Titus Lartius, the first Roman Dictator

Titus Lartius(surnamed Flavus and in other sources Rufus; years active in office 501-493 BC) was one of the most important Roman statesmen of the Early Roman Republic, the first dictator of Rome and twice elected consul.

His actions as the first Roman Dictator helped defend the Roman Republic against a strong coalition whose goal was to restore the Tarquinii.

I. Background

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Titus Lartius was a member of the prestigious Lartia gens(also spelled Lartii, Larcia, Larcius or Largia). The Lartii were an influential and wealthy patrician family during the beginning of the Roman Republic.

 They earned a great amount of prestige by participating actively in the defense of the newly created Roman Republic.

Spurius Lartius, brother of Titus Lartius, was one of the two companions who helped the famous Roman Hero, Horatius Cocles to defend the Pons Siblicius(wooden bridge across the Tiber river) against the Etruscan army led by King Lars Porsena.

Horatius Cocles alongside Spurius Lartius

The defense of the wooden bridge not only saved Rome but also helped propel Spurius Lartius political career.

For this great achievement, Spurius Lartius will be elected consul twice, in 506 and 490 BC.

II. Titus Lartius: early military and political career

Much of Titus Lartius early military and political career remains unknown, but we can assume that since he was elected consul in the year 501 B.C, he followed all the steps of the cursus honorum.

His colleague was Posthumus Cominio Aurunco.

The first consul mandate of Titus Lartius was marked by political instability, both internally and externally. Many riots occurred on the streets of Rome, many of them attributed to the actions of a faction of Sabines.  

At the same time, a slave rebellion also started.

During his first mandate as consul, Titus Lartius and his colleague manage to restore the order on the streets of Rome, but tensions and the external threat were still on the rise.

The rising tensions on the streets of Rome represented the anticipation of the greater threat which was about to arrive.

According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in the same year when Titus Lartius became consul, the cities from the Latin League had withdrawn from their friendship treaty with Rome.

This move was part of a bigger plot against the young Roman Republic; Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and his son-in-law, Octavius Mamilius, planned to overthrow the new regime and reclaim their power with the help of the Latin League.

From Dionysius of Halicarnassus, we know that the Tarquinii won the support of the cities of the Latin League through bribes and promises in return for support against the Roman Republic.

The first hostile act of this new alliance between the Tarquinii and the Latin League will be to exclude Rome from the annual assembly at Ferentinum(each year Rome and the cities of the Latin League discussed during this meeting important political and military affairs).

In 498 B.C, Titus Lartius was re-elected consul, this time his colleague was Quintus Cloelius Siculus.

While Cloelius would deal with the administrative and internal affairs, Titus Lartius assembled a well-equipped army and marched against the city of Fidenae, which represented a center of resistance of the Latin League.

Although the Fidenates sent letters to the other Latin cities to ask for support, the other Latin cities failed to send any reinforcements.

As a consequence, the city of Fidenae quickly falls to the forces led by Titus Lartius.

The fall of Fidenae was a great victory for the Roman armies and a major signal for the Tarquinii and Latin League Alliance who now had a good reason for assembling an anti-Roman army.

The time for a showdown between the Tarquinii and the Roman Republic has arrived and Titus Lartius would play an important role in it.

At the start of this new war, the Romans encountered even more problems: the support for the war among the people who were either poor or in debt was low; the other major problem was represented by the political stalemate in the Senate.

As Rome’s political and military situation continued to deteriorate, the solution found by the city’s political elite was the creation of a single magistrate, with the mission of saving Rome.

This new magistrate would have absolute power over peace and war, its decisions couldn’t be appealed, not even by the consuls. The term of this new position would be limited to 6 months.

After these 6 months, the position would be dissolved and the consuls would regain their powers.

This new position would be initially called Magister Populi but later become known only as Dictator.

After the position was created, the Senate now had to decide who would be the right person to be nominated as the first Dictator.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus states that the Senate looked for a man: ” man both vigor- ous in action and of wide experience in warfare, a man, moreover, possessed of prudence and self-control, who would not be led into folly by the greatness of his power; but, above all these qualities and the others essential in good generals, a man was required who knew how to govern with firmness and would show no leniency toward the disobedient, a quality of which they then stood particularly in need”

According to the same historian, Titus Lartius was the one who possessed all the above-mentioned qualities, so he was the best candidate for this position.

Lartius would be appointed the first dictator of Rome by his colleague Cloelius. After the nomination, Cloelius resigned from consulship.

