In the early centuries of the ancient Roman Republic, the people of Rome frequently relied on dictatorships to survive against existential threats. Early Republic dictatorships such as these traditionally lasted about six months, during which time Rome hopefully overcame the crisis it faced. Yet, the ancient Romans seemed to have had a broad definition for what qualified as an existential threat or crisis. If Rome was fighting a complicated war on multiple fronts, the early Romans might declare a dictatorship. If a hostile army or large rogue raiding party unexpectedly entered Roman territory, the early Romans might declare a dictatorship. If the plebeians were becoming too unruly at home around election time, early Romans might declare a dictatorship. These were common reasons for the Roman Republic to appoint dictators during the first couple centuries of its existence. A man named Publius Valerius Publicola, however, was proclaimed a dictator for a much more unique reason—he was given dictatorial power so that he could lead Rome and its neighbors in celebrating a holiday.
The year was 344 BCE, and the people of Rome at that time were reportedly experiencing ominous signs of extreme divine displeasure toward the Romans. As told by the Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), “a shower of stones rained down and darkness spread over the sky in the daytime. The Books were consulted and, as the City was full of religious forebodings, the Senate decided to appoint a dictator to arrange a public holiday for religious observance” (Livy, Roman History, 7.28). Such was the mission that Publius Valerius Publicola was tasked with during his dictatorship.
Although the dictator’s goals here did not directly involve the military, he did apparently employ force at various times to further his religious objectives. For one, he and his allies in the Roman government reportedly carried out a crackdown on businesses that the gods supposedly found displeasing, such as moneylending. And since, as Livy claimed, “It was agreed that not only the Roman tribes but also neighboring peoples should offer supplication…” (Roman History, 7.28), Publius Valerius Publicola might have needed to call out the military to compel non-compliant cities to join the holiday celebrations.
Unfortunately, no more details about the dictator’s religious holiday were recorded. Similarly, no record was made on if the divine omens and signs improved in Rome after the celebration. Whatever the case, the dictatorship came to an end, and Publius Valerius Publicola relinquished his power.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Triumph of Marius, painted by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (c. 1696–1770), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.