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The Concept of 'Crisis': What can We Learn from the Two Dictatorships of L. Quinctius Cincinnatus?


Oren Gross


University of Minnesota Law School

May 20, 2005

Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 05-20
17th International Conference, Italy

Abstract:     
The institution of the Roman dictatorship has been regarded as the prototype for modern-day constitutional emergency regimes. It has been touted as "perhaps the most strikingly successful of all known systems of emergency government." In the annals of the Roman dictatorship, no one has been more celebrated for his actions as dictator than Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. According to tradition, Cincinnatus was made dictator in 458 BC in order to save a Roman force that was besieged by enemy forces. Upon his victory, Cincinnatus stepped down immediately - merely sixteen days after his appointment - relinquished all his special powers and returned to work his land. Cincinnatus's unwavering commitment to serve the republic and his willingness to give up the awesome powers that had been entrusted to him have come to represent the prime example of the dictatorship and the qualities that were expected of a dictator and a leader. What is far less known is that in 439 BC, the aging Cincinnatus was, once again, appointed dictator. This time the reason for his appointment was not a military crisis but rather part of the socio-economic struggle between the Patricians and the Plebs.

There is much that the story of the two dictatorships of L. Quinctius Cincinnatus can teach us about the meaning of the concept of "crisis." This paper focuses on the shift of that concept and the concomitant shift of the special powers designed to overcome particular crises, from a purely military concept to one that encompasses socio-economic elements. Similar to the shift from a dictatorship designed to defend the republic against external, foreign military threats to one that is used in the context of domestic civil unrest, it traces the expanding ambit of "national security" and "war" - concepts that are closely linked to "crisis" - and examines the relationship between the use of emergency powers in the context of violent emergencies and their application in socio-economic contexts. The paper then examines the normalization of emergency powers and their incorporation into the ordinary, normal system both legal and institutional. That pattern also affects our understanding of crises and emergencies as those are no longer exceptional but are increasingly part of the norm.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 23

Keywords: Emergency powers, dictatorship, war, national security

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Date posted: June 13, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Gross, Oren, The Concept of 'Crisis': What can We Learn from the Two Dictatorships of L. Quinctius Cincinnatus? (May 20, 2005). ; 17th International Conference, Italy. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=742506 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.742506

Contact Information

Oren Gross (Contact Author)
University of Minnesota Law School ( email )
229 19th Avenue South, #430
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States
612-624-7521 (Phone)
612-625-2011 (Fax)
HOME PAGE: http://www.tc.umn.edu/~gross084
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