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An autocracy is a form of government in which the political power is held by a self-appointed ruler. The term ''autocrat'' is derived from the word ''autokratōr'' (, lit. "self-ruler", or "one who rules by himself"). Compare with oligarchy ("rule by the few") and democracy ("rule by the people").
Today the term autocrat is usually understood as being synonymous with ''despot'', ''tyrant'' and ''dictator'', although each of these terms originally had a separate and distinct meaning.
Autocracy is not synonymous with totalitarianism, as the latter concept was forged in 1923 to distinguish modern regimes from traditional dictatorships. Nor is it synonymous with military dictatorship, as these often take the form of "collective presidencies" such as the South American ''juntas''. However, an autocracy may be totalitarian or be a military dictatorship.
The term monarchy also differs in that it emphasizes the hereditary characteristic, though some Slavic monarchs, specifically Russian Emperors traditionally included the title "autocrat" as part of their official styles. This usage originated in the Byzantine Empire, where the term ''autokratōr'' was traditionally employed in Greek to translate the Latin ''imperator'', and was used along with ''Basileus'' to mean "emperor". This use remains current in the modern Greek language, where the term is used for any emperor (e.g. the Emperor of Japan), regardless of the actual power of the monarch. Historically, many monarchs ruled autocratically but eventually their power was diminished and dissolved with the introduction of constitutions giving the people the power to make decisions for themselves through elected bodies of government.
The autocrat needs some kind of power structure to rule. Very few rulers were in the position to rule with only their personal charisma and skills, however great these may be, without the help of others. Most historical autocrats depended on their nobles, the military, the priesthood or others, who could turn against the ruler and depose or murder them. As such, it can be difficult to draw a clear line between historical autocracies and oligarchies.