Dictator, the chief magistrate in the cities of the ancient Latin confederacy, in Alba, Tus-culum, etc. The Romans adopted the word from their Latin neighbors, and applied it in the earliest period of the republic to exceptional magistrates appointed in times of danger, with nearly absolute power over life and property, from which there was no appeal to law or people. The dictator was usually nominated by the senate, and appointed by one of the consuls for six months, during which time the consuls and other regular magistrates continued in their office, though subject to his dictates, and deprived temporarily of their badges of dignity. The power of the dictator was mostly limited to one object, and particularly to foreign affairs. Being elected, he appointed his lieutenant or master of the horse (magister equitum) and surrounded himself with his 24 lictors (twice as many as attended the consuls), armed with fasces and axes. He was limited only in regard to the use of the public money, and responsible only after the expiration of his term; he was not allowed to leave Italy, or to appear on horseback within the precincts of the city. Officers bearing the same title were also sometimes appointed for certain civil or religious purposes.
This office was quite harmless, but in later periods dictators were appointed reipublicoe constitnendoe causa (to form a new constitution), such as Sulla and Caesar, whose arbitrary power destroyed the republic. The first Roman dictator, Lartius, was appointed within ten years after the establishment of the republic (about 500 B. C), to save the state from the threatening allies of Tarquin, the expelled king, and the more dangerous disturbances within the walls. The public lands were in the grasp of the patricians, and the plebeians were poor and degraded. The danger from the supporters of Tarquin was imminent. The senate commanded new levies, but the people refused to obey, declaring that they had nothing to defend, and that no foreign yoke could bring upon them greater hardships than those they endured. In their disobedience they were protected by the law recently passed through the efforts of Valerius Poplicola, which permitted every citizen condemned to any severe punishment to appeal to the people. To evade the force of this popular law, the senate agreed upon the extraordinary measure of electing a single magistrate with more than regal power. The people confirmed the decree, and the success and honesty of Lartius proved worthy of the new dignity.
About two years later another dictator, Aulus Posthumius, destroyed the last hopes of the banished king, in a battle fought near Lake Regillus. Not less remarkable were the services of the dictator L. Quintius Cincinnatus, who, having accomplished the object of his appointment by routing the AEqui and saving the surrounded consular army, resigned his dignity within 17 days. 0. M. Rutilus (356) was the first plebeian appointed to the dictatorship, and M. J. Pera (216) was the last dictator in the original sense of the word; for the same dignity, as bestowed on Sulla (82), and three times on Caesar (47, 45, and 44), meant only unlimited, despotic sway. Mark Antony abolished it altogether.