Peter Jones

The game of survival

Like Nero's terrified senators, Sepp Blatter's courtiers know how the game is played

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Apparently Fifa emperor Sepp Blatter received a ten-minute standing ovation from his 400 staff when he addressed them after his resignation. But why? Were they expressing sorrow at his departure? Relief? Or prudently watching their backs?

Life was never easy around the Roman emperor either, whether he was among the people or in the imperial court. When the shamelessly dissolute Nero performed on-stage, his claqueurs made sure the applause went on and on. The historian Tacitus tells us that people from out of town or the provinces, ‘shocked at the outrageous spectacle, found that their unpractised hands were not up to the degrading task’ and consequently disrupted the professional applauders. But the heavies moved in, and they were soon clapping away again.

In the court, meanwhile, for the elite outside the emperor’s inner ring, the prospect of power and influence was there, but only if they were loyal to, and therefore remained dependent on, the emperor. For them it was a watching game: who’s in, who’s out, which way the wind was blowing.

But there were no guarantees. The senator Marcus Terentius summed up the situation perfectly after Sejanus, the emperor Tiberius’s favourite, had been executed for conspiring against him: ‘It is not for us to explain why the emperor chooses to elevate anyone. The gods have given him supreme jurisdiction: our only prospect of glory is in obedience … inquiring into the emperor’s hidden instincts and private machinations is illegal and dangerous, and so may get nowhere.’

That was the reality. Under the republic, the Caesars and Pompeys had openly contested power, attacking rivals and singing up their own achievements.

Under the emperor, survival was the name of the game, and servility, hypocrisy and lip-service were the means to that end. But even when the emperor fell, talk was still guarded: the court needed the new man as much as he needed them. Continuity was important.

The Fifa 400 understand the rules of the game.