed a
dictator more than once; M. Furius Camillus, for instance, is believed to have
served as a dictator on no less than five occasions, although the authenticity of
some of these dictatorships is contested.14 However, a dictator could not pro-
long his own term, nor could he himself appoint another dictator in his place.
There were two main categories of dictatorship, the dictatura rei gerundae
causa (rgc) (literally, the ‘dictatorship for getting things done’) and the
dictatura seditionis sedandae causa (ssc) (the ‘dictatorship for suppressing
civil insurrection’). The dictatorship rgc was predominantly a military dicta-
torship: the dictator was appointed for the specific task of saving the republic
from military defeat at the hands of its enemies. The dictatorship ssc was also
military, but it was directed against the threat of civil war and insurrection: in
this case, the dictator’s task was to prevent one of the parties from taking
power in the republic.15 Out of the ninety-four dictatorships that have been
recorded in the republic’s history, approximately fifty were rei gerundae
causa and at least four were seditionis sedandae causa. However, not all dic-
tatorships had a military nature. In 363 BC, a dictator was appointed ‘for driv-
inginthenail[clavi figendi causa]’, an ancient religious ceremony meant to
appease the gods and to free the city of Rome from the ravages of pestilence.
From this time on, the dictatorship was frequently employed for other than
military purposes, for instance, for overseeing elections in the absence or
incapacity of ordinary magistrates, for conducting religious festivals, for
holding public games, or even for increasing the number of senators.16
Unlike the other magistracies, the dictatorship was not subject to the princi-
ple of collegiality. There was only one dictator. Although he had a deputy
with similarly extensive emergency powers, the master of the horse, he was
not responsible to him or to any other collegial official. No magistrate, and in
the early years of the office, not even the tribunes, could veto his decisions.
13 Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship,p.21.
14 Cf. F. Bandel, Die römischen Diktaturen (Napels, 1987), pp. 34–5 and 47.
15 It has been suggested that the dictatorship seditionis sedandae causa was devel-
oped as a political weapon in the hands of the patricians, which enabled them to quell ple-
beian agitation, and there are, indeed, several examples of dictatorships which were
deployed for this purpose. For instance, Livy tells us that M. Valerius was appointed dic-
tator rgc et ssc in 494 BC to eliminate plebeian resistance against a levy; contrary to the
consuls, a dictator could impose an enforced draft and was not subject to the provocatio
law. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 2.29.11–2.30.5. However, there are also examples in which
the dictatorship was used to keep civil peace, sometimes contributing to plebeian eman-
cipation. For instance, Publius Manlius, who was appointed dictator rgc et ssc in 368 BC,
is said to have appointed a plebian as his master of the horse and to have proposed, in
spite of patrician protest, a law limiting possession of public land to 500 iugera. Plutarch,
‘Camillus’, 39.5. Cf. Hartfield, Roman Dictatorship, pp. 57 and 276.
16 Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, pp. 156–7. Cf. W. Kunkel, Staatsordnung
und Staatspraxis der römischen Republik. Zweiter Abschnitt: Die Magistratur, ed.
H. Galsterer, Chr. Meier and R. Wittmann (Munich, 1995), pp. 685–99.
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Nor were the dictator’s decisions subject to the provocatio ad populum,the
right of appeal from serious sentences to the popular assemblies. Even the
advisory role of the senate was decreased. Finally, the dictator was legally
immune for his actions; he could not be legally prosecuted for violating the
law once he had laid down his office.17 This led Theodor Mommsen to con-
clude that there were few differences between the dictatorship and the archaic
kingship, apart from the fact that the former was limited in time and not a
hereditary office.18 Because of the immense concentration of power in the dic-
tator, the Romans themselves appear to have considered the dictatorship an
anomaly within the republican constitution. Perhaps this explains why the
dictator’s decisions were brought under the tribunes’ veto by 363 BC,andsub
-
jected to the provocatio ad populum by 300 BC.19
Apart from these later restrictions, there were several formal constraints on
the dictator’s power. The most important was the limited term of the office.
The dictator was thus expected to lay down his powers as soon as he had
fulfilled his task. To prevent the impression that he sought unconstitutional
power, a dictator considered it his duty and honour to abdicate as quickly as
possible. Apart from this, there were two temporal limitations, one absolute,
in that the extraordinary powers were given for a maximum of six months, the
other relative, in that the dictatorship could not exceed the term of office of the
magistrate — usually a consul — by whom the dictator had been appointed.20
The six-months’ tenure is explained by the military origin of the dictatorship:
the dictator was originally an army-commander, and the season for military
560 M. de WILDE
17 Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship, p. 25. Andrew Lintott refers to an unspeci-
fied example of a dictator who was prosecuted after leaving office, which, he suggests,
may be regarded as illustrating a general principle, i.e. that a dictator was not actually
immune, but that it was uncommon to prosecute him. Lintott, Constitution of the Roman
Republic, pp. 111–12. The example to which Lintott refers and which he does not speci-
fy, might relate to the case of Gaius Maenius, who was appointed dictator rgc in 314 BC.
According to Livy, Maenius was accused of overstepping the constitutional limits of his
powers by conducting an investigation into possible involvement of Roman nobles in a
foreign conspiracy. Maenius is said to have voluntarily resigned from his dictatorship to
be able to defend himself in court as a private man. This example suggests that a dictator,
once he had resigned, could indeed be legally prosecuted for an abuse of his powers.
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 9.26.18.
18 Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, p. 162.
19 Lazar, States of Emergency, p. 128. However, Kunkel believes it is more probable
that the dictator was brought under the provocatio laws later, after the social struggles of
the fourth century ended, that is, after 287 BC. Kunkel, Staatsordnung, p. 673.
20 Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, p. 160. Wolfgang Kunkel doubts the authen-
ticity of the second restriction, citing two examples of dictators who remained in office
longer than the consuls by whom they had been appointed. Kunkel, Staatsordnung,p.12
n. 34. Lintott expresses similar doubts, arguing that the very example to which Mommsen
refers suggests that the dictator overstayed the term of the appointing consuls. Lintott,
Constitution of the Roman Republic, pp. 110–11.
