I, Cartagia: a mad emperor in Babylon 5 and his historical antecedents
by Tony Keen
Caligula is probably the most obvious comparison, hence why I had that name reflect that sound a little bit. I wanted someone who you would be very much in fear of, not because he was rampaging around screaming all the time, but because he was completely and totally arbitrary.
J. Michael Straczynski, quoted in Jane Killick, Babylon 5: No Surrender, No Retreat (New York 1998), p. 36
The science-fiction TV series Babylon 5, created and overseen by J. Michael Straczynski, ran from 1992 to 1998. It has been much praised for its multi-themed story. One of these themes is, to be pretentious for a moment, the decline and fall of the Centauri Republic, an interstellar state that, whilst still one of the five major players in the galaxy (the others being the Earth Alliance, the Vorlon Empire, the Minbari Federation and the Narn Regime) is far past its better days when first encountered in the initial pilot movie (‘The Gathering’). Over the five years of the series, the Centauri briefly regain their ascendancy, and reconquer their traditional enemies, the Narn – but the actions taken to achieve this in the end lead to the Centauri homeworld’s own occupation and near-destruction. (Frustratingly, the final conclusion of the Centauri story line is never shown on screen. In the fifth season, the planet is overrun by the Drakh, and this is still the case in the flash forward some seventeen years into the future seen in the third season episode ‘War Without End’, where Londo Mollari, the chief Centauri character in the series, and by this point emperor, appeals for help from Captain Sheridan. Presumably from the peaceful appearance of Londo’s successor as emperor, his former assistant Vir, in the final episode, ‘Sleeping in Light’, the viewer can deduce that the situation has been resolved, but how this happens is not revealed onscreen. Three novels by Peter David, in the Babylon 5: Legions of Fire, The Long Night of Centauri Prime (1999), Armies of Light and Dark (2000) and Out of the Darkness (2000), all of which are considered canonical, tell the whole story.)
The Centauri Republic borrows much of its political machinery from ancient Rome, as others have noted (Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, ‘Rewriting the Past in the Future in Straczynski’s Babylon 5’, in Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (eds.), The Parliament of Dreams: Conferring on Babylon 5 (1998), p. 8). So it proclaims itself as a Republic, with all the implications of democracy and anti-monarchism that term carries, yet is presided over by an emperor (compare the Vorlon ‘empire’, which appears to be a much more communal state, with decisions based on consensus and a lack of individuality amongst the Vorlons). The Centauri emperor, in theory, is responsible to the Centarum, the equivalent of the Roman Senate. Important families in the Republic compete to place their own favoured candidate upon the imperial throne. This is possibly derived from the machinations of the Late Roman Republic, where important families competed for influence, and eventually for monarchic dominance. James and Mendlesohn’s example is that “suicide is the favoured option for those accused of treason”. What the Centauri empire does not have, however, is the sort of powerful women who feature in popular depictions of the first century ad Roman empire, like Livia, Messalina and Agrippina – and now Atia in the television series Rome. The most important female seen is the Emperor Turhan’s third wife, in the third season episode ‘Point of No Return’. She is a quasi-religious figure and prophetess, who speaks for he deceased husband, but seems to wield no actual power herself – one is reminded of imperial women in the later Christian period, such as Constantine the Great’s mother Helena or Theodosius II’s sister Pulcheria, both of whom devoted themselves to the Church. Other than that, high-status Centauri women seem to be pawns in dynastic marriages.
I would not, in any case, mean to suggest that Rome is the only model for the Centauri Republic. Other influences that can be seen include the later years of the Ottoman empire (the first emperor seen, Turhan, in the second-season episode ‘The Coming of Shadows’, is actually played by an actor of Turkish descent). Eighteenth-century Tsarist Russia seems to be another, especially for costumes. In this latter context the Austro-Hungarian empire has also been mentioned (James and Mendlesohn, loc. cit.), whilst it has been suggested to me that the extravagant hairstyles, which have similarities to the display plumage of birds, are derived from the elaborate oriental coiffures seen in
At the beginning of the fourth season (1996), in the episode ‘The Hour of the Wolf’, the emperor Cartagia, the nephew of previous emperor Turhan, is introduced, and appears in the next four episodes. As noted in the quote from Straczynski above, Cartagia’s name is deliberately reminiscent of that of the Roman emperor popularly known as Caligula (though strictly speaking he should be called the emperor Gaius), and the use of such a name, again as Straczynski admits, hints at his character. Certainly, the historical Caligula saw no need to cloak his autocratic power in the forms of constitutional government, as his predecessors Augustus and Tiberius had; and this is a trait also found in Cartagia.
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