Well here’s one with style: Gaius Julius Caesar, main antagonist in the “Asterix” comic series, also incidentally a Roman general and one whose legacy led to the relegation of the Roman republic to a mere slogan and the rise of an empire which would hold for the next 14 centuries. Not bad, considering that the next guy to seriously take a stab at a thousand year realm managed to uphold one for twelve only and went down in history as one of the greatest villain of all time.
But back to Caesar and his fellow Romans. Before the dawn of the Roman empire, ancient Rome was indeed a republic, with a senate, elected magistrates and a system of checks and vetoes to keep the powers in balance. It became a republic after having been a monarchy for centuries, when the seventh and last king of Rome was ousted and his Imperium or power bestowed upon two consuls elected yearly by the Roman citizens.
In extremely dire circumstances, when the republic was in jeopardy, the senate would call for the consuls to appoint a dictator to take the matter in hand. Dictatorship in ancient Rome, unlike what it became later in history, was a temporary and exceptional magistracy above all others, entrusted with the full authority of the state. All other magistrates were subordinated to its imperium, including the two elected consuls, and the powers conferred to it were nearly absolute. Kind of a last resort superhero summoned to save the republic when all else had failed.
Given the extraordinary nature of the role and the risk it instilled on the state if misused, a dictator was to resign once his mission was accomplished or within a timeframe set by the senate, usually 6 months. As you would expect, some dictators would not abide by this rule. Julius Cesar managed to be appointed as dictator for life by the senate in 44 BC. It would only be the forth time he yielded such a formidable and unappealable power and the final step of a journey where he will have concentrated all the powers normally bestowed on different magistrates for a fixed term into his own hands and for life, essentially becoming an absolute ruler, a de facto emperor of what was until then a republic.
Cesar’s quest was a constant search for perpetual power and a constant justification of his entitlement to it. He would have to fight tremendous rivals who would rise between him and the destiny he saw for himself. Pompey the great, or Crassus, richest man in the Roman republic, or Cato the Younger, the incorruptible senator, to name a few. He would work around them through alliances and bribery or defeat them in battle, but all to no avail it would seem as in the end, his insatiable quest led to his demise. He would be ambushed and stabbed 23 times by a group of senators led by Brutus in 44 BC, an assassination which the intrigants will present as a tentative to save the republic from tyranny, but which would end up sparking a civil war and ushering the dawn of the Roman empire, with Octavian, Caesar’s heir, as its fist emperor under the name of Imperator Caesar divi filius Augustus.
On the other hand, here’s another dictator with no less style:
Back in the early days of the republic, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was an old patrician who had fallen in disfavor and made to sell most of his estate and retire from public life. He was nevertheless called by the Senate to assume the dictatorial magistracy in 458 BC when the republic was facing dire military hardships. He embraced this formidable power, went on to heroically defeat the Aequi at the Battle of Mount Algidus against all odds and relinquished his Imperium a mere 16 days after it has been granted to him, having brought the mission to a close. He would be appointed as Dictator again in 439 BC only to resign his dictatorship 21 days later upon mission success, in a near similar reenactment of his first dictatorship.
Cincinnatus was held in very high esteem by ancient Romans even centuries after his time. His legacy lived on and even today, there are numerous places which bear his name and stand as testament to his integrity, civic virtue and leadership, the least known of which not being the city of Cincinnati in the United States.
He was most probably an inspiration to George Washington, first president of the United States of America and later a president of the Society of the Cincinnati, who surrendered his command of the continental army after the treaty of Paris was signed and later refused to run for a third term as president of the United States, which he could have certainly secured had he bothered to run for it, setting by that a precedent to which all later presidents but one will abide, until it would eventually be made into law. Washington was “first in war, first in peace and first in the heart of his countrymen” as per Henry Lee’s eulogy of him. And still is the titular figure on the one dollar bill, but no more than that it would seem, at least since January 6, 2021.
Alas, his legacy seems to have been forgotten, as 224 years after the father of the nation stepped down as president at the end of his second term, America, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, would tear itself apart over a man’s ambition, much like Rome many centuries earlier, over the legacy of a man whose thirst for power would dry out a republic and quench an empire for 14 centuries.
Let the board sound,
2 thoughts on “On dictators”
Acteur -> Actrice
Dictateur -> … Dictatrice? Dictateuse? Dictée????
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