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Dictator was the title of a magistrate in ancient Rome appointed by the Senate to rule the state in times of emergency. In modern usage, it refers to an absolutist or autocratic ruler who assumes sole power over the state (though the term is normally not applied to an absolute monarch; see also Oliver Cromwell).

Roman dictators were usually appointed by a consul and were invested with sweeping authority over the citizens, but they were originally limited to a term of six months and lacked power over the public finances. Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Julius Caesar, however, abolished these limitations and governed without these constraints. The Romans abandoned the institution of dictatorship after Caesar's murder, when Augustus quietly consolidated similar powers as emperor.

Modern dictators have usually come to power in times of emergency. Frequently they have seized power by coup, but some, most notably Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany, achieved office by legal means and once in power gradually eroded constitutional restraints. Under Joseph Stalin, the concentration of power in the Communist Party in the Soviet Union developed into a personal dictatorship, but after his death there emerged a system of collective leadership. Latin American and African nations have undergone many dictatorships, usually by military leaders at the head of a junta.


Classical era

In the system of Roman Republic, a dictator rei gerendae causa was a person temporarily granted significant power over the state during times of war. The office was held for only 6 months. The ideal model was Cincinnatus, who according to legend, was plowing when called to dictatorship, saved Rome from invasion, and who afterwards returned to his labour, renouncing every honour and power, after only 3 months. Other famous dictatores were Lucius Sulla and Julius Caesar. See Roman dictator and compare with imperator.

Modern era

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, a satire of dictatorship regimes.
Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, a satire of dictatorship regimes.

In modern usage, the term "dictator" is generally used to describe a leader who holds an extraordinary amount of personal power, especially the power to make laws without effective restraint by a legislative assembly. It is comparable to (but not synonymous with) the ancient concept of a tyrant, although initially "tyrant," like "dictator," was not a negative term. A wide variety of leaders coming to number in a number of different kinds of regimes, such as military juntas, single-party states, and civilian governments under personal rule, have been described as dictators.

In popular usage in the U.S., "dictatorship" is often associated with brutality and oppression. As a result, it is often also used as a term of abuse for political opponents; Henry Clay's dominance of the U.S. Congress as Speaker of the House and as a member of the United States Senate led to his nickname "the Dictator." The term has also come to be associated with megalomania. Many dictators create a cult of personality and have come to favor increasingly grandiloquent titles and honours for themselves. For example, Idi Amin Dada, who had been a British army lieutenant prior to Uganda's independence from Britain in October 1962, subsequently styled himself as "His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular." In The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin satirized not only Hitler but the institution of dictatorship itself.

The association between the dictator and the military is a very common one; many dictators take great pains to emphasize their connections with the military and often wear military uniforms. In some cases, this is perfectly natural; Francisco Franco was a lieutenant general in the Spanish Army before he became Chief of State of Spain, and Noriega was officially commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces. In other cases, this is mere pretense.

"The benevolent dictator"

The benevolent dictator is a more modern version of the classical "enlightened despot," being an absolute ruler who exercises his or her political power for the benefit of the people rather than exclusively for his or her own benefit. Like many political classifications, this term suffers from its inherent subjectivity. Such leaders as Castro, Franco, Pinochet, Sadat, Tito, and Omar Torrijos have been characterized by their supporters as benevolent dictators.

In the Spanish language, the word dictablanda is sometimes used for a dictatorship conserving some of the liberties and mechanisms of democracy. (The pun is that, in Spanish, dictadura is "dictatorship," dura is "hard" and blanda is "soft"). Some examples include Chile under Pinochet, Cuba under Castro or Yugoslavia under Tito. This contrasts with democradura (literally "hard democracy"), characterized by full formal democracy alongside limitations on constitutional freedoms and human rights abuses, frequently within the context of a civil conflict or the existence of an insurgency. Governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico and Venezuela have at various times been considered "democradura" regimes by different critics and opposition groups, not necessarily with an academic or political consensus about the application of the term emerging.

Dictators in game theory

In game theory and social choice theory, the notion of a dictator is formally defined as a person that can achieve any feasible social outcome he/she wishes. The formal definition yealds an interesting distinction between two different types of dictators.

  • The strong dictator has, for any social goal he/she has in mind (e.g. raise taxes, having someone killed, etc.), a definite way of achieving that goal. This can be seen as having explicit absolute power, like Franco in Spain.
  • The weak dictator has, for any social goal he/she has in mind, and for any political scenario, a course of action that would bring about the desired goal. For the weak dictator, it is usually not enough to "give her orders", rather he/she has to manipulate the political scene appropriately. This means that the weak dictator might actually be lurking in the shadows, working within a political setup that seems to be non-dictatorial. An example of such a figure is Lorenzo the Magnificent, who controlled Renaissance Florence.

Note that these definitions disregard some alleged dictators, e.g. Benito Mussolini, who are not interested in the actual achieving of social goals, as much as in propaganda and controlling public opinion. Monarchs and military dictators are also excluded from these definitions, because their rule relies on the consent of other political powers (the barons or the army).

See also

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