So Russian politics’ challenge to James Bond was born 60 years ago on 7th October 1952. He lived for 37 under the Soviet regime and has not realised that state tyranny is tacky. But his redeeming feature is that his action-hero image is entertaining. All dictators should be required to work out, fly around with flocks of endangered birds, strip off, shoot things and scuba dive for classical Greek vases in the straits between Phanagoria (in the Russian
zone) and the Ukrainian Crimea (which no longer is).
Even the Kremlin admits the vases were planted. But that can’t erase the memory of Putin emerging from the Black Sea, taut-muscled and dripping (one in five Russian women say they want to marry him). He is one in a long line of tyrants who have enjoyed demonstrating their mastery over water. Emulating the heroic mythical swimming feats of Odysseus, Theseus and Turnus, Julius Caesar claimed to have swum the Nile delta, Mao Zedong the Yangtze in 1966, and Saddam Hussein the Tigris more recently.
|Saddam (or body-double) in Tigris|
But my point this week is this: for every megalomaniac who has made it to the top in world history, many more have failed. Putin shares his natal day with the nastiest Roman Emperor-who-never-was, the adoptive descendant of Julius Caesar, i.e. Drusus Julius Caesar (born 7th October, 13 BC). Putin even looks like him. The biological son of the Emperor Tiberius, Drusus was a notable bully.
|Drusus Julius Caesar|
He won admiration for bloodily putting down a rebellion in Hungary (according to Cassius Dio he ‘persuaded’ some rebels to hand over their comrades in a crude demonstration of divisa et impera). He was exceptionally violent (the sharpest swords were called ‘Drusian’ after him), insolent, ‘lewd’ and ‘licentious’: even his decadent father had to rebuke him for his outrageous conduct.
For kicks, Drusus organised lethal gladiatorial combats in which he forced members of the equestrian class to participate. He made a morbid hobby of coffin-bearing at funerals, beat so many people up that he was nicknamed Castor after the god of boxing, and was regularly so drunk that (like the loutish Etonians I was at university with) he set off fire alarms. He makes Nero look sane and humane.
This ancient tough guy was unsurprisingly known to be unkind to creative artists who annoyed him. If the members of ‘Pussy Riot’ are thinking of composing a punk-feminist version of Marilyn Monroe’s legendary ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ (which they would be good at and the world certainly needs), they should remember the fate of the hapless poet Gaius Lutorius Priscus. Having made excellent money out of a previous royal obituary, he began writing his panegyric for Drusus when the heir apparent was ill but still hadn’t actually died. Lutorius would have been grateful, I imagine, for a trial (however ‘kangaroo’ the court) and two years’ hard labour: instead he was summarily executed.
Putin should remember, as he requires his subjects to celebrate his birthday, that Drusus (poisoned at the age of 36 by his wife) has not been much praised by posterity.