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Caligula and Ceausescu

Caligula and Ceausescu have more in common than pets in the military!

Every once in a while, a person with just the right personality comes along to prove that absolute power corrupts absolutely. For those who spent their ancient history class chewing on spitballs, or were eking out an existence under a really big rock during the fall of the Eastern Block, perhaps some explanation is in order.

Caligula was the nickname for Gaius Caesar Germanicus, who, for four brief years from AD 37-41, was possibly the Roman Empire's strangest Emperor. Nicolai Ceausescu was the nutcase dictator of Romania from 1965 till his violent overthrow and execution in 1989. You may recall the pictures of his dead body broadcast over the airwaves by a jubilant Romanian citizenry. While It's true that Romanians speak a very Latin-like language, Caligula and Ceausescu have more than a dead language in common. They were dangerously mad people with no limitations on their power. Our friend the Encyclopedia Britannica outlines some of Caligula's high points.

Early in 40 Caligula marched with an army into Gaul [France], whose inhabitants he plundered thoroughly. He marched his troops to the northern shoreline of Gaul as a prelude to the invasion of Britain but then ordered them to collect seashells there, which he called the spoils of the conquered ocean. Caligula pursued his pretensions to divinity further; in the summer of 40 he ordered his statue to be erected in the Temple at Jerusalem, but under the suave persuasion of Herod Agrippa, Caligula countermanded this potentially disastrous order. The Roman populace had by now grown weary of this mad and unpredictable tyrant...Caligula was murdered at the Palatine Games by Cassius Chaerea, tribune of the Praetorian guard, Cornelius Sabinus, and others. Caligula's wife Caesonia and his daughter were also put to death.

Stories that he elevated his favorite horse to the rank of Consul in the Senate are simply untrue, but give you an idea what people thought he was capable of.

Now let's get to the real meat. It seems criminal insanity learned some lessons from Caligula, because with Mr. Ceausescu, it didn't miss a beat, besting every one of the late Emperor's achievements. Excerpts below are from the superb Guinness Book of Historical Blunders by Geoffrey Regan.

On the count of mad-as-a-hatter: guilty.

In 1978 the 'hole that was not a hole' incident occurred. A new underground station was being constructed in Bucharest and a vast hole -- at least 12,000 cubic metres in extent -- had been excavated as an entrance to the station. However, one morning the civil engineer in charge of the project turned up for work only to find that his hole had disappeared. It had been there the night before when he went home at 7pm, [but now it its place] were trees and park benches on open park land. Thunderstruck, the engineer first doubted his sanity and then asked one of the dictator's aides what had happened. Apparently, Ceausescu had been planning to make a welcoming speech to new students at Bucharest's polytechnic... and wanted to use the park... So [he] ordered the hole to be removed until after his speech. All night hundreds of laborers [and machines]... worked at fever pitch to fill in the hole... Trees were uprooted from other parts of the city and grass taken from the rest of the park to cover the hold... The job was finished by 6am, thirty minutes before the engineer returned...

On the count of paranoid: guilty. Nicolai eventually became so paranoid that foreigners would poison his clothes or that he would catch a fatal disease from shaking hands, he started wearing only clothes that had been under surveillance in a specially constructed warehouseand even washed his hands with alcohol after shaking Queen Elizabeth's hand. He took his own bed sheets to Buckingham palace.

On the count of elevating an animal to a high rank: guilty. It turns out Ceausescu was popular in the West for being staunchly anti-Soviet, and was given many gifts by visiting (or visited) dignitaries. Perhaps most embarrassing was an honorary knighthood bestowed by the Queen of England, revoked only hours before his execution when the appalling nature of his regime became apparent. Among the other gifts was a black Labrador puppy from British Liberal Party leader David Steel. Ceausescu named the dog Corbu and became so enamored with the thing that Romanian citizens were soon calling it 'Comrade Corbu'. From Historical Blunders:

Unfortunately, Corbu became a part of the dictator's own fantasy world and soon the dog was to be seen being driven through Bucharest in a limousine, with its own motorcade... Corbu always slept with Ceausescu at night. During the day [it] slept in Villa 12A, complete with bed, luxury furnishings, television and telephone... The Romanian ambassador in London was under official orders to go to Sainsbury's [a supermarket] every week to buy British dog biscuits... which were then sent back... in the diplomatic bag. Corbu was soon given the rank of colonel in the Romanian Army.

All this in a country where owning a typewriter was illegal and punishable by death. Lest one think these stories are just good for a giggle in the afternoon, let us remind you that Ceausescu bested Caligula in one more category: his own violent overthrow. Why? Some reasons:

In a state where [banning typewriters is possible] it is not surprising to learn that suicide was the only form of self-expression permitted by the regime. When the old city of Bucharest was laid waste by the dictator in his construction of the Boulevard of Socialist Victory, many old people were thrown out of their houses and left to starve on the pavements. Their response was to kill themselves...

A 1966 campaign to increase the population by banning abortion, divorce and birth control (the latter to be physically verified monthly by gynecologists) went horribly wrong after a doubling of the birth rate was not accompanied by any basic medical improvements. Babies sickened and died for lack of medical care, food, and maternity beds. Desperate women braved machine guns to flee to Hungary, leaving a legacy of millions of hungry orphans, many of them seriously retarded through neglect. In the 1980's, the country succumbed to an AIDS epidemic of staggering proportions thanks to Ceausescu's refusal to admit the problem existed.

Thankfully, in December of 1989, his army deserted him to join anti-government protesters. He and his wife tried to flee by helicopter, but were captured, summarily tried and shot messily in the head. Their bleeding bodies were triumphantly shown on TV as proof that the nightmare was over.

Let's hope no one comes along to best Ceausescu the way he did Caligula.

Bibliography

  1. Geoffrey Regan. Guinness Book of Historical Blunders. Guinness, 1994. [Out of Print]
  2. anonymous. Caligula. (referenced online at http://www.eb.com) Encyclopedia Britannica, 1997.

 
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