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Ancient and modern

What Tiberius could teach Jeremy Corbyn about democracy

Labour’s new boss knows everything about claiming the high ground and nothing about the art of the possible

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

The virtuous Mr Corbyn is insisting that New Old Labour should return to its traditional republican ways and take decisions ‘democratically’. The emperor Tiberius (ad 14–37) tried this one and it did not work.

The first Roman emperor Augustus agreed to his stepson Tiberius’ accession only because death had cheated him of all his preferred options. The problem was that Tiberius’ heart was not really in it. A man with republican sympathies, he seemed to be keen to persuade the senate to return to involvement in the full process of ‘democratic’ rule and decision-making, duties which that body had embraced for nearly 500 years under the republic, but which Augustus had rather sidelined as he single-handedly turned the republic into a monarchy.


So on his accession, Tacitus reports, Tiberius said ‘the state should not concentrate supreme power in the hands of one man’, but that he ‘would take any branch of state entrusted to him’. He was ruffled by Gallus asking which particular branches he had in mind; recovering, he said he was rather reluctant to decide. Gallus replied that he was not suggesting that inseparable functions be divided up; rather, he wanted Tiberius to admit that the state was a single organism, requiring rule by a single mind. Others contributed in the same vein: Haterius asked ‘How long, Caesar, will you allow the state to have no head?’ Another asked Tiberius to vote on issues first, so that he would know how to.

Whenever Tiberius left the senate house, it was said, he exclaimed in Greek ‘Men fit to be slaves!’ But the senators were right. They knew who was ultimately in charge. Thoroughly disenchanted, Tiberius left Rome for Capri in ad 26, never to return; his treacherous sidekick Sejanus came within an ace of supplanting him.

Corbyn knows everything about claiming the high ground in virtue and nothing about leadership and the art of the possible. When he finally loses his corbygrip and flounces out under protest, one cannot see his Sejanus, deputy Tom, exactly grieving over Jerry’s departure…

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