III. Titus Lartius – Dictatorship
Titus Lartius, Rome's first dictator

After assuming his new position, Lartius first decision was to appoint Spurius Cassius, the victor against the Sabines, as Magister Equitum(master of the horse).

His next move was to show to the people how great were the powers of this new position by organizing a ceremonial parade through the streets of Rome.

At the center of the ceremony were the 12 lictors, who would carry the Fasces(ceremonial axes). Lartius would also be in front of this march.

The display of the symbols of power had the desired effect, it instilled terror in the population and the Romans stopped arguing.

In Livy’s timeline, the appointment of Titus Lartius as dictator also had an immediate effect on the riots caused by the Sabines. The Sabines, according to Livy alarmed by the newly created magistrate agreed to sue for peace and sent envoys to Rome for negotiations.

After gaining the respect of the masses, Titus Lartius ordered the organization of a census so that a new Roman army can be quickly assembled for the upcoming war.

After the census was finished it was found that 150.700 people reached the manhood age. After separating the young from the old, Titus Lartius ordered the creation of “four bodies of foot and horse” and divided his forces with Cloelius, Spurius Cassius the Master of the Horse and his brother Spurius Lartius.

To block the advance of the Latin armies on Rome, Titus Lartius divided his forces into 3 major camps outside the city, in strategic locations.

From Dionysius of Halicarnassus, we learn about the complex strategy used by Titus Lartius in the war against the Latin League, the First Dictator of Rome used a combination of both military and diplomatic means in order to reduce both the Roman and Latin losses in this war.

Where a direct confrontation could be avoided, Lartius preferred the diplomatic way.

The only major known encounter of the war was when the forces led by Mamilius and Sextus attempted to storm Rome.

Lartius anticipated this move and sent forces under the command of Cloelius against them.  

The Roman forces under the command of Cloelius successfully ambushed the troops of Mamilius and Sextus, the exact number of losses and prisoners is unknown.

What we know for sure is that after this battle, Lartius ordered that the wounded prisoners to be treated and then released back to the city of Tusculum without any ransom, as a sign of clemency.

Thanks to Titus Lartius leadership in this war, a one-year truce between the Latin League and Rome was concluded.

With the military and political situation now stabilized, Titus Lartius decided to resign before the 6 months term, thus setting an example for future Dictators.

Titus Lartius leadership had a decisive contribution to the salvation of the Roman Republic from total annihilation against a coalition whose purpose was to help the Tarquinii reclaim their throne.

IV. Military and political career after the Dictatorship

In 494 BC, as praefectus urbi, Titus Lartius unsuccessfully tried to introduce laws that would’ve favored the plebeians.

When later the plebeians would secede from the city, and encamp on Month Sacer, Titus Lartius was one of the envoys sent by the Roman Senate to negotiate with them. The result was the creation of the tribunes of the people.

V. Historical controversy

According to some historians and alternate history timelines, there is a controversy about who is in fact the first Dictator of Rome.

In their opinion, Manius Valerius, the son of Marcus Valerius could’ve been in reality the first Roman Dictator.

If we look into the most important source for these historical times,

Livy considers that Marcus Valerius couldn’t be the first dictator, because first he wasn’t consul before so in his opinion Titus Lartius would be the better candidate in this situation, and second because Livy considers that Marcus Valerius could’ve been a better choice because he proved his qualities and virtues not his son Manius.

The timeline of the Tarquinii defeat in 498 coincides in the works of Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus but the chain of events is different.

While Livy speaks about the defeat of Tarquinii at the battle of Lake Regilius by the Roman forces under the command of the Dictator Aulus Postumius; Dionysius of Halicarnassus writes about the same defeat of the forces of the Latin League but by the Roman forces led by Titus Lartius.

Also, the year when Titus Lartius is appointed dictator is not exact, while some support the theory that he was appointed during his first mandate of consul, others agree that he was appointed in 498 B.C after or during his second consulship.

In Marcus Tullius Cicero’s work “On the Republic and on the Laws” we learn about a more exact timeline:” Titus Larcius was also established as a dictator, about ten years after the first consuls”. Given the fact that the republic was established in the year 509 B.C and the first consuls were elected in that year, then 10 years after means the year 499 B.C, which is more close to the 498 B.C scenario of the appointment of Titus Lartius as dictator.

VI. SOURCES:

1. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities, with an English translation by Earnest Cary, Ph.D., Harvard University Press

2. Livy, The Early History of Rome, Book I-V of the History of Rome from its Foundations, Penguin Books.

3. Marcus Tullius Cicero, On the Republic and the Laws, translated with introduction, notes, and indexes by DAVID FOTT, Cornell University Press.

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