Fireside Friday: July 9, 2021

Fireside this week, but also some announcements!

First, I have added an additional tier to the ACOUP Patreon for the patres et matres conscripti. The phrase patres conscripti was a somewhat fancy way to refer to the members of the Roman senate, literally the ‘conscript fathers.’ They were conscript in the sense that they were all written down together (con+scriptus, ‘written together’) on the census as members of the Senate (it has also been supposed that the phrase began as patres et conscripti, ‘patricians and conscript’ members, distinguishing between the old patrician gentes that had been in the Senate for ages and the newer plebian families which had gained entrance since the start of the Republic and then been conscripti with the patres).

Patrons at the patres et matres conscripti level are enrolled in the ACOUP Senate, which is going to have two roles: first they get to pose questions on a closed thread on the Patreon which I will then answer in regular Q&A posts here. Second, for Q&A questions which are a bit too big for a short Q&A answer (and probably other frequently requested topics), I plan to poll the ACOUP Senate (again, via the patreon page) to obtain a senatus consultum (‘the opinion of the Senate’) as to which I should tackle next when there is a break in my planned schedule. Perhaps I should add a brief overview of the Roman Senate to the list, since I’m dropping all of this senatorial vocabulary.

I should stress that this new tier involves no diminution of the old amici paedagogi tier, which will still get monthly research updates. I also make a point of trying to respond to all messages I get from patrons via patreon (although my responses, understandably, often have to be quite short); while I cannot always get to all of the email and twitter correspondence I get, I do try always to respond to patrons at any level. That’s not going to change.

Second, speaking of messages I get via Patreon, our diligent narrator has added audio versions of several more posts for your listening joy. In particular, the Fremen Mirage series is now in audio format, as well as “Why Military History” and our first (and excellent) guest-post by Robin Reich. Hopefully by the time this goes live, I will have gone back and added links to each of those posts so that new readers can enjoy the content in a different format but for now the links are here. Go check them out!

Musing this week, I was struck by this article in the Bulwark, “What Happens When Putin and Khamenei Die?” (of natural causes, to be clear, the article is not advocating assassination or anything like that). It is an interesting question because the answer to it is heavily predicated on what type of regimes you think Russia and Iran are and how that shapes their post-current-leader future. This is a point though that the article largely leaves unaddressed, treating Putin and Khamenei as fundamentally the same in terms of how they rule, when I think on some reflection there are important differences. One way to frame those differences is to use ancient Greek terminology and ask: are Russia and Iran monarchies or tyrannies?

As a quick aside, I find it striking that the system of classification of government forms which emerged in the Archaic period and was elaborated on into the Hellenistic period is still fairly usefully applicable to modern forms, albeit with some modifications (particularly to allow for representative forms of government, which neither the Greeks nor the Romans really had). We’re going to be concerned with the forms of one-man rule (monarchy under a king and tyranny) here, but the system also included of course democracies and oligarchies as well as ‘mixed’ constitutions which combined elements of all of the others.

The first thing that needs dispensing with here is the modern, normative content of tyranny. We aren’t asking “is this government bad” but rather what sort of government is it. Today we have a slew of words for one-man-rule but they’re often not as helpfully descriptive. But the Greeks recognized an important distinction between a king and a tyrant. The position of a king was customary in nature in that it was generally a long-standing institution with generally understood (if not formally codified) rights and limits. Kingship was thus both more secure (it had inherent legitimacy due to its long standing) and also more limited because that legitimacy was often predicated on the performance of long-standing norms of kingship.

Tyranny, by contrast was defined by its extra-constitutional nature. No one held an office called ‘tyrant’ or was formally elected as a tyrannos. Rather the tyrant, having seized control of the state (typically by armed coup) held it through intimidation, cronies, bribery and careful politics. One thing that surprises students is that Greek tyrants generally left the apparatus of normal polis government – the courts, magistrates, assemblies and so on – intact. The only difference was that they made sure their cronies were the judges and magistrates, and that their thugs ensured that the assemblies voted the ‘right’ way. There were obvious advantages to this: the fiction of a functioning polis government was a useful tool. Moreover, a tyrant could be freer to move against prominent citizens in the polis than a king might because he was unconstrained by longstanding traditions and expectations for rule. Kings did not generally butcher their way through their state’s aristocracy but tyrants regularly did (indeed, their penchant for so doing gives us the term ‘tall poppy syndrome.’)

So while both tyranny and kingship were one-man rule and their day-to-day functioning might in cases even look similar, they were predicated on different systems. Why does this matter? Well, for us asking what happens when the current generation of rulers dies, it matters because kings and tyrants have very different records in terms of managing succession. By and large, the aim of just about every Greek tyrant in the long term was to consolidate power into their family in a durable way, which is to say, convert a tyranny to kingship. They all failed (arguments could be made that Octavian succeeds at this, though he is Roman and not Greek; some of the tyrants of Syracuse get called kings in our sources, but as we’ll see, remained very much tyrants). Instead, the average duration of tyranny, measured in generations, was extremely short. Some examples (note that I am counting inclusively for the generations number, so if you want ‘successful transfers of power’ just subtract 1):

  • Athens:
    • Peisistratids: 545-510, 2 generations
  • Corinth:
    • Cypselids: 657-582, 3 generations
  • Syracuse:
    • Deinomenids: 485-465, 3 generations
    • Dionysii: 405-344, 2 generations*
    • Agathocles: 317-289, 1 generation
    • Hicetas, 289-280, 1 generation
    • Heironids 275-214, 2.5 generations (the grandson rules for just one year before getting assassinated)
  • Samos
    • Polycrates 540s-522, 1 generation
  • Miletus
    • Histaeus, 510s-514, 1 generation
    • Aristagoras, 514-496, 1 generation
  • Pherae
    • Lycophron, Jason and Alexander, ???(pre-370)-356, 3 generations? (unclear if these three sequential tyrants were related)

(Asterisk Note: The family of Dionysius I of Syracuse did a bunch of coups against each other so a bunch of them moved through power, but the tyranny began with Dionysius I and ended with his son, Dionysius II, overthrown in 344.)

You could make a much longer list, but this is a pretty terrible failure rate. Most tyrannies fail in the first generation (you can move through a list of ancient tyrants, you’ll find that as you move towards more and more obscure figures, a lot of their regimes collapse under the first tyrant), very few make it to three generations and none that I can think of make it past three. Failure rates are high. Meanwhile, here are some monarchies, both ancient and otherwise (note that in some cases I’ve counted rulers, in others generations; it depends on what I could easily count. For generations, often you have more than one ruler in a single generation, in cases where succession jumps from brother to brother):

  • Macedonians
    • Argeads, 808?-317, 17(ish) generations.
    • Antigonids, 306-168, 8 generations
    • Seleucids, 312-63, 11 generations
    • Lagids (or Ptolemies), 305-31, 12(ish) generations
  • Sparta
    • Agiads, c. 900?-215, 32 rulers
    • Eurypontids, c. 900?-192, 33(ish) rulers
  • France
    • Merovingians, 480s-751, 12 generations
    • Carolingians, 843-987, 9 generations (ish)
    • Capetians (including cadets), 987-1792, 26 generations
  • Japan
    • The Emperor of Japan, ???(claimed 660BC)-present, notionally 77ish generations; historical evidence for c. 97 emperors.

(Note that our concern is the political system, not the ruling house, so I haven’t broken here when there was a change in dynasty but no discontinuity in government form (I applied the same rule to our tyrants so that it is fair).)

We could go on but I think the point is clear: kingship is far, far more durable than tyranny. So when asking the question, “What happens when the current rulers of Iran and Russia die?” thinking in terms of the contrast between these systems one way of thinking about the probable outcomes. If you think that these regimes are essentially monarchies then the obvious mostly likely answer is that another ruler takes the place of the current one, selected by whatever means are tradition and the monarchy continues, because the failure rate on succession for monarchies is extremely low – well below 10%.

If on the other hand, you think that these states are more like tyrannies, where the position of the ruler is not supported by longstanding tradition or law, nor underpinned by ancient customs of legitimacy, then the question ‘what happens when this guy dies’ becomes a much more live question, because the regime failure rate on succession for tyrannies is very high, probably close to (and perhaps higher than) 50%. Of course in many of those cases, a new tyrant does manage to take power, but simply doesn’t manage to hold it.

For what it is worth, Russia’s system reads to me as more of a tyranny (Putin’s office is formally defined, yes, but not his real position of power or his near-total dominance of the political system) while Iran’s system seems to me to be more of a monarchy (there is a system in place for the selected of the Supreme Leader, it has functioned once before and the Supreme Leader’s position is formally defined, albeit unpopular). Consequently, I think there is relatively more uncertainty, in my mind, about what happens when Putin leaves power (be that tomorrow or forty years from now) than when Khamenei does – whatever the manner of that exit. In the later case, I think the odds are fairly high that a new Supreme Leader is selected and the regime continues to sustain itself (in no small part through violence against its people). In the former case, uncertainty is much higher, since it seems like the chance of a transition of power to a picked successor is no more or less likely than regime failure.

