Peter Jones

What Boris has in common with Roman emperor Augustus

What Boris has in common with Roman emperor Augustus
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The PM was filmed introducing his new cabinet by getting them to answer in unison how many hospitals, how many buses etc.

he was planning to provide. This is ‘performance politics’, the remanipulation of a ‘stage’ (here the Cabinet Office) and its ‘performers’ (MPs) to send a message to an ‘audience’ (us). Another example would be Dominic Cummings’s attire, resembling that of a protesting sixth-former. To get rid of him, performance theory would suggest, the PM should just tell him to wear a suit and tie.

The Roman emperor Augustus too saw his life as a performance. On his deathbed in ad 14, he said to those round him: ‘If this play has any merit, clap and dismiss us joyfully’, as if he were some Greek mime actor. One ‘stage’ he manipulated was the area of the forum where, under the republic, fierce political debates had taken place. No longer: now Augustus made proposals there for the people to accept. He attended elections to high office (consuls etc.) like any other citizen, canvassing and voting for his candidates. His presence surely affected Romans’ voting choices. This is all of a piece with the PM’s stage-management — inviting his cabinet to agree with him before the cameras, shutting down appearances on the BBC in favour of other channels, relocating the Lords in York and so on.

Further, Augustus built or rebuilt more than a hundred structures (mainly temples, but also public buildings, aqueducts, bridges, streets, sewers etc), constantly referencing himself on them. In this way he imprinted his personal mark on the ‘stage-set’ of Rome’s social, religious and ceremonial life for centuries to come. Compare the PM’s determination to construct monuments (sorry, ‘infrastructure’) across the country, quite an upgrade on Boris buses and bikes.

‘How many hospitals?’ ‘How many buses?’ The cabinet is now publicly locked into these promises, and so too is the PM. It’s all there on video (doubtless Cummings has checked who did not join in with the answers). But the prize is enormous. Can the PM resist the temptation of canvassing up and down the country on a Chinese-built HS2 in five years’ time?