Silvio Berlusconi In Historical Perspective . . .

The scandals that buzz ever more insistently around Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are hardly the first that old Rome has ever seen. Julius Caesar, in addition to being a good deal more intelligent and better looking than his contemporary counterpart (although similarly challenged when it came to the amount of hair on his head), was also a far more charismatic lover—and unlike Berlusconi, who recently declared “It’s better to be passionate about pretty girls than gay,” Caesar happily bedded both men and women. Hordes of prostitutes flocked in their time to the imperial residence on the Palatine Hill, as many, perhaps, as have ever gathered chez Berlusconi for sing-alongs, gelati, and “bunga-bunga” (a word and orgiastic practice the prime minister allegedly learned from his good friend Muammar Qaddafi).

Furthermore, Berlusconi has never—as far as we know—dressed up as a female prostitute himself, as the third-century emperor Elagabalus liked to do. As the historian Dio Cassius reports, that young ruler, despite the five wives he acquired and shed during his brief reign,

would go to the taverns by night, wearing a wig, and there ply the trade of a female huckster. He frequented the notorious brothels, drove out the prostitutes, and played the prostitute himself. Finally, he set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as the harlots do, and shaking the curtain that hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by.

And if Berlusconi phoned the police station in Milan to negotiate for the release of a seventeen-year-old accused thief and sometime intimate acquaintance with the stage name “Ruby,” at least he didn’t make Ruby a cardinal, as Pope Julius III did with his own seventeen-year-old paramour, Innocenzo Ciocchi del Monte, in 1550.

Julius III died of natural causes in 1555, but Caesar and Elagabalus ended less happily: the former stabbed, of course, by a cabal of Senators in 44 B.C.E., and the latter slain in the year 222 at the tender age of 18 by the Praetorian Guard, the imperial security force. Senators, cardinals, and Praetorians are willing to put up with a good deal of eccentricity in a chief executive so long as they preserve their own privileges, but sometimes enough is enough even for them, and then they move swiftly and implacably.

Berlusconi’s senators and Praetorians are not quite at that point of exasperation— so far, the checks, favors, and tax exemptions have kept on coming—but they are getting closer . . .

Read Ingrid D. Rowland’s entire piece “Berlusconi: Will Someone Please Pull the Plug?” Berlusconi’s been a great friend to the STSOZ Quote Machine. In that sense he will be missed.