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Despotism (Greek : Δεσποτισμός, despotismós) is a form of government in which a single entity rules with absolute power. Normally, that entity is an individual, the despot, as in an autocracy, but societies which limit respect and power to specific groups have also been called despotic. [1]

Greek language Language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, often a state.

An autocracy is a system of government in which a single person exercises lordship over a polity. The decisions of this autocrat are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control. Absolute monarchies and dictatorships are the main modern-day forms of autocracy.


Colloquially, the word despot applies pejoratively to those who use their power and authority to oppress their populace, subjects, or subordinates. More specifically, the term often applies to a head of state or government. In this sense, it is similar to the pejorative connotations that are associated with the terms tyrant and dictator . [2]

A tyrant, in the modern English-language usage of the word, is an absolute ruler unrestrained by law, or one who has usurped legitimate sovereignty. Often portrayed as cruel, tyrants may defend their position by oppressive means. The original Greek term, however, merely meant an authoritarian sovereign without reference to character, bearing no pejorative connotation during the Archaic and early Classical periods. However, Plato, the Greek philosopher, clearly saw tyrannos as a negative word, and on account of the decisive influence of philosophy on politics, its negative connotations only increased, continuing into the Hellenistic period.

Dictator An absolutist or autocratic ruler who assumes sole power over the state

A dictator is a political leader who possesses absolute power. A state which is ruled by a dictator is called a dictatorship. The word originated as the title of a magistrate in the Roman Republic appointed by the Senate to rule the republic in times of emergency.


The English dictionary defines despotism as "the rule of a despot; the exercise of absolute authority." [3]

The root despot comes from the Greek word despotes , which means "master" or "one with power." The term has been used to describe many rulers and governments throughout history. It connoted the absolute authority and power exercised by the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, signified nobility in Byzantine courts, designated the rulers of Byzantine vassal states, and acted as a title for Byzantine Emperors. In this and other Greek or Greek influenced contexts, the term was used as an honorific rather than as a pejorative.

Pharaoh Title of Ancient Egyptian rulers

Pharaoh is the common title of the monarchs of ancient Egypt from the First Dynasty until the annexation of Egypt by the Roman Empire in 30 BCE, although the actual term "Pharaoh" was not used contemporaneously for a ruler until Merneptah, c. 1200 BCE. In the early dynasty, ancient Egyptian kings used to have up to three titles, the Horus, the Sedge and Bee (nswt-bjtj) name, and the Two Ladies (nbtj) name. The Golden Horus and nomen and prenomen titles were later added.

Despot (court title) heir apparent to the emperor or senior court official

Despot or despotes was a senior Byzantine court title that was bestowed on the sons or sons-in-law of reigning emperors, and initially denoted the heir-apparent of the Byzantine emperor.

Due to its reflexive connotation throughout history, the word despot cannot be objectively defined. While despot is closely related to other Greek words like basileus and autokrator , these connotations have also been used to describe a variety of rulers and governments throughout history, such as local chieftains, simple rulers, kings, and emperors.

<i>Basileus</i> Greek title denoting various types of monarchs throughout history

Basileus is a Greek term and title that has signified various types of monarchs in history. In the English-speaking world it is perhaps most widely understood to mean "king" or "emperor". The title was used by sovereigns and other persons of authority in ancient Greece, the Byzantine emperors, and the kings of modern Greece.

<i>Autokrator</i> Greek epithet for one exercising absolute power, unrestrained by superiors; applied to military commanders-in-chief and to Roman and Byzantine emperors as the translation of the Latin title imperator

Autokratōr is a Greek epithet applied to an individual who exercises absolute power, unrestrained by superiors. In a historical context, it has been applied to military commanders-in-chief, and to Roman and Byzantine emperors as the translation of the Latin title imperator. Its connection with Byzantine-style absolutism gave rise to the modern terms autocrat and autocracy. In modern Greek, it means "emperor", and the female form of the title is autokrateira.

