BRIA 8 4 b Democracy and Dictatorship in Ancient Rome

It was mainly the patricians, the wealthy landowning nobles, who got to vote. As a result, the consuls in the early years of the Republic were always patricians. Later, however, at least one consul had to come from the plebeian class, the commoners.

Before the Republic, the king had been advised by a Senate. Once the monarchy was gone, the Senate took on more power and ruled Rome alongside the two consuls. On the surface, the consuls seemed to hold more power than senators, but they held office for only a year while the senators served for life.


The founders of the Roman Republic, like the American founding fathers, placed checks and balances on the power of their leaders. The Romans, however, came up with a way to sidestep these checks and balances when strong leadership was needed, such as a time of crisis. The Senate could vote to grant absolute power to one man, called a dictator, for a temporary period.

During the first 300 years of the Republic, dictators were often called on when Rome faced an invasion or some internal danger. Unlike the dictators of the 20th century—such as Adolf Hitler in Germany or Augusto Pinochet in Chile—the dictatorship was limited to six months or even less if the crisis passed. If a dictator refused to step down, he could be forcibly removed.

The Roman dictator's power was absolute. He could rule by decree. He could even order executions without a trial. For centuries, Roman dictators served when duty called and gave up power when their terms ended.

But in 82 B.C., a general named Cornelius Sulla seized control of Rome. Sulla's dictatorship was not like those of the past. He bypassed the Senate, which was filled with his enemies, and convinced the citizens' assembly to make him a permanent dictator. Sulla then banished or killed hundreds of his opponents.

Sulla became what the ancient Greeks called a tyrant, a man who seizes personal control with military power. When he traveled in public, Sulla was always preceded by 24 guards. Each guard carried an ax bound by a bundle of rods called fasces. This is the origin of the word fascism—the word the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini used to describe his political movement in the early 20th century.

After more than three years of tyranny, Sulla suddenly resigned. For the next 30 years, the Roman Republic stumbled along, sometimes in near anarchy. Spartacus led a massive slave revolt that almost brought down the Republic. During all this turmoil, new feuds and factions emerged. This would be the last generation of the Roman Republic.

The Dictatorship of Julius Caesar

By 53 B.C., factions in the Senate had paralyzed the Roman government. The annual consul election degenerated into a contest of who could bribe the most voters. Street riots erupted. In a desperate move to restore order, the assembly elected General Gnaeus Pompey to serve as sole consul for a year. Informally, Pompey shared power with two other powerful generals—Julius Caesar and Marcus Crassus. Crassus was the general who had defeated Spartacus. And Caesar was the governor and military conqueror of Gaul. This military committee became known as the First Triumvirate.

Caesar used his money and influence to put supporters like Mark Antony into key positions. Caesar's many enemies in Rome spread rumors that he planned to take power. In 49 B.C.E., Caesar did mass his legions at the border between Gaul and Italy. Foes of Caesar spread the word that Caesar was about to invade Italy with his army. The consul Marcellus declared Pompey the defender of the city.

The Senate demanded that Caesar give up his provincial command. Caesar answered by leading his army across the Rubicon River into Italy. This "crossing of the Rubicon" was an act of war, since a Roman general was forbidden to lead an army outside the province he governed. Pompey and most of the senators fled the country.

Unlike Sulla, Caesar did not butcher his opponents. He attempted to form alliances with them, and he had himself elected consul. Caesar then took his army in pursuit of Pompey and defeated him in Africa. After staying for some time with Cleopatra in Egypt, Caesar returned to Rome.

By 45 B.C., Caesar had defeated all the troops loyal to Pompey. The Senate acclaimed him "Liberator" and made him dictator for 10 years. Caesar distributed bonuses to his troops, gave money to every citizen, and pardoned his enemies.

During the five years of his rule, Caesar decreed many reforms such as a new calendar and relief for debtors. In return, the Roman people heaped honors on him. One of the Roman months was renamed Julius, our July. Statues of Caesar were raised in different parts of the city. His image appeared on coins. Then, in February 44 B.C., Caesar was made dictator for life.

According to tradition, Mark Antony publicly offered a king's crown to Caesar, who refused it three times. As king, Caesar would no longer need the Senate or even the Roman citizens to stay in power. It is difficult to know if his refusal was sincere because he was assassinated only a few days later.

