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What I’m Reading: The Roman Republic Is My Roman Empire Edition

I’ve been thinking and reading some about the old archaic and classical Roman institution of Dictatorship. Rome had no kings (after they supposedly got rid of them in a political revolution), but sometimes it had Dictators, who held unlimited power of life and death, led armies into battle, could pass sentences that could not be appealed in court, and who had no colleagues who could check or veto their actions. As victorious generals they could celebrate triumphs in purple and gold robes with painted red faces, and they would stand in during religious ceremonies for the old sacral offices of the king, or for Jupiter himself. Almost everything else about the old Roman political system seems pretty thoroughly designed to disperse and check the powers of political magistrates and war leaders, precisely to avoid having the kings return under some other title (whether Consul, Tribune or Head of the Senate); but this one institution looks a lot like the temporary appointment of an Emergency King, for practical as well as ceremonial purposes.

But the office of dictatorship was also weird in its timing: it seems to have been used sometimes during the early centuries of the Roman Republic, then used little in the middle centuries and never at all after the second Punic War. Then, centuries later, it was brought back, in the midst of a couple horrendous political crises (first for the domination of Sulla, then for the capture of sole power by Julius Caesar) in which warlords used the revived title of Dictator (or, then, Perpetual Dictator) to consolidate unlimited one-man power and forcefully choke off ordinary republican politics while maintaining a pretense of respecting the republican constitution. You might think that this would be of interest to Emperors like Augustus, but there were no more Dictators named in Rome after the death of Caesar. The office was abolished by a law sponsored by Mark Antony. Later when Octavian / Augustus had taken sole power, he formally refused the title despite a couple of apparent attempts to revive it for him. In many ways, the actual political structure of Imperial Rome is something that we wouldn’t hesitate to recognize as a propagandistic cover over a 1,500 year reign of dirty, grubby military dictatorship; and there are a lot of propagandistic reasons why the old title of Dictator ought to have been attractive to them for propaganda and traditionalist purposes; but nevertheless the Emperors didn’t actually use the title.

Here’s a couple things I’ve been reading in the last few days about the institution of dictatorship in Archaic and Classical Rome:

  • The Origin of the Roman Dictatorship: An Overlooked Opinion, Ronald T. Ridley. In Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, 1979, Neue Folge, 122. Bd., H. 3/4 (1979), 303-309.

    This begins from a passage of Livy about the creation of the first dictatorship in the early Republic, during a social and military crisis around 501 or 498 BCE.

    Supra belli Latini metus quoque accesserat, quod triginta iam coniurasse populos concitante Octavio Mamilio satis constabat. In hac tantarum expectatione rerum sollicita civitate, dictatoris primum creandi mentio orta (L. 2.18.3-4).

    [Dread also was increasing about the Latin wars, because now the thirty nations[1] stood well enough together as they were being whipped up by Octavius Mamilius to swear to an alliance. The expectation of so many matters having shaken the City [of Rome], for the first time there was mention of appointing a Dictator. —R.G.]

    . . . The reason for the new office is hardly varying. It was a military crisis. Dionysios has been misunderstood to imply political reasons (5.70f.). He says the plebeians were bringing up economic grievances (5.63f.), but these were important only because they might imperil the conduct of the Latin war (5.61). He simply wants to explain the dictator’s freedom from provocatio [provocatio ad populum[2]]. . . . Yet no-one who is conversant with the history of the monarchy and early Republic would put too much faith in the annalist-cum-jusrists’ versions. We are dealing with what has been shown to be a most ancient office which went out of use just at the time of the earliest Roman historians, at the end of the third century. Thus almost the entire historical tradition was referring to an office it had not seen in operation.

    That is, the paper stresses, there’s are questions to pursue about what the dictatorship was like in the archaic period, when it was used from time to time during emergencies in the City of Rome’s early foreign wars against its neighbors — not what it became much later at the end of the Republic, when it was had become old-fashioned title, not used in hundreds of years, that was suddenly revived and substantially reinvented in the midst of the Crises of the First Century. The archaic dictatorship was an office with extraordinary powers to suspend normal constitutional protections, mostly connected to its military role, but old-time dictators in the Republic were appointed for a particular purpose, with a time-limited half year term, expected to resign if the emergency passed or the purpose was accomplished, and ringed around with limitations and taboos intended to prevent them from exercising law-making power or taking on the trappings of kingship.[3] Sulla and Caesar both had themselves appointed Perpetual Dictators without limited terms, and they immediately used the dictatorship to ruthlessly punish domestic opposition and to exercise sweeping and unchallenged power to rewrite Roman constitutional law without traditional restraints on their ambition.

