3 reasons why present-day Libya and ancient Rome are more similar than you think.
By **Lex Paulson**
Photograph via Wikimedia Commons by Vincenzo Camuccini (1771-1844).
“All dictators read from the same book.”
The former history professor and current member of Libya’s Transitional National Council leaned forward in his chair and took another sip of mint tea. “All dictators,” he repeated to me, “from Julius Caesar to now.”
Late into that July evening, the open-air restaurant of his Cairo hotel still hummed with conversation; I had long since fulfilled my duties as airport-welcomer and was now entreating this genial and scholarly man for his stories, one history fanatic to another.
And though I had not expected an allusion to the politics of ancient Rome from a leader of the Libyan rebels (“Please,” he insisted, “we prefer the term ‘freedom fighter’”), neither did I doubt him for a second.
Three months later, with Muammar Qaddafi meeting his iPhone-recorded Ides of March, his allusion strikes me as even more fertile. What is it really like to live in the moments after a tyrant is killed? What do the “liberators” do next? How can a new society be allowed to take shape, and old patterns of greed and violence yield to something better?
The events of 44 BCE reveal answers, and the historical echoes are not as far-fetched as you might think. Like Libya, republican Rome was more-or-less an ethnically and religiously homogeneous state, her politics driven not by ideology-based parties but by competing networks of clan and patronage. Like Qaddafi, Gaius Julius Caesar was considered a wild-dressing showboat by his peers (historian Dan Carlin calls Caesar and his loose-toga-ed entourage “the beatniks of antiquity”), whose theatrical flair was backlit by a ruthless, single-minded instinct for power and the elimination of enemies. And just like the Tripoli of October 2011, the Rome of March 44 BCE was exhausted by war, impoverished by economic collapse, menaced by unruly militias, and hollowed out by the murder and exile of its most talented citizens.
Sketching out these historical echoes is more than just a parlour game. From Jefferson to Churchill, Vaclav Havel to Deng Xiaoping, leaders who have most strongly grasped the patterns of history have proven the most able in striking new ones. To borrow from Joyce, history is a nightmare from which Libya is urgently trying to awake; history, and a bit of Roman history in particular, could help them do it.
1. To control the country, control the story.
When he wasn’t drunk, Marcus Antonius could be masterful. Caesar’s second-in-command, this rakish and libidinous warrior was serving as consul (formally the “co-Presidency” of the Roman state, with two elected each year) as Brutus and Cassius were preparing their plot against his boss. A key element of this plot, in fact, was a momentary diversion which kept Antony out of the Senate chamber as Caesar was surrounded and stabbed to death, the aristocratic young Brutus delivering the ultimate physical—and, if we trust Shakespeare, metaphysical—blow.
Suddenly, spectacularly, the dictator of Rome was dead. The “Liberators” had caught Antony flat-footed, and now the race was on to frame the story in the eyes of Rome’s one million inhabitants. Had the Republic been liberated from a tyrant, or had a hero and benefactor of the people been murdered in cold blood? While Brutus and Cassius debated what to do next, though, Antony struck first. At Caesar’s funeral two days later, he gave one of the all-time bravura performances of political history, working the crowd into a frenzy as he implored them to look at their old hero’s wounds and feel the treachery that he had suffered at the hands of former friends. The crowd ran riot, Brutus and Cassius fled the city, and Rome’s tyrannicides never again had the upper hand.
The Liberators had set up their version of patriotic murder with great care: the choice of venue, of dramatis personnae, even the time of year (March was when Roman soldiers ritually cleansed their weapons) were meant to place them in a long and celebrated tradition of tyrant-slayers. In the chaotic aftermath, though, Antony told his version of the story better, and—what may be more important—he told it first.
Muammar Qaddafi’s legacy, though far less ambiguous than Caesar’s, is still up for grabs as a wary and fearful Libyan public witnesses a similar moment of chaos. The Transitional National Council may have acted intelligently in denying Qaddafi the public funeral that so turned the tables on Caesar’s killers, but right now militia leaders and politicians, Islamists and human rights activists are all telling different versions of Qaddafi’s death and what this moment means for a new Libya.
Whose story will prevail? Last weekend TNC leaders staged an emotional rally in Benghazi, declaring that “we have liberated our beloved country,” and shrewdly framing the dead dictator as “Pharaoh of the times.” Nevertheless, their official account of Qaddafi’s death in the crossfire is at embarrassing cross-purposes with the amateur footage uploaded by his jubilant captors.
Looking ahead, the Council recently released a 37-article constitutional declaration announcing that a “truth and reconciliation” commission will engage the Libyan people in a national dialogue along the lines of Mandela’s South Africa. Whether they can be stewards of a credible and curative national story—or whether an Antony figure will hijack the moment for his own ends—will be a crucial turning point in Libya’s next chapter.
