In recorded human history, we have seen the wisest of rulers, leaders and visionaries who shaped our world for all of humanity. Prior to the common era (CE), the world saw Alexander the Great of Macedonia; his empire extended from Greece to India. At the start of the CE, we had Augustus Caesar who founded the Roman Empire which lasted 500 years.
Then there was Genghis Khan who founded the formidable Mongol Empire during the 12th century — stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The Ottoman Empire founded by Osman I was among the longest ruling dynasties in world history. This Islamic superpower continued unabated for over 600 years.
The onset of the 19th century saw leaders like Abraham Lincoln, the US president credited with abolishing slavery. Later in the 20th century, we had leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, who with their strong leadership, gave direction to humanity.
In history again, much as there were many a strong leader, we’ve also seen a fair share of misses. I can think of three such personalities who, in hindsight, make for interesting reading. However, they were, and possibly are, absolute lunatics. They created confusion, chaos and disorder – much to the contrary of what would otherwise have been expected of leaders.
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 37 -68 CE
Nero was the fifth Roman Emperor. His father died when he was a child. His mother Agrippina ruled through her son and she was a powerful Roman empress. Agrippina was ambitious and ruthless. She was the de facto ruler during her son’s reign of terror.
Agrippina eventually lost favor with Nero and was thus killed by him. The emperor was a poet and singer and would often sing with his lyre to his courtesans. Nero’s tutor Seneca became his advisor, and together with Sextus Burrus, provided competent governance for the first five years of Nero’s reign.
Seneca’s influence over Nero declined with time. He was forced to take his own life for his alleged role in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero. The emperor’s first marriage to Claudia Octavia was not a happy one. In due course, their marriage ended in a bitter divorce. He then went on to accuse her of adultery and ultimately, killed her.
Nero’s reign was marked by incessant trouble. Britain rose in conflict with Rome. In the east, Rome fought with Parthia and lost, and there was also rebellion in Judea. Towards the end, it became difficult to keep the kingdom from disintegrating.
Interestingly, popular history holds that Nero started the great fire of Rome in 64 CE so that he could rebuild the city centre. This account is possibly exaggerated but they say he played his lute while flames engulfed Rome. Following the blaze, Nero held the Christians accountable for the burning of Rome.
He took Christians as prisoners. The community was marginalised at the time for their religious ‘abomination,’ and Nero punished them cruelly by feeding them to the lions in the arena or by crucifying them. He wanted to construct a golden palace, which was a financial strain on the empire. In order to fund this project, Nero decided to levy unnecessary taxes.
The emperor’s support soon began to crumble. Many Roman governors declared their support for Governor Galba as their choice for emperor. The Praetorian Guard renounced their support for Nero and the now former emperor was declared an enemy of the people by the Senate.
Eventually, Nero committed suicide. His final words were said to be “what an artist dies in me!” Nero was buried in the family tomb of the Domitii on Pincian Hill. With no immediate successor, Rome fell into chaos.
The ‘city of seven hills’ was witness to its fair share of brutal rulers in its long and chequered history. Emperor Nero stands as one such tyrannical, eccentric and barbaric ruler, who did once find favour among his people.
Muhammad bin Tughlaq (1290 CE – 1351 CE)
Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq founded the Tughlaq dynasty and he succeeded by his son Muhammad bin Tughlaq. The young sultan had a keen interest in medicine and was also a gifted linguist. In an anomaly of sorts, he was also an eccentric ruler with a barbaric disposition.
The explorer, Ibn Battuta, has written several accounts of Tughlaq’s rule in his travelogue. When Battuta visited India, he learnt the sultan liked receiving gifts from visitors. In return, the sultan would reciprocate by handing out far more valuable gifts to establish his stature.
When Battuta presented him gifts, Muhammad bin Tughlaq responded with a welcome gift of 2,000 silver dinars, a furnished house and bestowed upon him the role of a judge. His annual salary was to be 5,000 silver dinars.
Battuta said during Delhi’s long famine, the sultan was busy suppressing rebellions. He was a tough ruler and would torture and punish both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Executions were commonplace in the palace vicinity. He even meted out harsh punishment to Sufi Muslims.