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THE DICTATOR’S TRUST 561
campaigns lasted no longer than the full summer.21 It is remarkable that
these temporal restrictions were rarely violated. Out of the ninety-four proper
dictatorships that have been recorded in the history of the republic, only six
appear to have exceeded the six-month term of the office, and in those cases
the transgression does not seem to have been controversial.22
Another constraint on the dictator’s power was implied by the nature of his
office: his task was to protect the Republic, and this implied that he could not
take any measures that subverted the existing constitution.23 However, this
did not mean that he was prohibited from taking measures intended to make
the constitution more defensible. In fact, there are several examples of dicta-
tors who proposed legislation to reform the constitution.24 Yet, in these cases,
the existing constitution was altered to prevent civil unrest and thus to protect
republican institutions. Another limitation of the dictator’s power was the
constitutional requirement that the senate approve any withdrawal from the
public treasury, which was not suspended even in times of emergency. There-
fore, the dictator remained dependent on the senate’s consent in financial
matters. Furthermore, the dictator’s task being to defend the republic, he was
prohibited from starting offensive wars. Instead, the people kept their con-
stitutional right to decide about war and peace. Finally, the dictator had
jurisdiction only in criminal cases; he does not appear to have acquired civil
jurisdiction.25
Together, these formal constraints may be considered significant limita-
tions of the dictatorship. However, it is doubtful whether they sufficed to pre-
vent an abuse of dictatorial powers. For one thing, it was left to the dictator’s
discretion to decide how he used his powers — and these powers were
immense, including, for instance, full military authority and the power over
life and death — as long as he did not violate their constitutional boundaries.
More importantly, dictators were sometimes allowed to ignore the formal
limitations to their powers if this was necessary to successfully complete their
task. In other words: formal limitations were not absolute, but applied with a
21 Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, p. 161.
22 Dictatorships that exceeded the six months’ term appear to have occurred in 333,
324, 316, 315, 309 and 301 BC. These dictatorships are discussed in more detail in the
final section of this article.
23 Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship, p. 24. Cf. also O. Gross and F. Ní Aoláin,
Law in Times of Crisis: Emergency Powers in Theory and Practice (Cambridge, 2006),
p. 18.
24 In 434 BC, for instance, M. Aemilius Mamercinus, appointed dictator to suppress
an Etruscan revolt, proposed a law for shortening the duration of the censorship, which
was approved by the popular comitia. In 367 BC, M. Furius Camillus proposed a law that
one of the consulships could be held by a plebeian. Apparently, by passing these laws,
both dictators sought to gain popular support. Cf. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 4.24.4–7 and
6.42.10–11.
25 Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship,p.24.
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certain flexibility. This is true of temporal limitations, as is suggested by the
fact that dictators were sometimes allowed to remain in office longer than six
months. It is, thus, not obvious that formal constraints explain why, until the
first century BC, the dictatorship was never abused and turned against the con-
stitution itself. To explain this, we need to take into account other factors as
well, such as informal constraints. In the next section, I will consider some of
these informal constraints and, more particularly, the requirement of fides or
trust.
Informal Constraints: The Dictator’s Fides
There is a tendency in the literature to focus on formal constraints on the dic-
tator’s powers.26 However, informal constraints were of equal, if not greater,
importance. As Lazar has pointed out, the dictatorship was rarely the last post
in someone’s political career, and there were thus strong political incentives
to display a sincere commitment to the Republic’s constitutional values.27 The
reliance on popular support and the senate’s approval appear to have con-
strained the dictator’s power as well. Although the dictator was allowed to
operate more independently from the senate in times of crisis, the senate’s
‘advice’ was rarely disregarded.28 Nor was the public opinion ignored, and in
some cases, the threat of civil unrest seems to have deterred the dictator from
using his powers, causing him to show restraint instead. Thus, senatorial and
popular support appear to have been crucial for achieving political or military
aims and, as Lazar observes, ‘this functioned as an informal means of
enabling a dictator to engage in circumscribed activities and also of constrain-
ing him from engaging in certain others’.29
Apart from these political limitations, there were significant religious and
moral constraints on the dictator’s powers. Thus, the ‘religious aura of the
office’30 seems to have contributed to preventing an abuse of dictatorial pow-
ers, in that the exercise of these powers was believed to be witnessed by the
gods. The appointment of a dictator was accompanied by certain religious rit-
562 M. de WILDE
26 For instance, Mommsen, Römische Diktatur, pp. 157–61; Nicolet, ‘Dictatorship in
Rome’, pp. 265–6; Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship, pp. 23–4.
27 Lazar, States of Emergency, pp. 128–9.
28 Analysing the case of Gaius Maenius, who was appointed dictator in 314 (Livy, Ab
Urbe Condita, 9.26.5–22), Marianne Hartfield emphasizes the importance of peer pres-
sure on the dictator’s powers: ‘That so few dictators exercised their initiative in the face
of senatorial opposition is due no doubt as much to observation of mos as to the fact that
each dictator was also part of the senatorial order. When Maenius challenged the senate
with his dictatorial powers his political career ended. Few would forget that.’ Hartfield,
Roman Dictatorship, p. 123.
29 Lazar, States of Emergency, p. 127.
30 Hartfield, Roman Dictatorship, p. 169.
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THE DICTATOR’S TRUST 563
uals, which, the sources suggest, were scrupulously observed.31 Thus, the dic-
tator was appointed oriens de nocte silentio; he had to rise before daybreak
and was invested with the dictatorship in the silence of night.32 Any smallest
disturbance of this nocturnal silence would make the appointment invalid. In
that case, the augurs would declare the dictator vitio creatus, which meant that
he had to abdicate at once.33 These rituals may have contributed to the idea
that the dictatorship was a sacred office, and that the dictator’s powers were
not unlimited, but dependent on religious duties and responsibilities. Rossiter
even suggests that the dictatorship’s ‘sacred aura’ explains how it was possible
that never in the three-hundred years of its existence, the dictatorship was
abused and turned against the constitution itself.34
Moral constraints on the dictator’s powers were transmitted in stories that
were quoted again and again. The stories served to promote a public ethos to
which many a dictator must have felt bound, if not positively attracted.
Among the best-known was the story of L. Quinctius Cincinnatus, an aged
Roman farmer, who was given dictatorial powers in 458 BC to save Rome
from foreign invasion, and who defeated the enemy in a mere sixteen days,
after which he laid down his powers and returned to his plow.35 The story of
Cincinnatus’s commitment to the republic and his willingness to give up his
powers as soon as he had fulfilled his task was intended to illustrate the ethical
qualities that were expected of a dictator: he was expected to be virtuous and
trustworthy, committed to the safety of Rome and the preservation of its
republican institutions. This implied, among other things, that he did not seek
personal advantage and that he was prepared to sacrifice his own private inter-
ests for the public good. It also meant that he showed lenity towards the
enemy and restraint in the exercise of his powers. Cincinnatus is thus said to
have spared the lives of his captives, who were but embarrassed by being sent
under the yoke, after which they were released unharmed.36
The virtues Cincinnatus displayed as a dictator — the fidelity to republican
institutions, the willingness to make his own private interests subservient to
the public good, the commitment to protect those dependent on his power —
were all part of his fides or trust. In the late Roman Republic, the fides was
considered a fundamental norm and general standard of behaviour for magis-
trates, incorporating the expectation that they exercised their power in good
31 Cf. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 8.23.13–16.
32 Kunkel, Staatsordnung, p. 669.
33 Quintus Fabius Maximus, for instance, had to abdicate because of the squeaking of
a mouse. Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia [Memorable Doings and Say-
ings], trans. D.R. Shackleton Bailey (Cambridge, MA, 2000), Bk 1, ch. 1, para. 5. For
other examples, cf. Kunkel, Staatsordnung, p. 669.
