Dictators have a bad name, but it was not always so. The word originally referred to a specific political office of the Roman Republic, which involved absolute power being invested in an individual (assisted by a deputy, called the Master of Horse/Magister Equitum) for a time-limited period.
This was done at moments of national crisis, and the holder of the office handed back the power and resigned when his task was done. (The major exception would be Julius Caesar who was appointed, perhaps not without his approving consent, dictator for life. However, Brutus et al. did manage to exploit the slight flaw in the plan by curtailing the lifespan of Caesar. It’s hard to be dictator when you’ve embarked upon an exciting new career as a human pincushion).
So, here are a few of the splendid dictators, whose excellence benefited Rome to a huge degree.
Marcus Furius Camillus
You have to be a pretty cool cat to get the nickname Second Founder of Rome, and so Marcus Furius Camillus was. He was made dictator a grand number of five times. His first stint was in a closely contested war with Veii, which was going quite badly. Camillus turned the situation around and utterly annihilated the adult male population of the city.
But, after another war (successful but with little plunder), Camillus was exiled from Rome by his political opponents.
Unfortunately for Rome, the Gauls then invaded, and crushed the Roman army before capturing Rome itself. It turns out exiling your greatest general just before your worst enemy invades isn’t terribly clever. Camillus organised his local militia and attacked the Gauls, who were drunkenly celebrating in their camp. As might be expected, he won a great victory, and was appointed dictator to give him full authority to ensure the Gauls were properly defeated. He then fought the Gauls besieging Rome, and rescued the city, earning himself the moniker Second Founder.
Titus Manlius Torquatus
Titus Manlius Torquatus was a very interesting chap. His father was an utter imbecile, and, because the young Titus had a speech impediment and was looked down on, sent him away to live almost as a servant. The same father then managed to piss off most of Rome when he held authority and was halfway through a trial when Titus returned to Rome, visited the prosecuting official, put a blade to his throat and made him swear to drop the case.
Whilst this is a questionable act of justice, it did earn Titus some credit for his filial loyalty, especially to a man who didn’t deserve it. Later, as a soldier, Titus fought a massive Gaul in single combat, slew him and claimed the torque from the corpse, earning him his new name.
Titus was a formidable general, as well as a soldier, commanding armies sometimes as a consul, and sometimes as a dictator. He was also extremely strict, and when it was agreed no man should leave his post on penalty of death, Titus was forced to execute his own son, whose youthful exuberance had outweighed his discipline.
Quintus Fabius Maximus
Rome had a problem in the Second Punic War. Its only battle tactic was to line up a lot of men, charge the enemy, and stab until the battle was won. Unfortunately, Hannibal Barca had repeatedly kicked their arse, most notably at Lake Trasimene. Tens of thousands of Romans were dead, hundreds of senior military and political officials were no more, and there were fears for Rome itself.
A dictator was called for. Quintus Fabius Maximus was the man selected, although his magister equitum, Marcus Minucius Rufus, was chosen for him, rather than by him. Maximus decided to adopt tactics that seemed strange, even cowardly, to Roman eyes. He didn’t try to fight Hannibal. Instead, he delayed, giving Rome time to build up his strength, harrying foragers sent by Hannibal (who was, after all, marauding in enemy territory). Moreover, his adversary was no fool. Although Hannibal was unable to ambush Maximus (and lost prisoners to the dictator), he left Maximus’ own estates untouched, creating feelings of resentment and even suspicion towards the dictator.
When prisoners were swapped (with the Carthaginians returning more Romans than vice versa), Maximus sold his estates to fund the extra compensation necessary to make up for the disparity in numbers.
Hannibal sought fresh foraging ground to the south, but Maximus realised this and recognised he could trap the Carthaginian in the mountains, fighting him where the excellent Numidian cavalry would be worth far less than on the plains of Italy. Hannibal escaped the noose by ‘attacking’ at night, using cattle with torches tied to their horns which sentinels mistook for an army, enabling the Carthaginians to slip away.
Maximus, who had acquired the not necessarily complimentary nickname Cunctator (Delayer), was annoying the Romans by his tactics. New consuls, Varro and Paullus were elected.
These two men brought (on a day of Varro’s command) matters to a head with a decisive attack on Hannibal, using a force four times the size of a regular consular army. The lessons of Maximus were thrown away, and perhaps the highest casualties recorded in Europe until the advent of machine-gun warfare in World War One was the result. The Battle of Cannae was a perfect military victory for Hannibal, and tens of thousands more Romans (including Paullus) were dead.
Later Roman generals took on the concepts of logistics and strategy emphasised by Maximus, notably Nero, Marcellus and, of course, Scipio Africanus.
If you want to read more on these fellows, and more besides, I can strongly recommend Livy’s Early History of Rome, Rome and Italy, and The Hannibalic War, as well as Polybius’ work on the Second Punic War.