dictator, originally a Roman magistrate appointed to rule the state in times of emergency; in modern usage, an absolutist or autocratic ruler who assumes extraconstitutional powers. From 501 B.C. until the abolition of the office in 44 B.C., Rome had 88 dictators. They were usually appointed by a consul and were invested with sweeping authority over the citizens, but they were limited to a term of six months and lacked power over the public finances. Dictators were held to strict account for their conduct in office. Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Julius Caesar abolished the limitations to dictatorship and governed unconstitutionally. The Romans abandoned the institution after Caesar's murder. Modern dictators have usually come to power in times of emergency. Frequently they have seized power by coup, but some, most notably Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany, achieved office by legal means and once in power overthrew constitutional restraints. In the USSR the "dictatorship of the proletariat" took the form of a concentration of power in the hands of the Communist party. Under Joseph Stalin it developed into a personal dictatorship, but after his death there emerged a system of collective leadership. Latin American nations have undergone many dictatorships, usually by military leaders at the head of a junta. See totalitarianism.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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