16. This Roman Dictator Was Definitely Not Benevolent
During its first few centuries, the Roman Republic was fortunate that no dictator went rogue and seriously abused the extraordinary powers handed to him. That good fortune ran out with the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 – 79 BC), a general who led the Optimates – Rome’s conservative and aristocratic-leaning political faction.
Sulla did something that no Roman dictator or general before him had done: he led his legions in a march on Rome. Sulla seized power by force, and fought and won a civil war against the Populares – Rome’s progressive-leaning political faction. He then had himself appointed dictator, and massacred his political opponents by the thousands. Sulla also enacted constitutional reforms that were intended – but ultimately failed – to strengthen the Roman Republic in its final decades.
15. This Dictator Started Off as a Seducer – and Murderer – of Wealthy Older Women
Sulla belonged to an old patrician family, but it was centuries removed from its heyday by the time he was born. He grew up dissolute and debauched, consorting with actors – a despised profession in those days. However, Sulla was strikingly handsome, so as a young man, he earned his keep by seducing and preying upon wealthy older women. At least two of them died in suspicious circumstances after naming Sulla as sole heir in their wills.
He began his political career during the Numidian War (112 – 106 BC) as quaestor, or financial magistrate, for Rome’s then-greatest general, Gaius Marius. However, when Sulla captured the Numidian king by treachery and claimed credit for ending the war, he aroused Marius’ resentment. That was the start of bad blood between the two men. The consequences were dire: the shedding of rivers of actual blood, and kicking off a chain of events that eventually culminated in the collapse of the Roman Republic.
14. Petty Jealousy Ends With a Roman General Leading His Legions on a March Against Rome
In 91 BC, the Social War broke out between Rome and her Italian allies and subjects, who demanded Roman citizenship and rights. Sulla performed brilliantly in that conflict, which ended in 88 BC. His erstwhile commander, Gaius Marius, who was aged and ailing by then, did not. In 88 BC, Sulla was elected consul, he was given command of war against Pontus, in today’s Turkey. However, Marius engineered the enactment of a law that stripped the command from Sulla, and gave it to Marius instead.
Sulla responded by informing his legions that if Marius was appointed to command the war, he would use his own legions and not Sulla’s men. That would deprive Sulla’s men of the rich rewards they had expected in the form of booty from a successful war against Pontus. With their financial interests threatened, the legions supported Sulla in marching on Rome.
13. Unlike Prior Roman Dictators, This Dictator Abused His Power in a Serious Way
When Sulla marched on Rome, Gaius Marius and his supporters were forced to flee. When Sulla eventually left to fight the war against Pontus, Marius returned to Rome with his own army in 87 BC. He had Sulla’s enactments reversed, executed about a dozen leading Sulla supporters, and in 86 BC, he was elected consul for an unprecedented seventh time. Marius’ seventh consulship did not last long: he died only 17 days into his term in office.
After winning the war against Pontus, Sulla returned to Rome with his army, defeated the Marians, and entered the city in 82 BC. He undid all the Marian legislations, introduced reactionary conservative constitutional reforms that solidified the power of the aristocracy and weakened that of the middle classes, and got himself appointed dictator. He then massacred the Marians and Populares by the thousands. Sulla posted prescriptions, or lists naming enemies of the state who could be legally killed by anybody in exchange for a reward and a share of the victim’s property upon presentation of his head to Sulla’s agents. He resigned in 79 BC, retreated into private life, and died the following year.
History’s best dictator was probably Gaius Octavius, better known as Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), Rome’s first emperor. Octavius was born to an affluent plebian family on his father’s side, while his mother was of the patrician Julii lineage, and a niece of Julius Caesar. Octavius’ famous grand-uncle launched his grand-nephew into public life and groomed him to be his heir. Octavius was in Albania, completing his military and academic studies when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC.
When he got back to Rome, Octavius learned that Caesar had adopted him as his son in his will, and made him his chief heir. He was advised to decline the dangerous inheritance, but he ignored the advice and went to Rome. There, Caesar’s lieutenant, Mark Antony, refused to honor the will. Caesar’s assassins, from the conservative faction known as the Optimates, ignored the teenaged Octavius. Cicero, one of Rome’s prominent elder statesmen and a leading figure of a politically powerful but militarily weak faction, sought to manipulate him, quipping that he would: “raise, praise, then erase” the young man. He was mistaken.