34 Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship,p.24.
35 Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.26–8.
36 Ibid., 3.28.10–11.
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faith, not to pursue their own interests, but to promote the public good. As
Cicero suggested, state power was not to be considered a private privilege, but
was committed to the magistrate as a trust, a sacred trust, which required him
to exercise his power as he sincerely believed it to contribute to the public
good.37 The fides had several meanings; depending on the context in which it
was used, it referred to trust, confidence, trustworthiness, loyalty, or fidelity
to one’s word.38 Yet, it was essentially an open norm, a basic principle, which
could not be fixed in any definition. Its content depended on the norms in
force, past exempla, justified expectations, given promises, and the circum-
stances at hand.39 It was reaffirmed in exempla of those who had testified to an
extraordinary trust, like Cincinnatus, or who had acted in flat contradiction to
its requirements.
The fides appears to have contributed decisively to preventing an abuse of
dictatorial powers, not only because it set moral limits to these powers, requir-
ing, for instance, that a dictator showed lenity and restraint, but also because it
encouraged him to remain faithful to the republican constitution. Thus, the
dictator’s quick abdication before the six months’ term expired was consid-
ered a demonstration of his trustworthiness and fidelity to republican values.
Conversely, the granting of dictatorial powers was perceived as a sign of the
Roman people’s confidence that the dictator could indeed be trusted. Thus, I
believe it is no coincidence that the example of fides that was probably cited
most often in Antiquity,40 i.e. Camillus’s display of trust during the siege of
Falerii,41 was also the prelude to an exceptional five dictatorships granted to
him: he was entrusted with such immense powers on so many occasions,
because he had proved his trustworthiness while conquering the Faliscans.42
In sum, the granting of dictatorial powers was governed by a trust-relation
between the dictator and the Roman people. More than any formal restric-
tions, this trust-relation appears to have constrained the dictator in the exer-
cise of his powers.43
564 M. de WILDE
37 Cf. Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis [On Duties], trans. W. Miller (Cambridge,
MA, 2005), Bk I, para. 124.
38 G. Freyburger, Fides: Étude sémantique et religieuse depuis les origines jusqu’à
l’époque augustéenne (Paris, 1986), p. 16.
39 D. Nörr, Die Fides im römischen Völkerrecht (Heidelberg, 1991), p. 21.
40 Cf. the inventory of sources in Ogilvie, Commentary on Livy, p. 685.
41 Cf. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 5.27.1–15.
42 This is also suggested by the fact that, in 389 BC, the senate appears to have encour-
aged Camillus to keep his dictatorship beyond the maximum term of six months (cf.
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 6.1.4, cf. Kunkel, Staatsordnung, p. 671). This extension of the
dictator’s tenure, though formally prohibited, seems to have been uncontroversial, as
Camillus had proved to be trustworthy in prior years.
43 Interestingly, Plutarch emphasizes that Camillus acquired his fourth dictatorship
against the wishes of the Roman people. After sustained resistance of the popular trib-
unes, Camillus abdicated. Plutarch suggests that he resigned because he either feared a
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THE DICTATOR’S TRUST 565
In the next two sections, I intend to analyse in more detail the ways in which
the fides regulated and constrained dictatorial powers. I will do so by examin-
ing two cases, of a dictator who acted in accordance with his trust and one who
failed to do so. I will then continue by examining how the fides affected for-
mal constraints on the dictator’s powers, making these both more flexible and
effective. In doing so, I will focus on the six months’ term as the most impor-
tant formal restriction on the dictatorship.
Two Case Studies: Corvus’s Trust and Papirius’s Distrust
Livy mentions several examples of dictators who believed themselves bound
by their trust. One is particularly interesting as it shows important parallels
with the story of Camillus and the Faliscans. In 342 BC, the Roman senate
agreed to dispatch military forces to Campania to protect it from inroads by
the Samnites. However, contrary to its task, the Roman garrison at Capua
conspired to take the city away from the Campanians. The conspiracy
was discovered, and the soldiers were discharged from the army. However,
instead of laying down their weapons, they formed an army of their own, and
forced Titus Quinctius, a retired general, to lead them to Rome. The consuls
responded by appointing Marcus Valerius Corvus dictator to oppose the
revolting army.
When both armies met outside Rome, the soldiers at once recognized each
other and were reminded of the many battles they had fought together. The
dictator came forward to parley and was received with much respect. In a
speech, he explained to the revolting soldiers that as a former tribune and con-
sul, he had never abused his powers. He announced that he would administer
his dictatorship in that same spirit: ‘so that I shall be no gentler to these my
soldiers and the soldiers of my country, than to you — I shudder to say the
word — our enemies. You shall therefore sooner draw the sword on me than I
on you.’44 Impressed by Corvus’s words, Titus Quinctius thereupon urged his
soldiers to lay down their arms, and to commit themselves and their cause to
the dictator, ‘a man of known fidelity [cognitae fidei]’. Turning to Corvus, he
begged him to protect and promote the soldiers’ cause ‘with the same fidelity
[eadem fide] with which he had been used to deal with the interests of the
state’.45 For himself, he demanded no assurance. Having thus restored the
revolting soldiers to their country without bloodshed, the dictator returned to
Rome, where he got the people to enact a law that none of the soldiers would
be held accountable for their secession.
The story of Marcus Corvus and the revolting army is important, because it
shows how the fides functioned as a constraint on the dictator’s power. In his
(second) condemnation to exile, or because he could not, and did not want, to prevail
over the power of the people. Plutarch, ‘Camillus’, 39.4.
44 Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 7.40.9.
