A Point of View: Just figures of fear or fun?

A woman walks past a image of Colonel Gaddafi

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.

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Mary Beard
  • A Point of View is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST
  • Mary Beard is a Professor of Classics at Cambridge and an author

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.

Emperor Nero Nero's critics conceded he mounted admirable relief measures in Rome

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.

Oil profits

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.

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The temptation is to go one of two ways - total adulation for the tyrant's achievements or blanket vilification of his crimes”

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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?

Condoleezza Rice Gaddafi is said to have collected pictures of Condoleezza Rice

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.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    Furthermore, contrary to the belief of those in the media, Gadaffi did not personally murder Yvonne Fletcher nor did he bring down a plane over lockerbie. If your going to do that, you might as well hold The British Prime Minister personally responsible for every person that dies in war. The media has treated Gadaffi in the same way his captors did.

  • Comment number 137.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    Society is one big lie.

    Do you really believe what you are told ? Any of it ? Because the deeper you look the more murky it is.

    We live in a world full of war and so many problems. A world so full of lies that forming any opinion on the basis of it is ... not rational or intelligent.

    The only intelligent thing to do is to switch it off and walk away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Here are some lessons for our Great democracy: Libyan dictatorship- Free Healthcare, Free Education, Free Housing, Petrol 0.5 pence per litre, Free Electricity, No national debt. No opposition parties, No IMF Maffia, no foreign banks. Prepare to be oppressed!
    I am sure most of you will pick Austerity instead. Meaningless choices like Smoking or no smoking are guaranteed. (sorry,it has been banned

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    you mean ex tyrants and its because they can no loger get you back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    I find this article to be condescending. First of all the author imagines that we all have problems and that we all seek to make figures of fun out of tragic characters.

    Might I suggest the author of this article directs their article to his or her peers in the media? Those are the ones you need to be preaching to. I have my own thoughts on Gaddaffi and they arent based on comedy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    And your links are rubbish too kuckoo, sad propaganda from a confused person.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Puck, IF you wish to believe media and the NTC, that is your choice but short investigation will show you the truth of what I say. witnesses were paid $4 million by the FBI to lie about Lockerbie. Forensics show the bullet that killed Fletcher came from high up, not 2nd floor. So Saddam and Qaddafi both hide in holes? You believe fairy stories designed to denigrate. I do know you speak rubbish..

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    What twaddle about Prince Charles. 'Decorated gaudy outfits' . . . in your ignorance (real or deliberate) you're obviously referring to the Full Dress uniforms of the historic forces, regiments & corps of which he is Colonel-in-Chief; hardly the same thing as a Tripoli tailor's unique fantasy for a deservedly dead psychopathic, mass-murdering, lunatic, is it, Mary??

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Puck,what makes you authority?http://moraloutrage.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/lockerbie-pan-am-103-libya-what-really-happened/ You believe Media?you believe murderers?I know the truth and how NATO and NTC have lied.Believe what you like but don't tell me your 'facts' if they came from the paper. http://globalciviliansforpeace.com/2011/08/27/the-murder-of-wpc-yvonne-flectcher-dispatches-investigation/

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    "Good" and "bad" are relative notions, and there is no truth, because everyone decides it individually. Sometimes the mob wants to be controlled. When Stalin died the half of the people were rejoicing, and the other half were wailing, 'cause they were sure that it was the end.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    ''Qaddafi never crawled out of a drain.''
    Yes he did.
    ''Libya was proven not reponsible for either WPC Fletchers death or the Lockerbie bombing. ''
    No they weren't.
    The last bit of your post is blatant rubbish kukul, and you know it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    Mary, you are disrespectful to Qaddafi and incorrect about many statements. Qaddafi never crawled out of a drain. Libya was proven not reponsible for either WPC Fletchers death or the Lockerbie bombing. See the banned 'Despatches' program that shows unequivocably that WPC Fletcher was shot from high up single shot and that the Libyan embassy had been infiltrated by agents who fired on the crowd.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    I lived in Libya and I can confirm all that she says. Libya has amazingly good education and health care all paid for with oil revenues. The streets were cleaned and the roads maintained.

    Compare that with what's happening in the UK and you won't be surprised to find that Gaddafi had much higher popularity ratings in Libya than either Cameron or Obama have in their respective countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    Is that we as in the BBC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    I think this is a very good lesson for the rest of the Arab leaders, hopefully they will learn something from what happend to Sadam and Qadafi. Mubarak's decision was wise and so was Tunisian president. President has to respond to the change and understand the circumstances. One should try to avoid any bloodshed at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Does Tacitus comment about truth apply to the BBC's vain attempts at finding the truth about Ghaddafis 'death'. The sequence of events during that occured while he was murdered and the alleged sexual degradation.

    No, it satisfied itself at the expense of viewers by repeating the message of the murderers as good reporting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. At least, it offers an interesting analysis of the current situation with reference to classical examples. I think we need a sobre reminder once in a while of the intangible nature of subjectivity. More than this, it presents a useful filter through which to view our own recent behaviour in the middle east.

  • Comment number 120.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    I believe there is a certain sense of shame linked with the fact that today's deposed tyrants were courted at some point by the leaders of industrialized countries. Exposing their eccentricities might be easier than dealing with the mechanics of these unholy alliances.


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