The Augustan Putin Pt. 1 – The Rise of the Leviathans

The Past in the Present
7 min readMar 23, 2022
© kalininskiy Adobe Photoshop

‘The attaining to this Soveraigne Power, is by two wayes. One, by Naturall force; as when a man maketh his children… The other, is when men agree amongst themselves, to submit to some Man, or Assembly of men, voluntarily, on confidence to be protected by him against all others.’

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

‘He looketh at all high things; he is king over all the proud beasts.’

Job 42:26

When Leviathan Falls

In 1641, England was a kingdom, not a country. Its existence was defined by its rulership. The king was order and law. He was the ultimate authority, and although advised by the Commons, was appointed by God.

In 1642, all hell broke loose.

By 1651, the world had been turned upside down. A king had been executed for treason. Almost 200,000 Britons lay dead, half felled by their countrymen, half struck down by plague. More contagious even than disease, ideas that had been inconceivable just years before, had been incubated, mutated and transmitted right across the country. It almost seemed like radicalism had become endemic.

Seekers and Ranters, Levellers and Diggers, Quakers and Masterless Men called for revolution beyond even the death of a monarch. Driven by the fire of fanaticism, some declared that God lived only in them, not in Churches and some retorted that He did not exist at all. Some called for total equality for all men, others for sexual union for any who may want it.

Britain was, to quote a contemporary, ‘The Island of Great Bedlam,’ where the only choice was to ‘all be mad together.’ In 1641, England was a kingdom. 10 years later, it was an Asylum.

Thomas Hobbes, a polymathic English educator, watched on from France in horror. He had watched his homeland’s collapse into madness, and decided it had all been brought one by nothing more simple than choice – Parliament or the Palace? He published his magnum opus, Leviathan, in 1651, and in it he attempted to solve the problem, by removing the choice. For Hobbes, a state needed peace, and in order to get peace, it needed a figure so powerful, so terrifying, that peace is the only option. Inspired by Job, he named it, the Leviathan. When there is dispute, the Leviathan decides on what is right, and when everyone agrees, there is peace.

This does not, however, mean dictatorship. He is clear that this is not imposed, it is chosen, and it is chosen, because the alternative is war, and not just war, but constant war, the war of all against all. We may try to live without the Leviathan, we may try to band together harmoniously, to live together in peace, but inevitably there will be a disagreement about what peace means. Can we trust the neighbouring group? Should we move away from them, ask them to join us or ask them to leave? How do we make this choice? Does everyone get a say, or just some of us? These disagreements will lead to a choice, and you only had to look over the Channel to see where that road leads.

Hobbes was also clear that the Leviathan did not have to be one person, that it could also be an ‘Assembly of men.’ They can be appointed, appointed even by a democratic mandate, but the point is that they decide what peace is, and once they have decided, everyone else has to agree. Almost 400 years later in 1919, Max Weber, looking back over his own apocalyptic war, summed this idea up perfectly. He defined a nation-state as the organisation that,

“successfully upholds a claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.”

The word legitimate there, is key. The Parliamentarians decided that the claim to the monopoly of violence lay with them, not with the King. His claim was illegitimate, and therefore had to be crushed.

The police, the law-courts, the army – all operate as the embodiment of the modern state’s monopoly of legitimate violence. The laws define the peace, and they are created by law-makers. You are untouchable, free and at liberty, until you break one. At this point, the state can use violence against you to enforce its order, its version of peace. Laws may restrain the violence it can use, but this is simply one arm of the Leviathan restraining the other.

This concept is key to understanding the ascents of two men separated by two millennia, but united by common characteristics. Dictators, too fearful to ever use the label. Strongmen, who claimed to bring peace. The wealthiest men on Earth, who claimed to be humble public servants. Gaius Caesar Augustus and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, strode over the bones of the old orders to bring peace to their nations. Cloaking themselves in the legitimacy of failed republics, they hid their power, and their people wilfully ignored it, because they had seen the alternatives. Bedlam, or Leviathan.

The Fall of the Republics

Republics tend to fall in two ways, gradually, then suddenly. In both late 20th Century Russia, and late 1st Century BC Rome, older, established authorities had slowly decayed. Once they fell, there was chaos. Out of the chaos rose a short-lived, rickety peace which soon, again, collapsed. Finally, the dictators emerged, and brought order with them, once and for all.