Ancient Greece and oriental despotism

Of all the ancient Greeks, Aristotle was perhaps the most influential promoter of the concept of oriental despotism. He passed this ideology to his student, Alexander the Great, who conquered Persia, which at the time was ruled by the despotic Darius III, the last king of the Achaemenid dynasty. Aristotle asserted that oriental despotism was not based on force, but on consent. Hence, fear could not be said to be its motivating force, but rather the servile nature of those enslaved, which would feed upon the power of the despot master. Within ancient Greek society, every Greek man was free and capable of holding office; both able to rule and be ruled. In contrast, among the barbarians, all were slaves by nature. Another difference Aristotle espoused was based on climates. He observed that the peoples of cold countries, especially those of Europe, were full of spirit but deficient in skill and intelligence, and that the peoples of Asia, although endowed with skill and intelligence, were deficient in spirit and hence were subjected to slavery. Possessing both spirit and intelligence, the Greeks were free to govern all other peoples. [4]

Aristotle philosopher in ancient Greece

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, the founder of the Lyceum and the Peripatetic school of philosophy and Aristotelian tradition. Along with his teacher Plato, he has been called the "Father of Western Philosophy". His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics and government. Aristotle provided a complex synthesis of the various philosophies existing prior to him, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.

Alexander the Great King of Macedon

Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, known in ancient Iranian and Zoroastrian sources as Alexander the Accursed, was a king (basileus) of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon and a member of the Argead dynasty. He was born in Pella in 356 BC and succeeded his father Philip II to the throne at the age of 20. He spent most of his ruling years on an unprecedented military campaign through Asia and northeast Africa, and by the age of thirty he had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to northwestern India. He was undefeated in battle and is widely considered one of history's most successful military commanders.

Darius III Last king of the Achaemenid Empire

Darius III, originally named Artashata and called Codomannus by the Greeks, was the last king of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, from 336 BC to 330 BC. Artashata adopted Darius as a dynastic name.

For the historian Herodotus, it was the way of the Orient to be ruled by autocrats and, even though Oriental, the character faults of despots were no more pronounced than the ordinary man's, though given to much greater opportunity for indulgence. The story of Croesus of Lydia exemplifies this. Leading up to Alexander's expansion into Asia, most Greeks were repelled by the Oriental notion of a sun-king, and the divine law that Oriental societies accepted. Herodotus's version of history advocated a society where men became free when they consented lawfully to the social contract of their respective city-state.

Edward Gibbon suggested that the increasing use of Oriental-style despotism by the Roman emperors was a major factor in the fall of the Roman Empire, particularly from the reign of Elagabalus:

As the attention of the new emperor was diverted by the most trifling amusements, he wasted many months in his luxurious progress from Syria to Italy, passed at Nicomedia his first winter after his victory, and deferred till the ensuing summer his triumphal entry into the capital. A faithful picture, however, which preceded his arrival, and was placed by his immediate order over the altar of Victory in the senate-house, conveyed to the Romans the just but unworthy resemblance of his person and manners. He was drawn in his sacerdotal robes of silk and gold, after the loose flowing fashion of the Medes and Phoenicians; his head was covered with a lofty tiara, his numerous collars and bracelets were adorned with gems of an inestimable value. His eyebrows were tinged with black, and his cheeks painted with an artificial red and white. The grave senators confessed with a sigh, that, after having long experienced the stern tyranny of their own countrymen, Rome was at length humbled beneath the effeminate luxury of Oriental despotism. ( The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , Book One, Chapter Six)


The court of N'Gangue M'voumbe Niambi from the book Description of Africa (1668) Court of Loango.png
The court of N'Gangue M'voumbe Niambi from the book Description of Africa (1668)

In its classical form, despotism is a state in which a single individual (the despot) holds all the power and authority embodying the state, and everyone else is a subsidiary person. This form of despotism was common in the first forms of statehood and civilization; the Pharaoh of Egypt is an exemplary figure of the classical despot.

