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Ancient and modern

The relative experience of Roman consuls and Corbyn

The new Labour leader’s political life has just been one long protest

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

One of the justifications of the House of Lords is that it embodies ‘collective experience’. That is not a quality which the eternal rebel Jeremy Corbyn can cite on his CV.

Over many years, Romans developed a political system such that anyone who wanted to reach the top of the greasy pole and become consul had to have under his belt a considerable experience of government. The cursus honorum (‘race for honours’) consisted of a series of age-related hurdles that, at least in theory, had to be leapt before the winning of the ultimate prize.


To start with, it was taken for granted that a candidate would have serious military experience. Then the first hurdle was that of quaestor, at about age 30. That post was largely financial, devoted to administering the state treasury under the senate’s direction, whether at home or in a province. Then, as aedilis (c. 36), one had charge of the city’s fabric and corn supply, staged games, and protected the rights of the plebs — a high responsibility and one that could gain one great personal advantage by e.g. staging sensational shows. The final hurdle before bidding for the consulship was that of praetor (c. 39), running Rome’s judicial procedures, though the praetor also stood by to take over the duties of the consuls in their absence.

Result: by the time you made it to consul, you had a huge range of administrative, financial and legal experience, on top of any further military action and service abroad. Finally, all of these office-holders automatically became life-members of the senate, Rome’s de facto ruling body, making collective judgments on the direction the state should take.

The contrast with Corbyn is embarrassing. He has served on the odd select committee, but otherwise his political life has been one long protest, achieving little. Handling real power will be quite beyond him. True to form, this court jezter will resign in protest within a year.


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