This week for recommendations:

Over on Youtube, Drachinifel and Jon Parshall were back at it with a live Q&A about Midway and the War in the Pacific more generally; you can watch here; there were some great questions and some better answers, so check it out. And while we’re with Drachinfel, he has finally reached the end of his excellent eight-video series looking at the stages of naval operations around Guadalcanal. I think a series like that can be really useful for trying to think about military operations because Drach gets down into a level of detail where you can see the broad textbook generalizations (‘American ships had better surface-search radar’) turn into moment to moment reality. In the case of radar, you can see the impact of the technology in some moments, but it can be misused in others and there are moments where a combination of bad tactics and luck mean that even superior materiel might not matter. The impact of that random chance – part of Clausewitzian friction (drink!) – comes out in the series really vividly.

And while we are talking about resources on Youtube, one worth noting that you may not be aware of is the considerable number of videos produced by the Army University Press covering specific battles and campaigns in American military history (although not always ones in which the United States was involved; notice for instance their deep dive into Stalingrad). For the newcomer to military history, one thing that can be quite handy in these videos is that they tend to stop and correlate what is happening in the engagement with doctrinal principles drawn directly from US Army field manuals and other publications. Drawing that direct connection from doctrinal concepts to direct on-the-field application can be really useful in grasping the importance of doctrine (a concept, I promise, we are eventually going to get to!).

Meanwhile, it has been a pretty good week for military history content on Twitter (remember that you do not need to be on Twitter to ruin your life by reading Twitter), with quite a few really good threads. First, there is me recounting the exciting life of Publius Ventidius Bassus, born without Roman citizenship, marched as a captive in a Roman triumph, at thirty a relatively humble mule-and-cart dealer, logistics guy under Julius Caesar, tribune of the plebs in 45, consul in 43, victor over the Parthians in 39 and 38, celebrating the first Roman triumph over the Parthians and being the only Roman to have ever marched in a triumph as both a war captive and a triumphing general. Also, there is Dr. Roel Konijnendijk recounting how the Corinthian War (395-387) ended “when the Persians funded a Spartan fleet to destroy an Athenian fleet the Persians had funded to destroy a Spartan fleet the Persians had funded to destroy and Athenian fleet.” There is also Dr. Michael Taylor talking here about how the Roman legion stacks up to the Hellenistic sarissa (pike) phalanx. Finally, and I saved the best for last, there is the Angry Staff Officer’s brilliant (and last, he says, unconvincingly) live tweet of the Battle of Gettysburg spread over all three days. He also discussed the contemporaneous Siege of Vicksburg here.

And getting off of the military history beat for a moment, Sparta Live hosted Prof. Ellen Millender who gave an excellent presentation on “Unveiling Spartan women, although I perhaps wish the title had been Unveiling Spartiate women. While Millender did gesture at non-spartiate women in Laconia, it was mostly simply to note that lack of evidence for them, which I think is understandable given the limitations of the evidence but that is a limitation in scope that I think as scholars we need to be clearer about. I tend to think that ‘the Spartans’ tends to be read as ‘the people of Sparta’ in English rather than ‘the spartiate citizen body’ if for no other reason than we have all of these other terms – Spartan citizens, spartiates, the homoioi, the peers, and so on – to specifically indicate when the spartiates are meant.

What I very much liked about the presentation was both the sober, clear-eyed views of the position of spartiate women – both the benefits that accrued to those of power and wealth, but also a sensible deflation of the myths and the solid discussion of how we know what we know. I think Millender also does a good job in the Q&A pushing back against Dr. Petros Doukas – one of the two permanent hosts of Sparta Live and the Mayor of the modern town of Sparti (that is, Sparta). Doukas has a tendency in these things, perhaps understandable given his office, to push for views out of le Mirage Spartiate and it was nice to see Millender politely but firmly point out that the evidence simply didn’t accord with his pollyannish view of the lives of spartiate women.

Finally, for our book recommendation, I am going to recommend G. Baker, Spare No One: Mass Violence in Roman Warfare (2021), which covers Roman mass violence (surprise!) from 400 BC to 100 BC. A book-length treatment of this topic, the Roman use of mass violence against civilian populations, has been desideratum (Latin, “a thing to be desired, a thing needed”) for a long time. The book treats not only mass killing, but also mass enslavement and the deliberate destruction of the physical infrastructure of settlements (like the burning of cities), presenting a continuum in terms of the selectiveness of violence (are leaders targeted? men? everyone?).

Baker argues, persuasively in my mind, that Roman mass violence wasn’t merely emotional (though it often was and frustration, as he notes, played a role in some outbursts of mass violence) or merely customary, but instrumental and strategy: mass violence was a strategy Rome deployed to achieve specific ends. More than this, Baker shows that such mass violence could succeed, but didn’t always succeed, an important intervention given that the supposed success of Roman mass violence is often marshaled in favor of more ‘muscular’ military approaches today. There is an assumption that if only we ‘took the gloves off’ we too, like the Romans, could cow populations into submission with indiscriminate violence. What Baker shows is that Roman mass violence could work that way, but generally only when the Romans were already winning otherwise. When the Romans were struggling, mass violence often prolonged conflicts and encouraged resistance. Finally, the Romans used mass violence as a deterrent, a tool of control in areas they believed already fell under their imperium. The arguments here are well made and persuasive.

More broadly, I think Baker’s volume is valuable for its content as well as its arguments. Baker argues in his conclusion – accurately, I think – that Roman violence was exception in its scope, not in its character; that is, the Romans weren’t necessarily more brutal than other ancient polities, but they were more military successful, meaning that Roman brutality (as opposed to Greek or Carthaginian or Gallic brutality) arrived in more places. Because of that, Baker’s book has a lot of value for the average reader trying to get a handle on what mass violence was entailed in the ancient world. Here Baker makes the good decision to foreground primary sources, with frequent, substantive block quotations (in translation) and, where possible, line diagrams of ancient artwork depicting such mass violence. Baker doesn’t indulge in purple prose, but he also doesn’t spare the reader the grim truth of the matter; there is no gentlemanly retreat into euphemism here and that is for the best.

Consequently, Baker gives the reader a fairly unstinting look at what mass violence in war was, what it looked like, what it sounded like, the strategic calculations around it and so on. It is also a very accessible book. Baker proceeds in a series of case studies each of which is fairly well self-contained and provides the necessary background for a lay-reader with perhaps only passing familiarity with the Roman army to keep track of what is going on. These use of chapter-by-chapter endnotes is unfortunate (I can only assume this was the publisher’s choice), but won’t trouble the regular reader. His language is clear and direct, not pedantic or academic. So while this is not a fun book per se, it is a book I think can be recommended both to specialists in other fields but also to general readership who want to understand the scope, extent and character of mass violence in Roman warfare but also in ancient warfare more generally.

118 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: July 9, 2021

  1. “Space No One: Mass Violence in Roman Warfare”

    ITYM “Spare No One (War and Society)” unless we are talking about one of those “Romans IN SPACE” science fiction stories.

    1. Not to be confused with “Space No One: Pacifism in Interstellar Warfare” 🙂

  2. Iran could possibly get a next supreme leader in a fast sweep but Russia will certainly have a few years with several coalitions maneuvering at the Kremlin. This was the mechanism used in tsarist times and also perpetuated after the deaths of Lenin and Stalin. It allows for safe assertion of the power of each faction and allows factions to recruit more supporters which will be handy when they capture complete power. The period could be quite uneventful for common folks and the rest of the world if the Russian administration feels secure about external threats. If Russia feels threatened then there will be a wild and accelerated fight for maximum power and a need to demonstrate the capabilities of the next dictator.

    1. Peter the Great decreed the tsar could choose his heir, and then — didn’t.

      It made for an interesting time.

  3. This is almost certainly a naïve question: Why is this king vs. tyrant succession data not just a side-effect of long-lasting tyrannies becoming accepted and customary (and thus becoming monarchies)? Are monarchies just the tyrannies that succeeded?

        1. It might be because they were all based on pre-existing hierarchies. The three great Successors – that is, the Seleucids, Ptolemies and Antigonid, ruled according to the traditions of their Domains. The Seleucids took over the title of High King from the Achaemenids and thus also his authority. In Egypt the Ptolemies became the new Pharaohs, while the Antigonids usurped the Macedonian kingship. So all of them relied on proper “constitutional” powers.

          1. Arriving very late, but: I feel like the Antigonids, at least, should count as tyrants-into-kings. The Ptolemies and Seleucids are as may be, but Demetrius the Besieger was some dude with an army who rolled into Pella, overthrew the Antipatrids, and then got overthrown in turn, and his son came back and did it *again* ten years later.

    1. Many historical monarchies were monarchic right from the start: rules for the regime were established at its foundation (I’m mostly thinking of newly independent states). Many were also from already established aristocratic families.

      Also most of new monarchies rose in a context where monarchies were normal aka followed the norms, the rules. I’m thinking of the Ming dynasty here, where the first emperor came from a peasant family. While he wasn’t from an established family, the monarchic regime he instituted was.

      I think the shogunate may be an example of a succesful tyranny and transition to monarchy, but I’m not versed at all in Japanese history.

