There’s an old story I found that bears repeating. It regards the tyrant of Syracuse, Agathocles. While perhaps apocryphal, it lends insight into the mindset of the Greek chronicler, Diodorus Siculus, who wrote it down in his Bibliotheca Historica.
“The truest test of being a tyrant is seen in the treatment of prisoners condemned in Syracuse during those years. The punishments administered were entirely of the tyrant’s choosing, harsh or gentle regardless of the crime committed. So it is recorded that a murder who slew his own family was awarded a punishment of 5 drachmae for a fine, while a man who was late for an appointment was sent to the dungeons for the rest of his life. This caprice in action may be the product of a frenzied mind, but by all accounts which survive his other actions as leader display a soundness of mind.
How to reconcile this apparent disparity, the soundness of judgment in most affairs of state with the terrifying consequences impulsively laid down upon his subjects, is beyond the power of any reasonable mind.”
Such was the rationality of the Classical Age (Diodorus died in 30 BCE) compared to the brutalism of the earlier Greek civilizations. As John Berger points out, the Homeric world is still tied to nature, with horses and humans receiving the same praise and description in the throes of death. By the time of Agathocles humans had differentiated themselves from the animals – consider his contemporary Diogenes of Sinope’s similar infamy arising from acting like a dog. Hundreds years later Diodorus simply can’t figure out why the tyrant used terror tactics to keep his subjects in line.
Even Machiavelli found Agathocles to be unduly base and beyond the pale. For a fellow versed in power politics, who could excuse Cesar Borgia’s excess, this reflects the infamy of Agathocles well into the Renaissance. Machiavelli says it is better to be feared than loved, if you can’t be both. We can imagine the terrible fear Agathocles inspired in his subjects. Agathocles’ sadistic brilliance is in the very unpredictable nature of his action. If his cruel punishments were predictable his populace would grow to despise him, precisely what the Florentine would warn against two millennia later. Fear without being hated, that’s what the Syracusan achieved. To hate someone requires reflection, which terror doesn't allow for.
Modern readers are most likely unfamiliar with the Greek tyrant. That is inevitable. The names of Greek and Roman generals are no longer known to us as a matter of course. Einsteins and Gandhis have replaced former memorization of Diocletians and Cyniscas. But Agathocles is one case study that is beneficial for us to recall. Indeed, extraordinary infamy is worth studying quite carefully in any age. It shows us the state of reason in different times. Hitler’s horrors are of a very different type than Agathocles, or the Borgias. We have retained Caligula and Nero as the sine qua non of classical terror in power. But theirs, too, is of a different sort. Caligula’s madness is indisputable. Nero’s cruelty is more systematic, for example specifically targeting Christians. Since Agathocles’ tyranny is recorded in less popular works than the mainstream classics of Plutarch, Herodotus and others, the modern reader is bereaved of an important passage from the records of iniquity.
Why is this important? Why should infamy be so closely monitored? For it is a window upon our own age’s reason. Studying mental illness provides no such consistency. Those definitions have changed considerably over the centuries, and the records of the insane verge on as appalling as the treatment awarded them. So study the fears of the general population. The tyrants, the monsters, the reactions to Pol Pot and slavers and Las Casas’ description of the destruction of the Indies: what horrifies us as a rule is more informative than the horrors of one deluded by merest reality. The calculated randomness of Agathocles was novel. This alone speaks volumes not of barbarism, but of reason in his age. We must be sure to keep such records of our own villains, and endeavor to pass them to the future, that they may not be as forgotten as Agathocles, and may serve as a litmus test for future generations of their own understanding and reason.