Deprivations of property or liberty may proceed by guile or force, or by an admixture of the two. The trickery of a malicious sovereign must be matched, and exceeded, by the vigilance of his subjects; and no sentinel on the battlements of liberty can afford to relax his guard. Assurances of benign intentions carry no weight. What matters are the capabilities conferred by power, and the foreseeable consequences of the sovereign’s actions and policies.
The tyrant Phalaris ruled over the Sicilian city of Acragas from about 570 to 554 B.C. Acragas’s Latin name is Agrigentum. Many stories have come down to us of his ruthlessness and cruelty; we cannot be certain how many of these tales are exaggerations, but there is no doubt that he, like Dionysius of Syracuse, was a crafty and unscrupulous autocrat. The famous story of the bronze torture device called the “Bull of Phalaris” is an example of the mythical brutality which posterity has ascribed to him. It cannot be dismissed as mere fantasy. We will concern ourselves, however, with what can be corroborated by the ancient writers. According to the testimony of the military historian Polyaenus (Stratagems V.1), Phalaris came to power in Acragas through a mixture of deceit and violence. Deceit provided the opportunity to weaken the state, and violence the ability to finish it off.
The people of Acragas decided to build a temple to the deity Jupiter within the city’s citadel. The ground inside the citadel was found to be the firmest and most suitable for a building project of such magnitude. The citadel’s elevated location also made it favorable. Phalaris, as a man of importance in the city, agreed to direct the construction work. For a certain amount of money, he agreed to complete the temple; he assured the people that he would employ the best workmen, engineers, and craftsmen. He promised, in addition, that he would only use the best and most expensive materials. The Agrigentines paid Phalaris the money he asked for; and with these funds, he promised to complete the job.
Once Phalaris had the money for the building project, he proceeded. He bought quantities of iron, stone, and timber. He hired a number of strangers, some of which seemed to be paroled prisoners, and other individuals of clearly dubious character. The people saw these developments, and followed them with apprehension. But they were afraid to say anything in protest, for fear of appearing rude or offensive. In Acragas at that time, it was considered offensive to point out the obvious and call things by their true names, and to demand that certain standards be enforced. This, it turned out, was a fatal mistake.
As soon as Phalaris had laid the temple’s foundation, he pretended that a large amount of his construction materials had been stolen. Phalaris announced that he would give a substantial reward to whomever could identify the thieves who had stolen the city’s property. The people of Acragas were greatly angered by the alleged thefts, but Phalaris told them how he would be able to prevent such larcenies in the future. He asked the people to give him permission to build a large trench around the citadel, as a way to make it more secure. They considered this good advice, and let Phalaris do it.
When he had completed his “protective” trench, the appearance and nature of Acragas’s citadel had entirely changed: it now looked like a military position. Anyone occupying it would be extremely difficult to dislodge. But it was now too late for the Agrigentines. They had allowed a wolf into their fold, and would pay the price. It now only remained for violence to finish the work that subversion had started. During the city’s feast of Ceres, Phalaris armed his construction workers and ordered them to remove key figures of Acragas’s infrastructure: the priests, the municipal authorities, the tax collectors, and the militia. All of them were either slain, imprisoned, or driven into exile. And this was how Phalaris took power in Acragas.
But this was not the end of things. Once he had taken power, he still had to disarm the citizens; for there is nothing a tyrant fears more than an armed and vigilant citizenry. Knowing that the people were addicted to games and amusements, Phalaris promised to entertain the people with a huge athletic festival to be held outside the city’s walls. As soon as a large number of the people had left Acragas to attend the games, Phalaris ordered the city’s gates shut. His men stationed inside the city were ordered to search every house and remove every weapon found inside it. By this ruse were the Agrigentines disarmed, according to Polyaenus.
We will provide one final example of Phalaris’s devious trickery. He once went to war against the Sicanians, an ancient people of Sicily. He put one of their cities to siege, but was unable to take it; so he concluded a peace treaty with them. Now Phalaris had a large store of grain in his camp, and agreed to give it to the Sicanians as part of the peace treaty, on condition that they would give him an equal amount of grain after their harvest. The Sicanians agreed to these terms of peace. But Phalaris bribed the custodians of the granaries to undermine the roofs of these structures. In some places, small holes were bored their roofs, so that the grain was exposed to rain water. These holes were so small cleverly concealed that they could not be easily detected. And the Sicanians were rich and careless; they did not inspect the granaries as well as they should have. Phalaris took full advantage of their indolence, laziness, and stupidity.
In a short amount of time, the grain began to rot from exposure to moisture. But the Sicanians did not notice what was happening. When their harvest was over—and in accordance with the peace treaty they had signed with Phalaris—they delivered to him the agreed quantity of grain. Phalaris received the good grain from his unwitting opponents, while the Sicanians were forced to deal with the spoiled, ruined grain. They now faced the prospect of starvation. They had no choice but to surrender to Phalaris. Polyaenus says:
After having given up to him their subsistence, [they had] to surrender their liberties too.
In such ways do the careless and the frivolous fall under the domination of others. It cannot be otherwise. The only lasting sentinels are vigilance, readiness, preparedness, character, and virtue. Aristotle says, in his Politics (V.1308a):
And constitutions are kept secure not only through being at a distance from destroyers but sometimes also through being near them, for when they are afraid, the citizens keep a closer hold on the government. Hence those who take thought for the constitution must contrive causes of fear, in order that the citizens may keep guard and not relax their vigilance for the constitution like a watch in the night, and they must make the distant near. Again, they must also endeavor to guard against the quarrels and party struggles of the notables by means of legislation, and to keep out those who are outside the quarrel before they too have taken it over; since to discern a growing evil at the commencement is not any ordinary person’s work but needs a statesman.
The discernment of a festering evil, says Aristotle, requires not just an ordinary man, but a true statesman. Unfortunately, this is precisely what the current political scene lacks. To give just one out of many possible examples, I was recently shown the following graph, which displays the number of student visas given out by the United States from 1997 to 2017:
From 2009 to 2016, the number of student visas given out to China—a known hostile power dedicated to the destruction of the United States—exploded. These visas would have been handed out to China’s financial and educated elites, who will eagerly pay cash for an American education. Some may say that this is not important; but I believe otherwise. Why would the American government permit such a huge influx of students from a hostile power? How could they not know that the result of this policy would be the displacing of deserving American students, the dramatic increase of college costs to unaffordable levels for the American family and, most alarmingly, the certain rise in espionage, subversion, and industrial theft on a massive scale? The likely answer is that they did not care. As I see it, our government and the university system essentially colluded to undermine the national security for financial gain. Our leadership is responsible for this, which is only one among many such derelictions and betrayals.
The consequences of these leadership failures will eventually be paid. We do not have statesmen; we have impostors and frauds who mouth the words of duty and responsibility–if they acknowledge the existence of these concepts at all–while they auction off the nation’s security and patrimony for personal gain. “In every age,” says Edward Gibbon (Decline and Fall, Ch. XXIII), “the absence of genuine inspiration is supplied by the strong illusions of enthusiasm and the mimic arts of imposture.”
Read more about the lessons of leadership in the new translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders:
One thought on “Lose Your Subsistence, Surrender Your Liberties”
Taught in China for nine years. My kid’s first language in Chinese. Absolutely agree with the concerns expressed here about the untempered access Chinese have to our institutions and the weakness our governments show in protecting our people and national interests.
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