      1. I’m not sure if it supports or refutes your position, but a quick look at the Wikipedia entry for Shogun reveals some interesting details. In particular, the emperor still existed… he just couldn’t really do anything. Someone even tried to restore the imperial family to power, although it only lasted about three years. I imagine it started out sort of like Cardinal Richelieu being the real power in France under Louis XIII. Well, if it had proceeded to go on for a few hundred years. Also, exactly who was in power appears to have been extremely unstable, and apparently two of the most famous “shoguns” (Oda Nobunaga and Toyotoma Hideyoshi) never actually held the title.

        It looks like the shogunate leaned on the Emperor fairly significantly for legitimacy, even, or perhaps because, they had stripped him of all real power. It was also at one point a hereditary position, as decreed by the emperor, which is definitely something that stabilizes succession. I suspect a big thing going on with the Mediterranean tyrants is a corollary to “You come at the king, you best not miss,” that when someone hits, other people start getting the idea that they could do that too.

        As for how that applies to Russia, well, it’s not clear to me whether Putin actually has, or cares about, succession plans. He seems to be focused on concentrating power in his person, although a bunch of it seems to have stuck to the office, which is probably why he tried playing musical chairs between President and Premier (with a crony in the other one) before ending up getting the constitution changed so that he could stay in the more powerful position of the two. That probably doesn’t help with the stability of dynastic succession, tbh.

        1. One interesting point about Japan is that the situation where the Emperor is the acknowledged source of legitimacy but not the actual most powerful person is a VERY common situation pre-1945. To the extent that it seems to really be the equilibrium situation in the Japanese imperial system.

          One fun setup is the way the Hojo handled things during their period of dominance: the head of the Hojo family “acted for” a figurehead shogun who “acted for” a (largely) figurehead Emperor. (The Imperial Court as a whole was still politically influential during this time, although less important than the Hojo family.)

          1. I’ve been told there’s one more level.

            Hojo elder tells the official Hojo head of house what to do
            Hojo head is regent for an underage Fujiwara shogun
            Shogun is ostensibly ruling in the name of the Emperor

          2. It became quite bizarre. From quite early the Fujiwara were ‘advisors’ to the imperial throne (so much so that only recently did an emperor marry a non-Fujiwara). As the emperor’s role was ceremonial, emperors abdicated to spend time doing interesting things as soon as the heir was old enough to sit up throughout the ceremonies. So you had the emperor (a minor), the retired emperor and possibly the preceding emperor, advised by the head Fujiwara, as counseled by the Tokugawa shogun, as advised by the Hojo steward.

          3. The Japanese have a long tradition of Power Behind The Throne, sometimes very far behind! Over two thousand years of it. The imperial House’s status as the focus of legitimacy if not power may be why the Japanese is the oldest dynasty in the world.

          4. From the point of view of someone trying to build a stable dynasty, the historic Japanese system has one tremendous advantage.

            In most monarchies, if someone ambitious, ferocious, and terrifyingly competent decides they want to rule the land, the monarchy is about to have a Bad Day. They may lose or they may win, but it’s a Bad Day for them.

            In Japan, if said terrifyingly competent person decides they want to rule Japan, or even to pass de facto rulership of Japan to their heir, they don’t have to kill the dynasty to do so.

            Of course, the price for this extreme dynastic stability and survivability is that the dynasty has very little actual power. The only things they have consistently are the very things that no one can take away from them, because they gave up the rest to ensure no one could take that away.

        2. The situation here is similar to that between Sultan and Calif – the new military dictator holds all the power and introduces a personal succession, but still pays lip service to the traditional ruler who has now been reduced to a purely ceremonial one.

        3. I think that Putin was quite sincere with Medvedev, trying to make a slow transfer of power. That’s because Medvedev was not eager to grab power but a lot of bureaucrats and bussinesman started to gather around him. They certainly did not want to challenge Putin at that moment but were simply following the signs. When Putin resumed the presidency there was no purge at the top. Putin probably got spooked that things were running too fast and Medvedev was not as tough as he wanted for a Russian president.

          1. I don’t believe that for a moment – the whole thing was a charade, and everyone knew it (which is why no purging was needed – everyone knew who the real boss was and that he’d be coming back soon enough).

            Medvedev was surely _chosen_ because he could be expected to be pliant.

  4. The Kim dynasty of Korea is on its third generation. Wonder if they’re gonna beat the ancients.

    I was curious for a while about states such as the Soviet Union and how do they fit into this simple model, but since you classified Iran as a monarchy, then looks to me like they would count as well. The succesion law is not always clear, but I guess one may define the system as a kind of elective monarchy with the franchise limited to members of the Party dynasty.

    Also, that talk about how a tyrant subverts the institutions of government to suit himself and his cronies has gained interesting case studies in Hungary (since ca. 2005) and Poland (since 2015).

    1. Counting Iran as a monarchy at all seems a bit dodgy to me. Supreme Leader/Council of Guardians seems more like the Pope/College of Cardinals. Elective not hereditary monarchy, and seeming more stable than other forms of elective monarchy.

      1. Elective monarchy is still monarchy.

        The distinction Bret is drawing is between an autocracy where the leader’s position is enshrined in law or custom, including a method of selection, and an autocracy where the leader’s position refers to extra-legal channels of influence.

      1. Three generations does not take North Korea out of the realm of tyranny, and there isn’t a clearly established rule of succession. And to the extent that there is a custom of succession, it requires the previous “king” spend several years specifically grooming a competent adult successor – probably male, but that *might* be negotiable. So there’s an obvious failure mode where the king dies young and/or shortly after the death of the heir presumptive.

        The current reigning Kim is in dubious health, and any son is no more than twelve years old. His younger sister is extremely capable and is being openly groomed for the highest levels of power open to a woman in the North Korean system, but it may not be possible for her to rule. His only surviving brother is almost certainly incapable of ruling. There basically isn’t anyone else, because if there were they would have been a threat when Kim III took the “throne” and he would have had them killed.

        The Kim Dynasty is clearly trying to transform North Korea into a de facto monarchy, but they aren’t there yet and there is a high probability of failure if Kim III doesn’t survive another 10-20 years.

        1. The king selects his heir. That works. Worse than most, but there are definite monarchies that used it.

          After all it was the rule in Russia laid down by Peter the Great — even if he demonstrated its flaws by not picking his own. (After Catherine the Great, her son wrote a succession law with the avowed purpose of its always being clear who the heir is.)

          1. If the King saying “Bob is my heir” results in Bob actually becoming king when the current monarch dies, that works.

            If the King saying “Bob is my heir” results in Bob becoming king if and only if Bob is the natural-born son of the prior king, at least fifty years of age, decorated for valor in battle, holder of a Nobel prize and an Olympic gold medal, and has served as vice-king for five years, otherwise Bob is disqualified and executed, that’s rarely going to work.

            The North Korean system is somewhere between those two extremes, and nobody knows exactly where because they’ve never specified the rules. But Kim Jong Un pointing at his son, saying “this is my heir”, and dying shortly thereafter, is not going to work. Pointing at his 33-year-old sister and saying “this is my heir”, is not going to work. Selecting his younger sister and having her serve as vice-king for five years to build her reputation and power base and get people in the habit of taking orders from her, *might* work.

          2. We don’t yet know if the next Dear Leader will:
            1. Be a Kim dynast
            2. Be the “legitimately-selected” successor of the previous Dear Leader.

            In the first case, there’s a dearth of candidates
            In the second, we don’t know what the selection process is

            Historically, and by Professor Deveraux’s criteria, you don’t have to have both to be a monarch vs a tyrant; the tyrant fails at BOTH, whereas the monarch can succeed at either.

            We won’t know until the next succession.

          3. One possible problem with selecting Bob as heir is that this focuses all the non-Bob factions on finding a way to get rid of Bob (assassination or at least casting aspersions on his fitness to rule) in the hope that the post-Bob heir will be more to their liking.

            And Bob then has a motivation to try and make the succession happen as soon as feasible. If not from power-hunger, to give the non-Bob factions less time to work.

            My impression is that this is one of the reasons behind messy transitions, because the previous leader was deliberately avoiding having a clear successor to avoid the above problems.

          4. This also gives Bob a motive to kill all possible post-Bob heirs. Which gives the possible post-Bob heirs more motive to get rid of Bob.

          5. One feature of the North Korean system, as best we understand it, is that the current ruler’s sons and even his wife are not really acknowledged as part of the dynasty until the ruler picks an heir; in which case the heir and his mother retroactively get “prince” and “queen consort” status. Any other children are nobodies, and if they make a bid for power (or such a bid is made on their behalf), there’s nothing backing it up. That’s good for avoiding civil wars aimed at unseating the chosen heir; not so good if you need to come up with an heir on short notice because even the ruler’s firstborn son is a nobody with nothing backing his claim even if he’s a capable adult who has been quietly and diligently studying kingship.

            Last time around, Kim Jong-Il groomed his eldest son (Jong-Nam) as successor, later changed his mind in favor of his third son (Jong-Un), and since Jong-Nam didn’t quietly accept being re-nobody-ized he was ultimately killed. Jong-Il’s second son (Jong-Chul) was always seen as unfit to rule, and has always been a quiet nobody.

