Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Curriculum for Dictators

Nicopolis the wise courtesan advises the young Sulla on his path to top in republican Rome:
You have the years in which to prepare yourself for the responsibilities of a public career. You will need them: every day should teach you something new. Do not be impatient; do not worry because you have too little money. Money can always be found for the right person: but the right person is harder to find. ...

If you realize you know nothing, this is a beginning. Remember when you move in this odd society of ours that the consul's wife can often help you more than the consul. Remember that it is with men of your own generation, not those in power today, with whom you must finally come to terms. Remember above all that in the life you have chosen there is little room for sentiment. .... 'Let them hate me as long as they fear me.' If you succeed, my dear, you will be hated. Never forget that. You will break men as you break laws, and with as little compunction. Do you still want to go on?

--Peter Green, The Sword of Pleasure 44-5 (1961)
The title alone is enough to tell you that this historical novel has a bit of the air of potboiler about it. It is saved, but barely, not by its structure or its dialog but by Green's superb imaginative feel for the near-chaos and raw energy of the republican world--a world in which Sulla ordered proscriptions that led to the death of more than 9,000 of his fellow Romans.
..Sylla immediately without making any of the magistrates privy, caused four score men's names to be set up upon posts, whom he would put to death. Every man being offended withal, the next day following he set up two hundred and twenty men's names more, and likewise the third day as many more Hereupon making an oration to the people, he told them openly that he had appointed all them to die that he could call to remembrance, howebeit that hereafter he would appoint them that should die by days as he did call to mind.

Whosoever saved an outlaw in his own house, for reward of his kindness he himself was condemned to die, not excepting them that had received their brothers, their sons, their fathers, nopr mothers. And the reward of every homicide and murder that killed one of the outlaws was two talents, though it were a slave that had killed his master, or the son that had slain his father. But the most wicked and unjust act of all was that he deprived the sons, and sons' sons of them whom he had killed, of all credit and good name, and besides that, had taken all their goods as confiscate. And this was not only done in Rome, but also in all the cities of Italy throughout, and there was no temple of any god whatsoever, no altar in anybody's house, no liberty of hospital, nor father's house, that was not imbrued with blood and horrible murder.

--Plutarch, "Life of Sylla"
in The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans 732-809, 792-3
(Sir Thomas North trans.,The Heritage Press 1941)

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