I spent yesterday evening at Rossiter books with the wonderful Andrew Taylor: one of the best historical writers alive today (do read ‘The Scent of Death, his latest book that explores New York, the bastion of loyalty to the English Crown during the war of Independenc).
We started off the evening by looking at how we’d both made the shift from crime writing to historical writing but the conversation slipped sideways, as these things always do, into the fact that history seems doomed to repeat itself: in our own personal lives, in public life, in the great span of empires and civilisations, we seem doomed to wander in great, repeating cycles.
Or perhaps it’s just that, as writers, we are doomed to see the patterns in things, and then to imagine that they are repeating: this may also be true. Certainly, having spent a year immersed in AD69, the Year of the Four Emperors in Rome – which lasted 18 months and in which there were, strictly speaking, 5 men who called themselves Emperor, even if one of them never made it to Rome – I can’t help but see startling parallels with what’s happening just now in Egypt.
|Morsi's ousters celebrate in Tahrir Square
So, whether it’s authorial paranoia, or a genuine recycling of inevitable history, it’s worth another look at the past and the present.
The differences shroud the similarities and the most obvious of these is that Egypt is hardly a superpower in the way that Rome was: and Hosni Mubarak was not a hereditary ruler who clawed his way to power over the murdered bodies of his relatives. He was, however, a man who ruled largely by force, and by intimidating the opposition, even if he did not, as far as we know, go as far as Nero went in ensuring that the opposition remained cowed.
|Nero, taken by Bibi: Saint-Pol, Wikimedia Commons
Nero – who did rule the single superpower of his age - overspent to such an extent that the treasury was in danger of bankruptcy. His answer was not austerity –he cared too much about what the common people thought of him - but rather to present the Senators, (who were the super-rich of their age) with the option to kill themselves and leave their entire estates to the Imperial treasury , or stay alive, in which case he’d let his executioners wax creative on their families and they would die last after they’d seen each of those they loved die ghastly deaths. A great many good men fell on their swords, and those left behind were too cowed to do much about it – until he killed Corbulo, and put down the Pisoan conspiracy and the legions decided it was time to lead a revolt.
The situation in Egypt is less clear cut but there is no doubt that Mubarak used the powers of police and army to suppress dissent and particularly to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood and what’s striking is that in each case, the army (the legions in Rome) brought down the ruler and then took a relative step back to allow a new Emperor/President to take over.
|Mubarak, Former President
In Rome, Galba was the first of the four men to reach Rome and name himself Emperor. He had been a legionary commander but then in those days, legionary commanders were Senators and every Senator had to have spent some time commanding a legion: It’s one of the reasons that some legions made outstanding mistakes (the XIIth) while some were led by men of military inspiration (Vespasian and all the legions he led, including the by then ‘unlucky’ XIIth). By the time he took the Imperial throne, he was Governor of Spain, which was a political position.
And here the similarities start. Everyone thought Galba would make a good Emperor until he actually started the job, at which point, it took a remarkably short time for everyone except Galba and his closest associates to realise he was worse than Nero had been: not an ‘actor’ or a musician, not given to spending money on wild artistic ideas, not prone to roaming the streets after dark assaulting girls and boys he fancied… but nonetheless, he was a martinet of the worse proportions, and nobody wanted him in the post.
It was the legions who replaced him and, as in Egypt, they were split. The Praetorian Guard in Rome killed Galba and installed Otho, while the legions in Germany gave their oath to Vitellius. These two men were second and third of the four, respectively and the civil war thus begun would have been far, far worse had not Otho done the decent thing and fallen on his dagger to prevent men from throwing away their lives in his name. One month after Vitellius arrived victorious in Rome, the legions of the east, of Judaea, Syria and Alexandria (which was then the capital of Egypt) took a look at their comrades in the west and, deciding they could have a bit of the cherry too, declared for Vespasian.
|Vespasian, image byShakko wikimedia commons
And so in Egypt, the generals installed Mubarak, one of their own and his reign was lengthy, but still, the army sided with the people when the riots became overwhelming. The army stepped back and let the Muslim Brotherhood install one of their own as leader, but they were not slow to get rid of Mohamed Morsi when his incompetence and corruption became evident.
That’s two down. And here is where I think history is repeating itself. The gap between Emperors reduced exponentially in ancient Rome: Galba to Otho was 9 months. Otho to VItellius was 3 months. Vitellius to Vespasian was one month (tho’ it took longer for Vespasian’s forces actually to take Rome).
If Egypt follows the pattern, we may see another President relatively soon, but the gap, I think, between his taking power and losing it, may be measured in weeks and months, not years, should he prove (as is likely) not to be up to the job.
What Egypt needs is a Vespasian: a pragmatist, a generally sane, thoughtful, humane and above all, competent, individual. Like Rome, there is no chance that a woman could take the top job, but in default of that, we have to hope that there’s someone with the courage to put his head above the parapet, and the foresight to lead the nation into peace: Rome’s civil war touched almost all parts of the Empire. Egypt’s, should it spiral out beyond the borders, may well trigger another global meltdown. And as Einstein so presciently said: “We do not know with what weapons the third World War will be fought, but the fourth will be fought with sticks and stones.”