There were three stages of ancient Rome: The Roman Kingdom (753 BC – 509 BC), The Roman Republic (508 BC – 27 BC), and the Roman Empire (27 BC – AD 1453). It was Caesar Augustus, not Julius Caesar, who declared Rome an official empire. However, he was following in the footsteps of his adoptive uncle. Although the role of dictator had been established centuries before, Augustus brought it to its current understanding, making a mockery of freedom and justice, which the Roman Republic had come to champion.
In the Roman Republic, the dictator (“one who dictates”), was an extraordinary magistrate (magistratus extraordinarius) with the absolute authority to perform tasks beyond the authority of the ordinary magistrate (magistratus ordinarius). The office of dictator was a legal innovation originally named Magister Populi (Master of the People), i.e. Master of the Citizen Army.
The Roman Senate passed a senatus consultum authorizing the consuls (lawyers) to nominate a dictator — the sole exception to the Roman legal principles of collegiality (multiple tenants in the same office) and responsibility (legal liability for official actions) — only one man was appointed, and, as the highest magistrate, he was not legally liable for official actions; 24 lictors (bodyguards carrying fasces) attended him.
Only a single dictator was allowed, because of the imperium magnum, the great, extraordinary power with which he could over-rule, depose from office, or execute other curule magistates (literally, seated magistrates), also possessed of imperium (power to command). The dictator was appointed to execute and effect Roman State business denominated rei gerundae causa (for the matter to be done), seditionis sedandae causa (for the putting down of rebellion), as in the case of Sulla, who, as dictator legibus faciendis e rei publicae constituendae causa (dictator for the making of laws and for the settling of the constitution), established the precedents that ended the Roman Republic.
On the establishment of the Roman Republic, the government of the state was entrusted to two consuls, that the citizens might be the better protected against the tyrannical exercise of the supreme power. But it was soon felt that circumstances might arise in which it was important for the safety of the state that the government should be vested in the hands of a single person, who should possess absolute power for a short time, and from whose decisions there should be no appeal to any other body. Thus it came to pass that in 501 BC, nine years after the expulsion of the kings, the dictatorship was instituted.
By the original law respecting the appointment of a dictator (lex de dictatore creando) no one was eligible for this office, unless he had previously been consul. There are, however, a few instances in which this law was not observed. When considered necessary, the dictator was appointed by one of the consuls, probably without any witnesses, between midnight and morning.
This was often preceded by the Senate passing a senatus consultum to that effect. The Senate seems to have usually mentioned in their decree the name of prospective dictator but the consul could disregard that advice as is evident from the cases in which the consuls appointed persons in opposition to the wishes of the Senate. In later times the Senate usually indicated that the consul nearest at hand should become dictator.
The nomination took place at Rome, as a general rule; and if the consuls were absent, one of them was recalled to the city, whenever it was practicable. If this could not be done, a senatus consultum authorizing the appointment was sent to the consul, who thereupon made the nomination in the camp. Nevertheless, the rule was maintained that the nomination could not take place outside Italy. Originally the dictator was reserved for a patrician. The first plebeian dictator was Gaius Marcius Rutilus, nominated in 356 BC by the plebeian consul Marcus Popillius Laenas.
It was generally accepted that the dictatorship would be limited to six months and no instances occur in which a person held this office for a longer time, save for the dictatorships of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix and Gaius Julius Caesar. On the contrary, though a dictator was appointed for six months, he often resigned his office immediately after he had dispatched the business for which he had been appointed.
As soon as the Dictator was appointed, he became the chief executive and supreme military of the Republic. The regular magistrates - with the exception of the Tribune of the Plebs - became subject to the higher imperium of the Dictator. They continued to discharge the duties of their various offices under the Dictator, but they were no longer independent officers and were obliged to obey his orders in every circumstance. Failure to do so could result in the dictator forcing the magistrate out of office.
The superiority of the Dictator's power to that of the consuls consisted chiefly of greater independence from the Senate, more extensive power of punishment without a trial by the people, and complete immunity from being held accountable for his actions. However, what gave the dictator such great control over Rome was his lack of a colleague to counter him. Unlike the Consuls, who were required to cooperate with the Senate, the Dictator could act on his own authority without the Senate, though the Dictator would usually act in unison with the Senate all the same. There was no appeal from the sentence of the Dictator (unless the dictator changed his mind), and accordingly, the lictors bore the axes in the fasces before them even in the city, as a symbol of their absolute power over the lives of the citizens.
The Dictator's imperium granted him the powers to rule by decree and to change any Roman law as he saw fit, and these changes lasted as long as the Dictator remained in power. He could introduce new laws into the Roman constitution which did not require ratification by any of the Roman assemblies, but were often put to a vote all the same. An example would be Sulla's introduction of the dreaded proscription (execution of political enemies). Likewise, a dictator could act as a supreme judge, with no appeal for his decisions. These judicial powers made the Dictator the supreme authority in both military and civil affairs.
