The Lost World of Michael Bywater: Friends, Romans, countrymen...

Blame Sulla. Beaky nose, sneaky look in the eye, weak chin, bit of a Herbert you'd have thought, to look at him on a coin. None of us look our best on a coin, it's true, but if your daughter had brought him home you'd have not been pleased.

Old family, but that was it. Poor as temple mice, my dears. But not for long. Where he got the money from, nobody knows. Talk of inheritances. Distant cousins. Does anyone believe in distant cousins? Distant cousins means no good, undeclared income, unmarked notes, underneath the arches, no questions asked.

But he got it. Gathered together a fat enough wad to turn himself into a Senator. By 109BC he was quaestor to Gaius Marius, who was running the war against the Numidians. Good going. Not unlike Mark Thatcher turning up as a field marshal, except less, let's be frank, common.

Here's a bit of Latin: dictator rei gerendae causa. Means "dictator during the matter in hand". Being dictator overrode the major principle of collegiality in the Republic of Rome: you didn't have one man in charge of anything. For extraordinary reasons, though, or in extraordinary times, you might suspend that principle for up to six months, or for however long the war lasted, whichever was the shorter.

Whichever was the shorter.

And the Roman Republic didn't even particularly like that. After the Second Punic War, they outlawed the office of dictator altogether, instead granting extraordinary powers to the two current consuls. Checks and balances. Good thinking.

But here comes Sulla, fallen out with Gaius Marius and marching on Rome. Gets himself appointed to a new dictatorship, one he invented for himself: rei publicae constituendae causa - "for the reconstituting of the republic". Same thing, but no time limit. Times of perpetual emergency, do you see? Can't tell when Johnny Enemy may strike, or where, or whence. Johnny Enemy may be within or without. May be moving among us as we speak. May be sneaking across the borders. Action needs to be taken. Normal procedures suspended. Things back to normal as soon as threat dies down. Can't tell when that will be. The innocent have nothing to fear. National security. Intelligence. Briefings. No weapons of mass destruction, but if there had been, Johnny Enemy would have had them. Powers, you see. That's the answer: special powers. First it's rei gerendae, then it's rei publicae constituendae, and, fiddle how you like, powers, once invented, are seldom willingly resigned.

You'll not want to be insulted with the old saw about the lessons of history, but this is an old one and perhaps needs dusting off. There was a direct line - albeit with a couple of retreats, not least Mark Anthony's lex Antonia which lay (how ironically) between Julius Caesar and the Augustus - from Sulla to the raft of emperors which followed, one after another, until Rome both ex- and im-ploded, and hello to the Dark Age.

Special powers. And the thing about special powers is they cease to be special (times of war! constitutional crisis! the enemy at the gates! the enemy within! the Axis of Evil!) but remain as powers. The process, like some grim fractal of imperium, runs at every level. When did any government last repeal a law, except to replace it with further, more draconian ones? Each of them little laws, pissant laws, laws of no importance except (exceptional circumstances!) they are laws, and they simultaneously require and legitimize the extended application of power. And it's a short step from laws about no rare hamburgers and no fireworks to laws about identity cards and imprisonment without trial.

A few weeks ago I was, I think, a republican. But it was the great Roman Republic which fell prey to dictatorship. This week I was talking about it to some policemen and I realised that the police and armed forces' oath of loyalty to the monarch was a great guarantee, in the end, of freedom: that they will say "We do not have to do what the Government says because our oath is not to them."

Briefly, I felt relieved. Until one of the policemen said, "Yes; but it's moving. It's moving all the time. And you know where it's moving to? The Home Secretary." Times of danger. Invisible enemies. Special circumstances. Special powers. And why not? It's worked before. Blame Sulla. But watch your back.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?