The word itself seems to have been coined by the opponents of Louis XIV of France in the 1690s, who applied the term despotisme to describe their monarch's somewhat free exercise of power. The word is ultimately Greek in origin, and in ancient Greek usage, a despot (despótès) was technically a master who ruled in a household over those who were slaves or servants by nature. [5]

The term now implies tyrannical rule. Despotism can refer to any absolutist or dictatorial regime or leader. [6]

However, in enlightened absolutism (also known as benevolent despotism), which came to prominence in 18th century Europe, absolute monarchs used their authority to institute a number of reforms in the political systems and societies of their countries. This movement was quite probably triggered by the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu believed that despotism was an appropriate government for large states. Likewise, he believed that republics were suitable for small states and that monarchies were ideal for moderate-sized states. [7]

Although the word has a pejorative meaning nowadays, it was once a legitimate title of office in the Byzantine Empire. Just as the word Byzantine is often used in a pejorative way, so the word despot now has equally negative connotations. In fact, Despot was an Imperial title, first used under Manuel I Komnenos (1143–1180) who created it for his appointed heir Alexius-Béla. According to Gyula Moravcsik, this title was a simple translation of Béla's Hungarian title úr, but other historians believe it comes from the ancient Greek despotes (literally, the master). In the Orthodox Liturgy, if celebrated in Greek, the priest is addressed by the deacon as Despot even today.

It was typically bestowed on sons-in-law and later sons of the Emperor and, beginning in the 13th century, it was bestowed to foreign princes. The Despot wore elaborate costumes similar to the Emperor's and had many privileges. Despots ruled over parts of the empire called Despotates.

The United States Declaration of Independence accused the British government of "a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinc[ing] a design to reduce [the people] under absolute Despotism".

Contrast with absolute monarchy

According to Montesquieu, the difference between absolute monarchy and despotism is that in the case of the monarchy, a single person governs with absolute power by fixed and established laws, whereas a despot governs by his or her own will and caprice. [8]

Despotism: Encyclopaedia Britannica Films

See also

Related Research Articles

An emperor is a monarch, and usually the sovereign ruler of an empire or another type of imperial realm. Empress, the female equivalent, may indicate an emperor's wife, mother, or a woman who rules in her own right. Emperors are generally recognized to be of a higher honour and rank than kings. In Europe, the title of Emperor has been used since the Middle Ages, considered in those times equal or almost equal in dignity to that of Pope due to the latter's position as visible head of the Church and spiritual leader of the Catholic part of Western Europe. The Emperor of Japan is the only currently reigning monarch whose title is translated into English as Emperor.

Monarchy system of government where the head of state position is inherited within family

A monarchy is a form of government in which a single person holds supreme authority in ruling a country, also performing ceremonial duties and embodying the country's national identity. Although some monarchs are elected, in most cases, the monarch's position is inherited and lasts until death or abdication. In these cases, the royal family or members of the dynasty usually serve in official capacities as well. The governing power of the monarch may vary from purely symbolic, to partial and restricted, to completely autocratic.

A republic is a form of government in which the country is considered a “public matter”, not the private concern or property of the rulers. The primary positions of power within a republic are not inherited, but are attained through democracy, oligarchy or autocracy. It is a form of government under which the head of state is not a hereditary monarch.

Theocracy Form of government with religious leaders

Theocracy is defined by the Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language as "a form of government in which God or a deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler. His laws being interpreted by the ecclesiastical authorities." The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as a "government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided", while the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god."Therefore, states such as the Papal States or the German prince-bishoprics, while ruled by a cleric, were not theocracies since their civil government was run on the same lines as secular states and did not claim immediate divine guidance.

Montesquieu French social commentator and political thinker

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French judge, man of letters, and political philosopher.

Enlightened absolutism refers to the conduct and policies of European absolute monarchs during the 18th and 19th centuries who were influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, espousing them to enhance their power. The concept originated during the Enlightenment period in the 18th and into the early 19th centuries.

Imperator rank in ancient Rome

The Latin word imperator derives from the stem of the verb imperare, meaning 'to order, to command'. It was originally employed as a title roughly equivalent to commander under the Roman Republic. Later it became a part of the titulature of the Roman Emperors as part of their cognomen. The English word emperor derives from imperator via Old French Empereür. The Roman emperors themselves generally based their authority on multiple titles and positions, rather than preferring any single title. Nevertheless, imperator was used relatively consistently as an element of a Roman ruler's title throughout the principate and the dominate. In Latin, the feminine form of Imperator is imperatrix.

