Magazine article The Spectator

Diary: Tom Holland

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary: Tom Holland

Article excerpt

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. …

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