dictatorship, form of government in which one person or a small group possesses absolute power without effective constitutional limitations. The term dictatorship comes from the Latin title dictator, which in the Roman Republic designated a temporary magistrate who was granted extraordinary powers in order to deal with state crises. Modern dictators, however, resemble ancient tyrants rather than ancient dictators. Ancient philosophers’ descriptions of the tyrannies of Greece and Sicily go far toward characterizing modern dictatorships.
Dictators usually resort to force or fraud to gain despotic political power, which they maintain through the use of intimidation, terror, and the suppression of basic civil liberties. They may also employ techniques of mass propaganda in order to sustain their public support.