According to the Roman historian Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE) and the folklore and records at his disposal, the ancient Roman Republic appointed a man name Mamercus Aemilius as dictator (for a second time in his life) around the year 434 BCE. His assignment to that high position was reportedly due to Rome’s perceived sense of threat from the Etruscan cities that rivaled the Romans—most notably Veii—and his role as dictator would have been to mobilize and deploy Rome’s military if hostile armies appeared on the horizon. Roman intuition and intelligence proved false on that occasion, however, and no armies from any rival Italian city-states made a move against Rome’s territory that year. It quickly became clear that the Romans were not facing an existential threat at that time, and Mamercus Aemilius began feeling pressured to step down as dictator. Yet, he did not want to resign from his powerful position without having achieved anything while in office. As no military opportunities presented themselves to the dictator, he decided to turn his attention to reform.
After investigating corrupt and inefficient offices in the Roman government, Mamercus finally decided which position he would attempt to reform—the office of censor. As the story goes, he made the simple adjustment of reducing the censor’s term of office from five years to 1.5 years. After completing that change, Mamercus reportedly stepped down as dictator and returned to being an average citizen.
Unfortunately, although Mamercus had reduced the years that censors remained in office, he did not decrease the power that they wielded during their shortened term of office. As such, the censors were supposedly able to exact a brutal revenge against the former dictator. As told by Livy, “The censors, on the other hand, were furious at what Mamercus had done; they struck his name from the register of his tribe, octupled his assessment for tax and reduced him to the lowest class of citizens, thus disenfranchising him and making him ineligible for any public office” (The History of Rome, 4.24). It is unclear if this punishment, assuming that the tale is indeed factual, remained permanent or if it was fixed when the next censors were appointed. For his reform and his non-violent resignation from the office of dictator, Mamercus became a hero of the plebeians, and the backlash of the censors was also deemed harsh and inappropriate by the patricians. Nevertheless, however long Mamercus lived under the burdens of the censors’ retribution, he was said to have borne the penalties with dignity and grace.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Manius Curius Dentatus refuses the gifts of the Samnites, painted by Vincenzo Camuccini (1771 – 1844), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.