Ancient and modern

When armies take over democracy dies

25 November 2017

9:00 AM

25 November 2017

9:00 AM

While the military is running Zimbabwe, there is no hope of anything resembling a functioning democracy replacing the tyrant Robert Mugabe after 37 years. But at least there is one small mercy — the army in Zimbabwe appears to be united.

The end for the Roman republic was in sight when wealthy individuals with powerful backing raised private armies to impose their will upon the state.

Sulla was the first person to attack Rome in this way in 87 bc and then make himself dictator in 83 bc. Once that precedent was set, it was open house for others to try.


It is an irony of history that one of the people who might have been ‘disappeared’ by Sulla’s thugs was Julius Caesar (Sulla warned at the time that he would be big trouble). It was, of course, Caesar who defeated Pompey in the next civil war of 49 bc and made himself dictator. The result was Caesar’s assassination in 44 bc, further civil war, and the emergence of Caesar’s heir Octavian as the first Roman emperor Augustus (27 bc).

One of the first things Augustus did to restore order was to professionalise the whole army under his own command and make soldiering a proper career. Problem solved? No. For what would happen when Augustus died? Would the army accept his successor?

Some northern legions briefly mutinied but were brought to heel. The warning signs were there. When the deranged Caligula was assassinated with no successor in sight and the senate dithering, his Praetorian Guard simply anointed Claudius. No one objected.

Worse was to follow. Nero committed suicide in ad 68, again with no successor. Generals commanding the Roman armies in the provinces saw their chance. In ad 69, a series of civil wars saw three emperors created and deposed in quick succession, leaving Vespasian to take the crown.

When the army is the power behind the throne, regime change will always throw up this problem. Perhaps Mugabe was refusing to quit because he hoped to split the army and plunge the country into civil war. Why not? He is a tyrant. Look at much of the rest of Africa.

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