10 things Londoners need to know about having a Classicist in County Hall
More than enough has written about what Boris Johnson might have learned about government from his classical training. Isn’t it time to think about what we should learn from Mayor Johnson’s classical training in working out how to prepare for him and what to expect.
Remember that Boris is much keener on Rome than on Greece. So we need to concentrate on Roman government, and its relatively democratic forms. I don’t think that Boris is (quite) like a Roman emperor, yet.
What would Roman history teach us to expect, if he’s acting on the Roman model?
One: He won’t be in power very long. People elected at Rome were elected for one year only. Occasionally they were allowed to repeat the office, but not go on for years and years. That’s what got Julius Caesar into trouble (I mean assassinated). If Boris is being truly Roman, he’ll resign in twelve months.
Two: Memoirs. Writing your memoirs once you’d left office was just as big a thing then as now, or getting someone else to do it for you. The wives, like Claudius’ empress Agrippina, did it too. Most of these books have now disappeared (a lesson for the moderns?). But Cicero’s poem on his consulship (which survives in fragments, mostly quoted by Cicero himself) might give Boris an idea or two. A Latin epic on his mayor-dom?
Three: A populist spin. Romans told the story about a toff (one Scipio Nasica) who , when put canvassing, shook the hand of a peasant. The hand was, predictably, horny.. “What, do you walk on it?”, the toff asked. The upshot? He lost the election. Roman politicians were nice to the poor, was the message. Boris wont (I hope) make that mistake.
Four: A relaxation in sartorial standards . . .
. . . Romans thought that you dressed up to get elected, not to stay popular. In fact the word “candidate” means “nice white toga” that you have put on to get elected. You could take it off later. So we can expect Boris in hoody and trainers, no Bullingdon club outfit.
Five: Bribery. Romans thought that aggressive and really open bribery was a bad thing (no handing out the 20 quid notes at the polling station), even if they often did it. Low-key bribery – like a bit of free public transport -- was institutionalised and perfectly OK.
Six: Some good theatre. One of the things that a Roman politician should offer to his (oh yes, I forgot, no women here -- just his) electorate was a good time. This wasn’t simply bribery, as it happened after he had got elected. The idea was no politician was good enough unless he put on some great gladiators.
Seven: Cutting the pay in County Hall. Underlying Number Six is the idea that holding public office will cost you. There was no drawing of expenses here, still less a salary. If you wanted to run Rome, you paid for it. You did it for free, and you put your own money into public services. If it left you bankrupt, you made up later by going to govern a province and clawing it back from the poor old barbarians. (Boris as governor of the Falkland Islands?)
Eight: Boris on the front row of every play, opera, concert and chariot race. Romans expected their leaders to turn up at the shows. It wasn’t a question of paying for the best seats. The political elite sat there as of right – the great unwashed and the women at the back. (It makes the Royal Opera House look democratic.)
Nine: Plenty of sex in the speeches. Roman political oratory was full of sex – and especially the idea that your opponent was keen on being buggered. Adultery was (sort of) OK, so was buggering. But not what we classicists coyly call “being the passive partner”.
Ten: A London War – or Boris for archbishop. The point about Roman elected official is that they acted for Rome across the board. None of this division of powers we now take for granted. You would want to be consul in order to lead the army to military victory AND you would think it your right to negotiate with the gods on Rome’s behalf. So watch out Canterbury, in more senses than one.