The word 'dictator' comes from Latin and means "one who speaks" or "one who dictates". While Rome was looked at often as a republic, there were times when it became a dictatorship. In times of difficulty a dictator was elected to wield unlimited power with a single mind - his word was law. This complete authority (called imperium) was a constitutional position given by the Roman Senate to a single individual - not to be shared with another (as the consulship was). Until the time of Julius Cæsar, the office could only be held for six months at a time.

The one of the first occurrences of this was in 390 BC when Rome was still carving out its place in the peninsula. It was then that dictator Marcus Furius Camillus reorganized the army and instituted many changes (including paying the army). Marcus was chosen dictator five times and was often called the second founder of Rome.

During The Second Punic War (218-202 BC), The Romans asked Quintus Fabius Maximus to become the absolute dictator of Rome. It was realized that the Republic was too clumsy a governmental structure to adequately handle the war machine necessary to defeat Hannibal. Quintus got the surname "Cunctator" which means "delayer" and refers to his strategy in fighting Hannibal.

In almost every case the dictators of Rome were statesmen prior to their appointment as dictator, often serving as consul or censor prior to the appointment. Quintus Fabius Maximus was elected consul five times (233, 228, 215, 214, 209) and dictator once (217). It should be noted that he was a statesman before and after becoming a dictator.