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In modern usage, absolute rule unrestricted by law, constitutions, or other political or social factors within the state. The original dictators, however, were magistrates in ancient Italian cities (including Rome) who were allocated absolute power during a period of emergency. Their power was neither arbitrary nor unaccountable, being subject to law and requiring retrospective justification. There were no such dictators after the beginning of the second century bc, however, and later dictators such as Sulla and the Roman emperors conformed more to our image of the dictator as an autocrat and near‐despot.

In the twentieth century the existence of a dictator has been a necessary and (to some) definitive component of totalitarian regimes: thus Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, and Mussolini's Italy were generally referred to as dictatorships. In the Soviet case the very word and idea of dictatorship were legitimized by Marx's idea of the historical necessity of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ which would follow the revolution and eradicate the bourgeoisie.

Lincoln Allison


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