The Strange Pull of Autocrats

When it comes to rising above, tyrants, rebels, and regime changes provide a thermal updraft. Power struggles swell the fortunes of revolutionaries and their cabinets. They challenge the status quo and loosen its grip. As a result, people who might otherwise die unknown better their standing.

The figureheads of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution(1917) and China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) benefited from this. Revolutionaries Mao Zedong (1893-1976) and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) came from provincial or impoverished origins and became two of the most powerful leaders in history.

Others with similarly poor prospects advance themselves by merely allying with the regime. They rise by the power of connections and proximity to the center. Two men in Augustus Caesar’s entourage, Agrippa and Horace, testify to this dynamic.

Taken together, these four men represent two distinct approaches to leveraging tyranny: one seeks the role itself; the other leans on it for its advancement.

Even aristocratic tyrants are helpful in this respect. For those who come from nothing, they can craft prestigious futures. Anti-establishment tyrants don’t feel beholden to the elite of their society, so they draw their talent from the less distinguished. When Emperor Augustus Caesar sought help to demolish the Roman Republic and re-constitute it as the Roman Principate (later the Roman Empire), he didn’t limit his search to the upper classes. That’s how he discovered Agrippa.

Example: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa

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Bust of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63-12 B.C.E.)

As I’ve written elsewhere, the Caesars Julius and Augustus were not lowborn like Mao or Stalin. They sprang from the Julii family, an ancient bloodline which claimed descent from the first hundred senators present at Rome’s founding. In terms of hierarchy, the Caesars were republican royalty.

Augustus’ right-hand man, on the other hand, was not. Historically, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was born in earshot of the future emperor

Their friendship started when they were both in their youth: we find Agrippa at Octavian’s side when the news of Caesar’s assassination reached him. The rest is history. . . . [Much] information about Agrippa’s life [prior to this] is lacking. . . . [We] do not know his exact birth date . . . nor where the Vipsanii came from.

Karl Galinsky, Introduction to the Life of an Emperor

Galinsky states that both Caesars selected for ability rather than nobility. In Agrippa’s case, that was certainly true. In war, he marshalled and trained Augustus’ troops. He won the day at Naulochus and Actium — battles that meant life or death for them both. In peacetime, he was the foreman of an architectural revolution which would define Rome for centuries. He flushed out the dilapidated sewers of the Cloaca Maxima and erected networks of baths and aqueducts. He constructed the Pantheon, which bears his name to this day.

In 37 B.C.E., a man of no note reached the highest office in the Roman Republic. Agrippa became consul.

The historian Suetonius wrote, “[The] empire . . . was so much improved under [Augustus’] administration that he boasted, not without reason, that he ‘found it of brick but left it of marble.'” While Augustus had the imagination and foresight to conceive of these necessities, though, he owed their reality to Agrippa.

The Spread of Power to Friends of Friends

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Bakalovich at Maecenas’ Reception – Painter: Stefan Bakalowicz (1857-1947)

Agrippa seized his titles by making himself useful to the new order. In colloquial terms, he entered politics at a time when no one cared about his resume.

He wasn’t the only one. During the planning stages of empire, people of uncommon descent approached the seat of power and returned enriched. Sometimes they didn’t even need Augustus’ approval. Sometimes they needed his friend Gaius Cilnius Maecenas.


As a well-off son of the knight caste, Maecenas himself did not benefit from Augustus in any remarkable way. Nevertheless, he was a pivotal part of a recruitment process and deserves some elaboration.

If Agrippa was Augustus’ right hand, Maecenas was the left. While the former organized Rome’s engineering and military challenges, the latter cultivated the arts. In fact, so great was Maecenas’ contribution in this respect that his name became a synonym for “patron.”

He was a highly capable diplomat, but he was more adept at scouting out talent for the court’s PR department. For instance, he found Virgil, the poet behind the Aeneid, Rome’s answer to Homer’s Iliad and a masterpiece of western literature. In it, he revised Rome’s founding and put Augustus at its center as a prophesied savior. Despite its naked attempt at flattery, it succeeds at being a piece of both landmark literature and masterful propaganda. Maecenas had an eye for spotting such people.

