Skip to Content

Ancient and modern

Tips for Boris from imperial Rome

If you want to make it to the top, sometimes you’re going to need patience

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

While the Labour party rakes over its past in an effort to find a policy for its future, the commentators continue to speculate about Boris’s role, if any, in a Tory party increasingly dominated by chancellor George Osborne. Romans would have sympathised.

Life in the imperial court in Rome was not necessarily one long orgy. One’s fortunes rested precariously on the good will of the emperor, who could inspire both love, hate and fear, as the philosopher Epictetus pointed out, because he had the ‘power to confer the greatest advantages’ such as ‘wealth and office — tribunates, praetorships, consulships’. In a striking image Epictetus envisaged men in the court scrabbling for positions like children at parties scrambling for nuts and figs. And the price one paid for such trivia was to ‘stay up at night, rush this way and that, kiss men’s hands, rot away at other men’s doors, say and do much that is not worthy of a free man, sends presents to many people, and gifts of hospitality every day.’ One cannot quite see Boris playing that sort of game.


But what other game is there? A Roman emperor could hand out a vast range of benefits to bring people on board: status, legal privileges, posts in the administration, army and provinces, financial benefits and so on, not just to individuals but whole communities (tax breaks were a particular favourite). Under the republic, such patronage had flowed from powerful individuals to win the favour of the people; but in the imperial system, it was the emperor alone who dished out the big favours.

Boris has his own power centre, as Mayor of London; but he has none in Westminster, and gives up the mayoralty next year. So what does he have to offer MPs, compared with Osborne? Only that, by 2020, the Osborne miracle could be in tatters, the Tory victory in severe doubt. If Boris could then offer MPs the prospect of a second term, that would be a beneficium to outstrip all beneficia.

So hang loyally on in Parliament, Boris. The first emperor Augustus was famed for his patience…


Show comments
Close