Why is Gordon Brown like the Emperor Tiberius?
It's always nice when your old students put what you taught them to profitable use. Novelist, stand-up comedian and young polymath, Natalie Haynes read Classics in Cambridge and once upon a time took my third-year course on the Roman emperor (or, to be precise, 'The Roman emperor: construction and deconstruction of an image' which did quite a lot of comparison between political power in the Roman world and power in our own).
Hence a smile comes over me to see her writing a classical op-ed piece in today's Times.
Her theme? Which modern politician is like which Roman emperor?
She scores a few nice hits. Obama is the modern Titus, the golden boy of the Flavian dynasty, everyone's favourite-- until he died just two years into his reign. (Though she doesnt mention that in the course of his rise, young Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple and paraded the menorah and its other sacred objects as spoils through the streets of Rome -- which would hardly have endeared him to New York democrats.)
And Gordon Brown is the morose, suspicious and hypocritical Tiberius. (Though, so far as I know, Brown doesnt enjoy underwater sex games with little boys on some sunny island.)
But often the memory of the young doesn't go quite far back enough to hit on the most apposite or revealing match.
For the surprise emperor/president who turns out to be not so stupid as we all imagined, she picks the emperor Claudius and Ronald Reagan. I'd always thought that Claudius was more of a Stanley Baldwin figure myself.
And the down to earth, old-fashioned and slightly mean Vespasian, doesn't seem too much like George W Bush to me. He was much cleverer for a start. I'd go for Harold Wilson whose pipe-smoking and beer and sandwich lunches, as well as his brains, were absolutely in Vespasian's style.
But what about the modern Nero? Haynes opts for the boyish David Cameron, coming to power on the back of a powerful woman who lest disaster behind her (Agrippina aka Margaret Thatcher). Not bad, but I'd go for the even more boyish Boris Johnson: clever, arty, funny, ambitious, sexy....and destined, like Nero I'm afraid, to be misunderstood and vilified by history.
And she gets nowhere near the really challenging ones. Who's the new Elagabalus, that's the question! Or perhaps it just shows the limits of this kind of comparison.