45 Ibid., 7.41.1.
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speech, the dictator himself stresses that his dictatorial power is dreadful, but
that he is willing to administer it in good faith. By announcing that he will be
gentle on the enemy, he refers to one of the fides’s moral connotations, i.e. the
requirement of lenity.46 He suggests that the fides obliges him to protect the
enemy and to refrain from harsh punishment once they have surrendered to
his authority.47 By emphasizing the risk he takes in being lenient, Corvus
articulates another moral connotation of the fides, i.e. the willingness to trust
the other without proof of his trustworthiness.48 He thus says to expect the
enemy to draw their swords on him sooner than he himself will draw his
sword on them. An important parallel with the story of Camillus and the
Faliscans is that Corvus, just like Camillus, is believed to have conquered the
enemy not by force, but by his trust only.49 By pointing out that he never
abused his power as a tribune and consul, and by announcing that he will not
do so as a dictator, Corvus convinces the enemy that he is trustworthy, and
that they can commit themselves and their cause to his trust. In turn, the
general of the revolting army, Titus Quinctus, who appears to be loosely
modelled after his famous ancestor Cincinnatus,50 asks no guarantees for him-
self, thereby emphasizing his trust in the dictator. He explicitly characterizes
the dictator as a ‘man of known fidelity’ and asks him to promote the soldiers’
cause with ‘the same fidelity’ with which he had used his powers as a regular
magistrate. That the dictator does indeed believe himself to be bound by this
trust is illustrated by the fact that, upon his return to Rome, while no necessity
566 M. de WILDE
46 In a different context, John Barry explains Caesar’s lenitas as part of his fides. Cf.
J.M. Barry, Fides in Julius Caesar’s Bellum Civile: A Study in Roman Political Ideology
at the Close of the Republican Era (dissertation, University of Maryland, 2005), pp.
299–305.
47 This is probably a reference to the deditio in fidem. According to the standard for-
mula used in legal texts, the enemy surrendered ‘into the trust and power of the Roman
people [in fidem et dicionem populi Romani]’. Nörr, Die Fides, pp. 12 and 21.
48 For other examples of this aspect of the fides (the willingness to trust the other), cf.
Valerius Maximus, Facta, 6.6.2 and 4.
49 According to Livy, Camillus defeated the Faliscans not by military force but by
acting in accordance with his trust, because he had refused to take their children as hos-
tages when he had the opportunity to do so (a teacher to whom the Faliscans had
entrusted their children had betrayed them and offered the children as hostages to
Camillus). Camillus had thereby gained the trust of the Faliscans, who decided to surren-
der their city. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 5.27.13 and 5.28.1.
50 Cf. S.P. Oakley, A Commentary on Livy, Books 6–10 (Oxford, 1998), Vol. 2,
p. 363. Like Cincinnatus, Titus Quinctius is described as a famous general who has
turned his back on war and politics and has retired to his farm. However, unlike
Cincinnatus, who is caught by representatives of the state while at work on his land, Titus
Quinctius is approached by the soldiers in the middle of the night, caught sound asleep in
his farmhouse. Instead of being hailed a dictator, he is threatened into becoming a rene-
gade general against his will.
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THE DICTATOR’S TRUST 567
requires it, he proposes a law that the revolting soldiers will not be punished
for their secession.
While the story of Corvus’s trust serves to illustrate how the fides con-
strains the dictator’s powers, Livy elsewhere presents us with the story of a
dictator who fails to live up to his trust, thereby jeopardizing the public good.
Thus, in book eight, Livy describes the fate of Lucius Papirius Cursor, who
was appointed dictator rgc in 325 BC to wage war against the Samnites and
Vestini. During the military campaign into Samnium, the auspices proved
ambiguous. The dictator, therefore, decided to return to Rome to consult the
priests and to take the auspices afresh. Before leaving, he instructed his mas-
ter of the horse, Quintus Fabius, to refrain from any military actions as long as
he had not returned. However, seeing a military opportunity, Quintus Fabius
decided to ignore the dictator’s express orders and engage in battle with the
Samnites. He fought the enemy twice and won a brilliant victory. Upon
receiving the news of his deputy’s victory, the dictator was furious; he
exclaimed that by ignoring his orders, the master of the horse had ‘defeated
and overthrown the prestige of the dictatorship not less decisively than the
Samnite legions’.51 Quintus Fabius thereupon sought protection against the
dictator’s fury with his troops, ‘committing himself, his life, and his fortunes
to their loyalty and valour [illorum fidei virtutique permittere]’.52 This, how-
ever, did not prevent the dictator from calling his master of the horse to
account and ordering the lictors to prepare for his punishment. At night,
Quintus Fabius succeeded in slipping out of the camp and fleeing to Rome.
Back in Rome, Quintus Fabius’s father, a former consul and dictator,
assisted him in convening the senate, which decided that the issue should be
brought before a popular assembly.53 In a speech before that assembly, the
elder Fabius protested against the dictator’s cruelty, arguing that he, too,
had been a dictator, and that, in spite of his immense powers, no man
had ever been abused by him. Invoking the examples of both Cincinnatus
and Camillus, he emphasized the difference between the moderation of the
ancients and the ‘new-fangled arrogance and ruthlessness’.54 In turn, Papirius
pointed out that a dictator’s edict had always been revered as the will of
heaven itself, and warned that if Quintus Fabius was not punished, military
discipline and the authority of the dictatorship would be overturned. The issue
was decided when the tribunes and the people turned as one man to the dicta-
tor, urging him to remit for their sake the punishment of his master of the
51 Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 8.30.11.
52 Ibid., 8.31.9.
53 Livy suggests that Quintus Fabius’s father exercises the right of provocatio (which
in this case he does in the name of his son, on the basis of his patria potestas) and simulta-
neously appeals to the tribunes for legal and physical help (intercessio) in response to
Papirius’s coercion (8.33.7–8).
54 Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 8.33.13.
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horse. The dictator then yielded, declaring that Quintus Fabius was free to go,
even though he was not free of guilt and the tribunes who pleaded his defence
could not bring him legal relief.55 Livy ends his narrative by suggesting that
Papirius’s decision to spare the life of Quintus Fabius was no less efficacious
in restoring military authority than his death could have been.
