Writing in the first and second centuries AD, the Roman senator and historian Tacitus warned that in the corruption and decadence of the ever-expanding Roman Empire already lay the foundation for its eventual demise. It would not be powerful enemy armies, Tacitus predicted, so much as extravagant banquets, eroding moral standards, and unadulterated lust for power that would lead to the downfall of one of the greatest historical empires. It is no coincidence that the story of the most extravagant banquet, overflowing with every kind of perversion and gluttony, is followed immediately in Tacitus' Annals by the story of the Great Fire that devours Rome.
Today, almost 2,000 years later, it seems that another hedonistic leader on the Italian peninsula, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, may be facing the end of his own empire. Berlusconi, who has served as Prime Minister three times, is coming under fire from all sides for his blatant manipulation of the media, poor treatment of women, and lack of concern for effective governance and the rule of law. The confluence of these trends may be enough to finally end his time atop Italy's political system.
Perhaps most troubling to Italians and the international community alike has been Berlusconi's blatant use of the media as a tool of the state. Berlusconi and his family run a media empire estimated to be worth US$9 billion; these holdings, combined with the state's de facto control over the largest public broadcaster, give Berlusconi effective control over five of the seven national channels. A number of magazines and newspapers under Berlusconi's control also serve as his own personal propaganda machine. According to James Walston, a professor of international relations at the American University of Rome, every political leader meets with staff to plan his media strategy; what makes Berlusconi different is that his "staff" is comprised of editors of newspapers and television channels that reach more than half the population.
In fact, the battle for Italy's future is not being waged in the Parliament, or even in the courts--rather, it is one Berlusconi has chosen to let the media decide. During the week of February 11, Berlusconi called numerous prominent figures from the Italian press to his office to discuss coverage of the scandals surrounding his leadership. The newspaper Il Giornale ran a headline exclaiming, "Justice, Italian Style: Free to Attack the Prime Minister." The sensational headline was not surprising given its ownership by Mr Berlusconi's brother.
Berlusconi has also received a great deal of well-deserved criticism for his attitude toward women and his penchant for hosting parties with underage girls. A judge in Italy recently announced that Berlusconi must stand trial for two charges: first, for having sex with a 17-year-old nightclub dancer named Kharima el Mahroug at one of his infamous parties; and second, for abuse of power after Berlusconi called the Milan police station where el Mahroug was being held on unrelated charges and ordered her released. Together, the charges carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Berlusconi makes no secret of these events; he has survived such scandals before and counts on surviving this one as well.
Yet public frustration is mounting. Berlusconi's so-called "bunga bunga" parties--orgies arranged at Berlusconi's mansion outside of Milan for him and his friends--have been well-known in Italy for months now, but the worst suspicions of the Italian people are only now being confirmed. Prosecutors in Milan recently presented the Italian Parliament with a 389-page report, including taped conversations between women present at the parties. The behavior described rivals anything even the decadent Roman emperor Nero could have imagined. Berlusconi would hand out bracelets, jewelry, and money to the woman present in exchange for sexual favors. …