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Power, Sex & Violence

August 9, 2023 by

History is determined by the will for power of individuals. Sex and violence are amongst the main tools of rulers to show and keep their power. That are the main messages of the new book of British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, an impressive as well as hugely entertaining colossos of 1,304 pages about the history of human civilization. Starting seven thousand years ago Sebag Montefiore tells lively stories about kings and emperors and their families, starting with Enheduanna, a princess of the Akkadian empire, ending with the likes of Putin, Xi and Trump. His angle on history demonstrates more influence of women than in common history books, sometimes hidden, sometimes in the open. Moreover, his book is laden with amusing or disturbing anecdotes of sex and violence, of which a few examples will follow later in this review.

Sebag’s world view is certainly not very rosy. Life is a mess, he writes. The seventy-year peace after WW II was exceptional. With the war in Ukraine, “normal disorder has been resumed”. He considers “the human ability to self-mutilate (…) almost limitless”. It “is matched only by our ingenious ability to recover”. Nuclear war on some scale is not just plausible but likely; weapons that are available tend to be used.

Those in power are driven by power, he writes. “The will for power is essential for keeping it.” That will for power is common. But “a vision what to do with it is rare”. The powerful covet power; when they have it, they do nearly everything to keep it and they are always afraid of losing it again. “Even at the zenith of their military power and righteous superiority, empires are haunted by anxieties about fading potency and imminent decline.” Leaders tend to believe in themselves; no one can do their job, or so they believe. “All leaders loathe their own mortality, and the idea that anyone is qualified to succeed them.”

In a messy world leaders need acumen, vision and resources, Sebag Montefiore says, but also a capability to improvise. “That is why the most successful leaders are visionaries, transcendent strategists but also improvisors, opportunists, creatures of bungle and luck. ‘Even the shrewdest of the shrewd’, admitted Bismarck ‘goes like a child into the night’.”

Although the author admits that “historians are bad prophets” he peeks into the future at the end of the book. In the next eighty years, the populations of Europe and east Asia will plummet, he writes, while that of Nigeria will quadruple to 800 million, making it the second biggest country after India. China will halve, “its power and economy possibly challenged by the drawbacks of its own autocracy”. Russia will shrink and its Muslims will form a majority. The US will remain much the same, “its ingenious power, however flawed and fragile, likely to endure longer than doomsayers predict”. The rulers of the African giants – Congo, Egypt and Nigeria – will be unable to feed or manage their peoples. “Borders, drawn by imperial powers, will blur into exsurgent warlands”, resulting in unseen migrations to the north.

The book is full of fun facts. Some examples:

  • Kublai Kahn ruled the largest empire that ever existed.
  • Columbus was a thin-skinned, narcissistic tyrant.
  • Bismarck, “Europe’s most brilliant manipulator”, had the real power in Germany. Wilhelm said: “It’s not easy to be kaiser under Bismarck”.
  • Leopold II of Belgium was embarassed by being king of small country. He tried to buy Crete, Cuba, Fiji, Sarawak, Philippines, Vietnam and parts of Texas and China, before taking personal possession of Congo with a private army.
  • Much of Bavaria was poor. Between 1881 and 1890, 1.4 million Germans immigrated to the USA, many of them Bavarians. One of them was Friedrich Drumpf, who later changed his name to Trump.
  • Charles de Gaulle was called Le Grand Asparagus.
  • Xi Jinping was rejected seven times when he applied to join the Communist Youth League, ten times when he applied to join the Party.
  • Yeltsin was an alcoholic and fell into wild depression, cutting his chest and stomach with scissors. ‘I looked inside. There was no one there.’

The book contains many examples of sex and violence. The Roman emperor Nero excelled in both. He wanted to marry his lover Poppea, but was still married to Claudia. His solution was to have Claudia accused of adultery; she was exiled, tied down and her veins opened; then her head was presented to Poppea as a marriage gift. But the marriage with Poppea also went sour. Nero probably killed her himself. Single again, he tried to marry another woman and got her killed when she refused. He then fell in love with a young eunuch and freed slave named Sporus who looked strangely like Poppea. Nero encouraged him to transition into Poppea – and married him.

In some eras it was common to eat the liver of opponents and craft necklaces of their ears. Or they were dismembered or flayed alive, with the genitals of men stuffed in their mouths. Some rulers were more creative, using the head of their victim as a doorknob. Khusrau, a shah in Persia, buried some of his opponents alive upside down with just their feet showing. He called this his human garden. Emperor Basil of Bulgaria blinded 99 out of every 100 of his 15,000 prisoners of war, with each unit led home by their solitary one-eyed guide. Genghis Kahn summarized it nicely: “The greatest pleasure for a man is to crush a rebel and defeat an enemy, destroy him, taking everything he possesses, seize his married women and make them weep, ride his fine beautiful horses and fornicate with his beautiful wives and daughters –  and possess them completely.”

Finally, some examples of sex. Sebag Montefiore describes papal gang bangs and scores of lovers and concubines. Genghis Kahn had sex with thousands of women, all over Asia. He is literally the father of Asia; millions of people are descended from a single ancestor, most likely it is him. The Roman emperor Caligula demanded the right to seduce the wives of his guests and rated them afterwards.

But don’t think that this only happened long ago. Mussolini believend that genius lies in the genitals and that his libido was an extension of his power. Both the American president John F. Kennedy and shah Mohammad Pahlavi of Iran were risk-taking womanizers and clients of the Parisian Madame Claude, who was the proprietor of Paris’s leading maison close. Her clients included film stars such as Marlon Brando, plutocrats such as the Rothschilds, Fiat magnate Agnelli and Aristotle Onasis. Kennedy on his visit requested a girl ‘like Jackie. But hot’. When female visitors of the White House were offered a tour of the residence, that “usually included a tour of JFK”.

Finally Donald Trump: he rang newspapers to tell them that the Donald was having affairs with supermodels and popstars. While having an affair with his future second wife, he quoted her praise of his sexual virtuosity to give the New York Post one of its most memorable headlines: ‘Best sex I’ve ever had’.

Simon Sebag Montefiore. The World. A Family History. 2022, Weidenfeld & Nicolson