The story of the dictator Papirius and his master of the horse is significant
for several reasons. First, the rhetorical force of the story depends to a large
extent on the contrast between the dictator’s rage and dreadful power, and the
necessity to make it subservient to the public good. The dictator has every rea-
son to take the life of his disobedient master of the horse, yet he refrains from
doing so, because his own lieutenants, a host of magistrates, and the people
themselves believe it is not in the interest of the state. After hearing the popu-
lar assembly, the dictator finally gives way to their protests. However, even
then, he emphasizes that he is not bound by law to spare the life of Quintus
Fabius; instead, he points out that those who pleaded his defence, i.e. the trib-
unes, could bring him no legal relief. He thereby suggests that he spares
young Fabius’s life from his own volition, not because he has been forced by
law. He is thus careful to present his decision to spare the life of Quintus
Fabius as a gift to the tribunes and the Roman people, a gift granted and not
legally required.56 What can be concluded from the story, then, is that acting
in accordance with the fides cannot be legally enforced upon the dictator, yet
it does constrain his power, if only because he feels morally obliged to respect
the fides’s requirements.57
568 M. de WILDE
55 Ibid., 8.35.5. In these passages, Livy is ambiguous with regard to the important
question of whether the dictator can be legally forced by the tribunes or the people. As
Oakley notes, Papirius does not explicitly say that, as a dictator, he is not subject to
provocatio, which one might have expected. Earlier in his speech, Papirius even seems to
take into account the possibility of tribunician intercession by ‘praying that the tribunes
might not employ their power — itself inviolate — to violate by their interference
[intercessione] the authority of Rome’ (8.34.6). Oakley, Commentary, p. 730. However,
in the passage referred to, Papirius explicitly denies that the tribunes can legally prevent
him from punishing his master of the horse, as he emphasizes that they ‘cannot bring him
legal relief [non iustum auxilium ferenti]’ (8.35.5).
56 Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 8.35.5: ‘Non noxae eximitur Q. Fabius, qui contra edictum
imperatoris pugnavit, sed noxae damnatus donatur populo Romano, donatur tribuniciae
potestati precarium non iustum auxilium ferenti.’
57 Oakley comes to a similar conclusion: ‘if Papirius Cursus was legally justified,
that means neither that he was morally justified nor that the reader is expected to approve
of it’. However, he does not relate Papirius’s moral duties to the fides. In fact, nowhere in
his commentary does he recognize the important role the fides plays in these passages.
Instead, he claims that ‘the moral of the tale is that military discipline can be upheld with-
out resort to needless brutality’. Oakley, Commentary, pp. 705–6. Although Livy does
indeed make this point, I believe that the moral of his story is another one: that despite his
immense powers, even a dictator is bound by his trust, which requires him to exercise his
powers with restraint, even though he cannot be legally forced to do so.
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THE DICTATOR’S TRUST 569
Another aspect of the fides is referred to at the beginning of the story. Here
it is suggested that the dictator’s anger against his master of the horse is
caused not only by his legitimate indignation over the fact that a magistrate’s
authority and military discipline have been violated, but also by personal rancour
and envy over his deputy’s military success. Livy thus raises the possibility
that Quintus Fabius destroyed the weapons of the enemy on purpose to pre-
vent the dictator from reaping the harvest of his military victory, and inscrib-
ing his name on the arms, or having them carried in his triumph. Moreover, he
is believed to have sent the report of his victory directly to the senate and not
to the dictator himself, suggesting again that he did not wantto share the credit
with him.58 The fides, however, requires that a magistrate is led not by per-
sonal motives, but by the interests of the state only. When the dictator is asked
to refrain from punishing his master of the horse, then, he is also asked to sup-
press his personal rancour and envy. By sparing the life of Quintus Fabius, the
dictator makes it clear that he is willing to forget about his personal injuries in
the interest of the state. He thereby articulates an important moral aspect of
the fides, i.e. the willingness to make private interests subservient to the pub-
lic good.59
However, the end of the story suggests how difficult it is to act in accor-
dance with the fides. It turns out that Papirius is unable to forget about his per-
sonal injuries, and although he has refrained from punishing Quintus Fabius,
he forbids him to exercise his magistracy in any way. This failure of trust, in
turn, breeds distrust among his soldiers, who were already angry at ‘his hav-
ing granted to the Roman People a boon he had denied to their own entreat-
ies’.60 Quintus Fabius, it will be remembered, had initially sought the soldiers’
protection, and committed his life and cause to their trust. The soldiers had
thereupon offered to take an oath for his sake, which the dictator had angrily
refused. However, by refusing their oath, the dictator had denied their trust.
The dictator now adds to this atmosphere of distrust by continuing to blame
Quintus Fabius even after having spared his life. What we see here is actually
the reverse of the story of Camillus and the Faliscans: whereas Camillus’s
trust provoked the trust of the Faliscans,61 Papirius’s failure of trust leads to
distrust among his soldiers. More significantly, it is not without cost, for it
causes the dictator to lose an important battle with the Samnites. His men thus
turn out to be listless, and, although the dictator could have easily won the bat-
tle, his men throw away the victory on purpose to discredit their commander.62
In this respect, too, the episode of Camillus and the Faliscans is reversed:
whereas Camillus gained an easy victory over the Faliscans because of his
58 Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 8.30.9–10.
59 On this aspect of the fides, compare Barry, Fides,p.5.
60 Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 8.35.12.
61 Ibid., 5.27.11.
62 Ibid., 8.36.4.
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trust, Papirius loses an important battle against the Samnites because he fails
to live up to his trust and, therefore, lacks the trust of his soldiers.
According to Livy, Papirius finally recognizes what stands in the way of his
victory. In order to be successful as a dictator he is dependent on the trust of
his soldiers. He thus recognizes that he can only succeed in defeating the
enemy by acting in accordance with the fides. Seeking to regain the confi-
dence of his soldiers, he visits those wounded in battle in person and com-
mends them by name to the care of their superiors. This proves to be fruitful
strategy. Having thus restored their trust, Papirius leads them into battle with
the Samnites once more, and this time proves to be immensely successful: he
‘so routed and dispersed the enemy that this was the last time they joined bat-
tle with the dictator’.63 Thereupon, the Samnites propose a peace on most
favourable conditions. Papirius directs them to go before the senate. How-
ever, the Samnites reply that they prefer him to go there, ‘committing their
cause wholly to his honor and integrity [eius fidei virtutique]’.64 Once more,
then, the dictator’s fides is invoked, and his display of trust is met with the
trust of his opponents, who commit their cause to his honour and integrity. As
Livy makes clear, they are not wrong in trusting the dictator, for, believing
himself bound by his trust, he starts withdrawing the army from Samnium
straight away.
The stories of Corvus’s trust and of Papirius’s distrust are meant to convey
the same double message: the dictator’s powers are limited by the fides,and
only if the dictator acts in accordance with his trust will he be able to gain the
trust of others on whom he is dependent for successfully fulfilling his task. In
both stories, the contrast between the dictator’s immense powers and the need
to exercise them with restraint is emphasized. What is stressed, too, is that the
dictator cannot be legally forced to act in accordance with his trust, but that he
must do so from his own volition. Moreover, these stories indicate how the
fides limits the dictator’s powers: the fides thus requires the dictator to protect
those dependent on his power, to show lenity towards the enemy once they
have surrendered, to refrain from harsh punishment, and to forget about his
personal injuries, making his private interests subservient to the public good.