The Kyklos is a term used by some classical Greek authors to describe what they saw as the political cycle of governments in a society. It was roughly based on the history of Greek city-states in the same period. The concept of "The Kyklos" is first elaborated in Plato's Republic, chapters VIII and IX. Polybius calls it the anakyklosis or "anacyclosis".

Politeia (πολιτεία) is an ancient Greek word used in Greek political thought, especially that of Plato and Aristotle. Derived from the word polis ("city-state"), it has a range of meanings, from "the rights of citizens" to a "form of government".

Principate first period of the Roman Empire

The Principate is the name sometimes given to the first period of the Roman Empire from the beginning of the reign of Augustus in 27 BC to the end of the Crisis of the Third Century in 284 AD, after which it evolved into the so-called Dominate.

Mixed government is a form of government that combines elements of democracy (polity), aristocracy and monarchy, making impossible their respective degenerations which are conceived as anarchy, oligarchy and tyranny. The idea was popularized during classical antiquity in order to describe the stability, the innovation and the success of the republic as a form of government developed under the Roman constitution.

Despotate of the Morea

The Despotate of the Morea or Despotate of Mystras was a province of the Byzantine Empire which existed between the mid-14th and mid-15th centuries. Its territory varied in size during its existence but eventually grew to include almost all the southern Greek peninsula known as the Peloponnese, which was known as the Morea during the medieval and early modern periods. The territory was usually ruled by one or more sons of the current Byzantine emperor, who were given the title of despotes. Its capital was the fortified city of Mystras, near ancient Sparta, which became an important centre of the Palaiologan Renaissance.

<i>The Spirit of the Laws</i> 1748 treatise on political theory first published anonymously by Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu

The Spirit of the Laws is a treatise on political theory, as well as a pioneering work in comparative law, published in 1748 by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. Originally published anonymously, partly because Montesquieu's works were subject to censorship, its influence outside France was aided by its rapid translation into other languages. In 1750 Thomas Nugent published the first English translation. In 1751 the Roman Catholic Church added De l'esprit des lois to its Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Yet Montesquieu's treatise had an enormous influence on the work of many others, most notably: Catherine the Great, who produced Nakaz (Instruction); the Founding Fathers of the United States Constitution; and Alexis de Tocqueville, who applied Montesquieu's methods to a study of American society, in Democracy in America. Macaulay offers us a hint of Montesquieu's continuing importance when he writes in his 1827 essay entitled "Machiavelli" that "Montesquieu enjoys, perhaps, a wider celebrity than any political writer of modern Europe."

Tsar title given to a male monarch in Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia

Tsar, also spelled czar, or tzar, is a title used to designate East and South Slavic monarchs or supreme rulers of Eastern Europe, originally Bulgarian monarchs from 10th century onwards. As a system of government in the Tsardom of Russia and the Russian Empire, it is known as Tsarist autocracy, or Tsarism. The term is derived from the Latin word Caesar, which was intended to mean "Emperor" in the European medieval sense of the term—a ruler with the same rank as a Roman emperor, holding it by the approval of another emperor or a supreme ecclesiastical official —but was usually considered by western Europeans to be equivalent to king, or to be somewhat in between a royal and imperial rank.


  1. Despotism. (film documentary). Prelinger Archives. Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 1946. OCLC   6325325 . Retrieved 2015-01-27.
  2. Pop, Vox (2007-09-29). "Are dictators ever good?". the Guardian.
  3. "The definition of despotism". Retrieved 15 August 2016.
  4. See: Politics (Aristotle) 7.1327b
  5. Boesche, Roger (1990). "Fearing Monarchs and Merchants: Montesquieu's Two Theories of Despotism". The Western Political Quarterly . 43 (4): 741–61. doi:10.1177/106591299004300405. JSTOR   448734.
  6. WordNet Search - 3.0 [ dead link ]
  7. World History, Spielvogel J. Jackson. Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, Columbus, OH. p. 520
  8. Montesquieu, "The Spirit of Laws", Book II, 1.