I am looking for examples of absolute rulers who voluntarily resigned their power. To get the ball going, here are two from Roman history:

On the other hand, Solon fails to make list as not being quite an absolute ruler, and the emperor-monks that were once common in Japan also do not fit as they resigned but retained a share of influence on the government nevertheless. Also, regents who faithfully turned over the realm to a king who grew up are to be excluded - I am looking for rulers in their own right, however that right was acquired.

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    Possibly, Cincinnat and other Roman dictators before Sulla? Although I do not know to which extent their power was absolute. – Anixx Dec 5 '12 at 16:57
  • @Anixx: The Roman dictators before Sulla were specifically appointed for 6 months so their resignation for automatic in a sense. IIRC, Sulla's dictatorship was not limited to a fixed term. – Felix Goldberg Dec 5 '12 at 17:01
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    Do Stack Exchange moderators who stepped down count? ;P – yannis Dec 5 '12 at 18:05
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    @YannisRizos - On some of SE sites, they do (*cough*SFF.SE*cough*)... History.SE mods seem extremely non-dictatorial based on their meta feedback – DVK Dec 6 '12 at 4:54
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    I wonder if it counts if somebode de-facto abandoned his position without doing it de-jure? – Anixx Dec 6 '12 at 9:21

Ivan IV the Terrible of Russia had put another man, Simeon Bekbulatovich to the throne and retired to a monastery. But a year later he abandoned the idea and returned :-) Simeon Bekbulatovich resigned the Moscow throne to become the Grand Prince of Tver.

Do not know if this counts either for Ivan or for Simeon.

  • Guess that counts for Ivan. Thanks for bringing up this dim episode in an unexpected context! – Felix Goldberg Dec 6 '12 at 1:29
  • Wish I could abdicate my job and laze around in a monastery for a year... – DVK Dec 6 '12 at 4:56
  • Would that more properly be Ivan IV (the Terrible) or simply Ivan the Terrible (or was III worse?) It seems to me that Ivan IV the Terrible is an awful mouthful. – CGCampbell Sep 9 '14 at 19:16
  • @CGCampbell Funny thing is that it was Ivan III (IV's grandad) who was originally the one called Terrible - because he was a terror to his neighbours. Ivan IV was a terror to his own subjects (while having a mixed at best record of foreign wars) so the sobriquet was transferred to him. – Felix Goldberg Jun 10 '15 at 21:10

Cincinnatus is sort of the prototypical example. He was elected dictator of Rome in 458 BC to deal with a military emergency, and again the following year to deal with a plot against the republic. Both times he gave up dicatatorial powers as soon as the crisis had been dealt with, and went back to his farm.

This had a great influence on the founding fathers of the USA. The post of President was designed to be able to carry out a simliar role in an emergency. The post is designated as supreme commander of all US armed forces, and is allowed in times of military crisis to suspend Habeus Corpus. George Washington was often referred to as "Cincinnatus", and the city of Cincinnati, Ohio was named after him.

During the US Civil War, there was open debate about whether a similar dictator might be required. However, the powers given the President in the Constitution proved to be sufficient without taking such an overt step.

  • As I said before to Anixx, the pre-Sullan Roman dictatorship was a regular office of state, given for a fixed term of 6 months. Therefore, a person resigning it was doing nothing but his duty. There was never the option of not resigning. It's true that men like Cincinnatus showed high civic sense by resigning immediately when the job was finished instead of strutting around with 24 lictors for 6 months - but it's not really the same kind of thing as a king or emperor giving up his throne and retiring to the village to grow cabbage. – Felix Goldberg Dec 5 '12 at 23:23
  • @FelixGoldberg - Once you have supreme power, there is always the option of not resigning. – T.E.D. Dec 6 '12 at 0:23
  • Well yes, but I want to keep the question precisely delineated. The 5th or 4th century BCE Roman dictator who didn't resign would have been an odd bird (and the Roman Republic would have found ways of dealing with him). I am interested in men (or women, perhaps?) who actualyl wielded supreme power and were not limited by anything or anybody - and then gave it up. – Felix Goldberg Dec 6 '12 at 1:28
  • I have frequently heard opinions that Lincoln DID have dictatorial powers. Not entirely unfounded, IMHO, but my Civil War knowledge is poor. – DVK Dec 6 '12 at 4:58
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    So is a 200,000 man rebel army shooting at you. – Oldcat Jun 10 '15 at 18:23

Maybe not a case that you will consider but,

Pope Benedict IX (Pope between October 1032 and July 1048) abdicated, although you can argue that Popes around that time didn't have absolute power:

The low point of the papacy was 867–1049[...] The papacy came under the control of vying political factions

Wikipedia, Pope #Medieval_Age

Nevertheless he is the first undisputed case of a Pope resigning.

He was forced out a total of three times, but in between the second and third time he sold his papacy. Shortly after selling it, he regretted his act and retook his papacy by force. He remained Pope for another year after that.

I don't know if you will consider him an absolute ruler but he did voluntarily give up a (theoretically) very powerful position for money.

  • My interpretation is that Pope Benedict IX resigned not because he had absolute power, but rather that despite wearing the cloak of absolute power he could see numerous endemic issues within the giant bureaucracy of the Catholic Church and realised that he was ultimately powerless to do anything about it. So he did an incredibly brave thing, and publicly announced that the cloak of papal infallibility was just an illusion, the emperor was naked and he was just a man. In destroying it for himself, he also destroyed it for all those who where strategically using it to hide behind. – Jamie McGuigan Oct 11 '15 at 8:48

You may consider emperor Justin II who resigned due to progressing insanity.

  • I guess he is a borderline case - him being mad puts a bit of a damper on the whole procedure. – Felix Goldberg Jan 1 '13 at 17:14

My contributions to the list of dictators who voluntarily abdicated (not already included in your list), arranged chronologically:

  • Moses

  • Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus

  • Flavius Iustinus Iunior Augustus

  • John VI Cantacuzenus

  • Murad II Kodja

  • Cosimo Medici

  • Oliver Cromwell

  • Kristina Augusta

  • Franz Joseph Karl von Habsburg

  • Napolean III

  • Antonio López de Santa Anna

  • Tokugawa Yoshinobu

  • Nicholas Romanov

  • Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert

  • Omar Ali Saifuddien III

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    Some entries are rather puzzling. Nicholas II did not abdicate voluntarily, neither did Napoleon III (being under duress invalidates voluntariness). Cincinnatus was Roman dictator which was a fixed-term office for 6 months - he did the job sooner and resigned, which is commendable but not quite what I was asking about. Some of the others I don't know about at all or enough so I'll have a look. – Felix Goldberg Sep 9 '14 at 15:17
  • I included some that were under duress. As long as the dictator had a clear choice and could have chosen to remain I consider that "voluntary". In practice, most dictators go to the bitter end, so ones that leave when they still have a choice tend to be pretty rare. I will let the OP decide what he considers voluntary or not. Don't forget that nearly every dictator is under pressure by someone or other to abdicate all the time, the sword of Damocles is no joke. – Tyler Durden Sep 9 '14 at 15:21
  • I believe I am OP :) – Felix Goldberg Sep 9 '14 at 15:25
  • Ok, pick and choose whom you want. – Tyler Durden Sep 9 '14 at 15:25
  • So, do you mind if I edit, keeping those whom I deem fitting? – Felix Goldberg Sep 9 '14 at 15:26

i know this link is old, but this is a timeless question. How about a king that TRIED to give up power and become a monk? However he was pressured to stay as King for the good of his people. That should count. King Louis IX...AKA Saint Louis

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