December 9, 2013

Bombastic leaders in the lead-up to civil war: Kadyrov of Chechnya and Commodus of Rome

While looking into the link between the popularity of bloodsports and societal instability, I spent some time reviewing the history of the gladiator spectacle in Ancient Rome. Its popularity rose and fell along with the trend for internal political instability, over several cycles of ups and downs, convincing me that there was something real to the idea. Going over those various cycles will take some time to write up, so I haven't done that yet.

But one figure who struck me as worth discussing now was the Emperor Commodus, who ruled from 180 until he was assassinated in 192 AD. Historians generally regard his rule as the first break with the long period of internal peace that had begun with Augustus in 27 BC and lasted through the reign of Marcus Aurelius. During Commodus' reign, in-fighting among the elite began to rear its ugly head again, and the Emperor's personal conduct only added to the strife. Before long, the Pax Romana would unravel, plunging the Empire into a protracted period of state breakdown known as the Crisis of the Third Century.

You may recall that Commodus' predecessor, Marcus Aurelius, was an important Stoic philosopher in his own right, aside from ruling as the last of the Five Great Emperors. In fact, he was also the father of Commodus. And yet look at how self-aggrandizing the son would become as Emperor, appearing in the guise of Hercules for his statue, with a smug rather than heroic look on his face:

The Roman Emperor as Cosplay Hercules

In addition to parading around as a demigod, he relished in starring in the gladiatorial spectacle himself (from Wikipedia):

In November 192, Commodus held Plebian Games, in which he shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning, and fought as a gladiator every afternoon, winning all the bouts. In December he announced his intention to inaugurate the year 193 as both consul and gladiator on 1 January. …

He thought of himself as the reincarnation of Hercules, frequently emulating the legendary hero's feats by appearing in the arena to fight a variety of wild animals. …

Commodus also had a passion for gladiatorial combat, which he took so far as to take to the arena himself, dressed as a gladiator. The Romans found Commodus's naked gladiatorial combats to be scandalous and disgraceful. …

In the arena, Commodus always won since his opponents always submitted to the emperor. … For each appearance in the arena, he charged the city of Rome a million sesterces, straining the Roman economy.

Commodus raised the ire of many military officials in Rome for his Hercules persona in the arena. Often, wounded soldiers and amputees would be placed in the arena for Commodus to slay with a sword. Commodus's eccentric behaviour would not stop there. Citizens of Rome missing their feet through accident or illness were taken to the arena, where they were tethered together for Commodus to club to death while pretending they were giants. ...

Commodus was also known for fighting exotic animals in the arena, often to the horror of the Roman people. According to Gibbon, Commodus once killed 100 lions in a single day. Later, he decapitated a running ostrich with a specially designed dart and afterwards carried the bleeding head of the dead bird and his sword over to the section where the Senators sat and gesticulated as though they were next. Dio notes that the targeted senators actually found this more ridiculous than frightening, and chewed on laurel leaves to conceal their laughter. On another occasion, Commodus killed three elephants on the floor of the arena by himself. Finally, Commodus killed a giraffe, which was considered to be a strange and helpless beast.

It's not only lavish displays of conspicuous consumption that signal the intensifying competition among elites in the lead-up to political instability (a la Peter Turchin's structural-demographic model). It's also bombastic conduct on a personal level. Everybody starts walking around like they're a gift from God -- and like they all own the place.

Even if you're one of the few who does make it to the top, nobody likes a poor winner, and it's no surprise that Commodus as well as many of his successors were assassinated by (or on behalf of) their rivals. It's one thing for the failed aspiring elites to slam into the wall of reality that they do not own the place, but it's another to have their failures lorded over them by the winner, like Commodus gesticulating to the Senators that they were next.

Human beings are not like gorillas, where the alpha male can block out the lesser males with relative impunity. We are closer to chimpanzees, where dissatisfied males may team up to displace the incumbent coalition. This makes for much more politicking and internal group vs. group conflict, and potentially high turnover in who's running the show.

