Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Grasping Power

Today, Theresa May (UK Prime Minister) announced a snap election. This came after saying for some time she wouldn’t do this, and just two years after the last UK General Election (UK terms are usually four to five years).

Obviously, it’s a big gamble, and on 8 June we’ll see how it pans out. Of course, it’s not the first such gamble in history.

The classic would be Julius Caesar, standing with his army on one side of the Rubicon. He’d been ordered back to Rome, without his army. Caesar had understandable reservations. The unofficial triumvirate that had dominated Roman politics had fractured. He was one member, and another, Crassus, had been killed whilst on campaign in Parthia. Pompey, the third member, had been married to Caesar’s daughter, but she had died.

Caesar and Pompey found themselves on opposing sides of Roman politics. The two men, previously allies, were now to fight for control of Rome (still technically a republic). Caesar had a choice to make. Obey the summons of his city and probably be prosecuted, or march an army into Italy.

He crossed the Rubicon, crossing the river with a loyal army at his back. It was a decision from which there could be no turning back (the phrase is still sometimes used today, and could well apply to the Prime Minister’s decision). Ultimately, it paid off. Caesar won the war and briefly ruled what was in effect an empire, until his assassination a year or so after the civil war ended. His adopted son, taking the name Augustus, won his own civil war and became the first emperor, reigning for decades.

It was not the last civil war the Roman Empire would see. Julian, appointed as Caesar (junior emperor) by his cousin Constantius II (largely on the basis he was the only surviving male relative the emperor had) to govern Gaul and protect it from the rampaging Germanic tribes, set about his task with surprising confidence for a man plucked from obscure academia. Julian was so competent, in fact, that his soldiers proclaimed him emperor, which put him in a tight spot. He could either accept, and embark upon civil war against the man who had appointed him in the first place, or decline, and risk getting murdered by his own men.

Julian decided to accept.

The two sides geared up for war, and Julian scored perhaps the most perfect victory in a civil war in the history of mankind. Before the armies met, Constantius fell terminally ill. On his deathbed, he named his cousin as his successor. Not a drop of blood was shed, and Julian the Apostate became emperor.

Of course, snap decisions to achieve sovereign power don’t always work out well, and rarely as well as Julian’s bloodless triumph.

Sir Roger Mortimer had been a relatively close friend of Edward II. However, the latter’s capacity for alienating others, not least at the behest of Hugh Despenser, gradually led to Roger becoming disaffected and then rebelling outright. The Mortimer, as then known, was imprisoned and destined for death.

However, he managed to escape to France, where he formed a political (and personal) alliance with Edward II’s wife Isabella. The pair returned to England, successfully overthrowing Isabella’s husband. Edward II was imprisoned, and Roger Mortimer became ruler of England.

This left Edward, Isabella’s son by her husband, in a very precarious position. He was effectively under house arrest and too young to exercise, or even try to assert, his authority. The youth became a young king, Edward III, when his father was (probably) killed whilst in custody. His uncle was also executed.

Things looked rather bleak. Edward III was nearing adulthood, and Mortimer, who was gathering vast power and endless titles unto himself, seemed unlikely to suffer a rival. However, hope was not lost. A small group of friends, young and intrepid fellows, sought to free Edward. A secret passage was unlocked, and the rescuers made their way into Nottingham Castle, where Edward, Mortimer, and Isabella were all living. Edward III was freed, Mortimer captured, and a rather sombre conversation had between mother and son.

Sir Roger Mortimer appeared to have won. The old king was dead, Queen Isabella was his mistress, and the young king his prisoner, to be dispensed with once the time was right. Yet despite all these advantages, his rapacious greed had made the nobility fearful, and the loyalty of his friends saved Edward III.

Those seeking power should beware that in the getting of it they don’t plant the seeds of their own destruction.


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