A Point of View: Just figures of fear or fun?
- 4 November 2011
- From the section Magazine
From Roman emperors to Colonel Gaddafi, it's easy to turn tyrants from figures of fear into figures of fun. But while their behaviour was often brutal and bloody, that's not all they were, writes Mary Beard.
On 11 March, 222 AD, a posse of rebel soldiers tracked down the Roman Emperor Elagabalus to his hiding place - he had come to power in a coup just four years earlier, supposedly dividing his time between fundamentalist religious reforms, corruption and self-indulgence - but not before they had sodomised and skewered some of his few remaining loyal troops.
Now the tyrant was holed up in a latrine, desperately hoping to keep clear of the liberators, out for his blood. No such luck. The rebels rooted him out, killed him, triumphantly dragged his body through the streets and then threw his mutilated remains into a drain.
The Roman accounts of Elagabalus's end, if not outright unreliable, are certainly embellished at the edges. They may be as misleading as those confused mobile phone images that purported to record the final, bloody moments of Colonel Gaddafi a couple of weeks ago. But what is clear is that one of the basic story lines of "the death of a tyrant" - from hopeless hiding places to sewers and sodomy - was already well established 2,000 years ago.
It's more, though, than just these stories of the tyrant's death that we share with the Romans. We've inherited from them the standard cliches about the life of a tyrant too. In fact, we still operate with a more-or-less Roman view about what's despotic about a despot.
Then as now, of course, killing was central to the image, on a mass scale and sometimes in ingeniously ghastly ways. The Emperor Nero not only massacred his opponents, but he tried to get rid of his own mother using a specially constructed collapsible boat. In fact the tough old bird was a strong swimmer and had to be disposed of using more orthodox methods.
But it doesn't stop with violence. Tyrants are responsible for all kinds of lurid disruptions to the normal rules of social life. Disruptions that have been the trademark of tyranny for at least two millennia.
Take the rules of gender, for a start. Gaddafi's battalion of high-heeled, heavily made-up female bodyguards seem uncannily close to Elagabalus's new Roman governing senate, which was to be made up entirely of women.
But you can add to that the tyrant's penchant for eccentric accommodation - from Gaddafi's idiosyncratic "tent" to Nero's notorious "Golden House" in Rome - and his dubious hobbies. The emperor Domitian was said to have spent his leisure hours stabbing flies with his pen, Gaddafi obsessively collecting pictures of Condoleezza Rice and sticking them into his scrapbook.
'Hearsay and fantasy'
More than anything though, the tyrant - ancient or modern - adopts weird forms of dress. Elagabalus was criticised for being the first Roman to wear outfits made entirely of silk. Gaddafi was derided for his silly, pantomime military uniforms, with their row upon row of spurious medals. To be honest "silliness" here is largely in the eye of the beholder. Quite why Prince Charles's much decorated, gaudy military outfits are not thought silly even though he has never, to my knowledge, seen a single day's service in an actual war, I really can't imagine.
These stereotypes of tyrants are a confused mixture of truth, semi-truth, hearsay and utter fantasy. I very much doubt Gaddafi had the time to go searching for pictures of Condy in the international press, or that Elagabalus's female senate was more than the figment of some ancient tabloid imagination.
So why have they proved so lasting? For various reasons I think. Partly, they are a neat way of turning the dictator from a figure of fear to a figure of fun. Partly, the silly costumes and the mad houses are a whole lot easier for us to talk about than the torture and the murder that goes with tyranny.
But partly, it's laziness. It requires almost no intellectual effort whatsoever to bandy around an off-the-peg, identikit image of the monster - wicked from his clothes to his very core.
It's harder to think about the nuances of tyranny. And it's particularly hard to face the uncomfortable fact that very few of these loathed tyrants are as wholly bad as it suits us to assume.
Nero may have been a murderous persecutor, but even his fiercest critics conceded that he mounted admirable and unprecedented relief measures for the people after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. And, as we know, even the most vicious murderer may love his family deeply, be kind and generous to them, and be loved in return. "Badness" comes in inconveniently complicated ways.
I'm not trying to rehabilitate Nero, or stand up for Gaddafi. If I lived in Libya I hope I would be on the rebel side. And I feel confident that overall the world is a better place without the colonel. Though whether it will be a better place with whatever the National Transitional Council turns into we'll just have to wait and see.
My point is not that we should see Gaddafi as a good man - no-one would try to convince the relatives of Yvonne Fletcher or of the victims of Lockerbie of that. My point is that we sell ourselves short if we don't work a bit harder to move beyond the stereotypes and get a more complicated view of the tyrant. We need to understand why some people supported him, as they passionately did - and not always bad people for bad reasons.
Have you ever wondered why Nelson Mandela was such a friend of the Libyan leader? Or why Mandela's grandson is actually called Gaddafi. It goes back to the 1970s and 80s when Gaddafi gave cash and weapons to the ANC in their fight against apartheid.
Sure, he probably did the same for any band of thugs who fetched up in Tripoli, with a begging bowl for some "anti-colonial cause". But, in this case, at a time when many European countries were still treating anti-apartheid freedom fighters as terrorists, and when the British government was dragging its heels even on economic sanctions against white South Africa, Gaddafi came up with the goods. The Libyan record is bound to look different when you see it from an African rather than a European point of view.
Adulation is 'distrusted'
It also looks a bit different if you dip into some of the statistics about recent conditions in Libya before the war, gathered by the UN and the US state department - hardly natural friends of Gaddafi. No, they don't include any good news about Libyan human rights. Gaddafi's regime was authoritarian at best, violently repressive at worst.
But how often are we told that life expectancy in Libya far exceeds its neighbours, that Libya has a substantially lower child mortality rate than Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Tunisia, the highest literacy rate in North Africa - on US estimates, not the Libyan propaganda machine - as well as free hospitals and childcare?
The profits of oil have not simply been flowing into the pockets of the few, or into the weapons that still stuff the warehouses. Among all the things that have been going terribly wrong under the Gaddafi regime, some things have been going right.
The Romans were actually a bit more prepared than we are to face up to the complexities of tyranny. Among all the cliches they tossed around about the Emperor Nero, they did stop to wonder how to explain the seemingly good things he did. Did he start out well and only later go to the bad? Or was he the victim of a change of advisers?
But it was Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the sharpest Roman historian of them all, who hit the nail on the head. In the introduction to his book that would include an account of the reign of Domitian (the notorious fly-stabber), Tacitus reflected on how best to analyse tyranny. It's problematic, he wrote, because it's very hard to find out the truth.
The temptation is to go one of two ways - total adulation for the tyrant's achievements or blanket vilification of his crimes. Readers, he went on, distrust adulation. It looks like flattery. They tend to trust vilification, as criticism appears more objective. But that doesn't mean, he warns, that it is necessarily right.
Maybe we should remember Tacitus's words the next time some time-expired despot crawls out of a sewer to his death.