What were the conditions that allowed a megalomaniac dictator like Commodus to come to power in the first place? Quite simply, it was the Pax Romana. With so little pressure coming from outside the Empire, and with the internal peace having become taken for granted, the elites figure that the worst is behind them, and they can start grasping for an extra rung higher on the status ladder. So it'll lead to a little jockeying for status -- what could go wrong? It's just injecting a little healthy competition into our overly pacified society. It's not like we're going to be at each other's throats...

And yet as this in-fighting of elites drags on and on, that's exactly where the society winds up -- mired in civil war. Internal warfare is not a freak accident or act of God coming from who knows where, all of a sudden, and as a fluke. It is the culmination of a slow gradual build-up of pressure within an elite that is becoming increasingly bloated and cut-throat.

American elites today, despite all their in-fighting, have not resorted to making a name for themselves in the UFC or on Survivor. Still, in their 1998 gubernatorial election, Minnesotans elected a former WWF wrestler, Jesse "The Body" Ventura. And not to be outdone by a bunch of midwestern Puritans, the experimentalists of California responded in 2003 by electing the Terminator / Mr. Olympia as their governor (and re-electing him in 2006).

More in the style of Commodus, though, is the current strongman leader of Chechnya within the Russian Federation, Ramzan Kadyrov. I can't improve on Steve Sailer's review of his bombastic leadership style. Have a further look for yourself at this tumblr page.

Representin' cat people everywhere

His rule has seen a surge in lavish spending by the local elites, including but not limited to Kadyrov's birthday party with Jean-Claude Van Damme hanging out next to him, and hosting a wedding on a giant floating party island in the middle of a river. He is also bringing luxurious hotels into the former region of simple living.

And of course all of this competition at the level of conspicuous consumption has been accompanied by targeting his rivals for status as Head Dude In Charge of Chechnya.

Again we ask ourselves, how in the world did somebody like this come to power? And just as before, we find that a period of external threat and outright warfare had prevented too much in-fighting among the Chechen elite. Namely, the Russification of the region after the Soviet Union had firmly established itself as a world power, and then the series of wars and other conflicts directed against rule-from-Moscow, as the Soviet Union began to weaken and ultimately collapse.

Here is a picture of Kadyrov and company from 1996, after his clan had fought on the separatist side in the First Chechen War against Russia. Notice how strikingly simple everyone is in dress and demeanor:

Extra actors from The Deer Hunter

After the Kadyrov clan switched sides to favor Russian rule in Chechnya, Moscow no longer posed a threat. Now in this period of receding warfare from outside, and with the new leadership still so early and fragile, the climate has shifted toward one of internal strife, spending contests, and bombastic conduct.

We may only expect this status jockeying, in the forms of luxury and violence both, to escalate in the coming years. It may not go on indefinitely -- if another separatist conflict erupts against Moscow, you can bet the Chechens will tone down their internecine politicking for awhile. The near future promises to be interesting indeed.


  1. Based on those descriptions Commodus was obviously mad, as in clinically insane.

  2. He sure doesn't seem normal, but why should his madness have taken the form of anti-social megalomania?

    If his father Marcus Aurelius had lost touch with reality, we would've expected melancholy and retirement.

  3. Quadaffi got bombastic right before Libya's civil war - wearing outlandish outfits, having a "bodyguard" composed of attractive women, and making over-the-top threats such as "I'll unleash millions of black Africans on Europe". And he wasn't always like that - compare his military garb in the 80s with the colorful robes he started wearing in the 2000s.

    Assad Jr., leader of Syria, started showing some inappropriate behavior in the buildup to Syria's civil war. This is from an article by Theodore Dalrymple:

    "At the same time, however, an apprehension that all is not well cannot be altogether avoided, however strong the forces of self-deception. So when I read that Assad had sent his wife the lyrics of a saccharine and sentimentally self-pitying country and western song, Blake Shelton’s God Gave Me You, I was not surprised: it rang entirely true to his psychology and his situation:

    I’ve been a walking heartache,

    I’ve made a mess of me,

    The person that I’ve been lately

    Ain’t who I wanna be.

