A dictator is a ruler who wields absolute power. A state ruled by a dictator is called a dictatorship. 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).
Like the term "tyrant" (which was originally a respectable Ancient Greek title), and to a lesser degree "autocrat", "dictator" came to be used almost exclusively as a non-titular term for oppressive, even abusive rule, yet had rare modern titular use.
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 characterised 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 one-party state, and cult of personality.
The term "dictator" is comparable to – but not synonymous with – the ancient concept of a tyrant; 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, one-party states and civilian governments under personal rule, have been described as dictators. They may hold left or right-wing views, or may be apolitical.
Originally an emergency legal appointment in the Roman Republic, the term "Dictator" did not have the negative meaning it has now. A Dictator was a magistrate given sole power for a limited duration. At the end of the term, the Dictator's power 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 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, although 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.
As late as the second half of the 19th Century, the term "Dictator" had occasional positive implications. For example, 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, "Dictator" assumed an invariably negative connotation. In popular usage, "dictatorship" is often associated with brutality and oppression. As a result, it is often also used as a term of abuse for political opponents. 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 Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular". In the movie The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin satirized not only Adolf 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
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:
Russia during the Civil War
Human rights abuses
Under the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, notorious "Gulags" were formed. 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.
Pol Pot became leader 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. As a result, Pol Pot is sometimes described as "the Hitler of Cambodia" and "a genocidal tyrant".
The recently diseased Fidel Castro was also another example of tyrant and dictator as an absolute ruler of the single party system " Cuban Communist Party" (PCC). Under Castro, human rights violations sky rketed. ( See Cuba Archive Project).
In game theory
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.
Note that these definitions disregard some alleged dictators 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 nobility or the army).