A dictator is a ruler (e.g. absolutist or autocratic) who assumes sole and absolute power with military control but, without hereditary ascension such as an absolute monarch. When other states call the head of state of a particular state a dictator, that state is called a dictatorship. The word originated as the title of a magistrate in ancient Rome appointed by the Senate to rule the republic in times of emergency (see Roman dictator and justitium).

Like the term tyrant, originally a respectable Ancient Greek title, and to a lesser degree autocrat, it came to be used almost exclusively as a non-titular term for oppressive, even abusive rule, yet had rare modern titular uses.[citation needed]

In modern usage, the term "dictator" is generally used to describe a leader who holds and/or abuses an extraordinary amount of personal power, especially the power to make laws without effective restraint by a legislative assembly. Dictatorships are often characterized by some of the following traits: suspension of elections and of civil liberties; proclamation of a state of emergency; rule by decree; repression of political opponents without abiding by rule of law procedures; these include single-party state, and cult of personality.

The term "dictator" is comparable to (but not synonymous with) the ancient concept of a tyrant, although initially "tyrant", like "dictator", did not carry negative connotations. A wide variety of leaders coming to power 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.

Roman Origin Edit

In the Roman Republic the term "Dictator" did not have the negative meaning it has later assumed. Rather, a Dictator was a person given sole power (unlike the normal Roman republican practice, where rule was divided between two equal Consuls) for a specific limited period, in order to deal with an emergency. At the end of his term, the Dictator was supposed to hand over back to the normal Consular rule and give account of his actions - and Roman Dictators usually did.

The term started to get its modern negative meaning with Julius Caesar making himself a Dictator without a set limit to his term, and keeping the title until his assassination (which was itself largely due to republican diehards resenting his keeping indefinite dictatorial powers).

Garibaldi as a positive dictator Edit

Still, even in the 19th Century, the term "Dictator" did not always have negative connotations. For example, the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi, during his famous Expedition of the Thousand in 1860, proclaimed himself "Dictator of Sicily", which did not prevent him from being extremely popular in Italian and international public opinion. His usage of the term was clearly derived from the original Roman sense - i.e., a person taking power for a limited time in order to deal with an emergency (in this case, the need to unite Italy) and with the task done Garibaldi handed over power to the government of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy.

Garibaldi's case was, however, an exception. In general, the term "dictator" came to be a negative term, not a title used by rulers to call themselves but a term used by the foes of an oppressive ruler.

Modern era Edit

Modern dictators have usually come to power in times of emergency. Frequently dictators have seized power by coup d'état as Benito Mussolini did in Italy at the culmination of his March on Rome. But some dictators, most notably Adolf Hitler in Germany, achieved office as head of government by legal means. However, once he was elected in office, Hitler gained additional extraordinary powers.

Mainly Latin American, Asian, and African nations, especially developing nations, have known many dictatorships, usually by military leaders at the head of a junta, either claiming to constitute a revolution or to reestablish order and stability. Europe has known many dictatorships as well, as was the case of Portugal, Spain, Greece, Germany, Romania, Austria and Russia.

In popular usage in western nations, "dictatorship" is often associated with brutality and oppression. As a result, it is often also used as a term of abuse for political opponents, for example, Henry Clay's dominance in Congress—first as Speaker of the House and later as a member of the Senate—led to his nickname, "the Dictator."[citation needed] 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 instance, 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".[citation needed] In "The Great Dictator" (1940), Charlie Chaplin satirized not only Hitler but the institution of dictatorship itself.

The association between the dictator and the military is a 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 legitimate; Francisco Franco was a lieutenant general in the Spanish Army before he became Chief of State of Spain; Manuel Noriega was officially commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces. In other cases, the association is mere pretense.

Modern use in formal titles Edit

Because of the negative associations, modern leaders very rarely (if ever) use the term in their formal titles. In the 19th century, however, official use was more common.