The relationship between the Dictator and the Tribunes of the Plebs is not entirely certain. The Tribune was the only magistrate to continue his independence of office during a dictatorship while the other magistrates served the dictator as officers. However, there is no reason to believe that they had any control over a dictator, or could hamper his proceedings by their power to veto, as they could in the case of the Consuls. This is believed to be explained by the fact that the law that created the dictatorship was passed before the institution of the Tribune of the Plebs, and consequently made no mention of it.
Any magistrate owning imperium was not accountable for his actions as long as he continued to serve in an office that owned imperium. However, once a magistrate left office, he could face trial for his illegal deeds after the imperium had expired. This was not the case with the Dictator. The Dictator was untouchable during his time in office, but was also not liable to be called to account for any of his official acts, illegal or otherwise, after his abdication of office. The dictator's actions were treated as though they never occurred (at least legally).
It was in consequence of the unstoppable, untouchable imperium possessed by the dictatorship that we find it frequently compared with the power of a monarch, from which it only differed in being held for a limited time. There were, however, a few limits to the power of the dictator. The most important was that the period of his office was only six months. He had no power over the public treasury, but could only make use of the money which was granted to him by the senate. He was not allowed to leave Italy, since he might in that case easily become dangerous to the Republic, though the case of Atilius Calatinus in the first Punic War forms an exception to this rule. He was not allowed to ride on horseback in Rome, without previously obtaining the permission of the people (a regulation adopted that he might not bear too great a resemblance to the kings).
The insignia of the Dictator were nearly the same as those of the kings in earlier times, and of the Consuls, subsequently. Instead however of having only 12 lictors, as was the case with the Consuls, he was preceded by twenty-four bearing the secures as well as the fasces. The Curule Chair and Toga Praetexta also belonged to the Dictator.
Dictators were only appointed so long as the Romans had to carry on wars in Italy. A solitary instance occurs in the First Punic War of the nomination of a dictator, Aulus Atilius Calatinus, for the purpose of carrying on war out of Italy. This was never repeated, because it was feared that so great a power might become dangerous at a distance from Rome. But after the Battle of Trasimene in 217 BC, when Rome itself was threatened by Hannibal, a dictator was again needed, and Fabius Maxiumus was appointed to the office.
In the next year, 216 BC, after the Battle of Cannae, Marcus Junius Pera was also nominated dictator, but this was the last time of the appointment of a dictator rei gerundae causa. From 202 BC on, the dictatorship disappears altogether. It was replaced by the Senatus consultum ultimun, an emergency act of the Senate that authorized the two consuls to take whatever actions were needed to defend the Republic. The best known dictatores rei gerundae causa were Cincinnatus and Fabius Maximus (during the Second Punic War).
In 82 BC, after a 120-year lapse, and the end of the civil war between the forces of Marius and Sulla, the latter was appointed by the Senate to an entirely new office, dictator legibus faciendis et rei publicae constituendae (“dictator for the making of laws and for the settling of the constitution”). This new office was functionally identical to the dictatorate rei gerundae causa except that it lacked any set time limit. Sulla held this office for about a year before he abdicated and retired from public life.
Gaius Julius Caesar subsequently resurrected the dictatorate rei gerundae causa in his first dictatorship, then modified it to a full year term. He was appointed dictator rei gerundae causa for a full year in 46 BC and then designated for nine consecutive one-year terms in that office thereafter, functionally becoming dictator for ten years. A year later, this pretense was discarded altogether and the Senate voted to make him Dictator perpetuo (usually rendered in English as “dictator for life,” but properly meaning “dictator in perpetuity”). Neither the magistrate who nominated Sulla, nor the time for which he was appointed, nor the extent or the exercise of his power was in accordance with the ancient laws and precedents, as was the case with the dictatorship of Caesar.
After Caesar's murder on the Ides of March, his consular colleague Mark Antony introduced the lex Antonia which abolished the dictatorship. The office was later offered to Augustus, who declined it, and opted instead for tribunician power and consular imperium without holding any magisterial office other than imperator and princeps Senatus — a politic arrangement which left him as functional dictator without having to hold the controversial title. This novel - though not unconstitutional - arrangement of offices and powers would in time evolve into the office of Roman Emperor. Thus, dictatorship, as defined by the republican institution, was not a feature of the principate or dominate. The arrangement was not unconstitutional. However, it left the Roman Senate basically a toothless legislature, a sham to mollify the Roman citizens, giving them the illusion of power they no longer had.
