Dictator was the title of a magistrate in ancient Rome appointed by the Senate to rule the state in times of emergency. In modern usage, it refers to an absolutist or autocratic ruler who assumes sole power over the state (though the term is normally not applied to an absolute monarch).
Roman dictators were usually appointed by a consul and were invested with sweeping authority over the citizens, but they were originally limited to a term of six months and lacked power over the public finances. Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Julius Caesar, however, abolished these limitations and governed without these constraints. The Romans abandoned the institution of dictatorship 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 gradually eroded constitutional restraints. Under Joseph Stalin, the concentration of power in the Communist Party in the Soviet Union developed into a personal dictatorship, but after his death there emerged a system of collective leadership. Latin American and African nations have undergone many dictatorships, usually by military leaders at the head of a junta.
The Roman dictator
In the system of Roman Republic, a dictator was a person temporarily granted significant power over the state during times of war. The office was held for only 6 months. The ideal model was Cincinnatus, who according to legend, was plowing when called to dictatorship, saved Rome from invasion, and who afterwards returned to his labour, renouncing every honour and power. Other famous dictatores were Lucius Sulla and Julius Caesar. See Roman dictator and compare with imperator.
The dictator in modern times
Dictators come from different social classes, including highly decorated career soldiers like Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada of Uganda.
In modern usage, the term "dictator" is generally used to describe a leader who holds an extraordinary amount of personal power, especially the power to make laws without effective restraint by a legislative assembly. It is comparable to (but not synonymous with) the ancient concept of a tyrant, although initially "tyrant," like "dictator," was not a negative term. A wide variety of people have been described as dictators, from lawfully installed government ministers like António de Oliveira Salazar and Engelbert Dollfuss, to unofficial military strongmen like Manuel Noriega to stratocrats like Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet.
In the modern definition, "dictatorship" is associated with brutality and oppression. As a result, it is often used as a term of abuse for political opponents; Henry Clay's dominance of the U.S. Congress as Speaker of the House and as a member of the United States 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 example, 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 Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin satirized not only Hitler but the institution of dictatorship itself.
The association between the dictator and the military is a very 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 natural; Francisco Franco was a lieutenant general in the Spanish Army before he became Chief of State of Spain, and Noriega was officially commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces. In other cases, this is mere pretense; Stalin appointed himself "Generalissimo of the Soviet Union" despite having no real military background.
The benevolent dictator?
The benevolent dictator is a more modern version of the classical "enlightened despot," being an undemocratic ruler who exercises his or her political power for the benefit of the people rather than exclusively for his or her own benefit. Like many political classifications, this term suffers from its inherent subjectivity. Such leaders as Castro, Franco, Pinochet, Anwar Sadat, Josip Broz Tito, and Omar Torrijos have been characterized by their supporters as benevolent dictators. In all these cases it depends largely on one's point of view as to just how "benevolent" they were or are.
Most dictators' regimes unfailingly portray themselves as benevolent, and often tend to regard democratic regimes as messy, inefficient, and corrupt.
In the Spanish language, the word dictablanda is sometimes used for a dictatorship conserving some of the liberties and mechanisms of democracy. (The pun is that, in Spanish, dictadura is "dictatorship," dura is "hard" and blanda is "soft"). Some examples include Cuba under Castro or Yugoslavia under Tito. This contrasts with democradura (literally "hard democracy"), characterized by full formal democracy alongside limitations on constitutional freedoms and human rights abuses, frequently within the context of a civil conflict. The governments of Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Haiti have at various times been considered "democradura" regimes. Other contemporary examples include Iran and Russia. Democradura is also known as illiberal democracy.
In the context of open-source projects, a "benevolent dictator" is the person that effectively holds dictator-like powers over that project, yet is trusted by other users/developers not to abuse this power. The term is used humorously, because the "subjects" of the project leader contribute voluntarily, and the end-product may be used by everyone. A dictator in this context has power only over the process, and that only for as long as he or she is trusted.