BMCR 2019.08.19

Evil Lords: Theories and Representations of Tyranny from Antiquity to the Renaissance

, , Evil Lords: Theories and Representations of Tyranny from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xii, 245. ISBN 9780199394852. $74.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Evil Lords: Theories and Representations of Tyranny from Antiquity to the Renaissance is the excellent result of a conference entitled the ‘Second Day of the Bad King’ organised at Princeton University in March 2011 by Nikos Panou and Hester Schadee, the volume’s editors. This was a sequel to the earlier 2010 conference ‘Bad Kings’, also organised at Princeton University by Nino Luraghi (Ch.1). The present volume offers eleven chapters on aspects of ‘bad rule’ covering a wide geographic and chronological span, stretching from Archaic Greece and Late Republican Rome to the Medieval Carolingians and Renaissance-era Florence. In their “Introduction”, Hester Schadee and Nikos Panou set out their desire to “generate a better understanding of political discourse” (p.2) by: (1) advancing our knowledge of “conceptions and representations of bad or tyrannical rule”;
(2) explicating the idea of ‘badness’ and the subsequent creation of an ideology of the legitimate and ‘good ruler’; and
(3) offering a narrative of the ‘Western tradition’ of bad rule from its ancient roots to the Renaissance (p.3-4). While the volume would have benefited from a greater level of integration between chapters, the aims set out are certainly met, resulting in an impressive addition to anti-monarchic scholarship.

Beginning with Archaic Greek tyranny, Nino Luraghi (Ch.1) expertly covers the origins of the ‘bad king’, examining the formation of a thematic ‘toolkit’ that is used to describe any kind of sole ruler. These themes always focus on the persona of the ruler and present him as violent, sacrilegious, and excessive (among other negative critiques). The focus in the retrospective sources is always on the personal characteristics of the ruler rather than on tyranny as a political regime. Luraghi notes that this leads sources to inconsistent representation of the sole ruler e.g. tyrants are both sacrilegious deviants and pious temple-builders. He concludes with a brief discussion of the cross-cultural influence of the Greek discourse of tyranny, which sets the scene for the following chapters.

Jennie Grillo (Ch.2) provides an illuminating examination of the use of so-called ‘bad kingship’ imagery in the Hebrew Bible. She notes that this imagery is specifically related to concepts of foreignness, with the king either foreign in appearance or an actual foreign ruler. The standard orientalist stereotypes Luraghi established in the Greek sources are again in play in the examples of Solomon and the Persian court in the Book of Esther. What emerges in the sources is the prevalence of depictions of the ‘bad king’ over those of the ‘good king’, which are simply presented as the inversion of the ‘bad’. This highlights the necessity of ‘badness’ for our conception of positive sole rule.

Yelena Baraz (Ch.3) and Aloys Winterling (Ch.4) both examine aspects of kingship in Ancient Rome, looking at the late Republic and early Imperial periods respectively with varying degrees of success. Baraz notes the increasing use of kingship as an accusatory tool against all manner of political targets, specifically looking at criticism of Julius Caesar. The malleability of the criticism led to its increasing use as a rhetorical tool in the late Republic, where the virtues of Republicanism were created in direct opposition to the vices of monarchy. Winterling studies imperial madness in relation to Caligula, Nero, and Domitian. He comes to the rather simplistic conclusion that the three were not mad in a psychological sense, but simply presented as such in the sources due to the incompatibility of monarchy with the continuing power of the old Republican institutions and Roman nobility.

Helmut Reimitz (Ch.5) provides an interesting discussion of Merovingian kingship and its negative perception in Gregory of Tours’ Histories, the Fredegar Chronicle, and Einhard. The distinction between the Merovingian and Carolingian kings as the true heirs of Rome shows a clear continuation of the earlier dichotomy between Romans and foreigners. He demonstrates that their depiction in the sources largely arises from a tension in different understandings of Roman history – it was both useful as a form of legitimation but could also be portrayed as a form of primitive rule that belongs in the past. Chapter 5 also provides us with the first evidence of the effects of Christian writings on sole rule, where we see a shift to an emphasis on moral fibre, a theme that continues throughout the remaining chapters.

In Chapter 6 John Haldon and Nikos Panou convincingly examine the aforementioned Christian influence on sole rule in early Byzantium. They focus on the concept of divine legitimacy in Byzantine rule and how this could be used paradoxically to justify usurpation. By conceptualising insurrections in relation to divinity the authors deliver a clear understanding of anti-monarchic discourse at the time, specifically with regard to the use of the term tyrannos. They conclude that during the transition between the later Roman and the early Byzantine period there was a distinct shift in attitudes towards sole rule and divine legitimization. Ruler legitimization now focused on divine choice, so if a ruler were bad he could be deposed which, if successful, could be legitimated as divinely sanctioned.

