Lucius Cornelius Sulla
I’ve always been a great admirer of the Romans.
David Farrar is also an admirer of the Romans. He is especially admiring of the Roman system of dictatorship. In the time of the Roman Republic the dictator was traditionally appointed for a period of six months, though the dictator often held office for a shorter term. Each year two consuls were appointed to lead the Republic, and they could appoint a dictator, often in times of crisis*. The Romans had long ago rid themselves of kings, and over the centuries their political system developed a number of checks and balances to protect against the assumption of absolute power by any one person or group of people (though slaves, women and the poor remained excluded under the Roman system).
However, the role of dictator was usually reserved for times of trouble. The dictator had absolute power and could do as he pleased, and his decisions could not be challenged or reviewed, either at the time or afterwards (though the tribunes of the people in theory maintained some independence over the powers of the dictator).
There are many examples in Roman history of “good” dictators: the usual ones cited are Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator (he was also known by the name Verrucosus, meaning “warty – yes, I thought you should know that), whose delaying tactics and refusal to fight Hannibal in the Second Punic War may have saved Rome (though this is debatable), and Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who was working on his farm when he got the call-up to lead the Romans to battle, and who returned immediately to his farm once he’d defeated the enemy.
Farrar forgot to mention the bad ones though. And some of them were pretty awful. The most awful of them all was Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who assumed the title after engaging in a vast slaughter of his political rivals, and who then used the dictator’s powers to entrench the power of the nobility. Not far behind was Julius Caesar, who was effectively made dictator for life, and who made himself so offensive to many in the senate that they killed him. To be fair to Caesar, he had many fine attributes (for example a tendency towards leniency and the forgiveness of his enemies, even if it ultimately cost him his life), and his conduct can’t be compared with the depravity of Sulla, but he also craved power, which is never a good thing.
While I admire the Romans for many of their achievements (roads, aqueducts, architecture, law, military thinking and the like), I have no wish for us to become Rome. Because, by today’s standards the Romans were nasty and cruel people who were never more than a few steps away from tyranny. It amuses me, therefore, when supposed right-liberals like Farrar compare the powers given to Gerry Brownlee to those given by the Romans to their dictators, as if we should not be concerned.
Unlike others, I’m not going to slag Farrar, because I suspect he probably wasn’t thinking through the implications of what he posted. The immediacy of the Net is a wonderful thing, but it can be dangerous if you post something you haven’t thought through. My recommendation to Farrar would be to read some more Roman history.
* Some dictator appointments were purely procedural. One of the roles of a consul was to oversee the election of magistrates. A dictator would sometime be appointed for the job if neither consul was able to do the job (e.g. they were both out of the city). The dictator thus appointed would normally resign as soon as he had done his job.