Most importantly, the stories suggest that the dictator cannot ignore these
requirements without costs, for his failure to live up to his trust will breed dis-
trust among those he needs to successfully complete his task. If, on the other
hand, the dictator acts in accordance with his trust, it will prove advantageous,
because he will gain support, and he may even, through his trust, win a victory
over the enemy which he could not have otherwise won.
570 M. de WILDE
63 Ibid., 8.36.8.
64 Ibid., 8.36.12.
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THE DICTATOR’S TRUST 571
Temporal Limitations and Fides
The fides not only regulated the manner in which dictatorial powers were
exercised. It also affected formal constraints on these powers, making them
both more flexible and more effective. This is especially true of temporal
restrictions on the dictatorship. Although the dictatorship was granted for six
months, the fides required a dictator to abdicate as quickly as possible and
preferably long before the six months’ term expired. Several authors have
noticed that dictators often felt compelled to abdicate forthwith after their
task had been completed.65 By giving up their powers voluntarily as soon as
circumstances allowed it, dictators demonstrated their trustworthiness and
respect for the republican nature of their office. They thereby showed that
they could be entrusted with such immense powers, and that they would not
abuse their powers to threaten constitutional liberties. For instance, by laying
down his dictatorship after a mere sixteen days, Cincinnatus proved his scru-
pulous respect for the temporariness of his office, and also, and especially, his
remarkable trustworthiness. Thus, the fides appears to have contributed to
making temporal restrictions on the dictatorship more effective.
Conversely, as temporal limitations depended on the fides, they were not as
‘absolute’ as they are sometimes claimed to have been.66 Indeed, there are
several examples of dictators who overstayed their term, remaining in office
longer than six months.67 At the time, these transgressions do not seem to have
65 Cf. K. Loewenstein, The Governance of Rome (The Hague, 1973), pp. 79–80; and
Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, p. 160.
66 Mommsen, for instance, believes the six months’ restriction to be ‘absolute’.
Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, p. 160. Bandel even considers evidence in the Fasti
of a dictatorship exceeding this term a ‘constitutional monstrum’, that is theoretically,
and thus practically, impossible. Bandel, Die römischen Diktaturen,p.99.
67 This appears to have occurred at least six times, in 333, 324, 316, 315, 309 and 301
BC. In each of these cases, the dictatorship was extended to a year. However, evidence for
four of these dictatorships, those of 333, 324, 309 and 301, based on the Fasti Capitolini
is uncertain. Bandel has argued that these dictatorships may have been later additions,
included in the Fasti to harmonize the difference between magistracy and calendar years.
Bandel, Die römischen Diktaturen, p. 83 n. 4. However, in the two remaining cases,
those of 316 and 315 BC, evidence that these dictators did indeed remain in office for a
year is stronger, as the Fasti are confirmed by Livy, who suggests that both dictators led
the military campaigns against Samnium for an entire year (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita,
9.22.1 and 9.24.1). As all six examples of one-year dictatorships fall in the final quarter
of the fourth century, a period of Roman expansion, it is not unlikely that attempts were
made to transform the extraordinary magistracy of the dictatorship into an ordinary
magistracy subject to the annuity principle. Plutarch mentions another example of a dic-
tatorship that lasted longer than six months: thus, in view of civil unrest, the senate is
believed to have prevented Camillus in 389 BC from resigning as a dictator within the
consular year, ‘although no other dictator had served more than six months’. Plutarch,
‘Camillus’, 31.3. Cf. also: Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 6.1.4. However, the historicity of this
dictatorship is doubtful. Cf. Hartfield, Roman Dictatorship, p. 361.
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been controversial. Nor was any dictator ever summoned before a court of
law for violating his term. That these transgressions were accepted can be
explained by both the dictator’s task and his fides: a dictator was thus allowed
to remain in office longer than six months if his task required it and if he did
not violate his trust. Just as the dictator’s quick abdication was considered a
demonstration of his trustworthiness, the fact that a dictator was sometimes
allowed to remain in office longer than six months was considered a sign of
the people’s trust in the dictator; it was informed by the belief that the dicta-
torship depended primarily on a trust-relationship between the dictator and
the Roman people. It seems to have been the particular combination, then, of
formal constraints such as the six months’ term and informal constraints such
as the fides, which made the dictatorship both a well-regulated and flexible
institution, thereby contributing to its remarkable success.
The conditions under which dictators laid down their office have been care-
fully analysed by Laurens Janssen in a book that has not received the attention
it deserves.68 Janssen compares the use of the words abire and abdicare in the
context of dictatorships. He notices that Roman writers prefer the verb
abdicare to describe the manner in which dictatorships come to an end.
Whereas abire connotes the expiring of a term, abdicare refers to the dicta-
tor’s autonomous decision to lay down his office. The preference of Roman
writers for abdicare suggests that, more than formal limitations of the dicta-
tor’s power, these writers focused on the dictator’s own responsibility to
resign after his task had been completed.69 Janssen, moreover, discovers that
the great majority of dictators abdicated within days or weeks, that is, long
before the six months’ term expired.70 In fact, of the ninety-four dictators
recorded in the Fasti and Livy, only four were explicitly related to the term of
six months.71 This leads Janssen to doubt whether the six months’ term was
originally associated with the dictatorship at all.72
The idea that the dictatorship was originally granted for a maximum of
six months is advanced by Mommsen, who considers it an absolute limit
on the dictator’s power.73 Mommsen cites several sources in which the term
is mentioned as a general restriction on the dictatorship.74 However, as
Janssen shows, these sources invariably stem from the first century BC or
572 M. de WILDE
68 L.F. Janssen, Abdicatio: Nieuwe Onderzoekingen over de Dictatuur (Utrecht,
1960).
69 Ibid., pp. 72–3 and 80–1.
70 Examples of quick abdication can be found in Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.29.7 (16
days); 4.34.5 (16 days); 4.47.6 (8 days); 6.29.10 (20 days); 9.34.13 (20 days) and 23.23.7
(1 day).
71 The dictatorships of 458, 216, 215 and 48 BC.
72 Janssen, Abdicatio, pp. 137–8.
73 Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, p. 160.
