Ancient and modern

From Caligula to Yanukovych

Tyrants never seem to learn. As Cicero could tell you, there are good reasons for that...

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

Tyrants never learn, do they? From Caligula through Gadaffi to the ex-Ukrainian prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, they rule not to serve the people but themselves — and all in virtually identical ways.

The emperor Tiberius populated Capri with palaces and grottos where lovers entwined themselves for the pleasure of his guests, like Yanukovych’s gardens dotted with love-seats and colonnades. Caligula had built a vast barge in the form of a floating palace on a lake, complete with marble, mosaics, and a hot and cold bath system; Yanukovych had a floating restaurant designed as a galleon.


When Rome burned down in ad 64, Nero collared the grounds in the centre to construct a huge ‘Golden House’, covered in gold leaf, precious stones, ivory veneers and frescoes, complete with parklands, statues, fountains, lakes and animals. Yanukovych’s vast marble-lined mansion, hung with gold icons, inhabited a huge country estate with a private golf course and a zoo, and manicured lawns studded with statues of rabbits and deer. The only absent feature seems to be the sexual excesses that tyrants have regularly indulged.

Cicero tells us of the tyrant Dionysius, who virtually enslaved the city of Syracuse. The result? He could trust nobody. Fearing that his barber would cut his throat, he ordered his daughters to cut his beard and hair, but then, reckoning that was too dangerous, told them to trim it by singeing it with red-hot walnut shells instead. His bedroom was surrounded by a moat and drawbridge which he pulled up behind him before he went to sleep. Cicero commented, ‘Dionysius could not retrace his steps back to the paths of justice, since with the blindness of youth he had become entangled in such wrong and guilty of so many crimes as to make it impossible for him ever to be safe.’

And they all meet an identical end. As the Greek philosopher Thales commented, he could imagine nothing more novel than a tyrant who had grown old.

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