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Past present: When power corrupts

March 31, 2013

History becomes quite horrific when it tells stories of rulers and dictators who had absolute power and were above the law. When power is inherited or usurped, the result is unchallenged authority which knows no limits and creates havoc against the weak.

Power can change the character of an individual — giving a sense of superiority — nothing less than a demigod.

Considering himself in an exalted position, this individual has no respect for ordinary human beings and easily mistreats, tortures, and even executes them. Any criticism or opposition to his acts are out of question. He becomes the wisest and the most knowledgeable of all and people around him resort to flattery to please him.

In the past there were mainly two types of rulers. Those who cared for their subjects and provided them security and prosperity and expected gratefulness in return. The second type were rulers who terrified their subjects and treated them with contempt. With no authority above them, their acts remained unchallenged.

Assyrian national history preserved in inscriptions and pictures consists almost solely of gory and bloodcurdling depictions, military campaigns and battles. The motive behind these paintings was to create fear among the subjects.

In their sense of superiority, some rulers became rather neurotic. According to some history books, when the Persian king Cambyses (600 to 559 BC) wanted to marry his two sisters, he sought legal advice from his courtiers who told him that it was illegal and incestuous but being a king, he was above the law.

Cambyses once took up his bow to shoot at Croesus, his friend; but Croesus escaped. When Cambyses found out that he had not kill ed Croesus with his bow, he ordered his servants to put him to death. The servants knew their master’s temperament better and thought it best to hide Croesus instead. When Cambyses asked for him later, the servants told him that Croesus was still alive.

“I am glad”, he said, “that Croesus lives, but as for you who saved him, you shall be put to death”.

When Alexander conquered Iran, he was impressed by Persian court etiquette and ordered that he should not be approached by Macedonians with mere salutation, but with adoration. Those who refused to obey were put to death on the pretence that they were engaged in a conspiracy.

Tiberus was known for hedonism, decadence and cruelty. Caligula liked to watch people be tortured and executed, and murdered his brother along with countless others. He lasted only four years in power before he was assassinated. Nero's rule is often associated with tyranny and extravagance. He is infamously known as the emperor who “fiddled while Rome burned”. Nero committed suicide and it is said that his last words were, “What an artist is now about to perish.”

The history of the subcontinent also has many examples of rulers who misused their power. Ziauddin Barani in Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi writes that Mohammad Tughlaq rewarded his courtiers when in a good mood but when he lost his temper, he would order a person to be killed even for the slightest misdemeanor. Ibn Battuta, who visited during Tughlaq’s reign observed that executioners stood in front of his palace, ready to behead offenders as soon as they received orders from the sultan.

For the Mongols, it was customary to celebrate victory after a battle, by building a pillar out of skulls of enemies. Babur, the first Mughal emporer also built a skull pillar after the battle of Panipat in 1526. However, his successors abandoned the practice.

In England, absolute monarchy was reduced by the parliament. The French Revolution ended the monarchy after executing the king. In Europe, after the revolution of 1848, constitutional monarchies were introduced which limited powers of the rulers.

In India, the power of the Mughals was first thwarted by the Marathas and finally ended by the East India Company in 1857. In the modern period, the process of democratisation of society has played an important role to end absolute and totalitarian power of rulers.