The election of Donald Trump, whose autocratic tendencies are more visible than those of previous presidents, has resulted in greater appearance of words like dictator, tyrant, and demagogue in news and political commentary. I have colleagues and friends who are scholars of the classical Roman and Greek worlds and they inform me that these words originally had more benign meanings. They only later developed pejorative connotations as a result of the actions of some of those to whom the labels had been applied.
For example, my colleague who specializes in ancient Rome tells me:
The word “dictator” was originally neutral. If you read Livy’s Early History of Rome, you will find that an individual Roman will be appointed dictator to deal with a crisis situation at Rome. Anyone taking the office in the early days always resigns from the post after six months. Julius Caesar was an exception: in a later period of Roman history (c. 45 B.C.) he took the office, got himself appointed for ten years, and then for life. He did not live out even the ten-year term. At that point the word “dictator” begins to be equated with the Greek term “tyrant” in its negative sense.
The meaning of ‘tyrant’ also evolved with time.
In the exact sense, a tyrant is an individual who arrogates to himself the royal authority without having a right to it. This is how the Greeks understood the word ‘tyrant’: they applied it indifferently to good and bad princes whose authority was not legitimate. [Rousseau, “The Social Contract”]
Originally in Greek the word was not applied to old hereditary sovereignties (basileiai) and despotic kings, but it was used of usurpers, even when popular, moderate, and just (such as Cypselus of Corinth), however it soon became a word of reproach in the usual modern sense.
And so it was with ‘demagogue’ which originally just meant ‘leader of the people’.
1640s, from Greek demagogos “popular leader,” also “leader of the mob,” from demos “people” (see demotic) + agogos “leader,” from agein “to lead” (see act (n.)). Often a term of disparagement since the time of its first use, in Athens, 5c. B.C.E. Form perhaps influenced by French demagogue (mid-14c.).
Indeed, since the term demagogos explicitly denotes someone who leads or shepherds the demos, the eventual use of this word as the primary epithet for a political panderer represents a virtual reversal of its original meaning. The word demagogos in fact implies that the people need someone to lead them and that political power, at least in part, is exercised appropriately through this leadership. [Loren J. Samons II, “What’s Wrong With Democracy,” University of California Press, 2004]
My colleague added that ‘demagogy’ originally meant:
‘leadership of the people’, a phenomenon particularly associated with Classical Athens in the 5th century BC, though the 4th century had its (less extreme) demagogues too. Unlike their English counterparts, the Greek words were not initially or necessarily disparaging. i.e., the root meaning was ‘leader’ not ‘misleader; and they are fairly rare… That ‘demagogue’ came to be bad is however beyond doubt.
On the most favorable view, demagogues were the ‘indispensable experts’, particularly on financial matters, whose grasp of detail kept an essentially amateur system going. Certainly inscriptions, our main source of financial information about Classical Athens, help correct the hostile picture in Thucydides and Aristophanes. But it has been protested that demagogues worked by charisma not expertise.
Clearly the early idea of a demagogue as an indispensable expert who has a grasp of detail comes nowhere close to describing Trump, which shows just how far the meaning has changed.
The changing meanings of these words provides a good reminder, if we needed one, that language evolves, usage changes, and words do not have fixed meanings, which is why those who try to restrict the meanings of words to what they currently represent are fighting the tide.