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A dictator is a ruler (e.g. absolutist or autocratic) who assumes sole and absolute power (sometimes but not always 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).

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 .

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, single-party states and civilian governments under personal rule, have been described as dictators .

Roman Origin

In the Roman Republic the term "Dictaintor" 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

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

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." 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". 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 Panamanianmarker 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.

Dictator (plain)

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