Ancient Rome and the Struggle with Tyranny

All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.
Edmund Burke

Sometimes, when I’m in the mood for summing up history in one sentence (which no one should ever try to do), I come out with wild, unsubstantiated statements like this: “History is the story of how tyrants constantly try to seize power and of how the rest of us, conversely, dream up ways of stopping them.”

Hmm, I realise that there are a few more nuances to history than that comment suggests, but the issue of tyranny is certainly a recurrent theme. Here is a summary of how you answered the first key question on this topic:

How do tyrants seize power in the first place?

Your answers:

• Tyrants intimidate the weak.

• They eliminate potential threats by silencing vocal people or sending them into exile, through mass imprisonments, by establishing a reign of terror and by controlling the press.

• Since they often make minuscule changes that seem minor at first and that many citizens barely notice or are too afraid to criticise, they gradually modify the rules to their own advantage.

• They promise what they cannot deliver in reality by convincing people that they can solve problems with simple solutions and empty words.

A List of Words for Describing the Characteristics and  Actions of Tyrants

Verbs: intimidate, threaten, instil fear, run fraudulent elections, accuse, force confessions, deport, massacre, brainwash, persecute, torture, banish, exile, assassinate, execute, imprison, oppress, suppress, subjugate, repress, murder, set up labour camps or death camps, abolish the rule of law, monopolise the press, conceal the truth…

Nouns: cruelty, threat, malice, fear, despotism, dictatorship, autocracy, corruption, ambition, military coup, coup d’état (takeover of the state), absolute power 

Adjectives: oppressive, power-hungry, ambitious, callous, heartless, malicious, self-serving, brutal, ruthless, merciless, inhumane, dictatorial, despotic, tyrannical, corrupt

Your Task

  • Choose one of the leaders or emperors below and write a short biography of his life and rule. Use only your own phrasing and avoid wholesale copying and pasting.
  • Then make a judgement: Which of his actions were tyrannical? To what extent would you describe him as a tyrant?
  • What evaluation would you make of him as a leader or ruler?
  • Was he fair and reasonable or cruel and ruthless – or somewhere in between?

Julius Caesar – last Leader of the Roman Republic

PBSBBC Website | History.com | Encyclopedia.com

Augustus – first Emperor

PBS | BBC Website | History.comEncylopedia.com 

Tiberius

PBS | BBC Website | Ancient History Encyclopedia

Caligula

PBS | BBC Website | Encyclopedia.com

Claudius  

PBS | BBC Website | History.comAncient History Encyclopedia

Nero

PBS | BBC Website | Ancient History Encyclopedia

An Infographic

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