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

Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 05-20

17th International Conference, Italy

23 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2005

See all articles by Oren Gross

Oren Gross

University of Minnesota Law School

Date Written: May 20, 2005


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.

Keywords: Emergency powers, dictatorship, war, national security

Suggested Citation

Gross, Oren, The Concept of 'Crisis': What Can We Learn from the Two Dictatorships of L. Quinctius Cincinnatus? (May 20, 2005). Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 05-20, 17th International Conference, Italy, Available at SSRN: or

Oren Gross (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

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