Tom Holland

Diary - 24 September 2015

Also in the historian Tom Holland’s diary: Æthelflæd, the most remarkable forgotten Englishwoman; and our duty to hedgehogs

Diary - 24 September 2015
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Jeremy Corbyn has been compared to plenty of people over the past few months — a geography teacher, Michael Foot, Brian from the Monty Python film — but my favourite comparison was to a horse. Steve Fielding, professor of politics at Nottingham, declared Corbyn’s election ‘an act of political stupidity unparalleled since Caligula appointed his horse to the Roman senate’. As someone with a book just published on Rome’s first imperial dynasty, I was doubly thrilled. First, Professor Fielding had confirmed the conviction in which I had written my history of the first Caesars: that two millennia on, the West’s primal examples of political excess continue to instruct and appal. Secondly, though, by repeating the widely believed story that Caligula had made his horse a senator, Professor Fielding was also demonstrating just how important control of the narrative has always been for leaders. In point of historical fact, there was never any equine entrant into the senate. Caligula did declare his intention to appoint his favourite horse to the consulship, the highest-ranking magistracy in Rome — but only to rub the noses of the aristocracy in the brute fact that everything was in his gift. Ultimately, though, the joke was on him. In the decades after his death, the quip was enshrined as proof that he had been mad. The slander is still repeated. Jeremy Corbyn should consider himself warned: a really good political smear, once it has stuck, can endure for all time.

If the new Labour leader is to be compared to anyone from imperial Rome, then it is not to Caligula’s horse but to Caligula himself. Granted, Corbyn is yet to turn the Houses of Parliament into a brothel, set the British army to picking up seashells or ride across the Channel on a chariot (although I live in hope). Nevertheless, the essence of his political strategy is not a million miles from that of Rome’s most notorious emperor. Caligula, like Corbyn, came to power impatient with what he saw as a sclerotic and obstructive establishment. Determined to vest his authority in the love and support of the people, he sought to reach out to them over the heads of the senatorial elite. Many of the stunts which so appalled conservative opinion were consciously designed to mobilise the enthusiasm of the plebs. ‘The people loved him — because he brought their goodwill with money.’ On occasion, Caligula would take this policy to literal extremes. A couple of times, he stood on the roof of a basilica, and showered the crowds below with gold and silver coins: an exercise in ‘people’s quantitative easing’ that John McDonnell might consider emulating. Truly, talk of a new politics is one of the oldest things under the sun.

Last week I headed to Gloucester, where I was speaking about the first Caesars at the city’s excellent new history festival. For me, the trip was a form of pilgrimage. Æthelflæd, the daughter of Alfred the Great who was buried in the city, has always been a particular heroine of mine. A warrior queen whose commitment to revitalising dilapidated Roman cities such as Gloucester and Chester was no less heroic than her scouring of the Vikings from the Midlands, she played a decisive role in the forging of England. Without her, the English might never have been brought together into a united kingdom. Yet in Gloucester, as elsewhere in the country, there are few memorials to her. Nerva, the dull emperor in whose reign Gloucester was founded, gets a statue outside the main shopping centre; but Æthelflæd, who relaid the street plan, endowed it with beautiful stone buildings, and loved the city so much that she was laid to rest there, gets nothing. With the 1,100th anniversary of her death in 918 fast approaching, it is time to make amends. Not just in Gloucester but across England, due tribute should be paid to the Lady of the Mercians: the most remarkable Englishwoman of whom most English have never heard.

The impure mind, wrote Æthelflæd’s father, is like a hedgehog, which, ‘as soon as it is caught, curls up into a ball, drawing in his feet as far as he can, and hiding his head’. Its defences today are liable to seem a good deal less impressive than they did to King Alfred. The hedgehog, an animal as woven into our culture and our affections as any in Britain, is in critical danger. Its numbers have fallen by more than a third over the past decade. Such a statistic should serve us all as a reminder that we have a due of responsibility to the wildlife of these islands as well as to our fellow citizens. It is still not too late to take part in the National Hedgehog Survey, which concludes at the end of this month. The prospect of living in a country which has allowed its hedgehogs to go extinct is simply too awful to bear.

Tom Holland is a historian; his books include In the Shadow of the Sword, Persian Fire and, most recently, Dynasty, about Roman emperors.