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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  • Comment number 158.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    I can't wait for Historical Revisionists take on these events. Too bad I probably wont be alive to see it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    Sloppy article. "Emperors to Gaddafi?" Why Gaddafi? Why not talk about the King of Saudi Arabia, or the State of Israel? On a repression scale Libya would not even be on the top of the list. Why not talk about some more advanced stuff like Gaddafi's Green book rejecting liberal Democracy and advocating Direct Democracy. With millions protesting worldwide, it seems a more up-to date topic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    #85 1L19
    'The only good fascist is a dead one, end of.'

    Killing or persecuting someone for their beliefs or who they are is an act of fascism... The truth is we are all fascists about something (whether its smoking, religion, social rights, sexual rights, PC, freedom, equality, inequality, and so on).
    Me? I'm a science fascist, and an anti religious fanatic fascist, and ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Terrific piece. Sometimes the truth is a lie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Revenge is always a strong instinct. It may have been airbrushed from history in respect of Lybia for now. However, I have no doubt fuller, more truthful details will come out in time. Mind you no doubt no one will be interested by the time they do. As the piece suggests 'the good guys always win' ... because they have written the story ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    "It requires almost no intellectual effort whatsoever to bandy around an off-the-peg, identikit image of the monster". The author herself summed up the problem with mainstream media these days -- which includes her. Getting the sauciest, most sensational story out as quickly as possible with as little research as possible, that is what passes for "news" these days. Alas, we are still reading them.

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    Comment number 151.

    Also Lockerbie witnesses admited being paid £4 million each for false testimony...here one article from an intelligence operator. http://moraloutrage.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/lockerbie-pan-am-103-libya-what-really-happened/ one among many reports. So your article spreads untruths and is badly researched and biased. NTC raped women and children, beheaded and burnt people alive. You on their side?

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    most of the African continent countries are divided by tribal allegences it will never be any different , every now and again one tribe wins and the atrocities begin , few years down the line its the others turn , we should keep our big fat noses out its a no win thing .

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    Thankyou moderator and sorry for jumping to conclusions...respect for publishing that last comment..8)

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    BBC News gives the British a sense that they know - ok we might not know everything but we know roughly what's going on in the world.

    I wonder though if actually the BBC is the epicentre of a banal propaganda who's only message is "nothing to see here" : save the millenia-old stories of "good people" and "bad people".

    The objective- to bore people to death with lies?

    The truth, is not here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    It is a sad state we live in when people reject even the notion of taking an objective approach to a dictator. We are comfortable in our simplistic good/evil black/white views.

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    Comment number 146.

    Kuckoo, you yourself posted 'media', so you really have no place to criticise on that score, have you? You are using media now, maybe you should turn off, eh? Are you a muslim? If so you have NO place to talk about ME believing in 'fairy tales', have you? Yes, saddam asspain AND ghadaffi duck were BOTH hiding in holes. In the ground. Scared witless. Prove they weren't.

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    Comment number 145.

    To the moderator...I see you are as biased against truth as your troll Puck. I shall not bother to point out the crap you publish in future, it will be down to the individual to make their own discernment...There are those that seek truth and those that seek to hide it. Thanks for allowing my earlier posts..have a good evening..§

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    We should all keep in mind that history is always written and interpreted by the victor and each "New World Order" based on this interpretation. ...Until the next self-righteous numbskull tyrant takes power somewhere.

    The worrying thing is that only a few of them actually get into power; there are actually a lot more of them out there (or out here!).

  • Comment number 143.

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

  • Comment number 142.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    I would rather pay for my education and health service then be murdered, tortured or even just being controlled on what I say and I do.
    Also, in such dictatorships, you are not simply expected to 'worship' the dictator itself, but also the 'minidictators' that serve the regime (and I m not talking about the secret police here). Believe me, I have lived in such a regime.

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    Comment number 140.

    Your opinion of me means less than nothing, kuckoo. I've done my research, don't you worry about that, and a lot more than a few months. If you consider my comments to have been 'slagging' you I can only say this...Grow a pair. Your ridiculous claims are proven incorrect by innumerable sources, you claim 'media' tell lies, yet you claim veracity for your own posted propaganda. Hypocrisy much?

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    ''Puck, you use the typical tactic of just running people down rather than any reasoned argument, I have done months of research, I doubt you have..You are transparent and I am very happy thankyou...slag all you like, it only shows you up, no-one else.''

    Years actually old boy :) And you started with the attacks, I'm surprised the beeb allow you to continue, tbh.
    lol :)


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