Power grabs and dictators

A post from 2017 but updated for 2024

The Death of Caesar, Vincenzo Camuccini, 1798 (public domain)

Updated text: It’s 2024 and today is the ides of March in the Roman calendar. It’s the day the Russian (read Soviet) leader seeks reelection, a travesty which will be the continuation of his initial power grab. This year will also see elections in France, UK and the US. Let’s all try and use our precious vote and elect people of staute and integrity, not wannabee and ignorant narcissists. Otherwise we might really get a power grab as a reward.


Original text: In ancient Rome, grabbing power was the default way to become emperor. Even in the Republic, achieving consulship required some serious bribery and corruption, subverting the process, whipping up the emotions of the people with simplistic slogans and the like. Power rarely passed cleanly or without disruption. Even my favourite emperor, Vespasian, seized power, although he was one of the ‘good guys’.

In the modern era, we had seemed to have learnt at last from world wars and politically totalitarian regimes that consensus and moderation are the preferred, if imperfect, way. I’m not a political scientist, but a translator/historian-turned-novel writer. My MA  in history examined German women in the armed services during the Third Reich and demanded a fair amount of background research on how such a regime came to power. Richard Evans’ trilogy on the Third Reich is brilliant on the minutiae, but his first, The Coming of the Third Reich: How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power in Germany should be required reading for any modern historian or would be democratic politician. The essential takeaway is that Hitler was elected to power. His movement grew in a period of anger, instability and uncertainty. His promise was national pride, Germany first and doing away with ‘foreign’ influences.

I really hope I’m not drawing facile parallels, but in 2016, I saw populist emotion, backed rationally or irrationally by fear and fuelled by misconceptions, half-truths, platitudes, and downright lies come to the fore and produce some very strange outcomes, albeit through the electoral systems. Of course, excitement, challenging the establishment, a desire for change that will “solve all problems” or take us back to a (completely mythological) golden past are much more alluring than boring old plodding in a forward direction slowly making incremental improvements. It’s only when such  “slow” progress is threatened or cut lose that we see how far we have come and what is in danger of disappearing.

And once an incumbent is in power, we naturally risk-averse human beings are very adaptable and try to ignore the things we know either intellectually or instinctively wrong. It takes a great deal of courage to make a stand in such circumstances.

If you want a really scary political thriller about subverting a presidential election, read Ted Allbeury’s The Twentieth Day of January… 

A spookily prescient espionage thriller from one of the masters of the genre. What if the Soviet Union gained control over the US Presidency? SIS agent James Mackay fears that this may already be happening when he realises the newly elected president’s press secretary is a former communist radical with links to the KGB. When the witnesses who support his suspicions are systematically eliminated, MacKay must race against time to prove that the President-Elect is not his own man before Inauguration Day and avoid a national catastrophe.

Pointing no fingers, it did look like a lot of coincidences in 2016. Or The Twentieth of January could just be a made up ‘what if’ story…

When I was drafting my first four Roma Nova thrillers, I referred to the main character’s love interest’s background when he had been brutalised by a cousin who had grabbed power twenty-three years before the start of the first book. It was a writerly technique to round out that character as a damaged soul behind a very tough exterior. And that cousin was the ‘bogeyman’ who reached out from the past to exert more and more influence in my character’s inner life.

Of course, I then had to write that story. I began drafting the rise of this power grabber at the end  of 2015, charting the rise of a nationalist and populist movement complete with marches, simplistic slogans, a charismatic leader with a gift of communication and a will of iron. He attracted people uncertain under a weak ruler, and one night he seized power in the Roman way, by coup d’état. Although repressive, the new regime favoured one section of the population who were very pleased and things seemed to settle down on the surface, although internal repression was severe.

I confess I was modelling this regime on the Third Reich, but as political and national decisions developed in 2016,  I felt slightly uneasy. We know better than to have people seize power by waving guns as in stories. The electoral system is so much less disruptive and appears more legitimate.

2021 Updated section…
In 2017, there was another 51% populist ‘power grab’ in Turkey. It was all legal, of course, as other ones have been. The Netherlands stepped back from the temptation. Here in France, the extreme right wing Front National candidate Marine Le Pen was defeated by centrist Emmanuel Macron. Trump was ousted by Joe Biden in the 2020 US election. France elects a new president in May 2022 with another right wing extremist (Zemmour) attempting to oust Macron who is seeking a fresh 5 year term.

Ukraine 2022
But much more atrocious is the invasion by brute force of a large armed force directed by a long term repressive dictator into a democratically elected (if imperfect) European Western-facing country on its border. Tyrants don’t care; people, property, livelihoods and aspirations are there to be crushed for the sake of a warmonger’s spurious and egotistical dreams. Their only ‘stability’ and order is engineered by fear and bloodshed. Heroic deeds, true belief and persistence can win, despite sacrifice and endured misery, even if it takes time. But the sooner the better.


Warning – commercial content follows. If after all my opinionating, you are interested in the Roma Novan power grabber’s story and his personal vendetta against my heroine, here’s the trailer:

Kindle: https://myBook.to/INSURRECTIO
Paperback: https://myBook.to/INSURRECTIO_paperback
Other retailers: https://www.alison-morton.com/books-2/insurrectio/where-to-buy-insurrectio/


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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