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Dictator and magister equitum – a unique case

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman fasces
Roman fasces | Illustration: Ottův slovník naučný, 1895

In Roman Republic there could be only one dictator. But for a short time in the most turbulent period in the history of Rome a single exception took place. Commander of the cavalry appointed by Quintus Fabius Maximus gained power equal to that of the dictator.

Dictatorship as an office in the structure of Roman Republic appeared at the turn of the 5th century BCE. The dictator was an extraordinary magistrate (extraordinarius), initially called magister populi and, according to Livy, also praetor maximus. He was selected by centuriate assemblies and then appointed by the consuls on request of the senate – it was the only appointed office in the republic.

The unique nature of dictatorship was completed by the directly associated office of the commander of the cavalry. Magister equitum was appointed by the dictator himself and, just like the dictatorship, it was not a collegiate position.

From the annals one can find out about a single case when the commander of the cavalry gained power equal to that of the dictator – Marcus Minucius Rufus served as the commander of the cavalry during the dictatorship of Quintus Fabius Maximus Cuntator, his political rival, whose military strategy he disagreed with. During the campaign against Hannibal in the Second Punic War, when Quintus Fabius Maximus returned to Rome in order to perform religious ceremonies, he decided against express orders to undertake actions against Hannibal. He successfully provoked the Carthaginian units and, when they took the hills surrounding the Roman camp, he attacked and took over their positions when their horses were resting. In connection with the achieved success, he was given command equal to the position of Quintus Fabius Maximus. It was the only case in the history of Rome when the legions were commanded by two dictators at the same time. In the end, however, Marcus Minucius Rufus accepted the leadership of Cunctator after he saved his life during the battle of Geronium.

Marcus Minucius Rufus died during the battle of Cannae.

Author: Jakub Ernt
  • Tytus Liwiusz, Dzieje od założenia miasta Rzymu, przekład W. Strzelecki, Wrocław 2004.
  • B. Wilson, Dictator: the evolution of the Roman dictatorship, Ann Arbor 2021.
  • Wyrwińska, Civis romanus sum: rzymskie prawo publiczne: wybrane zagadnienia, Kraków 2015.
  • Zabłocki, A. Tarwacka, Publiczne prawo rzymskie, Warszawa 2011.

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