In 60 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar, Crassus and Pompey formed a political alliance that was to dominate Roman politics for several years. Their attempts to amass power through populist tactics were opposed by the conservative elite within the Roman Senate, among them Cato the Younger with the frequent support of Cicero. Caesar's conquest of Gaul (France), completed by 51 BC, extended Rome's territory to the English Channel and the Rhine. Caesar became the first Roman general to cross both when he built a bridge across the Rhine and conducted the first invasion of Britain. These achievements granted him unmatched military power and threatened to eclipse Pompey's standing. The balance of power was further upset by the Crassus’ death in 53 BC. Political realignments in Rome finally led to a standoff between Caesar and Pompey, the latter having taken up the cause of the Senate. Ordered by the Senate to stand trial in Rome for various charges, Caesar marched from Gaul to Italy with his legions, crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC. This sparked a civil war from which he emerged as the unrivaled leader of the Roman world.
Sulla's dictatorship came during a high point in the struggle between optimates and the populares. The optimates were the traditionalist majority of the late Roman Republic. They wished to limit the power of the popular assemblies and the Tribunes of the Plebs, and to extend the power of the Senate, which was viewed as more dedicated to the interests of the aristocrats who held the reins of power). In particular, they were concerned with the rise of individual generals who, backed by the tribunate, the assemblies and their own soldiers, could shift power from the Senate and aristocracy.
The populares (Latin popularis [sing.] meaning “favoring the people") were aristocratic leaders in the late Roman Repulic who relied on the people’s assemblies and tribunate to acquire political power. While they opposed the optimates, they were also patricians or noble plebeians of senatorial rank. The populares addressed the problems of the urban plebs, particularly subsidizing a grain dole, and in general favored limiting slavery, since slavery took jobs from poor free citizens. They also garnered political support by attempts to expand citizenship to communities outside Rome and Italy. They succeeded, but ultimately their own “open border” policy led to the downfall of the Roman Empire.
Popularist politics reached a peak under the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, who relied on the support of the people in his rise to power. After the creation of the Second Triumvirate (43 BC-33 BC), the populares ceased to function as a political movement.
The optimates sought to maintain the power of the oligarchy in the form of the Senate while the populares resorted in many cases to naked populism, culminating in Caesar’s dictatorship. Sulla used his armies to march on Rome twice, and after the second he revived the office of dictator, which had not been used since the Second Punic over a century before. He used his powers to enact a series of reforms to the Roman constitution, meant to restore the balance of power between the Senate and the tribunes (a title shared by elected officials in the Roman Republic Tribunes had the power to convene the Plebeian Council and to act as its president, which also gave them the right to propose legislation before it. They were sacrosanct, in the sense that any assault on their person was prohibited. They had the power to veto actions taken by magistrates, and specifically to intervene legally on behalf of plebeians. The tribune could also summon the Senate and lay proposals before it. The tribune's power, however, was only in effect while he was within Rome. His ability to veto did not affect regional governors).
Sulla stunned the Roman World (and posterity) by resigning the dictatorship, restoring normal constitutional government, and after his second Consulship, retiring to private life. Julius Caesar stunned the world by using his political influence to assume complete dictatorial powers, placating the mobs by allowing the Senate to remain in place while robbing it of any actual power, leaving the public all his private lands after his death, and ultimately meeting his fate at the feet of Pompey’s statue in Rome in March, 44 B.C.
How much farther does our country have to be convinced that Obama is not some simple-minded, well-intentioned bobblehead who's only trying to do his best for the country he loves, but an ambitious, arrogant man with very well-stated socialist inclinations who intends to literally destroy the American way of life? When asked whether too many rules were written (40,000) as of Jan. 1st, 2012, he was reported to have replied, “Too many rules? I don’t think we have enough rules.” His wife, when a young student was corrected for addressing the First Lady as “Your Majesty”, said that she actually didn’t mind the title, “Your Majesty.”
We may take the latter comment as a mere jest, but the former is a serious sign that the American people are being played for fools. History is repeating itself in the same insidious manner with Obama. We didn't take the laurel leaves he figuratively placed upon his head as a candidate seriously enough, nor the literal Roman columns from which he proclaimed he would "transform America." Some pundits take worried exception to comparing Obama to Mussolini. How can that be helped when Obama himself strikes Mussolini-esque poses? How much more of a warning do we need?
Read "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Tacitus' History of Rome, Churchill's seven-volume "Second World War." Seven volumes is excessive; you'll get the picture after the first 100 pages. Read Churchill's account of how the well-meaning but clueless Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler personally, and every time, lost another chunk of Europe to the little corporal. Chamberlain was 'charmed' by Adolf Hitler and his repeated, and broken, promises to restrain himself after just one more helping of European territory.
Finally, even Chamberlain had to admit he'd been duped. But by then it was too late, and the world was enveloped in a global war. Now Obama wants to downsize our troop size and weapons while China is building hers. Obama comes from a long line of U.S. presidential dictators. FDR used to call out to his secretary, Grace, to come in because he wanted to "dictate a law."
Sic semper tyrannus.