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Ancient and modern

Strangers and brothers

21 July 2018

9:00 AM

21 July 2018

9:00 AM

Everyone talks about the importance of ‘charisma’ in a politician. But while it may take one a long way with the voters, it does not necessarily cut much mustard in parliament unless bolstered by other strengths. The Romans provided a useful checklist. Boris, still popular in the country but now, despite high office, in self-exile after failing to win over colleagues to his Brexit views, might care to contemplate them.

Top priority were amici, political allies among the great and good. These would automatically include those joined by blood, marriage or other associations, but needed to spread much further into networks of relationships incorporating men from a wide range of political, legal and social backgrounds. These relationships had to be worked up and maintained by favours done and repaid over a long period of time: no easy task. Your success in forging them depended on the perception that you could be trusted — your help was always at hand for your amici — and that you were naturally well-disposed towards them. Your amici must feel that, when it came to mutual obligations, you would not let them down. Such were the heavy demands of amicitia.


What would attract men towards such a relationship in the first place was more than merely sharing the same political outlook. They would be impressed by your fitness for office, high reputation and aura of nobility. You were a man of substance. Your amici considered it a privilege to be in a relationship with you, and even more importantly, so did other people. In a word, you possessed dignitas.

All being well, the ultimate prize would slowly emerge in the growth of a distinctive prestige summed up in that great intangible auctoritas, ‘a word evading strict definition’ said the Roman historian Theodor Mommsen, but expressing an effortless, incontestable authority which, far from issuing instructions, simply offered advice — but the sort of advice ‘which one may not safely ignore’. All this went far beyond ‘charisma’. Et tu, Boris?


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