Welcome to the first Parallax Machine post named directly after a Monty Python quote. We think. We are too lazy to check.
The Machine has not been very active lately. This will change in 2024. And why not begin with another themed series of posts? The topic: examining how several dictators across the course of humanity came to power. And why would we explore this topic now? In 2024? Oh, no reason.
Let’s first start with the definition of a dictator. Interestingly enough, as is the case with a great many things, the term was not originally intended to have a negative connotation. It traces back to the Roman republic, where the role of dictator was intended to be an emergency position with extra authority to get through a crisis. Kind of like when Jar Jar gave Palpatine emergency powers. And yeah, eventually it turned out about that well in Ancient Rome too.
What is the modern definition of a dictator? The Oxford English Dictionary has a very concise definition: “An absolute ruler of a state, esp. one whose rule displaces that of a democratic government.” Webster’s (dictionary.com) description: “a person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.” And then everyone’s favorite, Wikipedia, goes into more detail: “In modern usage the term dictator is generally used to describe a leader who holds or abuses an extraordinary amount of personal power. Dictatorships are often characterised by some of the following: suspension of elections and civil liberties; proclamation of a state of emergency; rule by decree; repression of political opponents; not abiding by the procedures of the rule of law; and the existence of a cult of personality centered on the leader.” We’ll come back to all that in a later post.
The first Roman to essentially insert himself into the originally defined role of dictator was Cornelius Sulla, a highly successful general who played a big role in the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Sulla led a Roman faction that wanted more power for the Senate and less power for the people, and actually marched on Rome a couple of times to defeat his enemies who felt otherwise. Since the Senators were a part of the power structure favored by Sulla, it’s not too surprising they agreed to appoint him as dictator. But in a break from the past, there was no time limit on his term in that capacity. He spent around three years in the role, strengthening the power of the Senate and reducing the role of the tribunes (and therefore the bulk of Roman citizens) in the process. And then, in contrast to the typical behavior of later dictators, he retired from the role and mostly disappeared into private life. But the damage was done: once someone decided to push the envelope that far, it all but guaranteed that future individuals would push it further. One teenager who saw it all happen, kin to Sulla’s enemies, would later mock Sulla for his retirement. That teenager’s name was Gaius Julius Caesar. You may have heard of him. And you’ll hear more soon.
One thing we will see as we explore some key examples of dictators throughout history is a common chain of events: a sovereign entity’s collective memory of why dictators are bad fades beyond recall (this does not take very long, by the way). And then one person comes along with sufficient ambition to start straining whatever limits on power might be in place – and quite often, that part doesn’t happen overnight. Some resist, and maybe there’s even a failure for the aspiring dictator, but the ambition persists, and slowly it eats away at whatever tries to hold it back, often with implicit aid from a significant portion of the populace. It’s depressingly ironic: the single thing that enables a dictator more than anything: everybody else. Buckle up.