          6. cptbutton has accurately described the reasoning of Elizabeth I who stubbornly refused to name a successor on the grounds it would endanger both of them. Everybody else argued this was irresponsible and dangerous. Then the Stuarts came along and proved a clear line of succession does not equal stability.

          7. Basically “choose your heir” is realpoltick, only with heirs, not nations. But countries have survived with it.

  5. “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
    – If it do prosper, none dare call it treason.”

    I don’t understand how you can state that all Greek tyrannies failed because none of them made it through more than three generations. Surely a tyranny that survived longer than that would *be* a monarchy, and its kings would certainly retrospectively identify the previous rulers of their line as monarchs. Can we know for sure that none of the successful royal houses didn’t start in just that way?

    Equally, when two royal houses compete for a realm, alternating periods on the throne, if one house finally manages to crush the other for good and build a stable succession, it’s very common for them to redefine their erstwhile rivals for posterity as ‘pretenders’, ‘tyrants’ or some such – in other words, “not real kings like us, the true royal line’.

    1. Presumably Greek cities would have a sprinkling of monarchies if this sort of thing happened, but it sounds from most descriptions like this wasn’t the case, outside of Sparta’s two king system. Outside of the greek city state period is a diferent story, obviously. (It’s quite possible that overthrows rarely work, but the ones that survive last a long time and become institutionalized as monarchies, or that monarchy replacements generally have a different character.)

    2. Traditional kingship almost always has a sacerdotal function – kings start as priests (this survives post the monarchy – as in the Athenian ‘king-archon’ the official who carried out the formerly royal priestly functions). This is hard for a tyrant to emulate. We can trace some Near Eastern monarchies back to successful seizures of power, and many royal houses of Europe started with the leaders of post-Roman war-bands, who were not shy when it came to disposing of rivals violently – but they generally were drawn from the established elite, and had two or three generations of ‘good family’ behind them. Stunning success – as with Clovis or Theodoric – gave their bloodline an aura which it did not take too many generations to solidify into legitimacy.

      1. I do note that Clovis and Theoderic, while they founded *kingdoms* were already tribal *kings*.

    3. Yes, the argument regarding comparative durabilities of monarchies and tyrannies seems to be based on survivorship bias.

      More recent history gives many examples of monarchies that did not last for many generations. Some examples:


      Iturbide (1822-1823): 1 Generation
      Habsburg-Lothringen (1863-1867): 1 Generation



      Zogu (1928-1939): 1 Generation


      Battenburgs (1879-1886): 1 Generation
      Saxe-Coburg & Gotha (1887-1946): 3 Generations (Simeon II abdicated at age 6, but later returned as prime minister, so we’ll count him as a full generation)

      Empire of France:

      Bonaparte (1804-1814; 1815; 1852-1870): 2 Generations (Napoleon II doesn’t really count)

      Empire of Germany:

      Hohenzollerns (1871-1918): 2.5 Generations (Freidriech III lasted a few months; the position of Emperor was built on the earlier monarchy of the Kingdom of Prussia, so this one is arguable)


      Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (1881-1940): 4 Generations (a son was skipped over for his son, took the throne, then passed it back to the son).


      Wittelsbach (1832-1862): 1 Generation
      Schlewswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Gluckstein (1863-1924): 4 Generations (a king abdicates in favour of his son, then takes power again when his son is killed by a monkey)

      One could argue that these examples are not referring to monarchies at all, but rather to tyrannies with illusions of grandeur. However, many of them were based on the traditional model of European kingship, and some were founded by scions of long-established dynasties from other monarchies. In any case, the monarchy-tyranny distinction has little predictive power in places like Iran and Russia that are only on their second generation of paramount leader. The only way to distinguish in which category each falls is to wait.

      1. I think it’s quite fair to think most of your examples as monarchies, even if some are debatable.

        The two French empires are pretty different but both suffered from the same problem that our host discussed: the question of succession wasn’t settled at all, despite efforts by the uncle and the nephew. Indeed, a failed coup against Napoleon I didn’t saw an immediate proclamation for his son.
        Zog may also be debattable but I don’t know much about him.

        Also some of your examples were removed due to direct foreign interventions aka Romanian and Bulgarian monarchies were abolished due to soviet invasions.

        But I don’t think your examples really disprove our host’s point. Indeed tyrannies are short-lived because of their different nature. Tyrants don’t respect rules, kings do. So the transition between the two may somewhat be murky, especially as some tyrants may try to shift to a monarchic regime, but it’s really the lack of respected rules of succession that imo makes tyranny that much more unstable during those periods.

        For Iran, we know they already handled a succession without too much fuss so the rules seem to be working and to be respected.
        Russia though? Who’s going to succeed Putin, or at least who’s going to design the heir?
        So I think it’s fair to assume that Khameini’s succession probably won’t crash the regime while Putin’s regim may very well die with the man.

        1. Yes, but some of the tyrants listed by our host were also removed by foreign intervention. For example, Hippias, last of the Peisistratids, was removed with Spartan intervention. Dionysius II of Syracuse ultimately lost power following an invasion by Timoleon of Corinth.

          Many of the tyrants who lost power, as well as some of kings I listed, did not fall because a successful tyrant died and there was chaos during the transition. Instead, established kings and tyrants made mistakes or got unlucky, leading to their ouster. For example, neither Napoleon I or Napoleon III survived in power long enough to attempt to pass their positions to their sons under stable conditions.

      2. I would not list Habsburg-Mexico as a monarchy in the Greek sense, given that it followed military intervention by France and barely outlived the French expedition to Mexico. People had warned Maximilian that it was French bayonets that kept him in power, but he thought his Mexican subjects loved him.

        Likewise, both Napoleons gained power by means of a coup, and at least the former definitely fits the Greek definition of “tyrannos” to a T. IIRC, he was actually called France’s dictator, back when his formal title was First Consul.

        A crown does not a king make.

        The Hohenzollerns ruled Brandenburg from 1415 until 1918, from 1701 as kings in Prussia from 1772 as Kings of Prussia. That’s a rather longer run than that of the Second Reich (1871-1918).

        1. The challenge with defining rulers as monarchs “in the Greek sense” is that, for every monarchy in history, somebody had to set the rules to follow. The Diadochi are good examples of rulers who used the chaos of a succession to take power, yet they established durable dynasties. Yes, they modelled themselves on older models of kingship, but so did the Napoleons.

          I used the Hohenzollerns as an example of a dynasty that expanded its role, but, in spite of a history of rulership, was unable to maintain power.

    4. I think that you are going too much on the philosphical and missing the predictive power of a model that does not differentiate on the substance of the ruling person (in the end every guy that keeps state power all in his hands is a despot, be he called monarch or tyrant) but on the PERCEPTION that such ruling had among the population, particularly the aristocracy.
      A monarch, no matter how absurd this notion seems to moderns, is perceived as legitimate. He is usually legitimated by some sort of extramundane authority. The aristocracts are socialized to be his subordinates. And so on. A tyrant, on the other hand, simply lack all these characteristics: he does not have the legitimacy to explicitely end the previous order. He must control aristocrats and population with fear.
      Now, it does not matter if a certain number of monarchies are just tyrannies that held power for enough time to acclimate everybody to themselves. AT A GIVEN MOMENT, we can look at how an autcrat rules and say: is this akin of a monarch or a tyrant? And from the answer it comes a fairly good prediction of what happens when he dies. It boils down to “the signs of perceived legitimacy are x,y and z” and the obvious idea that autocrats perceived as more legitimate (the “monarchs” for short) are more likely to secure a successful succession for their heirs.
      Putin looks akin of a tyrant. The Duma is still there, he has no sufficient authority to just exhautorate it. The opposition is strong, and he has to constantly repress it. He stays on the saddle through power games and fear. So it seems unlikely that whoever he wishes to see as his successor will have an easy life.
      On the other hand, Iran looks like a (elective) monarchy. Virtually anybody even remotely close to power recognize the legitimacy of the Guardian Council. As do a wide part of the common folk. There are no alternative sorces of legitimacy. Thus, it is fair to assess that the succession will just run smoothly.

  6. Surprise it was Russia and Iran not Russia and China, wonder what the failure rate for republic and parliaments are?

    1. Likely because China has already successfully undergone several successions without dissolution of the Chinese political system, though Mao did almost overturn the apple cart to resecure power in the 60s. From then on though, succession has been largely peaceful

      1. That said Xi has blown past the term limit that was previously in place, and has concentrated more personal power than any other Chinese leader since Deng.

    2. Republic and parliaments are specifically designed to make transition of power quite painless. It may not always make the best decisions, and may take a lot of time to get consensus, but the strength is in self-repairing capability.

      There’s a saying that in Russia people are afraid of power transitions. They’d rather have the last leader keep ruling, because there will be no unrest and no arresting.

      1. This. Prior to Trump’s mess, there were 43 successful transitions of power in the U.S. republic that went off without a hitch. Even for the comparatively more stable monarchies, I can’t think of ANY that had so many transfers of power without an overthrow of the dynasty, nevermind ones that had no violence at all.