74 The sources mentioned are Cicero, De Legibus, 3.3.9; Livy, Ab Urbe Condita,
3.29.7, 9.34.12 and 23.22.11; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, 5.70,
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THE DICTATOR’S TRUST 573
later periods, reflecting opinions that were prevalent in a relatively late stage
of the dictatorship, but that do not necessarily agree with constitutional prac-
tices of the earlier republic. In these sources, the motivation to refer to the six
months’ term is often to contrast it with the extended dictatorships of Sulla
and Caesar.75 It thus appears to serve a political aim, rather than being meant
as a neutral description of constitutional traditions. By contrast, in relation to
earlier dictatorships, the six months’ term does not seem to have played an
important role, and it is barely mentioned at all. In fact, Livy mentions only
one case, in which a dictator resigned because the six months’ term expired:
thus, Q. Fabius Maximus, who served as a dictator rei gerundae causa in 217
BC, is said to have summoned the consuls to transfer his powers because ‘his
six months’ tenure of authority was drawing to a close’.76
The fact that there are no examples of dictators who resigned because of the
six months’ term before 217 BC, leads Janssen to suggest that this term may
have been first introduced with Fabius’s dictatorship, becoming part of con-
stitutional practice only afterwards.77 However, I believe there is a more plau-
sible explanation why no dictator resigned because of the six months’ term
before 217 BC. Most dictators were appointed for a specific task, which was
carefully described in their titulus; their authority was thus limited to the
amount of time they needed to complete their task, and, in most cases, this was
much shorter than six months. Moreover, as the fides required them to lay
down their office at once after completing their task, the six months’ term was
rarely reached. Contrary to Janssen’s suggestion, then, I believe it is more
likely that the six months’ term was already part of constitutional practice
well before 217 BC — which is also suggested by the fact that it is referred to
in relation to the dictatorship of Cincinnatus — but that it was relatively unim-
portant as the dictator’s term of office was believed to depend primarily on the
nature of his task and the fidelity with which he fulfilled it.
That the six months’ term started to play a more important role after 217 BC
is suggested by the case of M. Fabius Buteo, who was appointed dictator in
216 with the specific task of drawing up a list of the senate, replenishing the
senate ranks which were depleted from recent losses at Cannae. According to
7.56 and 10.25; Appian, The Civil Wars, 1.3; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 36.34 and
42.21; Zonaras, Extracts of History, 7.13; Digests, 1.2.2.18 [Pomponius]; Lydus, De
Magistratibus Reipublicae Romanae, 1.36 and 37.
75 Janssen, Abdicatio, p. 133.
76 Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 22.31.7. There may be other examples, but these cannot be
confirmed. For instance, Kunkel believes that the dictator Camillus’s duty to abdicate in
the year 389 BC, to which Livy alludes (6.1.4), should be read as a reference to the six
months’ term of the dictatorship. However, in this case the six months’ term is not explic-
itly mentioned, nor was Camillus forced to abdicate because his term expired. Instead, he
appears to have been released from the term by the senate. Kunkel, Staatsordnung,
p. 671.
77 Janssen, Abdicatio, pp. 164–5.
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Livy, Buteo mounted the Rostra to protest against the fact that he had been
given full military powers for six months without having been appointed dic-
tator rei gerundae causa.78 Apparently, he believed his tenure should have
been much shorter because of the limited scope of his assignment. Thus, while
still standing on the Rostra, he set out to compose a new list of senate mem-
bers right away, and, ‘having thus chosen a hundred and seventy-seven into
the senate with great approval, he at once abdicated his office and came down
from the Rostra’.79 As Janssen explains, Buteo’s protest — that he did not
approve of granting the dictatorship for six months to a dictator not appointed
rgc — implied that only the dictatorship rgc was bound to the six months’
term, while the term did not apply to other dictatorships that were connected
to smaller tasks.80 It is likely that these other dictatorships were not bound by
any fixed time limits at all, but that their term was flexible and depended on
the nature of the task involved.
The absence of fixed time limits in case of these smaller dictatorships
implied that the decision to abdicate was left to the dictator himself. This deci-
sion, however, was not unconstrained, for it was subject to the requirements
of fides. A dictator who was entrusted with a specific task, was expected to
abdicate at once after completing that task. If he failed to do so, he was
publically scorned and held accountable for violating his trust.81 This is also
suggested by the only example of a dictator who was forced to abdicate
because of an abuse of dictatorial powers: as Livy relates, in 363 BC,
L. Manlius Imperiosus had been appointed a dictator with the specific task of
‘driving in the nail’, that is, to perform a religious ceremony meant to assuage
the wrath of the gods. However, as though appointed to wage war and not to
discharge a religious obligation, he started to levy troops instead. Thereupon,
the tribunes united to oppose him, and Manlius was forced to resign, yielding
‘either to their force or to a sense of shame’.82 Livy’s doubt as to what made
Manlius decide to abdicate — the tribunes’ force or his own sense of shame —
is revealing, for it suggests that Livy is uncertain as to whether the tribunes’
veto applies to a dictator. Therefore, he also refers to another, informal con-
straint on the dictator’s power, the sense of shame caused by a breach of trust.
In sum, although it is likely that the dictatorship rgc was originally subject
to the six months’ restriction, it does not seem to have required that a dictator
necessarily abdicate at the end of his term. The smaller dictatorships do not
appear to have been bound to any fixed time limits at all; instead, their term
574 M. de WILDE
78 Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 23.23.2: ‘nec dictatori, nisi rei gerendae causa creato, in
sex menses datum imperium’.
79 Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 23.23.7.
80 Janssen, Abdicatio, p. 140. Cf. also Hartfield, Roman Dictatorship,p.5.
81 Cf. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 9.34.15.
82 Ibid., 7.3.9. On this case, compare U. von Lübtow, ‘Die römischen Diktatur’, in
Der Staatsnotstand, ed. E. Fraenkel (Berlin, 1965), pp. 114–15.
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THE DICTATOR’S TRUST 575
seems to have been flexible and depended on the nature of the task involved.
Thus, of the ninety-four proper dictatorships, there is only one confirmed
example of a dictator who laid down his office because of the six months’
term. In most cases, however, dictators resigned long before the six months’
term expired. As I argued, this can be explained by the many informal con-
straints on the dictator’s power, and, more particularly, the fides. The dictator
was thus bound by his trust to use his powers in accordance with the assign-
ment he had been given, and to refrain from using these powers for other pur-
poses or longer than was absolutely necessary to complete his task. The ideal
was that of a trustworthy dictator who acted quickly and decisively, and who
resigned at once after completing his task in order not to betray his own trust
and the trust of the Roman people. As I have suggested, more than the six
months’ tenure, this ideal of trustworthy dictator appears to have been deci-
sive for constraining the dictator’s powers and preventing their abuse.
