Since tyrants have had such a high profile this year, child-slayer King Herod, an important player in Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, though absent from Luke’s, is sure to bulk larger than usual in Christmas homilies.
Pompey had annexed this volatile part of the world in 64 bc, and part of the settlement involved allying with local kings. Herod’s father Antipater had been a client of Pompey and ally of Julius Caesar. Appointed procurator of Judaea, Antipater made Herod governor of Galilee, but was poisoned in 43 bc. Antony (Caesar’s successor) saw Herod as a safe pair of hands and in 40 bc, against much local opposition, made him king of Judaea and Samaria; it was only in 37 bc that Herod eventually fought his way into Jerusalem, with the help of Antony’s legions. In 31 bc Antony was defeated by Octavian (Augustus, the first Roman emperor), but Herod was kept in power and remained loyal to Rome till his death in 4 bc. He was known for his ruthlessness, maintaining a secret police and doing away with both his wife and assorted sons when he felt threatened by them. So he was certainly the sort of man who could have ordered a slaughter of innocents, though the pro-Roman Jewish historian Josephus, who had little time for him, never mentions such an act.
Ancient Greeks, who endlessly discussed the best sort of constitution, found the single ruler acceptable on condition that his powers were limited. Aristotle, for example, distinguished monarchy from tyranny on four main criteria: whether the ruler (a) was subject to the law, (b) held office for ever, or merely for a set term, (c) was elected or not, and (d) ruled willing subjects. Herod would have failed the monarch test. So would most modern counterparts.
Romans were highly sensitive on the subject. From its traditional founding date of 753 bc Rome was ruled by kings, and many of these were admired by later historians like Livy. But the last king Tarquinius Superbus (‘the arrogant’) ruled like a tyrant; Livy tells us ‘he was the first king to break the established tradition of consulting the Senate on all matters of public business, and to govern by the mere authority of himself and his household’. When in 509 bc his son, Sextus Tarquinius, raped the noblewoman Lucretia, who subsequently committed suicide, the kings were thrown out and the republic emerged. Hating the idea of ‘king’, the Romans ensured that the top post in the new state — consul — would be filled by two people at a time, and the tradition of running all policy decisions past a Senate of 300 former post-holders held firm.
‘Moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque’ proclaimed the epic poet Ennius, ‘The Roman state stands firm on its ancestral traditions and its men’ (no coincidence that vir and virtus are connected); and so it did for 400 years. But in the first century bc it fell apart: big beasts like Sulla, Caesar and Pompey imposed their will by military might and brought the republic down in a welter of blood. In 49 bc civil war broke out between Caesar and Pompey. It was a development that appalled the great statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 bc). A peace-loving traditionalist, he had sided with Pompey, though half-heartedly: ‘I know whom to flee but not whom to follow’ was his doleful epigram on the matter.
It was now that Cicero began to think seriously about the meaning of tyranny. In a letter he reflected on what a man should do under a tyrant: stay put? Attempt to overthrow him internally, even if that risked the country itself? Make war on the country from outside? Of the contestants, as he said in other letters, ‘both men have always put personal power and private advantage before the safety and honour of their country’ and ‘I realise we shall never have a free state in the lifetime of those two, or either one singly’. When Caesar — ‘more Hannibal than Roman general’ — emerged victorious, Cicero lamented, ‘All power has been handed on a plate to one man, who takes no advice except his own from anyone, even his friends. But it would not have been much different had our man won.’
These get to the heart of the issue for Cicero who, marginalised politically, turned to writing. In very short order he poured out a stream of influential treatises on the art of government. On tyrants, Cicero made a specifically linguistic point:
‘A state which is ruled by a tyrant really does not deserve to be described as a state at all. For the word that defines a state is res publica, “the property of the people”, and obviously a country under a tyrannical regime is not the property of the people at all. On the contrary, it presents a situation in which the entire people is subjugated by the brutal authority of one single man, and there is no shared bond created by the law, so that those who live together in the community — that is to say, among its people — are united by no true partnership whatsoever... When, therefore, a country is ruled by a tyrant, we ought not to pro¬nounce that it is a bad kind of state, since logic requires us to conclude that it is no sort of state at all.’
This is all of a piece with Cicero’s view that ‘it is impossible to live well except in a good (properly ordered) community... he who directs a state aims at a happy life for its citizens, fortified by resources, rich in material wealth, glorious in reputation and respected for its integrity.’
Cicero’s noble cry of freedom (libertas), however, has a slightly conditional ring to it. It raises the question ‘freedom for whom, and to do what?’ The view that consistently emerges from these treatises is that ‘the best state will be one that comes under the rule of a number of good men and not just the one’. In other words, it will largely replicate the Rome republican system, oligarchic Senate and all. That in fact is what libertas meant to Cicero — the freedom to take his rightful place among the great and good and be given the chance to have a fair say in the running of the state. Under a tyrant like Caesar, that was impossible. One wonders, had he been in the inner ring, whether he would have discovered in Caesar the good tyrant who ‘considers the whole country as his estate and all the citizens as his comrades’ (Xenophon, Greek essayist). Perhaps what irked Cicero more than anything was Caesar’s enormous popular appeal.
Does a tyrant have to be tyrannical? It is a question as relevant today as it was then.