In times of crisis the Roman Republic reverted to a dictatorship. What does this indicate about the Roman republic?

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larrygates's profile pic

larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I cannot agree with the above post. Contrary to the above answer, the dictatorship provision of the Roman Constitution was an inherent weakness which ultimately brought down the Republic. The dictatorship was employed by Julius Caesar, who used his power as dictator to eliminate his rivals and rule by decree. He was assassinated because there were rumors that he planned to have himself crowned king of Rome. The Romans, proud of their Republic, never had a king, and did not intend to start. In the end, however, they lost their Republic.

A more recent example is perhaps far more indicative. Similar to the Constitution of the Roman Republic, the Constitution of the Weimar Republic of Germany also provided for a dictatorship during times of "emergency." The "emergency" for Germany was the burning of the Reichstag by a Communist sympathizer and ultimately led to the investment of dictatorial powers in Adolf Hitler. The rest is well known.

The provision for a dictator obviously was intended to provide for quick decision making without debate in times of immenent national peril. Even so, it was--and is--an inherent weakness which was--can can be--easily exploited. One should remember the words of Lord Acton:

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The United States of America has weathered a number of crises in its two hundred years without the necessity of a dictatorship. OUr founders were wise enough to avoid the mistakes of Rome and the later mistakes of Germany.

 

Sources:
readerofbooks's profile pic

readerofbooks | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

This is an excellent question! Yes, several times in Roman history, there was the need for dictators. Some of the famous dictators of the Roman Republic were Cincinatus, Sulla and Caesar. It should also be noted that the dictator also had a master of the horse. Hence, even though the dictator had absolute power for a time of crisis, there was some collegiality (an important principle among the Romans).

The fact that there was an official office of dictator in Rome suggestions two points.

First, it shows that the Romans understood that in times of crisis (usually military crisis) there was the need of a leader who had power to do whatever was necessary to save the state.

Second, the office of dictator also suggests that even a Republic with checks and balances was not a perfect constitution. There were times when a strong leader had to come in and straighten things out. The Romans knew that no one government was best for all situations. Their political wisdom stated that at times even the government had to change. And they did this at times.

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narukami's profile pic

narukami | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted on

In fact, the Romans did have kings, from the Founding in 753BCE until the overthrow of Tarquin The Proud in 509 BCE by Lucius Junius Brutus.

The Republic did not have a formal, written constitution as does the United States but over time the Romans developed a complex system of checks and balances that ideally would prevent one man or one class from holding too much power over their fellow citizens.  It was not fool proof by any means, it did generally work well enough to enable Rome to become Master of the Mediterranean.

Indeed, one might say the Romans did so in spite of themselves, for although the Romans were intensely proud of their Republic and of the Republican Freedoms; it became abundantly clear that the Republic, as constituted, could not effectively run an Empire. (One need but look at the Battle of Cannae to realize that an army with two commanders, often working at cross-purposes, could only lead to disaster.)

When the leaders of the Republic believed in and followed the concept of 'res publica' then the Roman Republic thrived.  However, when the leaders put themselves first, the Republic was doomed to fall.

 

With regard to assassination of Julius Caesar, I disagree that he was killed because the people feared he would make himself king. Instead I hold with the view, as expressed in Michael Parenti's book, The Assassination Of Julius Caesar (c2003) that Caesar was assassinated for the same reasons the Gracchi were murdered -- land reform.

The assassins were not looking to restore "freedom to the people" but rather to safeguard and enhance their own wealth.

Caesar was pushing forward land reforms that would restore the public lands (ager publicus) to the people.  The Senators had taken these lands for themselves, farming them with slaves.  Caesar sought to grant this land to Army veterans and Roman citizens as a way of re-leaving the crushing unemployment in Rome.  He offered to purchase the land from the Senators at market prices even though the land did not belong to the Senators in the first place.  Additionally he required that a certain percentage of farm workers be freeborn citizens and not solely slave labor.  Both of these measures would cut deeply into the Senator’s income.

There is also the question of jealousy.  Romans were fiercely competitive, and the system of honors and offices was designed to prevent any one person from out shining his fellow senators by too much.  However this system was proving inadequate against the onslaught of talent that characterized the Roman leaders of the 1st century BCE. Caesar's achievements simply blew the system out of the water.

Like the Gracchi before him, Caesar was a champion of the people and believed very much in the Roman concept of res publica (the Public Thing).  Indeed, it was his support of the people, particularly his land reforms, along with his outsized achievements, that motivated the assassins to murder Caesar.

See:

The Assassination Of Julius Caesar - A People's History Of Ancient Rome by Michael Parenti c2003

Rubicon - The Last Years Of The Roman Republic by Tom Holland c2004

Caesar - Life Of A Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy c2006

Chronicle Of The Roman Republic by Philip Matyszak c2003

 

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