Conclusion
My aim in this article was to explain how it was possible that, until the first
century BC, the Roman dictatorship was never abused and turned against the
constitution itself. In the past, this has often been explained by the fact that the
dictator’s powers were part of the existing constitutional framework and sub-
ject to formal constraints that were strictly applied. For instance, the dictator-
ship was granted for six months and, although the dictator was authorized to
take all the measures necessary to defend the republic, he was not allowed to
change the constitution itself. However, as Lazar has shown, these formal
constraints were not as ‘absolute’ or strictly applied as they are sometimes
believed to be. Instead, there are several examples of dictators who proposed
legislation that altered the constitution or who overstayed their term and
remained in office longer than six months. At the time, no one seems to have
complained that by doing so the dictator overstepped his powers. Nor do these
transgressions appear to have been controversial in any way.
Therefore, these formal constraints as such cannot explain why, until the
first century, the dictatorship was never abused and turned against the consti-
tution itself. This can only be explained by the many informal constraints on
the dictator’s power. These included peer pressure, political and electoral
incentives, and moral and religious responsibilities. For instance, the prospect
of a political career after the dictatorship ended caused dictators to observe
the senate’s advice or to seek popular support, even though they were not
legally obliged to do so. Moreover, the dictatorship’s ‘sacred aura’ may have
contributed to the belief that a dictator had certain religious responsibilities,
and that his actions were witnessed by the gods, which, again, encouraged the
dictator not to abuse his powers. Finally, there were important moral con-
straints on the dictator’s power, which were articulated in stories of dictators
who had testified to an exceptional virtuousness and commitment to
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republican values. Such informal constraints on the dictatorship were as
important as formal constraints for preventing an abuse of dictatorial powers.
This article confirms the importance of informal constraints on the dicta-
tor’s powers. However, it focuses on a constraint which has not yet been rec-
ognized in the literature: the requirement of fides or trust. The fides appears to
have been crucial for preventing an abuse of dictatorial powers. Although a
dictator could not be legally forced to observe the fides, it served as an impor-
tant moral constraint on his power. The dictator was thus expected, among
other things, to protect those who had become dependent on his power, to
show lenity towards the enemy once they had surrendered, to refrain from
harsh punishment, and to make his private interests subservient to the public
good. As a more detailed analysis of the cases of Corvus and Papirius showed,
ancient writers like Livy believed that a dictator could not ignore the fides
without cost, for it would deprive him of the support of those he needed to
successfully fulfil his task. If, on the other hand, a dictator proved trustwor-
thy, he was expected to gain unconditional support and become capable of
defeating the enemy through his trust.
However, the fides not only regulated the manner in which dictatorial pow-
ers were exercised. It also affected the dictator’s term of office. The fides thus
required a dictator to abdicate as quickly as possible and preferably long
before the six months’ term expired. By giving up his powers voluntarily as
soon as circumstances allowed it, a dictator proved his trustworthiness and
respect for the republican nature of his office. This explains why the great
majority of dictators abdicated within days or weeks, that is, long before the
six months’ term expired. It also explains why some dictators were allowed to
remain in office for longer than six months. They were allowed to do so as
their task required it and they did not violate their trust. The fact that, before
217 BC, no dictator appears to have abdicated because the six months’ term
had expired, has led Janssen to doubt whether it applied to earlier dictator-
ships at all. By contrast, I have argued that the six months’ term was probably
applicable, but that it was relatively unimportant, as the dictator’s term was
believed to depend primarily on the nature of his task and the fidelity with
which he fulfilled it. Thus, a dictator was expected to abdicate at once after
completing his task, and if he failed to do so, he was publically scorned and
held accountable for violating his trust.
An analysis of the dictator’s fides may help us to understand how it was
possible that, until the first century BC, the dictatorship was never abused and
turned against the constitution itself. I believe this can only be explained by
the fact that the dictator was bound by a trust-relation with the Roman people
to exercise his powers in good faith and to protect the existing republican con-
stitution. The fides thus required a dictator to administer his powers with mod-
eration and restraint and to demonstrate his fidelity to republican institutions.
Moreover, the fides appears to have made formal constraints on the dictator’s
576 M. de WILDE
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THE DICTATOR’S TRUST 577
power such as the six months’ term both more flexible and effective by
encouraging dictators to abdicate long before the six months’ term expired
and, conversely, by allowing them to remain in office longer than six months
if they did not violate their trust. For these reasons, I believe the fides should
be considered one of the most important informal constraints on the dictator’s
powers. In combination with other constraints, such as the six months’ term, it
appears to have contributed decisively to preventing an abuse of dictatorial
powers, and thus to have been vital for preserving constitutional liberties in
times of crisis.
Marc de Wilde UNIVERSITEIT VAN AMSTERDAM
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... Today one might say, with contemporary jargon, that republics are in fact polyarchies, but it is this institutional plurality-or polyarchy-that creates problems in times of emergency. 3 On the Roman magistracy of dictatorship, among recent studies, see: de Wilde 2012;Hartfield 1982;Lintott 1999;Nicolet 1988, Nippel 2000 Cf. Discourses, I. 34, 75: Machiavelli quotes the Latin formula "Videat Consul, ne Respublica quid detrimenti capiat," (Livy 1919-1967, III.4 andVI.19). ...
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74 The sources mentioned are Cicero, De Legibus, 3.3.9; Livy
  • Römisches Mommsen
  • Staatsrecht
Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, p. 160. 74 The sources mentioned are Cicero, De Legibus, 3.3.9; Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.29.7, 9.34.12 and 23.22.11; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, 5.70, Copyright (c) Imprint Academic 2011
De Magistratibus Reipublicae Romanae, 1.36 and 37
  • Lydus
Lydus, De Magistratibus Reipublicae Romanae, 1.36 and 37.
Ab Urbe Condita, 4.24.4-7 and 6
  • Cf
  • Livy
Cf. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 4.24.4-7 and 6.42.10-11.
Ab Urbe Condita, 23.23.2: 'nec dictatori, nisi rei gerendae causa creato, in sex menses datum imperium
  • Livy
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 23.23.2: 'nec dictatori, nisi rei gerendae causa creato, in sex menses datum imperium'.
On this case, compare U. von Lübtow
Ibid., 7.3.9. On this case, compare U. von Lübtow, 'Die römischen Diktatur', in Der Staatsnotstand, ed. E. Fraenkel (Berlin, 1965), pp. 114-15. Copyright (c) Imprint Academic 2011