The perils of absolute power

A cat who thinks it’s a lion is still a cat

Courtesy Pixabay

A man, organization or regime bent on dominating others, by using technology or brute force, will soon become tyrannical. And will be hated by those whom it subjugates.

In 52 BC, Julius Caesar pursued his arch-enemy, Vercingetorix, to the town of Alesia, in Central Gaul.

Caesar immediately surrounded the town by constructing two ring-like walls around Alesia.

This siege had only one purpose — to wait it out till food and supplies within Alesia dwindled, and then Vercingetorix would be forced to surrender.

But Vercingetorix was one step ahead of Caesar, or so he thought.

Instead of surrendering when food ran low, Vercingetorix evicted the elderly, women, and children from the town.

He had hoped that Caesar would be merciful to civilians and allow them to pass, while he and his men could last a few more days holed up in Alesia.

But Vercingetorix was wrong.

Caesar refused to let the women and children pass through the Roman walls, forcing them to return to Alesia.

Shunned by both Romans and Gauls, these unfortunate people remained trapped between Caesar’s walls and the closed gates of their own town. They survived in misery for the next few days, and finally succumbed to their hunger and thirst.

This incident was but one among the many in the path of Caesar’s rising tyranny.

Eventually Vercingetorix, the leader of the allied Gauls, surrendered, and Caesar became the master of Gaul.

But now, Caesar’s heart hungered to secure the same measure of power over his own countrymen — the Romans.

How subtle must have been the shift in Caesar’s mindset — from subjugating Gaul to feeling entitled to becoming the first man in Rome?

He did not have to wait for long. Three years later, the opportunity presented itself.

In 49 BC, Caesar was ordered to disband his legions and return to Italy as a private citizen. This was a deliberate move by his enemies in the Senate to limit Caesar’s ever-increasing power.

However, even in this insult, Caesar saw an opportunity to vanquish his enemies back in Rome.

He entered Italy at the head of his loyal legion and plunged Rome into a prolonged and bloody civil war.

Leaning upon the same cunning and ruthlessness that had aided him in Gaul, Caesar set about destroying those Senators who had dared to oppose him.

Caesar’s megalomania forced him and his men into battle after battle, across the breadth of the Roman world.

Starting within Italy, the fighting led him to far flung reaches of the Mediterranean like Albania, Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, North Africa and Spain.

Four years later, Caesar finished destroying the last vestiges of resistance and became Dictator for life — a king in all but name.

But he did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Two years later, he was assassinated in the Roman Forum.

What led to his brutal end?

For decades, historians have debated the reasons behind Caesar’s assassination and the motives of his slayers. Most agree that it was Caesar’s unchecked ambition & desire to attain a god-like status, that led to his death.

This race to the top of the Republican machinery that Caesar had been running so frantically eventually became a race to the bottom.

Do you think Caesar had delusions of grandeur? Did he believe that just because he won his battles, he was right? And because he was right, he was therefore good?

History is proof that empires that have led the world with their might have always collapsed. The Roman empire, the British, Germany, Soviet Union are but a few examples of the decay that follows greatness.

Whether one leads a small team, or a large organization, or even a nation, one must stay vigilant against getting drunk on this (fleeting) absolute power — for history shows that tyrants end up stripped of the absolute power they so adore.

After all, a cat who thinks it’s a lion is still a cat!

It is time for us as individuals, institutions, organizations, corporations, and nations to dig deep into the motivations that drive our actions.

Are we really walking a path that will benefit our fellow man, or is our arrogance running amok, spiralling us toward a race to the bottom?

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Originally published on on Nov 29, 2016