In Rome, the Leviathan had, for centuries, been the Senate. An assembly of aristocrats, replenished occasionally by exceptionally talented middle-class professionals, the Senate, at least in theory, drew its authority from the votes of the people. The senators themselves were not voted in - they were appointed by consuls. The consuls, however, the two leading magistrates of the Senate, were appointed to their position by popular vote, as was every position in the cursus honorum, the Roman hierarchy of public office. It is important to note, however, that most elections were swung not by policy-making, not even by canvassing or demagoguery, but simply by bribery, or at least, by powerful, oligarchic aristocrats mobilising their careful constructed networks of dependants.

This system existed for centuries, until disaster struck. Like so many historic disasters, it arrived onstage disguised as opportunity. The wealth of the East was famed, and waiting to be farmed, ruthlessly. After civil war between rival generals, Sulla and Marius, the power of Rome over its provinces had been fatally weakened, and now Asia Minor (Modern day Turkey and the Levant) erupted into open rebellion under a supremely talented dynast, Mithridates.

Meanwhile, as the wealth of the East flooded into the Roman sphere of influence, pirates sprung up in the ‘Roman Lake’ of the Mediterranean, and further troubles arose in Spain and North Africa. The Leviathan’s strength seemed to be waning, and into this gap strode a series of men, who between them carved up the empire and then fought to the death over its butchered remains – Pompey, Crassus and Caesar.

The exact course of events is far too great to go into too much depth here, so forgive any elisions or omissions. In short, these three men combined their wealth, legal powers, armies and influence, and found this combination to be greater in strength than the state. From 60–53 BC, this ‘Triumvirate’ went into the ring against the Leviathan, and left it on the canvas.

By taking sweeping military commands over Asia Minor, Spain and even the entire coastline of the Mediterranean, Pompey, conquered, ransacked and looted the provinces, becoming wealthier and more powerful than than any of the traditional elites. Soon, Caesar joined him, having repeated the trick in Gaul. When Crassus died, whilst failing to do the same to the Parthians, Pompey and Caesar went head to head.

To the Roman people, the next few years were ones of civil war and strife, which ended only with the last man standing in sole control – Caesar’s adopted son, an obscure man of no great pedigree. He had been called Octavianus, but was soon to be Augustus. To quote the great historian of the era, Ronald Syme

‘It was the end of a century of anarchy, culminating in twenty years of civil war and military tyranny. If despotism was the price, it was not too high.’

I quote the next part in full, only due to its uncanny nature. When reading this next extract, replace Rome with Russia, and be prepared for the cold thrill of historical symmetry making itself clear.

‘Liberty was gone, but only a minority in Rome had ever enjoyed it. The ruling classes, compensated by the solid benefits of peace and the apparent termination of the revolutionary age, were willing to acquiesce, if not actively share, in the shaping of the new government, which the empire demanded to be imposed.’

Crumbling empires and a century of revolution demanded the emergence of a Leviathan. In Russia, the leviathan had always been an imposing figure – the tsars and tsarinas, the Party, the Dictators. With the fall of the USSR, a vacuum emerged, and during this chaos of the limbs of the Leviathan were picked off and carried away, by the vultures of ‘capitalism.’ Revolution was followed counter-revolution, and aborted military coups were followed by a successful hidden one. The oligarchs and the state security apparatus, desperate for control, decided to find a puppet. The billionaires, the politicians and the securo-crats soon found one— an obscure man of no great pedigree. Like Gulliver and lilliputians, however, they soon found that there were no strings that could hold the Leviathan down.

In Part 2, I will examine the rise of Putin more closely. We will consider how Augustus and Putin, inheritors of failed republics, used the carcass of the old, representative order to shield their true, autocratic power. Less the emperor’s new clothes, more the new emperor’s old disguise. We will see how they use patriotism to mask their radical reshaping of shaping of society, with the familiarity of tradition. More than anything, however, we will come to understand how, as the bringers of peace in the wake of war, they were able to claim dominion over their new subjects.

The Leviathan’s dominion, after all, works in two ways – they keep the wolves at bay, unless you join their fold.

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The Past in the Present

Using the past to illuminate the present. Written by a UK based educator with a Masters in Ancient History and History and too little spare time.