Roman Emperors and modern politicians

The Times has a witty article by Natalie Haynes pairing Roman Emperors with British and American politicians, Plutarch style.

The day after the US election, I received a text telling me that Barack Obama had run so “our children could fly”. Mildly stomach-turning though this was, it reminded me that the devotion of his supporters seemed almost bizarre at times; such passionate sincerity belongs to a different time from the cynical age in which we usually live. It kept reminding me of something, and I couldn’t think what.

Then I dusted the bookshelves and realised – Barack Obama is the modern incarnation of the Emperor Titus, who ruled the Roman Empire from AD79-81, before death cut his reign tragically short. This is Suetonius: “Titus had such winning ways – perhaps inborn, perhaps cultivated subsequently, or conferred on him by fortune – that he became an object of universal love and adoration.”

That could have been written about Obama pretty much any time in the past year. Perhaps it was because Titus didn’t have time to go mad, like Caligula, or weird, like Tiberius, but he was probably the most adored emperor in Roman history. Then I realised that almost all leading politicians are reworked emperors. You just have to match them up.

Augustus 31BC-AD14

Augustus was the first Emperor of Rome, avoiding the fate of his predecessor, Julius Caesar, with a fine line in spin. Instead of calling himself a dictator (which he was), and being slaughtered on the Ides of March, he called himself Princeps (the foremost), Imperator (the title of a military general) and primus inter pares (the first among equals).

The spin worked, and far from an early death, he ruled the Roman world for 45 years. He is, therefore, the perfect model for Tony Blair – master of spin, survivor extraordinaire, Britain’s longest-serving Labour Prime Minister. Did I mention that Augustus was frequently outmanoeuvred by his brilliant, scheming wife, Livia?

Tiberius AD14-37

Sulky, diffident and impatient, a man who waited for ever for his chance to shine, then appeared to find the whole thing tiring and annoying when he got there. So, Gordon Brown, obviously. Tiberius disliked his senatorial colleagues so much that he hired an unelected adviser, Sejanus, to do his wheeling and dealing for him. Bad news for Peter Mandelson, though: Sejanus ended up being dragged to the River Tiber by a hook, dying a traitor’s death. Juvenal tells us that even statues of him were melted down to obliterate him more completely: “The head of the people’s darling glows red-hot, great Sejanus crackles and melts. That face only yesterday ranked second in all the world. Now it’s so much scrap metal, to be turned into jugs and basins, frying-pans and chamber-pots.” People’s darling might be a bit strong, I suppose, but he should still give the statuary a miss.

Gaius Caligula AD37-41

The mad emperor. Loved his sister in a more-than-brotherly way. Loved his horse, Incitatus, so much that he threatened to make him a consul.

Assassinated by his own men when his lunacy became intolerable. To put it another way, and leaving out the incest and murder of almost every relative, Richard Nixon.

Claudius AD41-54

Claudius was the great pretender. He survived the reign of his murderous nephew Caligula by acting dumb. He was actually an extremely learned man – a historian who compiled 20 volumes of Etruscan history, and wrote books in both Latin and Greek – whose physical disabilities convinced others he was stupid. Ronald Reagan was his natural successor – the film star who turned out not to be an imbecile. Claudius’s love of bureaucracy might not have appealed to Reagan, though: it eventually helped to choke the Roman Empire to death.

Nero AD54-68

The boy king, manoeuvred into power by a scheming mother, Agrippina, who almost certainly poisoned the man standing in his way, her husband Claudius. Nero was a golden child – privileged, fortunate, and ruthless.

His modern-day counterpart is David Cameron, if only for coming to power off the back of a terrifying woman who left chaos in her wake (Margaret Thatcher, that is. I’m sure David Cameron’s mother isn’t a bit terrifying). And extra points for the sight of his beautiful West London home on Andrew Marr’s show recently. After the Great Fire of Rome in AD64, Nero built a new palace – the Domus Aurea, a golden house. Tacitus gibes: “In parts of Rome unfilled by Nero’s palace…”

The Year of Four Emperors AD68-69

Galba, Otho and Vitellius – all in power for a matter of months, none of them had any real impact on the long-term future of the empire. Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and another Lib Dem. You think of one – I’m all out.

Not Vince Cable, though, because he’s Cicero – the statesman, adviser, orator, but never the ruler himself. And capable of the finest, most stinging criticisms of all. When Marc Antony, who’d been on the receiving end of Cicero one too many times, found himself in a position to take revenge, he had Cicero executed and his head and hands stuck on poles, as a warning to others who would write vicious things, and then speak them aloud. Antony’s wife, Fulvia, was reputed to have jabbed Cicero’s dead tongue with her hairpin, in a last act of vengeance. He may not have been so good at ballroom dancing, though.

Vespasian AD69-79

Vespasian was the first emperor who didn’t come from Rome. He came from the country and had the accent to prove it – the snobbish Romans mocked him for his inability to say -au (he pronounced it -o instead).

Derided for his rustic background, he realised it gave him a folksy charm with ordinary people. George W. Bush, please stand up. Vespasian was also drawn into bloody wars in the Middle East – he crushed revolts in Judaea where, according to Suetonius, “he impressed the neighbouring provinces with his audacious conduct in battle after battle”.

He took a hit on the knee with a stone, so he obviously lacked George W’s quick reflexes in the face of an unexpected missile. Fond of jokes, he died with the words, “Vae! Puto deus fio” – “Uh-oh, I think I’m becoming a god.” Or in the immortal words of Porky Pig: “That’s all, folks.”

Natalie Haynes is a classicist and stand-up comedian

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One Response

  1. George W as Vespasian? Hardly! Vespasian was one of the most intelligent emperors, and one with a sound grasp of foreign policy…

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