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Despotism is government by a singular authority, either a single person or tightly knit group, which rules with absolute power. The word implies tyrannical rule; it suggests a form of government which exercises exacting and near-absolute control over all of its citizens.
A related term is benevolent despotism, which refers specifically to a form of rulership that came to prominence in the 18th century. In this instance, the absolute monarchs ruling certain nations used their authority to institute a number of reforms in the political and social structures of their countries. This movement was probably largely triggered by the ideals of the Enlightenment.
Even though the word has modern pejorative meaning, it was once a legitimate title of office in the Byzantine Empire. Just as the word "Byzantine" is often used in a pejorative way (for specific reasons by certain Enlightenment authors wishing to express disapproval of that period in history), the word Despot was equally turned around for negative meaning. In fact, a Despot was an Imperial title, first used under Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180). 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 an elaborate costume similar to the Emperor's and had many privileges. Despots ruled over parts of the empire called Despotates.
- Dictionary of the History of Ideas: (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv2-01) despotism
- Archive.org - Despotism Video - 1946 (http://www.archive.org/details/Despotis1946)