        1. The Biden-Trump transition was hardly the worst in American history. The Buchanan-Lincoln transition eclipses it just a little bit.

          Still, I think the only monarchy to manage 45 successful transitions, even with a bit of violence permitted, is Japan’s. Maybe the Brits, if you elide House Cromwell and treat the other civil war-based transitions as part of the monarchic system.

          1. The leadup to the ACW isn’t really a succession crisis though. It was a regionalism issue that came to a head at around an election. It wasn’t Buchannan’s supporters trying to maintain him in power, and the secession had been threatened for some time before the election, and would have happened pretty much any time the anti-slavery coalition gained sufficient strength.

            As for monarchies, England certainly doesn’t count, as you had considerable fighting and intrigue even within single dynasties. The whole War of the Roses springs rather readily to mind. And while I’m less familiar with Japanese history, I thought the succession to the Chrysanthemum Throne got fairly bloody before the Shogun took all real power and reduced the monarchs to figureheads.

          2. The fundamental casus belli was “The wrong guy is taking power”. It was “the wrong guy” because of a pre-existing factional debate, but that was also true of, say, the Glorious Revolution.

            Also, when I used “successful transitions” as my measurement, that was an intentionally low bar. It’s arguable that the transitions in the US in, say, 1876 or 2000 went to someone who did not properly win the election (though I personally side with history on both). But they were successful transitions of power, which kept the system intact.

            I don’t know enough Japanese history to go into any detail there, but the only system-breaker in England was in 1649, and even then the proper heir under the monarchic system wound up getting back into power by 1660. So if you ignore the bloodshed and look only at whether transitions happened in ways that kept the system intact, England has had one delayed transition since its monarchy was established, and none that failed. Every monarch has had some manner of dynastic claim back to a previous monarch, and even if some of those claims were weak, they preserved the system.

          3. And I’d say Japan’s kind of cheating, because the ’emperor’ hasn’t had much secular power for most of that time. People fought over the Shogunate, wielding power in the emperor’s name; now they contest more peacefully over being PM. Similarly the English royal succession became much more boring after 1688, and Parliament having deposed two kings in 40 years. Before then there are tons of civil wars or rebellions by a son or brother, if not outright hiccups in succession (though they did keep it in the extended family of Alfred and William). (The rebellions weren’t often successful, but someone making a violent grab for the English throne is more common than not in the centuries between William and William.)

          4. No, the fundamental cassus belli was NOT “The wrong guy is taking power”. It was “The guy with the wrong policies is taking power”. That’s the fundamental distinction, and why it’s so important. Succession crises are about people, not the policies they’re advocating. The south’s problem with Lincoln was summed up in his opposition to the further expansion of slavery and what that meant in the long term to the balance of power in the Senatorial chamber. You take a look at more classic succession crises, and its all about the “candidate” and whatever cronies he’s filling his court with.

            The South would have done the same for any other candidate who got elected on a limiting ticket, not just Lincoln.

          5. Yeah.

            I don’t think there was a single person in the Confederacy who was fighting for the cause of “we want James Buchanan back in the White House.”

            The point of the rebellion was not that the southern states felt they were in danger of being ruled by the wrong person as such.

            It was that the southern states categorically rejected the idea of being ruled by any insufficiently pro-slavery government, no matter who was in charge of it.

        2. Hohenzollern in Brandenburg (1415-1918), Wittelsbachs in Bavaria (1180-1918), Habsburgs in (what became) Austria (around 1300 to extinction of the male line in 1780; following the War of the Austrian Succession, Maria Theresia’s line continued until 1918).
          I think the Wittelsbachs had one Succession War in their run, the Hohenzollerns didn’t..

          Terms of office are just a little longer than the maximum of 8 years of US Presidents, of course.

        3. I’d say the clear front-runner for worst presidential transition in US history has to be 1876-77, where the outcome of 1876 election between Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden was too close to call, the legitimacy of the election was marred by credible allegations of mass-scale fraud on both sides, both sides spent the weeks after the election gathering forces in preparation for a potential civil war along the lines of the previous civil war which had ended barely a decade prior, and the corrupt backroom compromise that just barely ensured an orderly transition of power (handing the presidency to Hayes, the loser of the popular vote) was premised on the end of Reconstruction and the reimposition of an openly tyrannical white supremacist reign of terror over the black ex-slave population of the former Confederacy.

  7. Patreon changes are based on Roman government…So we get to raise armies, gain popularity by righting other patreons, than try to politically maneuver to take this one over?

    “The Devereaux general Saxinus conquered Binkov with a small army. A larger army advanced far into Linday Ellis territory before being forced back due to a lack of fighting skill on the ground of literary theory. His status rose again with the conquest of tetrapod zoology after a 2 year war…”

    Say again? This is impossible? And I’ve misunderstood Roman government in some big ways? Ah, darn..

    On the actual post:

    Thanks for the army college links in particular, I like to watch videos while lifting weights at home and these look perfect. the other links I am looking at also. I’d seen the Corinthian War one on twitter and had never heard of that war in detail, so was interesting.

    My impressions of Russia and Iran are similar to this post, without the exact terms used. From every description i’d heard, Iran had more of an organized system of government, within which choosing a new supreme leader would slot right in, while Russia is more Putin managing the country in a more improvised, case by case way, though behind appearances and descriptions things get messier in a lot of politics.

  8. Should we see the Kim dynasty as being partway through the (attempted) transition from tyrrany to monarchy? It’s made it 3 generations so far but sucession is still on an ad-hoc basis.

    1. North Korea was founded as a Kim-ist polity. Public statuary venerating Kim Il-sung was put up years before the liberation/occupation forces/government (“When was North Korea founded?” is a very hard question) fully relinquished control to the local Workers’ Party.

  9. Karl Popper had a fun criteria for political systems:

    If a transition of power without the use of violence is possible, you have a republic or a monarchy. If it’s not, it’s a tyranny or authoritarianism. (Sorry, I can’t find the exact quote)

    Viewed in this light Russia is not a democracy.

    There’s a new theory specifying Russian not just as a facade democracy, but as an *informational autocracy* (David Treisman, Sergei Guyev). The new thing about informational autocracy is that mass violence is replaced with control of information space. Elections take place, but the same people win. Private media exist, but censored – controlled by economic tools or simple bribery. There’s no consistent ideology, just hostility towards liberal West. Political enemies are not murdered, but slandered, smeared, dragged over courts, and pressured into emigration. The distinguishing feature of such states is the focus on information. Violence is used sporadically, power is kept not by terror but by shaping beliefs of the majority.

    Examples incluide: Russia, Hungary, Venezuela, Equador, Turkey, Peru, Malesia, and recently – Poland.

    Rulers spend a lot of time shaping their popular image as competent leaders. The positive public image is possible due to existence of two groups within the society: a) the majority, who are not interested in politics and thus have a bad idea what’s going on, and b) the well informed minority, who have a realistic picture of the situation. Authors of the paper call the second group simply the elite.

    Informational autocrats deliberately create an informational gap between the 2 groups, leading to an assymetry in information. The majority doesn’t receive accurate information, isn’t able to spot the deceit, and believes the picture in the media.

    From that point it looks uncannily like the situation in modern Poland. The regime underscores the difference between the ‘privileged’ elite and the majority. They’ve created a wave of resentment towards the ‘corrupted’ elite. Are you going to listen to a liar, thief, fat cat, traitor? Every time well informed people actively and loudly voice criticism, there’s a smear campaign from the regime. The list of enemies of the state is growing: judges, resident doctors, teachers, businessmen.

    There’s no objective criteria for belonging into “the elite”. It’s not high education – nearly all leaders of the regime have it, which doesn’t stop them from acting in the name of “the ordinary people”. It’s not wealthy – resident doctors and especially teachers aren’t. The elite is, really, just a temporary label.

    Media are hit with new taxes, stuffed with party members, bought by state enterprises.

    There’s no mass repression but surgical repression. This makes the oppressive nature of the state harder to detect. The prosecutor’s office goes out of its way to hound political enemies for ‘shameful’ crimes, like corruption, theft, pedophilia, adultery, bad driving, illegal hunting, excessive drinking. The accusations are often overblown and later dropped, but it doesn’t matter. The accusation itself can be a form of punishment and widely reported by state controlled media.

    Duplicity, pettiness, and selective application of law is off the charts.

    1. Daniel Treisman, not David Treisman. University of California, Los Angeles. Sergei Guriev is from Sciences Po Paris. “A Theory of Informational Autocracy”

    2. This is a great description. I think of them as charismatic authoritarian systems. Where charismatic leaders use their, usually legitimate, popular support to break an elective system. And is noted from your list, it’s an ideologically neutral process. Aside from governing systems, there is little to connect Orbanist Hungry, Chavista Venezuela, and Erdoganist Turkey. (I also believe that Trump was a similar style of charismatic authoritarian, but lacked the general popularity to execute the changes necessary to make such a system enduring.)