Caesar's death plunged Rome into 17 years of civil war. The warfare finally ended when Octavian, Caesar's adopted son, became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Although the forms of the Republic such as the Senate and the election of the consuls continued, the emperor held all power. Democracy in Rome was dead and dictatorship had won.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. How did the Roman Republic attempt to limit the power of its political leaders? Why did the Romans do this?

  2. Do you think Caesar should have accepted the crown of a king? Why or why not?

  3. After the bloody attack on Caesar, one of the characters in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar shouts, "Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!" Do you agree or disagree with these words? Explain.

  4. Many of the historical characters mentioned in this article have been the subjects of plays and films. From your library or video store, rent one of the following films: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra, or Spartacus. View the film, then look up the character in biographies or history books. Compare how the character has been treated by historians and filmmakers. Suggest reasons for any differences. Prepare a five paragraph essay on your findings and make a report to the class.

For Further Information

Rome Project Huge collection of links. Excellent site. From the Dalton School.

Frank E. Smitha's The Ancient World An online book.

The Rise of Ancient Rome
Rome, Greeks, and Sulla's Dictatorship
Judea and Civil War
Fall of the Roman Republic
Jews and Christians in Rome's Golden Age
Rule by the Julio-Claudians
Rome, From Golden Age to Political Chaos
Remnants of the Roman Empire

Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome Huge collection of primary source material.

Maps of the Roman Republic and Empire

The Roman Republic From 509 B.C. to the Elevation of Augustus

The Roman Republic Lecture notes.

Notes on Roman Politics By Barbara McManus, College of New Rochelle.

The Roman Republic Constitution An explanation of the government of the Republic.

A Roman History Timeline Timelines of the major periods in Roman history.

Julius Caesar: The Last Dictator A biography of Caesar and Rome. By Suzanne Cross.

Rome History, culture, philosophy, and resources. By Richard Hooker.

Illustrated History of the Roman Empire Extensive information.

The Romans The history of Rome. By the BBC.

Rome: Republic to Empire Web page originally developed for a course titled "Ancient Rome in Film, Fiction, and Fact.

Roma: Political System Briefly reviews three eras: Kings, Republic, and Empire.

Ordinary Consuls of the Roman Republic and Empire, 300 B.C.-68 A.D A list of the consuls.

The Roman Empire in the First Century From PBS.

The Roman Empire A history of Rome.

Daily Life in Ancient Rome

The Roman Civilisation

Forum Romanum A helpful starting point for anyone interested in the civilization of ancient Rome. By David Camden.

Resources for Augustan Studies Links to sites on Octavian.

From Octavian to Augustus: Timeline and Images

When Roman Law Ruled the Western World Reading and lesson from Constitutional Rights Foundation, which includes extensive links on Roman law.


Should We Do As the Romans Did?

In this activity, students discuss the merits of a constitutional amendment that applies the Roman concept of the short-term problem-solving dictator to contemporary America.

Background: America today faces many serious problems. We have been attacked on our soil and are engaged in a war on terrorism. The times are difficult and the problem of terrorism seems intractable.

No one has proposed a solution as extreme as the following, but similar things have happened in other countries. Imagine that a group of senators has offered a constitutional amendment to give the president total power for a period of one year. He can rule by decree and do whatever he or she thinks necessary to solve our problems. This is the wording of the crucial part of the amendment:

Upon the consent of no less than three-fourths of each branch of Congress, the President shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States or any of its citizens when it becomes necessary to counteract the repercussions of unresolved national crises. Such Powers shall be operative for no more than 12 months from the date that the exercise of such power is decreed.

  1. Discuss this amendment briefly with the students and then have them form small committees to discuss the idea. Have each committee list three reasons for its position.

  2. Report the votes and the reasons to the class. You might conduct a class vote to pass or reject the amendment. A three-fourths majority is necessary for passage.

Suggested Debriefing Questions

If you approved the amendment:

  1. How would you be certain that the president would give up this total power after 12 months?

  2. Is solving immediate problems more important than maintaining our democratic traditions? Why or why not?

If you disapproved:

  1. How can America solve its serious problems without resorting to solutions like martial law?

  2. What can be done to make our current government work better?



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