The Top Benevolent and Malevolent Dictators From History

‘The Rape of Lucretia’, by Boticelli, depicting the assault and the popular uprising that it triggered. Wikimedia

34. Ancient Romans Detested the Absolute Power of Kings – But Had no Problem With Dictators

In 509 BC, a popular revolt overthrew Rome’s monarchy, and replaced the rule of kings with the Roman Republic. While Rome’s earlier kings had been revered, the last one, Tarquinus Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud, was overbearing. His family was worse: the uprising was triggered by one of Tarquin’s sons raping a Roman woman named Lucretia. Between such abuses and frequent fighting against Tarquins trying to regain power, the Romans developed a long-lasting loathing of kings and would-be kings.

The newly-established republic divided the government’s executive power between two annually elected officials known as praetors, later as consuls. Checks and balances were put in place to guard against the gathering of too much power in the hands in any one man – lest that tempt him to try and become king. Unfortunately, emergencies cropped up at times – primarily foreign wars, but sometimes internal crises – that required the concentration of the state’s powers in the hands of a single individual. That was pretty much the definition of a monarch, but the Romans detested monarchy and wanted nothing to do with it. So they created a constitutional office for such emergencies: the dictator.