A dictator is a political leader who possesses absolute power. A dictatorship is a state ruled by one dictator or by a small clique.[1] The word originated as the title of a magistrate in the Roman Republic appointed by the Senate to rule the republic in times of emergency (see Roman dictator and justitium).[2]

Dictators often accused of ruling totalitarian regimes, from left to right and top to bottom in picture, include Joseph Stalin, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; Adolf Hitler, former Führer of Germany; Mao Zedong, former Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party; Benito Mussolini, former Duce of Italy; and Kim Il-sung, the Eternal President of North Korea
Muammar Gaddafi the Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya who ruled the country with an iron fist for 42 years

Like the term "tyrant" (which was originally a non-pejorative Ancient Greek title), and to a lesser degree "autocrat", "dictator" came to be used almost exclusively as a non-titular term for oppressive rule. In modern usage the term "dictator" is generally used to describe a leader who holds or abuses an extraordinary amount of personal power. Dictatorships are often characterised by some of the following: suspension of elections and civil liberties; proclamation of a state of emergency; rule by decree; repression of political opponents; not abiding by the rule of law procedures, and cult of personality. Dictatorships are often one-party or dominant-party states.[3][4]

A wide variety of leaders coming to power in different kinds of regimes, such as military juntas, one-party states, dominant-party states, and civilian governments under a personal rule, have been described as dictators. They may hold left or right-wing views.


Julius Caesar, outmaneuvered his opponents of ancient Rome to install himself dictator for life.

Originally an emergency legal appointment in the Roman Republic and the Etruscan culture, the term "Dictator" did not have the negative meaning it has now.[5] A Dictator was a magistrate given sole power for a limited duration. At the end of the term, the Dictator's power was returned to normal Consular rule whereupon a dictator provided accountability, though not all dictators accepted a return to power sharing.

The term started to get its modern negative meaning with Cornelius Sulla's ascension to the dictatorship following Sulla's second civil war, making himself the first Dictator in Rome in more than a century (during which the office was ostensibly abolished) as well as de facto eliminating the time limit and need of senatorial acclamation. He avoided a major constitutional crisis by resigning the office after about one year, dying a few years later. Julius Caesar followed Sulla's example in 49 BC and in February 44 BC was proclaimed Dictator perpetuo, "Dictator in perpetuity", officially doing away with any limitations on his power, which he kept until his assassination the following month.

Following Julius' assassination, his heir Augustus was offered the title of dictator, but he declined it. Later successors also declined the title of dictator, and usage of the title soon diminished among Roman rulers.

Modern era

Country ratings from Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2017 survey concerning the state of world freedom in 2016[6]
  Free (86)   Partly Free (59)   Not Free (50)
2017 Democracy Index by The Economist in which countries marked in different shades of red of are considered undemocratic, with many being dictatorships.[7]

As late as the second half of the 19th century, the term dictator had occasional positive implications. For example, during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, the national leader Lajos Kossuth was often referred to as dictator, without any negative connotations, by his supporters and detractors alike, although his official title was that of regent-president.[8] When creating a provisional executive in Sicily during the Expedition of the Thousand in 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi officially assumed the title of "Dictator" (see Dictatorship of Garibaldi). Shortly afterwards, during the 1863 January Uprising in Poland, "Dictator" was also the official title of four leaders, the first being Ludwik Mierosławski.

Past that time, however, the term dictator assumed an invariably negative connotation. In popular usage, a dictatorship is often associated with brutality and oppression. As a result, it is often also used as a term of abuse against political opponents. The term has also come to be associated with megalomania. Many dictators create a cult of personality around themselves and they have also come to grant themselves increasingly grandiloquent titles and honours. 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 "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor[A] Idi Amin Dada, VC,[B] DSO, MC, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular".[9] In the movie The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin satirized not only Adolf Hitler but the institution of dictatorship itself.

A benevolent dictatorship refers to a government in which an authoritarian leader exercises absolute political power over the state but is perceived to do so with the regard for benefit of the population as a whole, standing in contrast to the decidedly malevolent stereotype of a dictator. A benevolent dictator may allow for some economic liberalization or democratic decision-making to exist, such as through public referenda or elected representatives with limited power, and often makes preparations for a transition to genuine democracy during or after their term. It might be seen as a republic a form of enlightened despotism. The label has been applied to leaders such as Ioannis Metaxas of Greece (1936–41), Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia (1953–80),[10] and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore (1959–90).[11]

The association between a dictator and the military is a common one; many dictators take great pains to emphasize their connections with the military and they 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;[12] Manuel Noriega was officially commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces. In other cases, the association is mere pretense.

Some dictators have been masters of crowd manipulation, such as Mussolini and Hitler. Others were more prosaic speakers, such as Stalin and Franco. Typically the dictator's people seize control of all media, censor or destroy the opposition, and give strong doses of propaganda daily, often built around a cult of personality.[13]

Mussolini and Hitler used similar, modest titles referring to them as "the Leader". Mussolini used "Il Duce" and Hitler was generally referred to as "der Führer". Franco used a similar title "El Caudillo" ("the Head")[14] and for Stalin his adopted name became synonyms with his role as the absolute leader. For Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco, the use of modest, non-traditional titles displayed their absolute power even stronger as they did not need any, not even a historic legitimacy either.

