I think I remember a post on the SDMB, maybe 3 years ago, that said something along the lines of:
In all of recorded history, there has never been an absolute ruler. All emperors and kings and sultans have always had at least an advisory council to help (or control) them. Absolute rulers exist only in fiction.
Unless the leader is a wizard or superhero, there’s a limit imposed by human frailty to how much power any individual can have. Even somebody like Stalin or Hitler only had power because other people accepted they had power. Their power would have disappeared immediately if other people had decided it didn’t exist. So at the most basic level, any ruler only has the power that other people give him.
Since it’s hard for one person to physically control many people. dictators depend on allies. I think there are two cases: (1) the allies are themselves powerful people benefiting from the dictator; (2) the allies are weak, controlled by ignorance and threats. Of course, a given ruler may have allies of both types, as well as some individual allies that fit both cases.
As an example of (1), consider an absolute monarch like Elizabeth I. Her power depended on the loyalty of her earls and barons, but they were, in turn, dependent on royalty. They couldn’t contest the legitimacy of the monarchy without calling into question the legitimacy of their own property rights. The hierarchy extended further, with barons and lesser gentry depending on each other, and so on. Even so, the absolute monarch might be overthrown unless she ruled intelligently and somewhat benevolently.
Kim Jong-il or Saddam Hussein retained power with more (2) than (1). Yes, top allies are rewarded but they are also kept under control with fear (“Joe, I’ve told Sam to kill your children if you disobey me.” “Sam, Joi is ready to kill your children.”) and ignorance (Sam and Joe will be charged with treason if they try to compare notes).
Was Saddam Hussein an “absolute ruler”? Yes, but he couldn’t do it alone. He was the head of the al-Tikriti clan which he enriched along with himself. OP’s question might boil down to: “How large does such a clan need to be to impose dictatorship?” It can be rather small if it’s clever and ruthless enough to create a hierarchy of supporters controlled by fear, greed and/or ignorance.
Such leaders are largely a fantasy. In modern primitive and tribal societies, a leader depends on consensus and must follow traditions or he’ll soon be replaced. A leader can’t do whatever he pleases or violate the cultural norms of the society with impunity.
It’s in larger societies that rulers gain more absolute authority. They control a coterie of high-ranking supporters and an army by dispensing favors or money to them, who in turn control the population. But they must retain such support, or at least prevent anyone else from becoming powerful enough to depose them.
He got rid of his equivalent of an advisory council one by one. There is a famous photograph of 8, or so, of them in which each was airbrushed out once they were gone. Somewhere out there you can see the progress of the photograph which in the end only had Stalin in it.
With the way everyone has answered this so far, I’m trying to look back and see if I’ve even heard of an “absolute ruler” as you all are defining it, in fiction.
I don’t think I have, outside of cartoonish stuff involving magic powers.
If you are going to define “absolute ruler” to mean “able to directly effect control over the entire populace without the need for any mechanisms of power whatsoever,” then of COURSE there have only been LOCAL instances of such.
But if you instead define it more broadly as “not limited by previous erection of state systems like constitutions,” then there have been TONS of absolute rulers.
Something to realize about absolute rule is, that it isn’t defined by craziness or vileness. That is, although it’s common to associate extreme negative behaviors with absolute rule, as a part of promoting other forms of government, there is no inherent necessity for such.
People in “Stone Age” societies probably lived in small bands, without any formal leadership structure at all. And anthropologically speaking, a “big man” (found in societies with a bit more organization than that of a band of hunter-gatherers, like maybe a village beginning to transition towards agriculture) isn’t some all-powerful ruler at all. The classic “big man” leads by constantly being seen doing things, getting everyone else to follow along. “Hey, guys, let’s go hunt wild pigs! Who’s with me? C’mon!” Then he grabs his boar spear and runs off to hunt wild pigs and everyone else tags along with him. The “big man” has no power to loftily command “Go get me some bacon!”, while he lounges around and has sex with all the womenfolk; to the contrary, he has to constantly be leading by example in order to get everyone else to go along with his ideas.
There’s almost always a “first among equals,” and often a true leader. It may not be a “formal leadership structure,” but it is highly likely that there’s one guy with more influence than all the others.
(That’s almost tautological; it’s like saying “It is highly likely that there’s one guy who is taller than all the others.” It almost can’t help but be true.)
Leaders of modern street gangs – or organized crime families – are other examples.
LouisB mentioned a judge in his courtroom; a Sergeant and his squad would be another example. Of course, both of these have power that derives from above.
(None of these are “absolute” rulers – “I order you to cut your own throat!” – but, then, in my first post here I only said “…as close to an absolute leader as humanity gets.”)