    The center of the paper is a really interesting and thorough lit review of scholarly writing up to 1979 on the nature and origins of the archaic Republican dictatorship — (1) where it came from, (2) what it was supposed to do, (3) what relationship it had to the ordinary powers of constitutional magistrates during the republic, and (4) drawing on all this, why Romans would go ahead and create an institution with sole role and extraordinary powers, so like the power of the old kings, just a few short years after they had fought a revolution to get rid of those guys. Ridley’s most interested in looking at debates over:

    • Whether the institution of a dictator had origins peculiar to Rome and its local history, or whether you might find a more common Latin institution in other Latin towns outside Rome; or
    • Whether it might have come from an office (called dictator) that was used by Rome and other Latin towns to command allied forces in leagues between the many Latin towns; and
    • Whether the archaic form of dictatorship was really an organic part of the republican Roman constitution, or a special procedure for temporarily suspending or breaching the republican constitution in cases of emergency. (This may be a semantic question; but it’s a pretty pressing one, given both the tensions around the old dictatorship, given the dictator’s seeming similarity to a king; and also given what ended up happening in the final decades of the republic, once Roman warlords started getting themselves named dictators again.)

    The overlooked opinion in the title is short and towards the end, and really kind of less interesting than the long literature review and discussion of major debates about the nature of the dictatorship under the Republic. But, for the record, Ridley opines that the origin of the office may have been Latin, or at least that Livy is suggesting that it was, and that the Romans may have adopted and adapted the idea from the office of a Dictator to command allied Latin towns. Moreover that the reason for Livy’s interest in the institution may have had something to do with the political debates over the titles and honors for the newly triumphant Augustus, who says that he was offered a dictatorship twice and refused it (but somehow managed to go on finding ways to exercise autocratic power for the rest of his life anyway, even without the title[4]):

    . . . Thus the modern discussions. But an overlooked opinion? In none of the above discussions can I find understanding of what seems to me the main thread of Livy’s account. The Latin league led by Octavius Mamilius was coming against Rome. Then for the first time the Romans thought of a dictator. Is not Livy’s implication clear that the Roman dictator was inspired by, even modelled on, the Latin federal dictator? Not even de Sanctis and all the others who have seen the connection with the league have adduced this text in their support.

    Admittedly, it is only Livy’s implication. . . . We mentioned at the beginning of this note, that for the later annalists the dictatorship was an office long in disuse, the classical dictatorship, that is. In fact, as many scholars have seen, that existed only in the fifth and fourth centuries, and was being phased out even in the third. The Sullan and Caesarian revivals were completely different, but excited historical and antiquarian interest. Macer’s comments were undoubtedly part of his popularis reaction to Sulla. After Caesar’s autocracy, the office was abolished by M. Antonius in 44 (Cic. Phil 1.3[5] etc). But then in 22, there was clamour in Rome that Augustus should assume it, from both the senate at the people (RG 3). More pertinently, we may assume that there was much talk of dictatorship in 28/27 (note Tac. Ann. 1.9[6]). And Livy was writing books 1-5 between 27 and 25 B.C.

    — Ronald T. Ridley (1979), The Origin of the Roman Dictatorship: An Overlooked Opinion.
    In Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, 1979, Neue Folge, 122. Bd., H. 3/4 (1979), 303-309.

Anyway, remember that bit about folks who suggest that Dionysios of Halicarnassus offered an alternative theory, focused on domestic political conflicts (specifically, class conflicts) within Rome as the reason for instituting the archaic dictatorship? Ridley doesn’t think much of that reading. But this guy does:

In particular, Kalyvas wants to argue that Dionysius[7], and also, in a later century, Appian[8], were engaged in a more or less deliberate effort to challenge traditional Roman views of the Dictator, by viewing it in light of classical Greek political writing on the rule of Tyrants. Modern writing about authoritarianism typically treats dictatorship and tyranny as two roughly equivalent words for the same sort of violent, extralegal, unaccountable and one-man or closed-circle political regimes. But ancient Roman (Latin) writers mostly saw these as two very different things. Kalyvas wants to argue that Dionysius and Appian may actually be ancient forerunners to the modern view — that they wrote about the older and newer Roman dictatorships as a form of elective tyranny[9] and that this may reflect a critical assessment that the Roman institution of dictatorship was repressive and dangerous from the start, more like tyranny than patriotic Roman authors seemed to realize, and that it always carried within itself the poisons that would ultimately seep out into republican political institutions and send them down into warlord violence, civil war and authoritarian rule.

