Greece and Rome (Second Series)

Research Article

Rome and North Korea: Totalitarian Questions


a1 J. ALISON ROSENBLITT is a lecturer in Ancient History at Balliol College, Oxford.

On 19 December 2011, the death was announced of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. He was succeeded in power by his third son, Kim Jong-un. The BBC has called it a ‘choreographed Stalinist-style succession’ but, for students of the classical world, there is an uncanny resemblance to the death of Augustus in AD 14 and the accession of his adopted son and heir, Tiberius. A death is announced; there are allegations that it occurred earlier than is officially acknowledged, with announcement postponed so that all can be put in order for a smooth transfer of power. News of the death is received with public displays of grief, while the new autocrat is greeted with a pledge or oath of loyalty. The first necessity is to take control of the military, and military orders are issued by the successor before any formal power is conferred. There are omens. The state calls for its new leader to accept power. Money or food is distributed in the name of the head of state recently deceased. Much is made of coincidences (the date on which Augustus assumed the principate and died; the date on which Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un respectively became supreme commander). When it comes to the formal transfer of power, the written will of the dead leader is cited to legitimate his successor.