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In early Rome, there was an office called the dictatorship. There was a resort to this institution only in an emergency when the senate and the two consuls were persuaded that the latter were not up to the challenge and that the crisis could not be handled unless there was a suspension of the laws that ordinarily limited the power of magistrates. The dictator’s scope was restricted. He was appointed for a particular purpose – and for that purpose only. He was supposed to resign when the emergency passed. Under no circumstances could he remain in office longer than six months, and when his authority lapsed he was subject to judgment. Necessity was the sole justification for any breach of the law.
The office fell into abeyance after the Second Punic War. It was revived, however, in a different form by Sulla who held the office for a handful of years after Rome’s first civil war, and it was revived again in yet another form by Julius Caesar, who had himself named dictator for life. During the American Revolution, a proposal was floated for including a provision for dictatorship within the Virginia constitution, and Thomas Jefferson fiercely attacked the idea in his Notes on the State of Virginia.More