      I think that Venezuela is a good example of how fraught the transition of power can be. Chavez, like Putin, was legitimately popular and generally a skilled politician. Thus, as Chavez concentrated power in himself it strengthen his governing system. His successors, though, are not nearly as skilled as governors or politicians. In fact they’re legitimately disasters – and those incompetent successors plus Chavez’s concentrated power has been horrific. This makes me very concerned for how the transition in Russia will occur when Putin dies. With how important Russia is to the world system, I hope that Putin retires when he is young enough to guide a chosen successor so that Russia doesn’t become a Venezuelan style basket case.

      The Islamic Republic of Iran is a completely different animal altogether. They are some weird amalgamation of western Presidential Republic and Marxist-Leninist style party control. (Replacing the Marxist-Leninist party with the theocratic authorities). A big difference for Iran, that western thinkers miss, is that they Ayatollah’s domestic powers work more like those of Chief Justice John Roberts then what we would understand as a dictatorship. The theocratic council that the Ayatollah leads operates like an Iranian Supreme Court with the additional control of foreign policy and a gatekeeping electoral function. With a competitively elected legislature and presidency running most of Iran’s domestic affairs.

      This process will make transition in Iran much lest fraught. First, the lack of power in domestic affairs for the Ayatollah means that the direct stakes to both citizens and elites will be much lower. Second, incompetence from the Ayatollah will primarily be felt in foreign relations rather than domestically – which is rarely a source of domestic civil discontent. I expect that when the Ayatollah passes that there will be a more stable reasonable transition in Iran then when Xi Jinping transitions in China.

      1. I think Trump lacked the basic competence (and possibly the will to power) to effectuate what you call charismatic authoritarianism. But more important, American democracy is a lot more resilient than Venezuela, Turkey et al. What is notable is that not a single official, executive, legislative, or judicial, in a position of authority took any action to overturn the 2020 election. (I know some legislators made irresponsible statements or even cast irresponsible votes, but that was the end of it,)

        1. Well most importantly Trump lacked the popularity. A sufficiently popular leader can break any Democracy. Trump’s popularity never really got above 48% give or take. But folks like Putin and Orban routinely have popularity in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

          The US hasn’t had a leader with that kind of popularity since FDR. It’s also of note that only Russia is a very large country like the US. If you look at the individual American states, it’s fairly common for a political party/politician to reach the popularity threshold where breaking Democracy becomes possible i.e. California Democrats or Mississippi Republicans. But, across the whole breadth of the country it took a Great Depression for such popularity to build. I would also argue that Putin took power during an internal security crisis, the First Cheychnya War, and a veritable economic depression.

          1. If you look at the individual American states, it’s fairly common for a political party/politician to reach the popularity threshold where breaking Democracy becomes possible i.e. California Democrats or Mississippi Republicans. But, across the whole breadth of the country it took a Great Depression for such popularity to build.

            Well the New Deal coalition didn’t really spring ex nihilo from the Great Depression, the previous balance of power between Republicans and Democrats was largely premised on dividing the national electorate into exactly the sorts of quasi-democratic fiefdoms you’re talking about — the GOP electoral base consisted largely of a one-party grip on Northern WASPs and Southern blacks, and Democrats had a similar grip on Northern “white ethnics” and Southern whites — and what the Depression did was weaken the Republican coalition enough for the Democrats to break off large chunks of it (crucially including the black vote) which led in turn to the Democrats building a power base whose lasting control of Congress wasn’t truly shattered until the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, itself a result of the GOP consolidating its grip on Southern whites into a one-party fiefdom similar to what the Democrats had once had prior to the civil rights movement.

  10. Iran is not a monarchy, there is no hereditary principle. It is that rarest of polities, one where the judiciary branch is supreme over legislative and executive. The Supreme Leader, who is really the Supreme Judge, selects his own successor.

    1. The papacy doesn’t follow dynastic principle, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a monarchy.
      There is also historical precedents of elective monarchies.
      So no, monarchies shouldn’t be confused with hereditary regimes.

      Furthermore in Iran’s case, the historical precedent is that the Assembly of Experts vote for the successor of the Supreme Ruler. Of course an endorsement by the former one may very well tip the balance in favor of someone, but that’s pretty universal among different regimes.

      1. And there’s always pressure on elective monarchies to become hereditary ones, if for no other reasons than that the king would like his offspring in charge. If the son of the current ruler is put in charge, that’s a first step in the process.

        The Swedish monarchy transformed from its ancient elective one into a hereditary one in the 1500s, for instance.

        1. The problem with elective monarchies is challenges by disappointed candidates. Granted that can happen with hereditary monarchies too and frequently does, but generally in cases where there are already issues roiling the waters.

          1. Yes, but on the other hand, at least the winner probably won _because_ he was more powerful in the first place, and now can add legitimacy on top of that.

  11. “What Baker shows is that Roman mass violence could work that way, but generally only when the Romans were already winning otherwise. When the Romans were struggling, mass violence often prolonged conflicts and encouraged resistance.”

    Would it be fair to say that this is something of a recurring pattern rather than something unique to the Roman experience?

  12. An obvious point about the nature of the Russian constitutional regime, which often gets overlooked by Western commentators for reasons that should also be obvious: the current Russian political framework, with a de facto dictatorial presidency and an all but powerless rubber-stamp parliament, was a creation not of Putin but of his 90s-era predecessor Boris Yeltsin, whose was for all intents and purposes a US neocolonial client dictator and oversaw the wholesale pillaging of the post-Soviet Russian economy by Western business interests. Yeltsin didn’t necessarily start out as a tyrant by your definition (he was the final president of the Russian SFSR under the old Soviet system, which became the presidency of the independent Russian Federation after Gorbachev dissolved the USSR) but the moves he made to solidify and centralize power over the course of his rule certainly qualified him for such status, notably disbanding and bombing his own parliament in 1993, ramming through a new Russian constitution later that year (the same one under which Putin now rules) in a popular referendum rife with credible allegations of wholesale fraud, and winning reelection under similarly questionable/fraudulent circumstances in 1996, before handing over the reins to Putin as his chosen successor in 2000 with full US blessing.

    I wouldn’t necessarily dispute the claim that Putin is a tyrant, but at the very least, it should be impossible to designate Putin as a tyrant without also extending that designation to the prior Yeltsin-led regime, whose status as a US client state in good standing should raise uncomfortable questions about our own government’s comfort with aiding and abetting tyranny, and the ways in which this tyranny-friendly foreign policy might in turn tend to blow back against us when a tyrant we’ve previously supported “goes rogue” and acts in ways that threaten our interests. (See also the entry under “Hussein, Saddam.”)

    1. Note also that, like Putin, Khamenei wouldn’t be leader right now if not for horrific foreign policy bungling by the USA. Though Iran will probably have a peaceful transition of power while Russia likely won’t, so perhaps we might theorize that if a dictator takes power due to US actions, it’s better for the country

      1. Sorry, typing on mobile, going again. It’s perhaps better for the country that if a dictator springs up due to US actions, it be an anti-US dictator.

  13. I love history, but you need a strong stomach for ancient military history. I think I’ll pass on the “Spare No One” book, after a previous experience I had.

    To repeat a story I’ve told on another site: at a book sale I picked up an incredible deal: a deluxe edition of Josephus’s “The Jewish War,” a “new translation” (1980s) complete with diagrams and lots of historical footnotes. It was really too big for my shelf, but in perfect condition and I couldn’t pass it up.

    As a history buff I was excited to start reading it, as I’d never read Josephus before. So I started reading a portion every day. Well, shortly I found myself reading websites, playing games, or just looking out the window, all to avoid the chore of getting to the end.

    Because “The Jewish War” is a story of massacre…
    after massacre…
    after massacre…
    after massacre of civilians, with lots of gory details I really didn’t want to know. It’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever read. Why do the Mongols have the reputation as civilization-destroying barbarians, when Josephus’s “noble” Roman army behaved just as bad or worse?

    But it’s not just the Romans. There’s the massacres of the Hasmodeans as they built the country, the massacres of Herod as he took over, the civil-warring factions exterminating each other’s families…. Everybody did it; it’s what ancient armies do. All this makes it absolutely clear that you REALLY don’t want to take a time machine to the past. (And if you’re a woman, smash the controls to make doubly sure!) You wouldn’t survive. Just the everyday sights would be traumatizing for moderns. (I ended up donating the book to the small library as it became dead weight to me.)

    Our host does a wonderful job of teaching how a military is not enough to make an ancient civilization, because of agriculture, clothing, etc. But armies and their actions still cast a huge shadow over everything else.

    1. I don’t think any of that is specific to ancient warfare. I have been reading extensively on the Pacific War lately and, if anything, modern wars are worse. Exiling man’s inhumanity to man and woman to the distant past strikes me as an avoidance of responsibility.

  14. I’m much more familiar with Iran than with Russia, and I agree with your judgment there.

    There is the twist of the duality of its institutions – it is an Islamic Republic that has not merged the Islamic and Republican parts of its identity. So there is a secular presidential system with a president, parliament, and supreme court; and in parallel it has a Supreme Leader, Assembly of Experts, and Council of Guardians who have a similar relationship to each other and can veto any candidates to offices in the “republican” side of the system.