    Another of his favourites, apparently, is We Can’t Go Wrong by the Cover Girls, a song with the following lines:

    There was a time when things were better than the way they are today,

    But we forgot the vows we made and love got lost along the way.


    Check out this video on YouTube.”

    “Hahahahahahaha, OMG!!! This is amazing!”

    This could be any two young members of the British middle classes communicating with one another by email. In fact, it is Bashar al-Assad and his wife. Shallowness is international, and if I may be permitted a Sam Goldwyn paradox, getting deeper."


  4. Good call on Qaddafi. Here's some pictures of him from the '60s and '70s:

    The elite's energies were directed outward toward colonial powers, the West in general, capitalism, and so on. Infighting would have been crippling.

    Here's a good picture of Qaddafi and Arafat in 1975:

    Drab military garb with NO fruit salad on the chest, no sash, no elaborate decorations on the hat. And he's smiling and laughing like a normal person, not squinting his eyes and looking down.

    Arafat never lost that drab self-effacing look because the Palestinians are still under the boot of Israel.

    Once Libya kicked out the colonial powers and were through with their skirmishes against America in the '80s, Qaddafi sought rapprochement with the West during the '90s -- incidentally when the attempted coups and assassinations begin to strike regularly.

    That's when his ostentatiousness took root -- his side had triumphed over the hostile Western powers, now it was time for him to triumph over his rivals within his homeland.

  5. I and my countrymen against our invaders.

    I and my clansmen against our countrymen.

  6. The HBD types should take note of that picture of Arafat from the '70s, where he looks like an extra in a Cheech and Chong movie -- that's exactly how he looked in the 2000s.

    They're quick to point to Qaddafi as "Just Arabs acting Arab," nothing surprising there. But he didn't look like that in the '70s or '80s. Only during the '90s.

    Arafat kept the same look and demeanor the whole way through, even though he was like Qaddafi in most other ways. Arab, secular nationalist leader, came to prominence in the '70s, was getting on in years by the '90s, and so on.

    But Qaddafi had no real outside pressures by then, while they were not just still with Arafat but intensifying -- the First and Second Intifadas against Israel.

    The Palestinians I've met have all been middle or upper class, since they were all in America. Yet they looked and acted the least Eurotrashy compared to other Arab elites, with the Gulf Arabs being the most decadent.

    Talk about over-production of elites vying for too few positions of power:

    "The [Saudi] family is estimated to be composed of 15,000 members, but the majority of the power and wealth is possessed by a group of only about 2,000."

    They used to be afraid of Iraq when Saddam Hussein was strong, but that's gone. Israel isn't hostile. The only regional player that might hold them together in common anxiety is Iran. Somehow I don't see them becoming as regionally intimidating as Saddam was, though, so I don't think that threat will glue the Saudi elites together too much.

    On the level of personal conduct, Saudis snicker and cackle a lot in groups, like they're part of a status-striving courtier society. Palestinians are more easy-going, self-effacing, and willing to open up. Their focus is not directed inward -- "How do I look?" -- but outward -- "How long do we sit here while the Jews keep building settlements on our land?"

    Edward Said didn't cultivate an status-conscious image like most celebrity academics do. Just your typical liberal arts professor's sport coat, or plain business suit. And his behavior was not self-aggrandizing, but all about how can We get ourselves angry enough to take on Them.

  7. And in the US during the Cold War, we had sober, serious men as presidents. Immediately after, we got Blowjob Bill and Cowboy George.

  8. Wow, talk about going the complete opposite direction from your old man. The Meditations are severe and border on the point of self-flagellation.

  9. "Immediately after, we got Blowjob Bill and Cowboy George."

    Bush launched major invasions of two countries. Not exactly bombastic (the proper defintion of which is someone who postures but lacks substance).

    Clinton didn't seem bombastic either, not in the definition that the blog author is using it. Nor is Obama.


  10. In the case of Bush, recall that leaders act bombastic only in peacetime, when a country lacks a unifying foe.


  11. Commodus sounds like he was born ~1600 or so years too soon.

    He really liked to 'win,' and couldn't tell the difference between pretend winning in a set-up where he could not lose, and actually winning at something real.

    He was playing a real-life video game!


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