11. History’s Greatest Dictator Was Underestimated by Everybody
Just about everybody underestimated Octavius. They took him for a lightweight teenager who had nothing going for him except the famous Caesar name. However, the unprepossessing young man – he was frail and prone to illness throughout his life – was a master politician. So he set out to play the long game. The future dictator paid for public games in honor of Julius Caesar, his adoptive father. He sought to gain recognition and popularity, and lead Rome’s populist faction, fittingly known as the Populares. Octavius also set out to woo Caesar’s veteran soldiers to his side.
He succeeded beyond anybody’s expectations. With a military force at Octavius’ command, Cicero’s faction sought his aid. They bent the rules to appoint him a senator despite his being legally below the minimum age, and sent him against Mark Antony, who was forced to retreat from Italy to Gaul. The consuls in official command of the forces arrayed against Mark Antony were killed, so Octavius got the Senate to appoint him to a vacant consulship, once again despite being legally too young for the position.
10. The Rise of This Dictator Was Bad News for Rome’s Patricians
Once he secured himself a consulship, Octavius promptly double-crossed the very Senate and senators who had bent the rules to get him the position. He reached an agreement with Mark Antony, and joined him in a power-sharing dictatorship. A generation earlier, after his victory in Rome’s first civil war, the dictator Sulla, head of the conservative patrician Optimates faction, had gone after the Populares faction that had stood for the Roman commoners.
Sulla murdered the Populares by the thousands in terrifying proscriptions. The conservative victory was not permanent, however. As seen below, once Octavius secured power at the head of the Populares, he paid back the Optimates in full, and with interest to boot.
9. This Benevolence of this Dictator Did Not Extend to His Enemies
A generation after the dictator Sulla’s proscriptions at the head of the patrician Optimates devastated the Populares faction, the pendulum swung when Octavius and Mark Antony, now leading the Populares, went after the Optimates. In even bloodier and more thorough prescriptions than those of Sulla against the Populares, the duo launched a massive purge that executed thousands of Rome’s conservative Optimates. They also killed other suspected opponents, including Cicero, who had tried to follow a centrist path only to end up offending both sides.
Having slaughtered the conservative faction and broken its back for good, Octavius and Mark Antony next went to war against Julius Caesar’s assassins. They defeated them and exacted revenge for the death of Caesar. In subsequent generations, in the Roman Empire, what remained of the patrician class was gradually killed off, as they were caught up in or were falsely accused of conspiracies against various emperors, until they became virtually extinct.
8. After Removing His Enemies, Octavius Went After His Former Partner
After defeating their enemies, Octavius and Mark Antony swore friendship, and sealed their agreement to share power with Antony wedding Octavius’ sister. They then divided the Roman world, with Antony ruling the east, while Octavius stayed in Rome and ruled the west. However, the duo fell out when Antony fell in love with Cleopatra in Egypt, and married her, abandoning Octavius’ sister.
The future emperor used that family insult as a pretext to attack Antony. He defeated his former partner decisively in 31 BC, and became Rome’s sole ruler and de facto dictator. He then seized Egypt and the eastern provinces, which finally brought the entire Roman world under his control.
7. From Overlooked Teenager to Dictator, Emperor, and Founder of the Roman Empire
After he defeated Mark Antony, Octavius set about reorganizing the state. He ended the Roman Republic, whose political structure, created for a city-state, had proved impractical for the governance of a vast empire. The Republic’s fraying institutions had led to a century of chaos and bloodshed until the reins of power were taken in hand by Octavius.
In recognition of his ending the generations of chaos and restoring stability, the Roman Senate granted Octavius the honorific title “Augustus”, by which he is known to history. In the Republic’s place, Augustus established the Roman Empire, with himself as its de facto dictator.
6. Augustus Declined the Formal Office of Dictator, While Accepting All the Powers of a Dictator for Life
Rome’s elites had hated Julius Caesar because of the perception that he wanted to be king – a title and position that the Romans loathed. As seen previously, although a traditional Roman Republic dictator had nearly absolute and semi-monarchical powers, his term was limited to a maximum of six months. In 82 BC, Sulla had himself appointed dictator with no time limit set on his office, but he resigned the following year. By contrast, Julius Caesar had first gotten himself appointed dictator for ten years, then extended it to dictator for life. That made him king in all but name, so Rome’s traditionalists did away with him.