For most of the twentieth century the concepts of dictatorship and tyranny were treated as synonyms, two names for one form of autocratic political rule. . . . The dictator and tyrant were fused together in a single figure, that of illegality, violence, and arbitrariness, and perceived as a common threat to political freedom, constitutionalism, and the rule of law, a threat the ancients had formulated as political enslavement. Accordingly, throughout the century, the conceptual identification provided normative resources to those who opposed the modern revival of dictatorship. Denunciations of the many forms of dictatorship, both of the Right and the Left, which emerged over the course of the last century as modern manifestations of tyranny mobilized repeatedly these resources.

The equation of dictatorship and tyranny is not, however, unique to the twentieth century. It appeared as well in a preceding historical period in the shifting political context of the revolutionary upheavals of Europe and its oversees colonies and the decline of the monarchical order. Claude Nicolet rightly observes that since the eighteenth century, the term dictatorship has served to refer to despotisms or tyrannies—in other words, essentially powers which are far from having been regularly conferred, and instead had been usurped through force or deceipt. . . . Nicolet’s narrative accurately captures the modern blending of the two terms and correctly relocates it within the broader historical movement and diffusion of republicanism. But his story is incomplete. It disregards a still earlier moment in Western political history when the dictator began to look dangerously like a tyrant. In the turbulent transitional period between the Roman republic and the Principate, Sulla and Caesar, and their struggle for supreme power gravely tested the institution of dictatorship. The abuse of this emergency institution, its exercise outside the limits delineated by the established legal framework, its appropriation for the advancement of personal ambitions, and even its use against the republic itself, prompted a profound reconsideration of its nature, function, and value.

Two Greek historians of the early and high Imperial periods, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 BC-after 7 BC) and Appian of Alexandria (95-165 AC) undertook such a radical reassessment. While most of the annalists and republican historians cherished the memory of the republic and its institutions, among which dictatorship was held in the highest esteem, the writings of the two Greek narrators followed a different path. . . . In their Greco-Roman synthesis dictatorship is re-described as temporary tyranny by consent and the tyrant as a permanent dictator. This historical and conceptual revisionism inaugurated a comparative study of the Roman institution of dictatorship and Greek theories of tyranny with some crucial implications [… for …] its very capacity to preserve the constitutional order. Was the abuse of Roman dictatorship accidental, the effect of moral decline ,or the result of its own unruly nature? . . . Unlike Livy and Sallust who ascribed the fall of the republic to various external causes and their corrupt effects, Dionysius and Appian’s diagnoses suggested the preponderance of internal reasons for the inherent instability, decline, and ultimately fall of the Roman republic. . . .

Certainly, I am not suggesting to oppose Dionysius and Appian against more renowned and influential historians of their times in the name of some objective, true[10] factual attributes of the Roman institution of dictatorship. Rather . . . I examine how the two concepts gradually came to be associated with new meanings as they were increasingly fused. I consider Dionysius and Appian’s unprecedented equation by focusing on the historical narratives, conceptual translations, and theoretical arguments that permitted the identification of the two terms. . . .

. . . Dionysius and Appian’s Greco-Roman synthesis altered the normative connotations associated with [the] classical ideal of dictatorship. It demystifies the republican portrayal of dictatorship and exposes the monster lurking beneath the hero, the wolf inside the soldier, the anomie [inhabiting] the law. The towering reputation dictatorship enjoyed with its martial aura of nobility, an ethical emobodiment of civic virtue and patriotism, are now all cast aside as institutional and oratory ornaments to reveal that dictatorship is another name for tyranny. As a consequence their histories disclosed a tyrannical kernel hidden inside the institutional fabric of republican government.