Horace, the Freedman’s Son

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Quintus Horatius Flaccus – Artist: Anton Von Werner (1843-1915)

Outside of Virgil, Maecenas’ greatest find was Quintus Horatius Flaccus, referred to casually as Horace. Virgil introduced Maecenas to Horace, who worked as a lowly scribe at the time. Charmed by Horace’s wit and lyric poetry, Maecenas awarded him financial backing, land, and access to the imperial rolodex.

Horace did not squander his investment. He performed as a sort of poet laureate, penning verse for nobles and publishing books with State backing. This culminated in knighthood, an election to the equestrian class. That class was second only to the patricians in Rome’s hierarchy.

This was a remarkable achievement in light of Horace’s background. Horace came from an even meaner, lower place than blue-collared Agrippa: slavery. The circumstances around his father’s time as a slave are somewhat murky, but the social conditions would not have been affected by them. Granted, the senior Horace eventually gained his freedom and freed Romans had legal rights, but the mere stink of it hampered any possibility of advancement. Freed men and women still carried tokens of enslavement. They sported brands, an example of which was the word fugitus (“runaway slave”), that they could never remove. Upon their freedom, they knitted together their freed name from the name of their master, but decency demanded that they include an “L” for libertus or liberta (“freedman” or “freedwoman”). That stigma extended to a freed person’s children. A family name like “Julius Caesar” opened doors. An “L” closed them.

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Virgil Reading the Aeneid – Painter: Jean-Baptiste Wicar (1762-1864)

Given that level of class policing within Rome, Augustus’ decision to bring Agrippa and Horace into the fold changed their lives. Once installed, they earned their keep, but the Republic put immovable limits on what an unknown, no matter how skilled or ambitious, could earn.

More broadly, the examples of Agrippa and Horace teach us how age affects the priorities of power. When they are young, governments select for ability, for people likely to give newer, weaker organizations their edge. As they age, they search instead for continuity and make more conservative choices. They petrify. Centuries later, Augustus’ own empire began to commit that mistake. It established its own dynasties and pushed its talent to the fringes. It overlooked its Agrippas and transformed them into resentful Boudiccas.

Breaking Power and Class by Becoming a Tyrant

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Photo of Joseph Stalin

Admittedly, using the revolutionary leaders as examples themselves seems odd. Since revolutions form around discontent with classist institutions and rigid power structures, remarking that professional class-breakers broke class seems like a waste of time. But this is not so. The French and American revolutions opted for lateral shifts in power (what Marx would term “bourgeoisie”) that shut out the working poor as effectively as any monarch. Revolutions aided ambitious personalities, but they didn’t do all the work for them by any means.


As deplorable as Stalin’s and Mao’s actions were, the morality of those actions does not pertain to our inquiry. Instead, measure the distance traveled and not the destination. No new insights lie in passing stale judgments on despots. Unless it is taken by the bloody vision of absolute authority, public sentiment about despots can be easily guessed. Tellingly, most despots don’t cop to despotism. They deny the charge whenever they can. Even tyrants don’t like tyrants.

Rest assured that my interests lie solely with studying reversals of fortune, not praising mass murderers.

Stalin’s Background

The testimonies about Stalin’s early life rarely agree. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) groomed the reputations of Lenin and Stalin in order to shore up their national identity. The constituent parts of the U.S.S.R. (Ukraine, for example) were bound primarily by ideology. The U.S.S.R. hoped that a strong mythology around its founders would create emotional bonds — the Framers of the United States Constitution fill a similar role for that North American union. As a result, the U.S.S.R. fostered, or at least tolerated, some outrageous legends. “Sensation seekers,” writes Oleg Khlevniuk in Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, “proclaimed [Joseph] to have been the illegitimate son of a prosperous merchant, a factory owner, a prince, and even Emperor Alexander III.”

The most reliable primary sources, however, place him in the home of Ekaterine Geladze, daughter of serfs, and Vissarion Jugashvili, a cobbler. Incidentally, Vissarion was also an alcoholic who abandoned his family before Joseph turned 13. This is not the stuff of power. At the very least, it is not the sort of place that produces leadership material.

The decisive factor, then, was the clergy. Seminaries proved to be a great route to success, furnishing young Russian boys with a deep education in language, mathematics, literature, and more. More importantly, it was the sort of institution that granted poorer children concessions for the sake of charity.

