(in which Jed Berman takes his friend Doris’s advice and strolls through the history of the world’s powerful killers)
You know, when I think about this stuff and when I’m talking to someone like Doris, or even old Gwen back in the day, it seems like I ought to be able to figure it out. But when I start looking where it seems like the answers ought to be, it’s never that easy. I mean, it’s not hard to find people who somehow gained a lot of power and then used it to create armies and kill lots of other people, their own and their enemies. But it’s pretty hard, hundreds and thousands of years after the fact, to really understand why they did it.
There are glimmers, I guess. Take the Huns, for instance. Considering that old Motun’s father shipped him to the neighbors and planned to kill him, it’s not really surprising that the kid grew into a man willing to kill and fanatical about having his orders to kill obeyed. I’d be pretty bitter if my father did something like that. Doesn’t mean I approve of what Motun did, or any of the other Hun leaders right through Attila. I’m just saying there might be a reason in there somewhere.
Truth is, if you start looking into the background of these guys, you see some pretty nasty stuff. Some of it was standard practice in the society of the times, like the Greek and Roman practice of letting a father decide whether or not his newborn child should live or die. I guess it made sense to them at the time, but looking back from here, it seems barbaric.
Apparently, when a new baby was born to a powerful man or even his slaves, they brought it to him and laid it at his feet. If the man took the infant in his arms or ordered it fed, the child lived. If it was deformed or sick or just a girl, a wave of the man’s hand sent the baby to a garbage heap, where it might be snatched by slave traders or eaten by wild dogs. The men who managed to become powerful political figures or generals all had to survive that. And even if you did, it didn’t guarantee you’d have a good time.
Wealthy little boys in Persia never saw their fathers until they were five. The reason might be enough to make a kid angry. The father’s didn’t want to get attached to their sons in those very early years in case they died, which happened a lot in those days. They kept the kids out of sight for five years to spare the men the grief of losing a child—a son—so young.
And even if they survived, and in spite of all the stuff historians have written about the great Greek and Roman civilizations, those boys grew up in a pretty vicious environment. Take Julius Caesar, for instance. He was a little rich kid from a distinguished Roman family, and grew up in time to see a famous general named Sylla seize power in Rome and systematically slaughter his enemies, four thousand seven hundred wealthy, educated men, with Julius Caesar’s father-in-law among them. Caesar actually had to get out of Rome for a while when Sylla was on his rampage, but what he saw there apparently did not turn him off to the idea of killing. In spite of recurring headaches and epileptic seizures, he became a commanding military leader who conquered Gaul and built an army that—like Motun and Attila’s boys—would do anything he asked them to, kill anyone he asked them to.
And those guys passed on their great attitudes to their successors. Julius Caesar adopted his nephew Gaius Octavius, whose father was into politics. It was a common practice. The boy grew up to be Augustus, the first real emperor of the Roman Empire. We know he heard the talk in his uncle’s house, which had to be fairly brutal at times. And watched as Julius Caesar and his troops killed people inside Italy and out. We don’t know if that’s what made Augustus violent. We just know that he fought wars, killed lots of people to avenge Uncle Julius’ murder, and once, when an imperial secretary leaked the contents of a confidential letter, he broke the guy’s legs, or probably had somebody else do it.
But Julius Caesar and Augustus look like choir boys compared to some of the guys who followed them. Like Caligula. Historians have pretty much labeled him the bad boy of Roman emperors. He was separated from his parents for a long time when he was very little and trapped in the middle of a rebellion when he was only two. His father died mysteriously in Syria when Caligula was seven. He saw his brothers murdered, his mother driven into exile, and some of his relatives starved to death. One historian actually wrote that it shouldn’t surprise us that a kid who went through all of that before he was ten would end up being fairly violent himself. And he was. They say he ordered that his victims be tortured carefully so they died a slow and agonizing death. He’d make parents watch their children die while he stood there and made jokes. It may be true that he once had a writer burned alive for writing an ambiguous sentence.
It’s probably true that Nero, the guy most of us think set fire to Rome, had an unstable childhood and parents who didn’t really care about him. They say his father was unbelievably corrupt, sadistic, brutal, and screwed around a lot, and they say his father didn’t discourage young Nero’s lustful feelings toward his own mother. So what did all of those experiences lead to? He fought a war, had a lot of people put to death, persecuted the Christians, and some people say he had his mother and his adopted brother executed.
I found lots of stories about famous—or infamous—people who somehow used power to cause the death of millions of people. You probably know some of those stories. But reading that stuff didn’t provide the answer I was looking for. I mean, it reminded me of friends I have who are into reincarnation. When they get in touch with their past lives, it always turns out that they were somebody famous like Cleopatra or the King of England. Now, come on. What are the chances of that? And even if they were, I never think that really explains why they are the way they are today.
In the same way, it seemed to me that looking at the childhoods of powerful people from the past didn’t really explain how all the killing happened. A handful of Roman emperors or Hun chieftains couldn’t have pulled off all the violence woven through the history of humanity unless millions of peons, hoi polloi, the great, unwashed masses—us, basically—helped them do it.
You know, it’s kind of funny that we call those people leaders. A leader is supposed to be someone who goes first, someone who guides us or shows us the way. Sometimes those famous leaders go first, often they don’t. I mean, Dick Cheney didn’t, did he? And even when they do, when it has to do with violence against some other tribe or nation, leaders aren’t showing us the way so much as leading us to the slaughter.
Reading about their twisted childhoods may explain why they want to lead us to such awful places. And the histories tell us there have been lots and lots of leaders, from the high-and-mighty to the not-so-important, most of them not mentioned in the history books, but just the same people willing or maybe eager to grasp power over everybody else and equally willing to guide us to an enemy target, teach us how and then order us to kill. But why would any ordinary human being want to follow the leader. What would possess some poor shlub with hardly a pot to piss in to get on board the war train? After all these years, I still couldn’t answer that question. And when I realized that, I decided—station reputation be damned—I needed to have a chat with Doris.