Monday, July 25, 2011

Absolute villainy

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." - John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton

The best villains are real life villains, imo. Some of the most fascinating figures are the most monstrous – people who clawed their way to power on the backs of others, who wrote their names in the pages of history with the blood of people they’d ended along the way. We tend to label these people "megalomaniacs", but the truth is, behind every great fortune is a great crime. Beneath every throne is a crypt.

One of the historical figures I find most interesting was a young lad by the name of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (they knew how to name their kids back then). Lucius was crowned ruler of the greatest empire the world had seen at the age of 14. He was surrounded by tutors who tried to imbue in him the idea of clement rule, and at first, he seemed to have actually tried to take his responsibilities seriously. But as he grew older, young Lucius gradually became aware that he could pretty much do whatever he wanted. Anything. Everything. Because let’s face it; when you’re the Emperor of the world, who in the world is going to stop you?

He poisoned his brother, and had his mother executed. He had members of a then-obscure religious sect thrown to dogs, crucified, and/or fed to lions for the amusement his people. While on vacation, as he received news that his capital was ablaze and thousands of his citizens were burning to death, he supposedly snatched up a lyre and started an impromptu musical number. And after he had built a new palace upon the gutted ruins, he was heard to remark “Good. At last I can begin to live like a human being.”

‘Lucius’ was the name he was born with, but of course, the world remembers the man as ‘Nero’.

Now, I’m sure Nero wasn’t born evil. The corrupting influence of power can make a villain of the noblest person with the best intentions. How many atrocities are committed today in the name of a “greater good”? How many crimes committed for the “security of the nation”, or “the good of the state”?

How many of us here, presented with the means to do literally whatever we wanted would remain as we are? How many of us could resist the lure of taking advantage of that power for personal gain, and starting down that slippery slope to fun places like matricide?

Given absolute power, how many of you think you would find yourselves referred to in history as “villains”?

Jay Kristoff is the author of STORMDANCER, a dystopian fantasy set in steampunk feudal Japan, out in Spring 2012 through St Martin's Press & Tor UK.

And yes, his villain is a young man born to imperial rule and corrupted by the effect of absolute power. Although he doesn't kill his mother, relax. :P


  1. I know *some* of Nero's story, but I didn't know he had his mother killed! Now that's a villain.

    I must admit, villains are not my strong suit in writing. I should read up on my Ancient Roman history and take a page from the rulers' stories, perhaps? There were some seedy characters back then.

  2. Yeah. He gave her a pleasure barge rigged to sink so she'd drown. When that failed, he sent assassins to murder her. When they rolled up in her house, she pointed to her womb and said "Strike here." (although accounts do vary)

    The Julian dynasty had some ripping villains amongst them, Nero and Caligula being the worst (and thus, the best)

  3. Wow, further proof actual villains are often worse than anything our imaginations can create. However, an updated version of Nero, perhaps egged-on by one too many Your Mom jokes could make for one helluva YA villain! ;P

  4. Speaking of Roman history, have you watched Spartacus? Let me tell you, I was DEVASTATED to hear Andy Whitfield had to depart the show! He was awesome. The show is awesome. And if you haven't watched, you should.

  5. Hooooooooly crap, yes. Spartacus: Blood and Sand is one of the most underrated programmes put out in recent years.

    Seriously, if you haven't watched it, do so now. It's a little bit cheesey, and the CGI/blood-porn/300 homage is a bit thick in parts, but damn, the STORY is 100 brill.

  6. Oh yeah, we watched the entire Blood and Sand series. Have you watched Gods of the Arena then? I thought there was a major improvement with the graphics, but of course, I missed the Spartacus character. I did like Gannicus tho!

  7. Gannicus comes back in the second series of Blood and Sand. No Andy Whitfield though, his cancer is back, so the Spartacus role got re-cast :(