Dictator (plain) Edit


  • In the former doge-state Venice, while a republic resisting annexation by either the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia or the Austrian empire, a former Chief Executive (president, 23 March 1848 – 5 July 1848), Daniele Manin (b. 1804 - d. 1857), was styled Dictator 11-13 August 1848 before joining the 13 August 1848 - 7 March 1849 Triumvirate.[citation needed]


  • General Simón Bolívar, the 17 February 1824 - 28 January 1827 Head of state, was acting Dictator until 10 February 1825 when his title changed to Libertador ('Liberator'), and on 9 December 1826 again to President-for-Life.[citation needed]


  • Emilio Aguinaldo, the last President of the Supreme Government Council 23 March 1897 - 16 December 1897 and chairman of the Revolutionary Government from 23 June to 1 November 1897, was dictator from 12 June 1898 - 23 January.[3]
  • Ferdinand Marcos, the 10th Philippine president; December 30, 1965 until his ouster on February 25, 1986 through the popular uprising known as the People Power Revolution of 1986. On September 21, 1972, he announced his declaration of martial law over the entirety of the nation and incarcerated all of his political opponents under trumped-up charges. This helped him pave the way to create his version of the 1973 Constitution and impose a new order he dubbed "Bagong Lipunan" (Filipino: "New Society").


  • Józef Chlopicki was styled Dictator from 5 December 1830 - December 1830 and again in December 1830 - 25 January 1831
  • Jan Tyssowski was Dictator from 24 February 1846 - 2 March 1846.
  • Ludwik Mierosławski was Dictator from 22 January 1863 - 10 March 1863
  • Marian Langiewicz was Dictator from 10 March 1863 - 19 March 1863
  • An Executive Dictatorial Commission of three members existed from 19 March 1863 - 20 March 1863
  • Romuald Traugutt was Dictator from 17 October 1863 - 10 April 1864

Russia during the Civil War

  • Nazarov was Dictator of the Don Cossack Republics (which before, since its founding on 2 December 1917 at Novocherkassk, had been governed by a Triumvirate including the last pre-Soviet Ataman, Aleksei Maksimovich Kaledin) from 11 February 1918 till 25 February 1918 when Bolshevik troops ended their existence
  • Prince N. Tarkovsky was Dictator of the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus, from its founding in Western Dagestan on 11 May 1918 till the end of the Turkish occupation (September-November 1918).

Compound and derived titles Edit

Dictator President, twice in modern Colombia:

  • In Antioquia, 30 July 1813 to 1 or 5 March 1814: Juan Bautista Antonio María del Corral y Alonso Carriazo; continued to 7 April 1814 as one of the Presidents of the State (27 July 1811 - July 1815)
  • In Cartagena de Indias (after Presidents of the Supreme Junta of Government since 13 August 1810, even before the 11 November 1811 declaration of Independence as Province of Cartagena de Indias, 21 January 1812 restyled State of Cartagena de Indias; and since 21 January 1812 one of them, José María del Real e Hidalgo (d. 1835)), as Governor President of the State), 1 April 1812 - 4 October 1812: Manuel Rodríguez Torices (b. 1788 - d. 1816)

cf. supra (Poland) 19 March 1863 - 20 March 1863 Executive Dictatorial Commission of three members *

  • In Paraguay, in a procession of generally short-lived juntas, the last of the Consuls of the Republic in power, two Consuls alternating in power every 4 months, 12 June 1814 - 3 October 1814 José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (2nd time), succeeded himself as the only ever Supreme Dictator 3 October 1814 - 20 September 1840 - from 6 June 1816 he was styled Perpetual Supreme Dictator
  • Prodittatore (plural: Prodittatori) was the title of the governors appointed in Sicily after Garibaldi's conquest of the island (11 May 1860) till shortly before the 12 December 1860 annexation to the Savoy dynasty's Kingdom of Sardinia:

23 July - September 17, 1860 Agostino Depretis (b. 1813 - d. 1887) 17 - end September 1860 Antonio Mordini (b. 1819 - d. 1902)

"The benevolent dictator"Edit

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 Napoleon Bonaparte, Anwar Sadat, Kenneth Kaunda, Józef Piłsudski, Ion Antonescu, Miklós Horthy, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and Omar Torrijos, Park Chung-hee have been characterized by their supporters as benevolent dictators. For example some of these people have been democratically elected e.g. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

In Spanish, 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 includes Yugoslavia under Tito or Spain under Francisco Franco. 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 Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Eritrea, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela have at various times been considered régimes 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 Edit

In social choice theory, the notion of a dictator is formally defined as a person who can achieve any feasible social outcome he/she wishes. The formal definition yields 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 Sulla.
  • 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 their 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).