Sumi Shimahara (Ch.7) and Cary J. Nederman (Ch.8) both look at the semantics of tyranny in the Middle Ages. Shimahara examines the term tyrannus in the Vulgate Bible and Carolingian texts to gain a better understanding of political thought in this time period. Arguing for a case-by-case examination of the texts, she notes that the term takes on a new hermeneutic approach where the conception of tyranny could be applied to any individual abusing power – be he a king, secular or ecclesiastical official, or even the devil. Nederman examines how the conception of the ‘tyrant’ changed following the translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics in the thirteenth century. Whereas previously the figure of the tyrant had been influenced by Christian texts, Nederman argues that a new approach developed following the translations of Aristotle’s texts into Latin. A combination of the two approaches, Christian and Aristotelian, could now be seen, beginning with the work of Thomas Aquinas. The change in methodology led to a “depersonalizing in government” (p.155) where attention shifted away from the moral characteristics of the ruler towards the benefits of the institution of sole rule itself.

Pavlína Rychterová (Ch.9) provides a rather brief and cursory examination of the historical presentation of Wenceslas IV from his reign in the 14 th century, through to the end of the 15 th century and its continued influence today. She argues that the negative portrayal of Wenceslas IV in the sources is reflective of a critical and ever- growing political environment. Rycheterová attributes this increasingly critical consensus to new forms of communication that meant royal representation could “no longer be controlled by a single group of interpreters” (p.171) and thus led to increased scrutiny of royal action.

Hester Schadee (Ch.10) successfully examines whether the heavy focus on morality present in Quattrocentro humanist texts meant that previous criteria associated with sole rule, such as concern for the common good, laws, people etc., were now abandoned. By looking at the works of two authors – Poggio Bracciolini and Giovanni Pontano, Schadee reveals a “disregard for constitutional difference” (p.178) in the sources, with Republican figures such as Caesar joining the list of tyrannical figures. The distinction between kings and tyrants recedes, with tyranny presented as a moral affliction that can affect any figure.

Gabriele Pedullà (Ch.11) concludes the volume with a discussion on Machiavelli’s conscious decision to omit the term tyrant from his work, The Prince. Machiavelli instead uses the term principe nuovo, or ‘new prince’. The chapter examines the subsequent furious reaction among Machiavelli’s contemporaries, who labelled him a teacher of tyrants and the anti-Christ among other insults. Pedullà notes, however, that among the hysterical criticisms Machiavelli faced were also some philosophical attacks centred on his failure to use the term ‘tyranny’. Since he did not draw a distinction between good and bad rulers, scholars, beginning with Agostino Nifo, felt that Machiavelli was suggesting all rulers could engage in reprehensible behaviour yet still be considered ‘good’. Pedullà concludes, however, that Machiavelli’s aim was not to erase the distinction between the prince and the tyrant. Indeed, in Chapter VIII of The Prince Machiavelli discusses the differences between ‘virtuous’ and ‘wicked’ princes. Instead, Pedullà concludes that Machiavelli sought to redraw the boundaries between the two types of ruler.

As these examples show, the range and type of contributions to this volume are wide and diverse. The aims set out in the Introduction are certainly met – however, one weakness is the lack of integration between the chapters themselves. Many of the chapters cover similar topics (sole rule and divinity, morality, mirror for princes, institutional vs. individual criticism etc.) yet fail to refer to each other’s work for support. Because of this the volume would have benefited greatly from a concluding chapter tying together all the themes established throughout the work. Small criticisms aside, however, Nikos Panou and Hester Schadee have produced an excellent volume that complements other recent works on monarchic and anti-monarchic discourse, chiefly those of Lynette Mitchell and Charles Melville,1 Nino Luraghi,2 and Henning Börm. 3 Given the broad chronological scope of the work, all chapters are accessible and relevant and form a cogent volume that advances current scholarship on antimonarchic discourse and should be essential reading for scholars of sole rule.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: Tyranny and Bad Rule in the Premodern West, Hester Schadee and Nikos Panou
1. The Discourse of Tyranny and the Greek Roots of the Bad King, Nino Luraghi
2. ‘A King Like the other Nations’: The Foreignness of Tyranny in the Hebrew Bible, Jennie Grillo
3. Discourse of Kingship in Late Republican Invective, Yelena Baraz
4. Imperial Madness in Ancient Rome, Aloys Winterling
5. Contradictory Stereotypes: ‘Barbarian’ and ‘Roman’ Rulers and the Shaping of Merovingian Kingship, Helmut Reimitz
6. Tyrannos basileus : Imperial Legitimacy and Usurpation in Early Byzantium, John Haldon and Nikos Panou
7. Evil Lords and the Devil: Tyrants and Tyranny in Carolingian Texts, Sumi Shimahara
8. There are No ‘Bad Kings’: Tyrannical Characters and Evil Counselors in Medieval Political Thought, Cary J. Nederman
9. A Crooked Mirror for Princes: Vernacular Reflections on Wenceslas IV ‘the Idle’, Pavlína Rychterová
10. ‘I Don’t Know Who You Call Tyrants’: Debating Evil Lords in Quattrocento Humanism, Hester Schadee
11. Machiavelli’s Prince and the Concept of Tyranny, Gabriele Pedullà


1. Mitchell, L.G. & Melville, C. (eds). 2013. Every Inch a King: Comparative studies on kings and kingship in the Ancient and Medieval worlds. Leiden: Brill.

2. Luraghi, N. 2013. The Splendors and Miseries of Ruling Alone. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH.

3. Börm, H. (ed.). 2015. Antimonarchic Discourse in Antiquity. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.