Moving of capital
Tughlaq made the decision to move his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad in the Deccan region. Daulatabad was also situated at a principal place so the administration of both the northern and the southern regions of the sultanate would be more effective – or so he thought. The public was not in favour of this decision. To appease them, he provided all facilities for those who would migrate to Daulatabad.
A broad road was constructed for convenience. Shade giving trees were planted on either sides of this road and there were halting stations at two-mile intervals. Provisions for food and water were also made available at these stations.
Not surprisingly, rebellion broke out in the Mabar (present day Madurai) area. While on his way to suppress the said rebellion, there was a bubonic plague outbreak at Bidar. Tughlaq himself took ill, and many of his soldiers succumbed to the illness. While he retreated to Daulatabad, Mabar and Dwarsamudra broke away from the Delhi Sultanate’s control. This was followed by a revolt in Bengal.
Fearing the sultanate’s northern borders were vulnerable to attacks, he decided to once again shift the capital back to Delhi.
Tughlaq experienced several failed expeditions and he died in 1351 on his way to Sindh. It was during his reign that the Delhi Sultanate collapsed. Major resistance came from the Rajputs of Mewar and also from the Vijaynagaris of South India.
Muhammad bin Tughlaq will always be known in history as one eccentric and cruel ruler who decided to move his entire capital, albeit in a failed attempt.
Donald John Trump (1946 CE to —)
The 45th US President Donald Trump needs no introduction. He is an affluent businessman and an eminent television personality. He was already a posterchild before making his entry into politics.
President Trump’s was a surprise win in the 2016 presidential election. He is the first US president with no prior military or government service experience. A widely held belief is that there was Russian involvement that aided his win, although Trump has time and again termed these allegations as baseless.
The former host of ‘The Apprentice’ is now on the verge of completing his four-year term in office. These past four years have been rife with controversy. The most outlandish project he proposed was to build a wall along the US-Mexico border to keep Mexican ‘aliens’ at bay.
Trump wants to deport every illegal immigrant back to their homeland. His comments are racially charged and he has been able to once again rouse racial divisions in a manner similar to what existed prior to the Civil Rights movement.
During his tenure, American cities have seen increased rioting and vandalism. In the last few months alone, there were widespread protests over the killing of two African American men by police. On many such issues, he is found to lack empathy and more often than not, his approach has been insensitive to put it mildly.
It is now well acknowledged that President Trump mismanaged the pandemic. This calamitous event has led to over 200,000 deaths – a figure that is still climbing. In end September 2020, he announced that he’d contracted the virus but fortunately, he made a quick recovery and was discharged from hospital only six days later.
President Trump is also averse to revealing his tax returns. He feels the media is not fair to him and calls most news ‘fake news’. He is ridiculed in talk shows, during award ceremonies and on prime-time television broadcasts. However, he has a loyal following and his ardent supporters are largely from the white supremacist demographic.
The world is also quite astounded to see the number of interns who are hired and swiftly fired by the Trump Office. His own niece initiated legal proceedings against him. The House of Representatives approved articles of impeachment against the president on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The Senate later acquitted Trump on all charges.
His foreign policy, meanwhile, has ebbed to its lowest levels — all the more so with the ongoing trade war with China. The US is currently in the run up to the presidential elections in November 2020. The first presidential debate between the incumbent and former Vice President Joe Biden was a widely watched event. It now remains to be seen if Americans will vote Trump for another term or relegate him to the annals of history.
The US is a liberal nation that has long endorsed ideals such as democracy. It is home to a global diaspora and some of the leading minds in almost every field have called it their home. Numerous scientists, actors, academics and thinkers are US nationals.
In this potpourri of diversity, Donald Trump stands a unique personality who came to occupy the Oval Office by a sheer stroke of luck.
The common threads
Across the ages, each of these personalities are unique. Much as they were known for widespread chaos and confusion marking their tenures, they were also men of great talent. Nero was a gifted composer of music. Tughlaq, meanwhile, was blessed with extraordinary linguistic skills and was benevolent with visitors for the most part. In fact, one western historian suggests that he was accommodating of other religions and that he took part in Hindu festivities.
Trump, if you think of it, is a smart businessman who really could have used his business acumen for ensuring prosperity for his countrymen.
Perhaps it is the ‘fault in their stars’ that ensured their ills got the better of them and they were unable to deliver on the old adage that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.