After Caesar’s assassination, the office of dictator was formally abolished. In 23 BC, the Senate offered to revive the office and make Augustus dictator. Well aware of his uncle’s fate and wishing to avoid a similar plot that could do him in, he declined. However, he accepted the executive powers of a consul for life, as well as those of a tribune – whose person was theoretically inviolate. Thus, Augustus effectively assumed the powers of a dictator for life, without the title. That setup was passed on to his successors.
5. The Dictatorship of Augustus Ushered in the Most Prosperous Stretch of Roman History
The Roman Empire ushered in by Augustus as dictator in fact but not in name, replaced the Roman Republic. It was a stable, autocratic, and centralized de-facto monarchy, whose founding kicked off a period known as the Pax Romana. It brought the Greco-Roman world two centuries of peace, stability, and prosperity.
Augustus held power in the Roman world from 43 BC, first in conjunction with Mark Antony until 31 BC, and thereafter alone, until his death in 14 AD. As he lay dying, Augustus compared the role he had played as emperor to that of an actor on a stage. His last words to those gathered around his deathbed were: “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit“.
The powers of a de facto dictator were passed on to Augustus’ successors. They included Titus Flavius Vespasianus, better known to history as Vespasian (9 AD – 79 AD), who was born in an unremarkable Italian village to an undistinguished family. His ancestors included a common legionary who went on to become a centurion, a debt collector, and a small-scale money lender with a clientele of barbarians. Vespasian rose from those humble origins to become emperor and found the Flavian Dynasty.
A self-made man, Vespasian entered the cursus honorum (the career ladder of Roman officialdom) as a military tribune. He rose steadily through military and civilian positions of increasing responsibility. His first big break came during the invasion of Britain in 43 AD. He displayed exceptional brilliance in command of a Roman legion, and his military talent earned him the esteem of Emperor Claudius. Vespasian’s success in Britain led to a consulship, but then he displeased the emperor’s wife and was forced to retire soon thereafter.
3. Vespasian Lived Through The Year of the Three Emperors, and Decided to Make it the Year of the Four Emperors
Vespasian reemerged from retirement after Emperor Claudius’ death, and won favor with his successor, Emperor Nero. However, his revived career was derailed when he gave offense by falling asleep while Nero was giving a lyre recital. Vespasian’s fortunes sank so low, that he was forced to become a muleteer in order to make ends meet. His fortunes revived once again in 67 AD, when he was appointed to suppress the Great Jewish Revolt.
Vespasian was busily engaged in doing that, when Nero was forced to flee Rome and driven to suicide in 68 AD. In the subsequent scramble for power, competing governors and generals mounted the throne in quick succession. By April, 69 AD, the year was already known as “The Year of the Three Emperors”. Vespasian reasoned why not four?
2. Rome’s First Emperor From a Non-Senatorial Background
In the chaos following the fall of Nero, Vespasian seized the moment. He secured support in the Roman east, where he had been sent down to put down the Jewish Revolt, and declared himself emperor. He sent his forces to Rome, and by the end of 69 AD, he had won. That victory made him Rome’s first emperor who hailed not from a senatorial family, but an equestrian one – a social rank below that of senators.
Vespasian’s rule was successful, as he restored stability and good governance, and launched a massive building and public works program. Construction of Rome’s Colosseum, known at the time as the Flavian Amphitheater, was begun in his reign. It was completed and inaugurated in the reign of his son and successor, Titus.
1. Despite Wielding the Powers of a Dictator, Vespasian Never Lost the Common Touch or Forgot His Humble Origins
Despite having all the powers of a dictator, Vespasian was never full of himself, and had a reputation for wit and amiability. As emperor, he seldom stood on ceremony, but cultivated a blunt and even coarse mannerism, and was given to forthright speech. Never forgetting his humble origins, he resisted the temptation to put on airs, to which most Roman emperors succumbed. One of his revenue-raising schemes involved a tax on public urinals, which was widely ridiculed. His son and designated heir took him to task for that, arguing that it was beneath imperial dignity to collect revenue from bodily excreta.
Vespasian responded by holding a coin beneath his son’s nose, and asking whether he could smell any urine. He concluded by saying: “money does not smell” – which became a Latin proverb. Starting with Julius Caesar, who was declared a god after his assassination, Roman emperors who died in good repute were deified after death. When he felt the end nearing in 79 AD, Vespasian, in a final illustration of his lifelong penchant for not taking himself too seriously, joked just before dying: “dear me, I think I am becoming a god“.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading