Tyranny is generally accepted as a severe form of government that is led by an incompetent leader who is both cruel and oppressive. These leaders are known as “tyrants,” and an example of tyranny is a government that controls its citizens with fear. As a result of being otherwise unfit to lead, the ruler may attempt to keep his power by becoming increasingly cruel and authoritarian toward his nation’s citizens, infringing upon their rights in the process. To explore this concept, consider the following tyranny definition.

Definition of Tyranny


  1. An oppressive or severe form of government.
  2. An unrestrained use of authority or power.
  3. A state ruled by, or government of, an absolute ruler.
  4. Excessive severity.
  5. Cruel and unfair treatment by someone in authority.


1325-1375    Middle English tyrannie

What Does Tyranny Mean

The original, historical definition of tyranny referred to a ruler (“tyrant”) who was not legitimate, according to the law or tradition of the country. In other words, he did not properly come into the line of rule – as in the inheritance of kings. In modern times, the term tyranny refers to a government that is ruled by an authoritative figure who is both unfit to rule, and who rules in a cruel and oppressive way.

In order to compensate for a lack of skill, a tyrannical ruler tends to make the government over which he presides increasingly severe. What this means is that, while citizens may feel like they have nothing to worry about with a less than competent leader, the opposite may, in fact, be true, and the situation may become dangerous very quickly.

Avoiding Tyranny

When one person, or small group of people, has too much power, it becomes relatively easy to abuse it at the expense of innocent citizens. The best way to avoid tyranny is to implement a governmental system of checks and balances, similar to the one employed by the United States. In such a system, each branch of government keeps the other branches in check, with no one branch wielding too much power.

Also, allowing the government leaders to simply appoint whoever they like to governmental positions without allowing its citizens to vote for them does not give the citizens a fair opportunity, which may make them feel as though their rights are being neglected or abused.

Resistance to Tyranny

People around the world feel they have a right to government without tyranny. There is a political philosophy that holds that the people have an actual right of revolution, and even a responsibility to overthrow a ruler that is tyrannical, or a government that is not in the people’s best interests.

Resistance to tyranny may take the form of exercising the people’s right to overthrow a tyrannical government. The right of revolution has actually been the motivation for several historical wars, including the French and American Revolutions. As the American colonists exercised their right of revolution, as their resistance to tyranny, they did so, feeling they had a duty to throw off the tyrannical rule of the British monarch.

Some Christian leaders say that resistance to tyranny is “resistance to God,” believing that citizens should always obey their government’s authority, no matter what. This concept is not new. Churches in Nazi Germany backed the Nazi party in much the same way that American churches today are discouraging citizens from acting out against their governments, regardless of whether or not they disagree with their actions or policies. Interestingly, Hitler actually viewed German citizens as spineless and submissive for not collectively rising up against their government in an attempt to overthrow it.

Dictator or Tyrant

The terms dictator and tyrant are often used interchangeably, but there are differences between the two. In a dictatorship, the government is run based on the whims of a single ruler (a “dictator”), who is not elected by the people, but holds all of the governmental power. In a dictatorship, the government has the right to invade the public and private lives of its citizens on a whim, and without accountability.

A dictator can set whatever regulations it chooses to set, and it can keep a close enough eye on its citizens to infringe upon their personal rights. Anyone who stands up against a dictatorship may be cruelly suppressed thorough the use of government forces. Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein were dictators. A tyrant is a ruler who’s very character is oppressive and ruthless.

While a dictator claims absolute power, a tyrant does so through brutality and fear. Tyranny refers to the actions of a ruler that are severe, oppressive, and self-centered. While not every dictator is a tyrant, it is easy to see how one might grow into such an attitude.

Tyranny Example in Historical Leaders

Tyranny is considered the most oppressive rule under which people may live. Tyrannical leaders depend on fear and torture to control their citizens. Tyrants are both corrupt and rich, their wealth typically having been accumulated by less-than-legal means. Rome’s Caligula, Cambodia’s Pol Pot, Mongolia’s Genghis Khan, and England’s Henry VIII were some of the most vicious tyrannical leaders in history.

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan was one of the most successful tyrannical leaders in history. Khan was able to unite nomadic tribes in Mongolia and, with those tribes, establish the largest land empire ever created. Together with his tribes, Khan was able to conquer major portions of Asia and China. Before he died, Khan broke his empire up into parts, and divided those parts among his sons and grandsons. Genghis Khan’s descendants then expanded his empire even further, advancing into areas like Poland, Vietnam, and Korea. At the height of their power, the Mongols ruled between 11 and 12 million square miles of land.

Khan’s legacy is an example of tyranny that can, surprisingly, come with benefits. While many people were brutally killed during the Mongol invasions, Khan actually did some positive things during his reign. He allowed his subjects to enjoy religious freedom, he did away with torture, and he was in favor of trade between nations. Khan was also responsible for creating the first international postal system. While Khan died in 1227, no one knows where he was laid to rest.

Pol Pot

Pol Pot makes for a good example of tyranny. Under his rule, approximately 1.5 million Cambodian citizens – out of a population of between 7 and 8 million – died as the result of conditions that he caused or encouraged. In one of many of the detention centers (S-21), people were held in a fashion similar to Hitler’s concentration camps. Their treatment was so brutal that only 7 of the 20,000 people who were imprisoned there actually survived their conditions.

While the Nazis targeted Jews, gypsies, and homosexual people, Pol Pot’s regime – the Khmer Rouge – singled out those who belonged to particular classes. Pot’s goal was to create a society of peasants that could not be grouped into classes the way societies normally are (lower class, middle class, and upper class). His targets included religious leaders, intellectuals, and civil servants, among others.

The Khmer Rouge were overcome in 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodian territory. Pol Pot lived until 1998, and his death is one that has been hotly debated. He died the same night he found out that the Khmer Rouge intended to turn him over to America, leading some to believe he may have committed suicide. The fact that he was cremated despite the government’s interest in inspecting his body only served to fuel the rumors.


Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, known by all as “Caligula,” was only 24 years old when he became the ruler of Rome, in 37 A.D. Roman citizens were happy with Caligula for the first six months of his reign, thinking him a reasonable leader. During this time, he recalled all exiles that had been issued previously, and announced his intentions for political reforms.

However, in October of that year, Caligula came down with an illness that impacted the remainder of his reign, turning him into one of the worst tyrants in history. The source of his illness was not clear, and some hypothesized that he had been poisoned. In either case, Caligula became wicked as soon as he recovered. Some believe that Caligula’s illness may have reminded him of his mortality, which instilled in him a sense of panic, and paranoia that someone else would eventually take over as ruler.

Whatever the reason, Caligula began to kill off or exile anyone close to him, or who he thought to be a serious threat to his rule. No one was safe from Caligula, including his cousin, whom he had adopted as a son, his father-in-law, and brother-in-law – all of whom he had executed. Caligula’s grandmother is said to have committed suicide, but the theory that Caligula actually poisoned her has not been ruled out. He also had his two sisters exiled, keeping only his uncle alive, so he could ridicule him.

Caligula’s biographer, Suetonius, said that Caligula would regularly boast that he had “the right to do anything to anybody.” Caligula would make high-ranking senators run for miles in front of his chariot, and he not only had affairs with his allies’ wives, but was also rumored to have been involved in incestuous relationships with his own sisters. Gaius Caesar made it a capital offense to mention a goat in his presence, because he himself was tall, pale, and significantly hairy.

Caligula was known to roll around in piles of money, and drink pearls that had been dissolved in vinegar, just to flaunt his life of luxury, and to accentuate his power. Caligula is the very definition of a tyrannical leader.

Henry VIII

Perhaps the thing for which Henry VIII is most famous, is the fact that he had six wives during his 36-year reign. He married so many women for multiple reasons, including trying to form political alliances, and trying to create a male heir to the throne. It is because Henry VIII wanted to annul his first marriage without first getting the church’s approval that the Church of England (and the resulting Episcopalian religion) exists today.

Out of his six marriages, two ended in annulment, two wives died of natural causes, and Henry VIII had two of them beheaded on charges of adultery and treason. Of his five children (three sons and two daughters), Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I all went on to eventually become rulers of England.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Khmer Rouge – followers of the Communist Party in Cambodia.
  • Tyrant – A cruel ruler who uses his power unjustly and oppressively.