Ancient and modern

Putin’s emperor complex

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

Did Vladimir Putin ever use his infamous ‘historical’ account of Russia-Ukraine relations to consider how Ukrainians might react to his decision to attack them? Clearly not. The Roman historian Tacitus (d. c. ad 120) knew better what history was for.

Tacitus acknowledged that Rome under the tyranny of the emperors had become corrupted. As a result, it had lost that moral compass evident in its early history. Discussing the tribes of Germany, for example, he commented on the laudable strictness of their marriage laws (one man, one wife) and a life free of vice: ‘No one thinks vice funny, no one calls corrupting or being corrupted “modern life”.’ The implied contrast with imperial Rome was obvious.


Another German leader raised the same moral issue: Tacitus described how he urged a tribe to resume its ‘traditional way of life and throw off those luxuries that enslave Rome’s subjects far more effectively than Roman arms. Then, pure and uncorrupted, your slavery over, you will be the equals, or leaders, of men’.

Again, Tacitus described how the Britons willingly adopted Roman ways, building houses, marketplaces and temples, educating themselves, especially in Latin, wearing the toga, and enjoying the vices of promenading, bathing and fine dining. But he concluded ‘inexperienced as they were, what they called “real civilisation” was actually a mark of their subjugation’: they had been lured into slavery. The Caledonian leader Calgacus likewise made much of that threat when he was rallying his troops to face the Roman army.

Tacitus could understand why Rome’s subjects might have felt they had lost something important under imperial rule. But it was probably too much to expect that Putin, whose idea of statesmanship seems to consist of ‘murders, rapes and massacres, acts of black night, abominable deeds…’, should ever have stopped to reflect on history and wonder if a free Ukraine might not find being governed by Russia an attractive option, and to have considered other ways of winning them over, less disastrous and far cheaper than war. Luxury living, say?

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