A new book about Colonel Gaddafi goes into shocking detail about his monstrous sexual appetites. He used rape as a political weapon and instrument of blackmail. Viagra was on constant supply for himself and his soldiers. His harem travelled with him under the guise of ‘delegations’ or ‘journalists’ (‘Hi, girls,’ Tony Blair greeted them).
It was ever thus with tyrants. Herodotus (5th century bc) reports a conversation about the best form of rule between three Persians plotting to overthrow the government. Otanes attacks the single ruler, arguing that, being subject to no institutional control, he can indulge his wishes as he sees fit and this makes temptation irresistible. The result is rage against good men, whose lives are a reproach to him, and a determination to exploit his power over people in the most outrageous way.
The final and worst example Otanes offers is that the tyrant ‘subverts ancestral customs, takes women against their will and kills men without trial’. Herodotus offers many examples of such tyrannical behaviour in the course of his Histories.
Many Roman emperors followed the same pattern of behaviour. Tiberius left Rome for Capri, there to indulge himself with boys in swimming pools. Caligula ‘had no regard for his own chastity nor anyone else’s’, having sex with his sisters and trying it on ‘with almost every woman of distinguished family’ and openly appraising their performances. Nero seduced free-born boys and married women, ‘married’ a boy names Sporus (after cutting off his testicles), tied men and women to stakes and, disguised as a wild beast, attacked their genitals. Elagabalus ‘was a recipient of lust in every orifice of his body’.
Nowadays it is fashionable to play down such reports in the name of ‘bias’, ‘hostile rumour’ or ‘generic imitation’ (i.e. the historian assigns typical tyrannical characteristics to his subject, whatever the facts). Which brings us back to Gaddafi: perhaps tyrants really are like that after all.
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Peter Jones’s Veni Vidi Vici, a history of the Romans, has just been published (Atlantic Books).
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