The March of Scandal from Pericles to Petraeus





11-19-12

Barry Strauss is professor of history and classics at Cornell. His latest book is "Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar and the Genius of Leadership" (2012).


Credit: Wiki Commons/HNN staff.

General David Petraeus ended his term as the director of the CIA after it turned out that the world’s leading spymaster had cast discretion to the wind to have an extramarital affair. Nor was the other woman shy and retiring about sharing alleged state secrets (although it appears that no security was in fact breached). For what it’s worth, history offers Petraeus this consolation: he’s in good company.

There's nothing new about a powerful man being brought down by sex. It's as old as Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, or Helen and Paris. Just imagine what email between Caesar and Cleopatra would have looked like! What's new is that there are no secrets anymore. There’s no hope of confidentiality because everything is traceable. The stone trail became a paper trail and now a cyber trail -- and that’s impossible to lose.

Pericles of Athens (ca. 495-429 B.C.) was the leading politician of Greece’s Golden Age in the fifth century B.C. With his mistress, Aspasia, he made one of history’s first power couples. Aspasia was a brilliant and beautiful foreigner who attracted both intellectuals and criticism. She was -- or at least she was accused of being -- a courtesan.

When Athens clashed with Sparta in the conflict that became the long and bitter Peloponnesian War, the comic poets turned their fire on Aspasia. The cause of war, they said, wasn’t Athens’ rivalry with Sparta or Sparta’s alliance with Athens’ neighboring state, Megara. It was Aspasia and her business. The real quarrel was over some prostitutes.

Or so the comic poets claimed. They were the Drudge Report and Huffington Post of their day. Their charge was, in fact, absurd. Thankfully, there was no email to go viral. But Pericles was forced from office when things went badly in the war’s first year. One wonders how many of his disaffected supporters blamed Aspasia.

Or take Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.). While Brutus and Cassius were sharpening their daggers for the Ides of March, Caesar divided his time between his home downtown in Rome and his villa on an estate a mile downstream and across the Tiber River. Home meant his wife Calpurnia but gossip might have focused on the villa and its long-term guests, Cleopatra and her infant son. She was the queen of Egypt and twenty-five. She had named her son Caesarion -- “Little Caesar,” after her lover and his alleged father, Caesar. He was fifty-five, but who’s counting?

Cicero sneered, and so, no doubt, did many others. As far as we know, however, no Roman security officials read the lovers’ correspondence.

Cleopatra had a thing for men in uniform, especially when they were Roman and the most powerful man in the world. After Caesar’s death, she transferred her attentions to his former lieutenant, Mark Antony. Antony and Cleopatra ended up at war with Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian. He successfully branded Antony as a foreigner’s love slave, which generated devastating propaganda that Antony could never overcome. Antony and Cleopatra lost the war and committed suicide, while Octavian was on his way to becoming the emperor Augustus.

Augustus’s wife, Livia, was a power in her own right. She wielded influence and, some say, poison, in order to see to it that her son by her first marriage -- Tiberius -- ended up as Augustus’s successor. (She and Augustus had no birth children together.) Livia got her wish.

It was Livia’s grandson and Rome’s fourth emperor, Claudius (10 B.C. to 54 A.D.) who made the worst choices of the heart. His wife when he became emperor, Messalina, took up with a Roman noble who coveted the throne. Like General Petraeus, Messalina didn’t worry about government investigators. She threw caution to the winds and married her lover, but, as one of the wedding guests said, a storm was brewing. Claudius’s men found out the truth and the emperor had them both put to death.

Claudius then married his niece, Agrippina the Younger. After he adopted her son, Nero, Agrippina promptly began maneuvering to have him succeed to the throne in place of Britannicus, who was Claudius’s son by Messalina. Eventually, the ruthless Agrippina instigated Claudius’s murder by poison. Nero became emperor and Britannicus was murdered.

In retrospect, Claudius might have wished that Agrippina had been as indiscreet as Petraeus. If Gmail had been around and if she had used it, Claudius would have lived longer -- and the world would have been spared Nero’s term as emperor.

The list goes on and on, right up to the Kennedys, President Clinton, and now, General Petraeus. It’s true that the general is in good company, but that’s likely to be cold comfort now that he, like Pericles and Caesar before him, has learned that the love of a good woman is best enjoyed one woman at a time.


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