    The complexity distributes power into a broader oligarchy, like the late-Soviet or post-Deng Chinese systems. (Which also eases transition, as there is a lot of continuity of holders of real power.)

    1. The Iranian system sounds like the most viable model for the sort of American state Integralists like Adrian Vermeule and Sohrab Ahmari discreetly gesture towards. The federal court system, especially SCOTUS, is best placed to set the perimeters of governance while leaving the existing institutions otherwise in place.

  15. Bret, here’s this week’s observations of possible proofreading corrections (a shorter list than many others):
    for the selected of the Supreme Leader > selection
    to destroy and Athenian fleet -> destroy an
    x. Finally, -> [the “x” is supposed to be part of the highlighted link]
    I tend to . . . tends to be -> [change or delete one instance of tend?]
    instrumental and strategy: -> strategic
    were more military successful -> militarily
    what mass violence was entailed -> [delete was]
    These use of chapter-by-chapter endnotes -> The use of

  16. Speaking of “Gibraltar of the X”, Sveaborg (the supposed “Gibraltar of the North”) was lost extremely quickly and easily and doomed Sweden in the Russian war of 1808-809.

  17. Delong-Shleifer, in their paper Princes and Merchants, look at the English monarchy, and find that in about 50% of cases, something went deeply wrong with succession, and only in 25% was there a clean three-generation succession. Civil wars were routine (i.e. the Wars of the Roses), as were CK-style assassinations and imprisonments (Princes in the Tower, Bloody Mary, etc).

    France, likewise, in theory had an unbroken chain of agnates, but in practice this involved enormous civil wars like the Mad War and the Wars of Religion, or even some of the wars that were later reinterpreted as national wars between England and France.

    1. It might make more sense to use the political science delineations of government, regime, and state to make more sense of the distinction between monarchy and tyranny.

      The government is the current, specific individuals in charge of the state. A given monarch and their councilors, a prime minister and their cabinet, etc.

      The regime is the pattern of institutions that run the state. That a state is run by a monarchy, an elected parliament, etc.

      The state is the bureaucrats and other people on the ground or in the middle levels that implement the governments policies.

      When a tyranny faces succession, the regime itself is as likely to collapse as not and be replaced by some type of regime that is more legitimate and durable. This new regime could be a democracy (as occurred after the Athenians threw off the Thirty Tyrants), a monarchy, or some other system with customs and/or laws that existed before the tyranny (or at least, are portrayed as and thought of as being longstanding and ancient).

      When a monarchy faces succession, would-be monarchs and their councilors are likely to play musical chairs with violent enthusiasm, but in the great majority of cases one of those chairs will be a throne at the end of the conflict. The monarchy as a regime is thus preserved even though many individual monarchs and their governments may live short lives with violent ends, and succession crises lead to changes in government but not regime.

      1. That makes sense!

        But then by that classification, military juntas tend to have regime stability, in that a coup against such a junta tends to lad to a new junta…

        1. Are military coups again military juntas common? I haven’t done a systematic study, but my perception is that the most common progression (in, say, Turkey or Latin America) is weak democracy/coup leading to junta/rebellion leading to weak democracy/another coup. Alternatively, in some cases the rebellion is followed by Communist dictatorship, which may also yield either to a coup or a rebellion.

    2. In the ancient Aegean, I think the Argeads (“we have a king, and the king should be an Argead, but when the old king dies any Argead who wants the throne can fight for it”) are more representative of ancient monarchy than either line of Spartan kings. And keep in mind that Athenians admit they don’t know most of what happens in Sparta, and that when we can test king lists against contemporary sources we usually find that a collection of powerful people in the same general region have been grouped into a single coherent dynasty.

    3. Let’s see.
      Starting with William the Conqueror who was succeed in England by his second son, in Normandy by his elder son. Third Son, Henry I, ended up with both after possibly assassinating English brother and defeating and imprisoning the Norman one.
      Henry’s only legitimate son predeceased him and his daughter Matilda claimed the crown, contested by William’s nephew Stephen. Both lose but Matilda’s son Henry II succeeds.
      Henry II is succeeded by his second son after a great deal of drama. Richard I dies without heirs and is succeeded by brother.
      Nobody likes John but he manages to pass the crown to his equally problematic son, Henry III, who is succeeded by his son, Edward, one of England’s most successful kings.
      Edward I succeeded by his son Edward II who is dethroned by his wife who puts their son Edward III on throne. Edward III lives too long and has two many sons. Succeeded by Grandson Richard II.
      Richard II makes a mess. Cleared out of the way by another grandson of Edward III, Henry IV.
      Henry IV succeeded by son and namesake famous for conqueroring France. Dies young and is succeeded by infant son who grows up mentally impaired and favorite ridden.
      Succession crisis known as War of the Roses. Henry VI is replaced by Edward IV descended from two of Edward III’s too many sons after lots of drama.
      Drama continues when Edward V is displaced and murdered by Richard III, his uncle.
      Henry VII, yet another descendant of Edward III, comes out of left field and takes the crown by conquest but marries the female lineal heir.
      Succeeded by his son Henry VIII, who creates lots of drama in his pursuit of a male heir. Said heir, Edward VI, dies young. After drama involving a cousin succeeded by unpopular sister. She in turn succeeded by very popular and successful sister, Elizabeth I who is succeeded by a distant cousin.
      James I, a semi successful king, is succeeded by son, Charles I beheaded by dissatisfied subjects. But they dislike tyrannical rule even more and invite back Charles II, who puts the Merrie, back in Merrie England. Charles is succeeded by idiot brother who gets run out of the country in favor of his elder daughter and her husband. They are succeeded by her sister Anne who has the most horrible obstetrical luck ever. Seventeen pregnancies, no survivors.
      German cousin, George of Hanover, called in. Drama from idiot Stuart claimants and their even more idiotic supporters. Hanoverians no prize but George II succeeds father and George III grandfather without hiccups. Numerous sons of George III race to produce legitimate heirs. George IV is followed by William IV. Who is followed by niece Victoria.
      Victoria is succeeded by eldest son Edward VII. He is succeeded by eldest surviving son George V. He is succeeded by Edward VIII but soap opera-like complications lead to George VI which all agree is a Good Thing. He is succeeded by daughter Elizabeth who is still with us.
      Hmmm. Looks like Delong-Shleifer has a point!

      1. Well, successions since 1689 have sometimes involved soap opera, but at least they have been non-violent. Of course, the Royal Assent has not been withheld since 1708.

  18. Ancient monarchies often had a lot of violence when the old king died, got old, or became unpopular. Two or three of the six famous Neo-Assyrian kings were tossed out of power at spearpoint, and three had to fight to become king. Whoever won would usually become king (unless it was the start of an Intermediate Period or a Collapse!) but things tended to be messier than Latin kingship in the second millennium CE.

    When you look at many so-called dynasties in antiquity, there are a lot of steps where someone with no known relation to the previous king takes the throne under unclear circumstances!

  19. Violent succession can itself be institutionalised, as can the ‘institution’ of tyranny. Syracuse, for instance, was rarely ruled other than by a tyrant – and the same could, I think, be said of many of the Ionian cities. Russia has a three century history of autocratic rule – Sophia and Catherine were very tangentially connected to the dynasty, and several czars were disposed of for incompetence. Many early medieval European and later Middle Eastern and Indian Islamic dynasties let the numerous heirs fight it out, the Mamluk and other thrones went to the strongest (one of my favourites – the ex-slave Egyptian ruler Abu al-Misk Kafur, described as a ‘one-eyed black eunuch of surpassing ugliness and great charm’) and, of course, Brett’s very own imperial Romans, where the army was the unofficial electorate, and few ‘dynasties’ lasted more than three generations.

    1. Good point. I haven’t dug into it, but I feel like Bret Devereaux is making a logic error here:

      >By and large, the aim of just about every Greek tyrant in the long term was to consolidate power into their family in a durable way, which is to say, convert a tyranny to kingship. They all failed
      > We could go on but I think the point is clear: kingship is far, far more durable than tyranny.

      By and large. So he’s already discarding an unspecified but pretty big chunk of input data. What about the tyrants whose goal WAS NOT to pass power to their family? But just live a lavish life, wield power, have people whisper stories about you and cower in fear.

      Bret’s argument reminds me of No True Scotsman fallacy. (A: “No Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge.” B: “My uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar in his porridge.” A: “But no **true** Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge”). The error here is redefining the rules as you go.

      It can be also thought as the survivorship bias. There’s a story that in WW2 engineers examined returning bomber planes and counted bullet holes. Based on the data, they identified the places which should get extra armor plating. Many holes were found around gunner’s cockpit and the wings. Very few around pilot’s cockpit and the fuel tank. Based on the available data, they put the plating elsewhere.

      1. You haven’t done your work here Borsukrates. You are assuming the existence of tyrants not seeking to pass on their power, but you haven’t demonstrated such individuals exist. You need to show that there is some meaningful set (more than a few, given the ‘by and large’ qualifier on the sentence) to have been excluded; if there are none, I have simply noted a true tendency about tyrants. Until you’ve done that, you’re in no position to throw around accusations of this or that fallacy. “You would be wrong IF X were true” only works if you can then demonstrate X.