2. Win the crowd. Quickly.
Two thousand years before the invention of polling, Mark Antony proved himself as an impressive judge of public opinion in the wake of the Ides. A great source of Caesar’s political strength had been his ability to share the spoils of his victories with the average Roman citizen. In a move familiar to Middle Eastern despots today, Rome’s dictator protected himself through direct cash subsidies to his political base, including “ten gallons of oil” to each Roman citizen after his conquest of Gaul.
I can only surmise what Cicero would think of recent arguments that all Libyans with ties to the old regime or returning from abroad should be barred from the new government
So while Brutus, in his morning-after speech from the Capitol, appealed to his fellow citizens’ sense of patriotism and history, Antony followed his mentor’s example and appealed to their pockets. Reading from the will of the so-called tyrant, Antony announced that Caesar had left 300 sesterces (about $170) to each and every Roman citizen, to be paid immediately. In the weeks that followed, the consul appeared to double down on Caesar’s populism, passing legislation to resettle the urban poor on public lands, with special preference to veterans and their families, all in memory of the dictator perpetuus.
Interestingly, it took Caesar’s 17-year-old grandnephew and unexpected heir, Octavian (the eventual Caesar Augustus), to follow through at personal expense on the cash-grant promise that Antony had announced. As the crisis passed into the middle distance, and Antony refocused himself on the finer points of orgy-planning, the hypochondriac but brilliant Caesar fils saw his opportunity arrive. As they jockeyed for power, however, both men were keenly aware that a revolution which puts money in people’s pockets fares better than a revolution that does not.
Despite the recent British airlift of banknotes to help the TNC pay teachers and civil servants, the wider Libyan public has not yet seen the fruits of this revolution in the manner they can most easily quantify. This is, at least in theory, a fixable problem: the UN reports that Libyan oil production has already exceeded 350,000 barrels a day and is set to rise to one million barrels within four months or so. The fair and rapid distribution of Qaddafi’s spoils may well be the best means to pacify the state he left in ruins.
The new Libyan government should heed Antony’s example and consider themselves in an all-out sprint to show tangible, street-level benefits to their citizens. Employing out-of-work Libyans to fix roads, clean streets, build hospitals and schools: this is the sort of public expenditure for which the TNC should soon have resources, and which Julius Caesar would heartily endorse.
3. Rebuild human infrastructure.
A central, underappreciated fact of Rome’s ascent to world power is that its most patriotic citizens were also its most fiercely ambitious. The singular genius of the Republic in its golden age was directing the competitive instincts of its most capable citizens toward winning wars and building aqueducts: for Romans of this period, no line existed between private and public glory.
Classical thinkers were obsessed with the relationship between individual initiative and the well-ordered state, none more so than one of the principal witnesses to Caesar’s murder, Marcus Tullius Cicero.
In his lifetime, Cicero had seen aristocratic competition—once managed peacefully through rotation in office and a wide dispersal of public honors—descend into a bloody circus of purge and counter-purge. Two full generations of war had decimated the Republic’s best and brightest; in a kind of downward Darwinian selection, the political class that remained to Rome was a cowed and spiritless mediocrity.
Libya suffers hugely from the identical problem. As Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail observed last week, “[Qaddafi] declared political parties and organizations of all sorts (except, bizarrely, the Boy Scouts) a fundamental sin, banishing them as a constitutional evil and against the basic values of Libyans. He outlawed public gatherings, and in the 1990s international travel and foreign-language education. This made a political opposition impossible—which means that the people now trying to form a new government have no experience with its institutions.”
Like first-century Rome, Libya faces a severe crisis of human infrastructure. I can only surmise what Cicero would think of recent arguments that all Libyans with ties to the old regime or returning from abroad should be barred from the new government, but I suspect he would consider this calamitous advice.
On the run from Antony in the Italian countryside, the old philosopher-statesman wrote his De Officiis (“On Duties”), an astonishing masterpiece that Adams and Jefferson could quote from memory. In pristine, moving prose, Cicero argued that “we are not born for ourselves alone, but our country claims a share of our being,” and that we must “contribute to the general good by an interchange of acts of kindness and thus by our skill, our industry, and our talents to cement human society more closely together, man to man.”
The UN estimates that as many as 86 percent of Libyans now live in cities, in close contact with fellow-citizens of different clans and backgrounds. 92 percent own their own homes. There is the possibility that, empowered by the liberation of their country, Libyan citizens join in a common effort to make their neighborhoods safe and support a responsive, effective government—but only if every possible source of talent and patriotism is brought to bear.
With the Liberators killed in battle and Antony dead by his own hand in Egypt, the young Augustus took power as a charming and savvy 20-something and proceeded to rule as autocratic “first citizen” for over 40 years. Whether or not they have studied Roman history, you can bet that every Libyan has heard this story before. My strong suspicion is they would prefer not to repeat it.
Lex Paulson is a former Obama campaign organizer and legislative counsel on Capitol Hill. He’s currently pursuing a PhD in classical political philosophy at the Sorbonne.