Furthermore, an additional ramification is that both Dionysius and Appian’s views question much later attempts, such as those of Mommsen and Carl Schmitt, to distinguish between two different dictatorships: an older, ancient dictatorship and its irregular, radical reinvention by Sulla and Caesar. Against this influential interpretation of two types of dictatorship, the one commissarial and the other constituent, the two Greek historians point to the historical continuity and institutional consistency of Roman dictatorship. jFor instance, in their historical revisions of Roman history, Sulla’s dictatorial tyranny loses all of its exceptional or innovative charactger. It is neither an unfortunate anomaly nor an erratic occurrence. His dictatorship does not signify a break in the history of the institution Instead, it is regarded as the repressed but permanent, endemic tyrannical possibility of dictatorial powers. Tyranny, therefore, is seen as an integral part of dictatorship. . . . Here, one cannot help but notice the tragic irony, even poetic justice, of Dionysius and Appian’s histories. Although the Romans took pride in overthrowing the monarchy, . . . they were ultimately unable to rid themselves of the (bad) king. And along with praising themselves for their devotion to the law and their patriotic respect for tradition and custom, the Romans opened up a permanent gap, an internal fissure in the legal edifice of their republic. To save the city, the constitution created this void, this empty space of the law, the space of a-nomia, where the dictator comes to encounter the tyrant in their common ambition to fill it up with the power once owned by the kings. . . .

— Andreas Kalyvas (2007), The Tyranny of Dictatorship: When the Greek Tyrant Met the Roman Dictator.
Political Theory 35.4 (Aug. 2007), 412-442.

  1. [1]Really, small independent Latin towns or city-states. —R.G.
  2. [2]The right of a free citizen to to a court of their peers over a magistrate’s sentence. Ordinary magistrates could have their decisions questioned in court; a dictator could not. —R.G.
  3. [3]For example, the Ridley paper doesn’t get into this, but old Roman dictators were traditionally forbidden from riding into battle on horseback.
  4. [4]I guess even without the title, the name Generalissimo Right-Reverend Son-of-God Caesar has to count for something. Auctoritas!
  5. [5][ad singulare enim M. Antoni factum festinat oratio. dictaturam, quae iam vim regiae potestatis obsederat, funditus ex re publica sustulit; de qua ne sententias quidem diximus. scriptum senatus consultum quod fieri vellet attulit, quo recitato auctoritatem eius summo studio secuti sumus / … I am hastening to come to a very extraordinary act of virtue of Marcus Antonius. He utterly abolished from the constitution of the Republic the Dictatorship, which had by this time attained to the authority of regal power. And that measure was not even offered to us for discussion. He brought with him a decree of the senate, ready drawn up, ordering what he chose to have done: and when it had been read, we all submitted to his authority in the matter with the greatest eagerness…. Cicero; translation by C.D. Yonge, 1903. —R.G.]
  6. [6][In the days just after Augustus’s death and funeral, Multus hinc ipso de Augusto sermo . . . multa Antonio, dum interfectores patris ulcisceretur, multa Lepido concessisse. postquam hic socordia senuerit, ille per libidines pessum datus sit, non aliud discordantis patriae remedium fuisse quam ut ab uno regeretur. non regno tamen neque dictatura sed principis nomine constitutam rem publicam / Then followed much talk about Augustus himself . . . . He had often yielded to Antonius, while he was taking vengeance on his father’s murderers, often also to Lepidus. When the latter sank into feeble dotage and the former had been ruined by his profligacy, the only remedy for his distracted country was the rule of a single man. Yet the State had been organized under the name neither of a kingdom nor a dictatorship, but under that of a prince. Tacitus; translation by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. —R.G.]
  7. [7]A Greek-speaking historian of the Roman world, from the west coast of what’s now Turkey, who was writing about Roman history for Greek readers at the start of the Imperial period, around roughly the same time as Livy.
  8. [8]Another Greek-speaking historian, from Alexandria in Roman-occupied Egypt, who wrote a lot about Rome’s civil wars and the collapse of the Republic, during the relatively stable dynasty of Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius.
  9. [9]Classical Greek writers sometimes talk about popular support as a component of tyranny, but typically classical Greek tyrants were seen as taking power through usurpation or violent coups, not through elective processes.
  10. [10][Sic, for our sins. I can take a lot in the course of academic prose, but, pet peeve here, good lord how I look forward to the day when everyone, lo even unto the most affectedly postmodern fuzzy-wuzzy theory-heads, stop putting pointless scare quotes around the yeomanlike old word true. —R.G.]

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  1. Discussed at www.anarchistfederation.net

    What I’m Reading: The Roman Republic Is My Roman Empire Edition – ? Anarchist Federation:

    […] also was increasing about the Latin wars, because now the thirty nations[1] stood well enough together as they were being whipped up by Octavius Mamilius to swear to an […]

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