        In this case, your search for a figure who fits all of the requirements of tyranny but where it can be clearly established that there was no effort to make their control permanent over more than one generation is likely to be hopeless, speaking as someone who knows the sources reasonably well. Not because they are definitionally excluded but because they don’t seem to have existed. You do have figures who wield considerable power for short periods and then surrender it (Solon comes to mind) but they are neither described as tyrants in the sources and don’t rule *as* tyrants – that is they do not subvert the political institutions of the state, rather they are lawfully delegated power, exercise it for a set amount of time and then give it up at the end. They’re not excluded on the basis of a lack of a succession plan, but because they never secure the total systemic control that defines a tyrant.

        1. There’s also another impreciseness that I forgot to specifically mention, but implied in the other reply (about juntas). Not just tyrants who didn’t make an effort, but also tyrants who tried but were replaced by another Greek tyrant. You’re generalizing about kingship vs tyranny on the basis of Greek tyrants. I think it’s fair to say that a state is a tyranny if it’s consistently ruled by tyrants. It shouldn’t matter if it was because one of them wanted to transfer power into his family, or didn’t, as long as a number of tyrants followed. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a… duck.

          I’ll see what I can do. I don’t know ancient Greek. I’ll look for a (Greek) state with a string of tyrants. In a way, a tyrant who passes power to family might not be a “true” tyrant – he’s trying to legitimize. I have an unsubstantiated impression that some peoples and societies have higher tolerance for seizing power by violence than others.

          1. So the notable polis with a string of tyrants is Syracuse, but those tyrants run in easily identifiable families. Each family rules for as long as they can, but is then violently pushed out, either by the citizenry (brief returns to democracy) or by another tyrant who then starts his own family dynasty.

        2. For sure we can say that tyranny is bad for passing power to family and tyranny is inherently destabilizing (because a tyrant gets into power despite having no legitimate claim).

          But exactly because tyranny doesn’t play by the rules, the usual measurement method (success in straight line reproduction?) might be misleading. It’s like you’re looking for a nice pattern in something that is by definition breaking patterns.

          Viruses don’t technically reproduce. The infected cells produce them. What if tyranny is like HIV that breaks the immune system of a society, letting all sorts of pathogens in? If people feel removing a tyrant through unconstitutional, possibly violent means is okay, it desensitizes them to violence, vigilantism, lynching. It makes precedents and might start the spiral of vengeance. Like I said I need to read more about the subject, including Syracuse.

          1. I can’t help but agree that you need to do a little reading on the subject. Theory-crafting in the absence of any knowledge of the evidence is going to tend to leave you in a situation where you are outlining patterns that *could* be possible, but with no knowledge of if those patterns actually occur.

            Though I will say that, by and large, if you don’t know an evidence set and someone who does know the evidence set tells you that it has known tendencies and provides a half dozen examples, I would myself generally refrain for theorizing all of the possible – but unattested – exceptions and also from suggesting they had been fallaciously excluded until I had gone and looked at the evidence set myself. The vague sense that there ought to be exceptions is not enough to justify and argument in the absence of actual exceptions.

      1. Tyrannies. From our pedantic host:

        “No one held an office called ‘tyrant’ or was formally elected as a tyrannos. Rather the tyrant, having seized control of the state (typically by armed coup) held it through intimidation, cronies, bribery and careful politics.”

        What changed in the 20th century is that world wide enthusiasm for democracy and equality has meant the “tyrants” of many juntas and violent states need *call* themselves something like President for life, or hold elections where they win 99% of the vote. The title, or election, is *not* why they stay in power though.

  20. My instinct has always been rather to disparage the notion of “one man rule”, or rather, to move it from the space of reality to the space of ideology: While that is how rulers may present or be presented, in practice there is no such thing as “One-man rule”, but rather rule by various interconnected interest groups, networks, institutions, etc. Putin might “rule”, but in a very real sense his rule is restricted by the people he relies upon (his security appratus, his backers, the military, etc.) who make up a sort of broader “base of rulership”.

    One of the interesting things I remember from talking about iranian constitution is how, while the Supreme Leader Position is codified in the constitution it is really an attempt to codify charismatic leadership. (whose very point it that it defiies codifications) which makes it an odd duck to say the least.

    One thing that is I think still a possibility for the kind of ad-hoc tyrannical governments like Putin’s is that they simple devolve back to the formal legal structure (IE: back to a democratic-ish republican government) simply because the connections, that make up the regime are to some extent personal, we see this to some extent in various monarchical european governments where power could often shift to a considerable extent within the broader framework of the government.

    1. I think the point is who has the final word on stuff. I have yet to dig into Karl Popper’s books, but his theory seems to define government not based on “who rules” (one – autocracy, few – oligarchy, many – democracy, no one – anarchism) but based on “who can depose the leader(s) without violence”. This criteria can lead to surprising conclusions. For example a country like Poland appears to have a democracy with political parties. In practice, “party discipline” is in wide use, meaning that party members either vote how they’re told or face consequences, like being thrown out. So that would imply that Poland is closer to an oligarchy of party leaders. He argues In a common democracy the public can’t vote a party out of the parliament. At best they can vote on another party, but a party that compromises itself “loses power” usually still remains in parliament and often in a ruling coalition.

      The wikipedia article on authoritarianism has a listing of constitution types commonly used in this type of government:
      – operating manual,
      – billboard,
      – blueprint,
      – window dressing

      1. ‘In practice, “party discipline” is in wide use, meaning that party members either vote how they’re told or face consequences, like being thrown out. So that would imply that Poland is closer to an oligarchy of party leaders.’

        You’ve also just described Canada-see Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, and Derek Sloan for the most high profile cases in the last 4 years. While I have reasons to despair over the state of democracy in my homeland, I don’t think any reasonable person would claim Canada is an “oligarchy of party leaders” for being a parliamentary democracy.

  21. Hi Bret. Reading your piece and the comments, one can’t help but feel (from the English side) the discussion is coloured by the message of the Founding Fathers: George III is a terrible tyrant, monarchs are tyrants.

    They aren’t (at least, not by definition). As far as I know no Greek monarchy began as a tyranny. The monarchies that survived into the classical age (Sparta, Macedonia) were primordial.

    The Athenians, a republic, needed an official to carry out the religious side of kingship. They named their years after these officials, called archons.

    The Roman Empire was, maybe, a series of military dictatorships with hereditary tendencies. The succession was at times regularised either by the Senate or by assemblies of the Army itself; the latter for example on 20 November 284 when Diocletian was acclaimed as Emperor.

    Monarchies typically operate with a “royal house”; that is, a group of people with a common ancestry, who are by no means the people as a whole, but who have an accepted role of leadership of that people. The word “king” in one etymology is “cyning”; that is, one descended from the royal house or “kin”. It is a kind of honorific surname, as we hear with Tolkien’s Theoden being addressed as “Theoden King”.

    It is an utterly un-republican idea. In England we have the dignified procession of the Houses of Normandy, Plantagenet, Lancaster and York, Tudor, Stuart, Hanover, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Edward the Seventh) and Windsor. The Greeks were on board with this idea, e.g. the Spartan co-kings drawn from the Agiads and Eurypontids.

    Adams I, Adams II; the Harrisons, the Roosevelts, the Bushes and (potentially for a long time) the Kennedys. It kinda happens in republics (same with India and Pakistan). The hereditary intention was fairly plain with the Trumps but they fluffed it or (my guess) never had a chance.

    1. The hereditary intention was fairly plain with the Trumps but they fluffed it or (my guess) never had a chance.

      Here’s a similar if perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek proposal from the “liberal” side of the aisle.

      All jokes aside, part of what you’re getting at here is one of the baseline realities of modern neoliberal capitalism: given the ever-more-threadbare state of egalitarian social institutions like welfare safety nets and quality affordable higher education, wealth and prestige are increasingly heritable and ruling elites increasingly tend to concentrate into incestuous quasi-aristocratic clans, handing sinecures and cushy make-work jobs to their own and each other’s children (hence the extent to which the career trajectories of figures like Hunter Biden, Chelsea Clinton, Meghan McCain, etc seem barely distinguishable from what one might expect from one of the Trump spawn) and only deigning to admit an ever-more-minuscule trickle of “worthy” commoners into the fold.

  22. Hunter Biden and Chelsea Clinton didn’t wind up working directly for the ruling elite and show no real signs of going into politics. Biden toodles around doing business deals; Clinton toodles around in a position of prominence in a sizeable but by no means uniquely powerful NGO. McCain is a columnist and media talking head.

    None of these people seem uniquely singled out to hold power within the state, as compared to numerous rivals who aren’t directly descended from anyone nearly as conspicuous or important.

  23. Speaking of the Fremen Mirage, I’ve been wondering if there could … possibly be any other name or example for it … I mean, I barely remember Dune, and if you wanted to teach this to a younger generation who hadn’t read it at all, how would you do it?

  24. That title image is terrifying (or in other words, awesome) as fuck lol. Like a tyrant that’s commanding “Kill Them All!” while in the comfort of the palace and his harem. I’m almost sure you already intend it like that.

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