The usage of the term "dictator" in western media has been criticised as "Code for Government We Don’t Like". Leaders that would generally be considered autoritarian but are allied with the USA such as Paul Biya or Nursultan Nazarbayev are rarely referred to as "dictators", while leaders of countries opposed to US policy such as Nicolas Maduro or Bashar Al-Assad have the term applied much more liberally.[15]

Modern usage in formal titles

Giuseppe Garibaldi proclaimed himself dictator of Sicily in 1860.
Konstantin Päts, Dictator of Estonia, 1934

Because of its negative and pejorative connotations, modern authoritarian leaders very rarely (if ever) use the term dictator in their formal titles, instead they most often simply have title of president. In the 19th century, however, its official usage was more common:

  • Italy
    • The Dictatorial Government of Sicily (27 May  4 November 1860) was a provisional executive government appointed by Giuseppe Garibaldi to rule Sicily. The government ended when Sicily's annexation into the Kingdom of Italy was ratified by plebiscite.
  • Poland
    • Romuald Traugutt was Dictator from 17 October 1863  10 April 1864

Human rights abuses

Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq (1979–2003). Under his Ba'athist rule, numerous human rights violations occurred, with Iraq being falsely accused of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction by the USA as justification for its invasion.
Mohammad bin Salman, Crown Prince and de facto dictator of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is said to have used torture against his political enemies at home,[17] whilst the bombing of Yemen under his decree has caused a famine.[18]

Over time, dictators have been known to use tactics that violate human rights. For example, under the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, government policy was enforced by secret police and the Gulag system of prison labour camps. Most Gulag inmates were not political prisoners, although significant numbers of political prisoners could be found in the camps at any one time. Data collected from Soviet archives gives the death toll from Gulags at 1,053,829.[19] Other human rights abuses by the Soviet state included human experimentation, the use of psychiatry as a political weapon and the denial of freedom of religion, assembly, speech and association.

Pol Pot became dictator of Cambodia in 1975. In all, an estimated 1.7 million people (out of a population of 7 million) died due to the policies of his four-year dictatorship.[20] As a result, Pol Pot is sometimes described as "the Hitler of Cambodia" and "a genocidal tyrant".[21]

Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. According to the BBC, Obiang Nguema "has been described by rights organisations as one [of] Africa's most brutal dictators."[22]

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's military dictator Omar al-Bashir over alleged war crimes in Darfur.[23]

Robert Mugabe, former dictator of Zimbabwe (1980–2017)

List of people described as dictators from the 19th to the 21st century

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (left) and Ilham Aliyev[24]




South America

See also

  • Authoritarian personality
  • Benevolent dictator for life
  • Benevolent dictatorship
  • Dictator novel
  • Emergency powers
  • List of coups d'état and coup attempts
  • List of coups d'état and coup attempts by country
  • List of political leaders who held active military ranks in office
  • List of political leaders who suspended the constitution
  • Lists of state leaders by year
  • Maximum Leader (disambiguation)
  • Military rule (disambiguation)
  • President for life
  • Strongman (politics)
  • Supreme Leader
  • Democracy Index




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    49. Lloyd, Lorna (2007) p.239

    Further reading

    • Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (2009), scholarly approach to comparative political economy excerpt
    • Armillas-Tiseyra, Magalí. The Dictator Novel: Writers and Politics in the Global South (2019) excerpt
    • Baehr, Peter and Melvin Richter. Dictatorship in History and Theory (2004) scholarly focus on 19c Europe.
    • Ben-Ghiat, Ruth. Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020) scholarly analysis of 13 major dictators; excerpt
    • Brooker, Paul. Defiant Dictatorships: Communist and Middle-Eastern Dictatorships in a Democratic Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 1997). excerpt
    • Costa Pinto, António. Latin American Dictatorships in the Era of Fascism: The Corporatist Wave (Routledge, 2019) excerpt
    • Crowson, Nick. Facing Fascism: The Conservative Party and the European Dictators 1935-40 (Routledge, 1997), how the Conservative government in Britain dealt with them.
    • Dávila, Jerry. Dictatorship in South America (2013), covers Brazil, Argentina, and Chile since 1945. excerpt
    • Galván, Javier A. Latin American Dictators of the 20th Century: The Lives and Regimes of 15 Rulers (2012), brief scholarly summaries; excerpt
    • Hamill, Hugh M. Caudillos: dictators in Spanish America (U of Oklahoma Press, 1995).
    • Harford Vargas, Jennifer. Forms of Dictatorship: Power, Narrative, and Authoritarianism in the Latina/o Novel (Oxford UP, 2017).
    • Kim, Michael et al. eds. Mass Dictatorship and Modernity (2013) excerpt
    • Lim, J. and K. Petrone, eds. Gender Politics and Mass Dictatorship: Global Perspectives (2010) excerpt
    • Lüdtke, Alf. Everyday Life in Mass Dictatorship: Collusion and Evasion (2015) excerpt
    • Mainwaring, Scott, and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, eds. Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America: Emergence, Survival, and Fall (2014) excerpt
    • Moore Jr, Barrington. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (1966) online
    • Peake, Lesley. Guide To History’s Worst Dictators: From Emperor Nero To Vlad the Impaler And More: Nero Accomplishments(2021) excerpt, popular
    • Rank, Michael. History's Worst Dictators: A Short Guide to the Most Brutal Rulers, From Emperor Nero to Ivan the Terrible (2013), popular.
    • Spencer, Robert. Dictators, Dictatorship and the African Novel (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).
    • Weyland, Kurt. Revolution and Reaction: The Diffusion of Authoritarianism in Latin America (2019) excerpt
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