Tyrants can be found in human history back to the Bible and Nimrod. Aristotle provided an account of tyranny (fifth book of Politics). The entirely oppressive tyrant crushes and humiliates the subjects of his tyranny, so that they never acquire the strength or spirit to overthrow him.

The capture, sentencing and execution of Saddam Hussein has again brought the threat of classical and modern tyrants to the forefront. World War II was waged to bring down, among others, the Nazi tyranny. In this war the Allies did not hesitate to plan assassination of the German tyrant Adolf Hitler. The war in Iraq has removed a dangerous tyrant in the Middle East, a region where tyranny is dominant. Similar tyrannies exist for example in Syria and Iran. The deceased tyrant Yassir Arafat was a swindler and responsible for waging a terrorist war against Israel.

The aim of this short essay is to compare a few ancient and modern tyrants and argue for a consistent policy of the United States to support a policy of removal of modern tyrants from power. The difference between the removal of ancient and modern tyrants is that the latter are to be captured and sentenced by a national court set up by the new government in the respective countries after liberation.

Machiavelli and Xenophon

In the Discourses of Niccoló Machiavelli Xenophon is the classical author most referred to by the Renaissance Italian author. Xenophon is also referred to in The Prince. When Machiavelli set forth to write the Discourses he wanted to prepare for the rebirth of the spirit of antiquity as that spirit was portrayed in the First Decade of Livy’s History of Rome. Xenophon was of unique importance to Machiavelli. What is so special about Xenophon, this Athenian gentleman that after his military adventure in Persia spent most of his life as a writing country gentleman in the service of Sparta? It should be noted that Machiavelli too was a gentleman-writer living in his villa south of Florence.

Two books by Xenophon are mentioned approvingly by Machiavelli: The Education of Cyrus and Hiero, the latter being a dialogue between the Greek poet Simonides and the Syracusan tyrant Hiero. The first book is a dialogue between the Persian King Cyrus and his father, who is initiating him into politico-military morality. Central to this morality was force and fraud. These are indispensable not only for defeating foreign enemies, according to the father, but also overcoming resistance for establishing oneself as a ruler.

Three examples will be offered below of murderous tyrannies in Syracuse, Persia and Iraq to demonstrate that there is a marginal difference between ancient and modern measures of tyrants.


Machiavelli tells us in The Prince (Chapter VIII) about Agathocles that he was a killer of fellow-citizens, a betrayer of friends, treacherous, merciless and irreligious. Power may be gained by such actions, but not glory:

“Agathocles the Sicilian became king of Syracuse from a fortune [that was not only] private but lowly and abject. Born of a potter, this one always had an iniquitious life throughout his years: nonetheless, he accomplished his iniquities with such a virtue of spirit and of body that, having joined the militia, he rose through the ranks to praetor of Syracuse. Being established in which rank, and having decided to become prince and to keep with violence and without obligation to others what had been conceded him by agreement, and having an understanding concerning this design of his with Hamilcar the Carthagenian, who was operating with his armies in Sicily, one morning he convened the people and the senate of Syracuse, as if he had to deliberate things pertinent to the republic; and at a preordained nod he had all the senators and the richest of the people killed by his soldiers. Once they were killed, he occupied and held the principality of that city without any civil controversy…his ferocious cruelty and inhumanity, with infinite iniquities…do not consent that he be celebrated among the most excellent men.” (The Prince, translation and edition by Angelo M. Codevilla, 1997, pp.32-33, Of those who have come to princedom by crime).

Artaxerxes and Tissaphernes

One important book by Xenophon is not quoted by Machiavelli in his central works. The March Up-Country (Anabasis) is the true story of a remarkable adventure and of discipline. 10,000 Greek soldiers marched north along the River Tigris through great danger. They had been hired by Cyrus the Persian to take part in the overthrow of his brother, King Artaxerxes. The force started its march from the west coast of Asia Minor along the Euphrates to Babylon and then north to the southern coast of the Black Sea. Along this coast it finally returned back to the west coast of Asia Minor. For centuries the work of Xenophon has in the West been held to be perhaps the main proof of its military superiority.

In the words of Francis Bacon:

“This young scholar or philosopher [Xenophon], after all the captains were murdered in parley by treason conducted these ten thousand foot through the heart of all the King’s high countries from Babylon to Graaecia, in safety to the astonishment of the world and the encouragement of the Grecians, in time succeeding to making invasion on the Kings of Persia…”.

The Greek soldiers proved their courage and endurance, piety and humanity, independence and reasonableness during the march.

Xenophon in Anabasis is describing a similar mass murder to that which took place in Syracuse during the time of Agathocles. The Greek officers and soldiers were faced by Tissaphernes, a Persian satrap of Lydia and Ionia, and general of King Artaxerxes. The satrap was laying the trap for the Greeks. This event took place after King Artaxerxes had defeated Cyrus in the battle of Kunnaxa (around 30 miles from Baghdad) in the summer of 401 BC.

“When they reached Tissaphernes door, the generals were invited in – Proxenus the Boeotian, Menon the Thessalian, Agias the Arcadian, Clearchus the Laconian and Socrates the Achaean, while the captains waited at the doors. Not long afterward, at the same signal, those within were seized and those outside were cut down….The generals, then, after being thus seized, were taken to the king, and put to death by being beheaded.” (pp. 159 – 161, Xenophon, Anabasis Books I – VII, translated by Carleton L. Brownson, The Loeb Classical Library, 1980 edition).

Saddam Hussein

The tyrant Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who was captured by American soldiers in December of 2003, was responsible for mass murder during his more than 30 years in power. Between 1980 and 1988, during the war with Iran, there were at least 375,000 deaths. The Anfal Campaign in 1988 against the Kurds resulted in 100,000 deaths, including those gassed in Halabja. There were 100,000 Iraqi deaths during the invasion of Kuweit and the following Gulf War. Summary executions are believed by the National Association of Iraqi Human rights to have been 4,000 in 1984, 3,000 from 1993 to 1998, and then 2,500 until 1999. During the Anfal campaign 100,000 refugees fled while the number of refugees after the tyrant’s purges in southern Iraq in the beginning of the 1990s have been estimated at 500,000.

On July 19, 1979, the Iraqi tyrant followed in the footsteps of Agathocles and Tissaphernes of old. He invited all members of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council and several other Baathist Party leaders to a conference hall in Baghdad. During the meeting the video cameras were running. There had according to Saddam been a Syrian plot. The “traitors” were among the participants now, he stated. The names were read out. Sixty “traitors” were removed from the hall and later executed.

(To be continued).


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