That literacy gifted him with access to discontented academics, those who objected to tsarists and shoddy conditions within the Russian Empire. That network of Marxists sowed the seeds of Bolshevism and the future Communist Party. The clergy gave Stalin the tools he needed.

Mao Zedong

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Mao Zedong – Photographer: Hou Bo

Stalin and Mao Zedong’s pre-revolutionary lives ran parallel in unexpected ways. Superficially, they both had abusive fathers, but that’s more salacious than salient. Caste and educational similarities, on the other hand, hold some significance. Like Stalin, Mao came from laborers, albeit financially successful ones. Like Stalin, Mao pursued literacy out of cultural tradition, not an academic one.

By the time of Mao’s birth, the bureaucracy of the Qing Empire was quickly crumbling in the face of Westernization and modernity. The Man Awakened from Dreams chronicles the decline well for those interested in detail, but the gist is simple. The Qing Empire had an extensive system for accounting and managing its government. Rural families still believed in the viability of that system as a profession despite its imminent demise.

Mao’s family was among them. He started primary school with the assumption he’d fall into an older tradition, similar to how Stalin pursued the priesthood. He didn’t care for his Confucian texts, but instead read fiction. Surprisingly, his political life didn’t start until 13, when he fled from an arranged marriage to a nearby province. He continued to attend school, but he branched out into student-led protests and replaced fiction with politics. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mao’s experience was apparently the rule, not the exception. Historian Peter Zarrow writes,

Where did China’s first Communists (sic) come from? Many came from a provincial China. . . . [Many] of its other members did not come from powerful families or have brilliant university careers. Rather, many came from areas somewhat outside the rapidly modernizing and Westernizing metropolitan areas (though not the truly remote parts of the countryside).

Peter Zarrow, China in War and Revolution (1895-1949)


Education gave Mao and Stalin access to the levers of metaphorical wrecking balls, the movements intent on reordering society. A lack of education would have cut them off from leadership, or at least it would have greatly limited their options. Furthermore, they were essentially the valedictorians of a graduating class: the social circles they joined were full of others like them. Russia’s priesthood and China’s bureaucracy acted as escape routes for the impoverished or ignored.

That dynamic challenges a recent phenomenon in first-world countries. For instance, the United States’ student debt crisis casts doubt on the return on investment (especially for the humanities). The jobs are in high demand, some (pop) analysts say, and the supply of graduates large. Generation Z, X, and Millennials sometimes accuse baby boomers of overselling the job security of colleges, universities, and graduate programs (#7 on this list is an example, but you can find the sentiment on Reddit and other dingy hubs of the Internet). While that negative animus may or may not be warranted, it’s important to comprehend the basis of that belief. Across many cultures and decades, academies guaranteed better prospects regardless of students’ backgrounds. The reasons are manifold — too many for this exercise.

Perhaps the conservative nature of that education shaped Mao and Stalin in particular. The Russian Orthodox Church of the 1900’s allied itself with the increasingly unpopular Romanov tsars. Stalin learned of their loyalty and doctrines first hand. Mao witnessed the decay of the Qing bureaucracy as he studied under it. Close proximity to decrepit dynasties might have taught them insights into what came after.


On the one hand, these four individuals illustrate some basic truths about bootstrapping and tyrants. Firstly, tyrants’ favor can be swift and crack open political blocs, thus creating holes big enough for peasants to slip through. Secondly, your class doesn’t prevent you from cracking those political blocs yourself. That silhouettes an interesting relationship between promotion and revolution.

On the other hand, they highlight some disturbing trends which may be on our own horizon. Such rapid overturns in power and status as the Bolshevik Revolution punctuated eras of social rigidity. In fact, that rigidity arguably created the possibility for those changes. Faced with dead ends and dried-up opportunities, the lower classes of China, Russia, and Rome threw their lot behind efforts to revolutionize. Social mobility may function as a barometer for a possible revolution. If that’s true, then the present trends mentioned above should be a cause for concern.

Political thought clings to the visions and goings-on of the capital, the center. In times of stability, that may be where our attention should lie. Yet when the center cannot hold, perhaps the real story lies in the town halls, the small elections, and the periphery. Our tyrants will come from there.