If Gordon Brown's Mark Antony, then who's Cleopatra?
Classicists have a bit of a soft spot for outlandish comparisons between modern politics and the ancient world. However far-fetched they may be, all those books and newspaper articles comparing the decline of Rome to the decline of the American empire, do make us feel that our subject is still on the political map.
But even I – a sucker for that kind of thing (and even known to peddle a few far-fetched comparisons myself) – found it hard to stomach the idea that Gordon Brown in congress was a modern Mark Antony.
OK, I suppose Michael Billington had Shakespeare’s “friends, Romans, countrymen” version in mind, rather than the ‘real thing’ when he floated the idea that the PM was a “natural” Antony – “someone who professes to be a plain blunt man, but who actually has all the oratorical tricks up his sleeve . . relying on the tricks of the speakers trade to cajole and flatter his audience”. And he did got on to point out that Mark Antony’s triumph, after the death of Caesar, “was short-lived and was followed by civil commotion, global turmoil and his own ultimate downfall on foreign soil.”
But in truth there is almost nothing that Antony and Brown hold in common.
For a start Antony had style.
He was witty, extravagant and one of the most renowned bon-viveurs of the whole of antiquity – the leading light in a dining club called ‘the society of inimitable livers’ (livers as in 'life', not the bodily organ -- devoted we must assume to living life to the full, and more). And of course he managed to hook the glamorous Cleopatra (as pictured bt Alma-Tadema on the left) – who, even if she wasn’t the great beauty later ages have cracked her up to be, was hardly in the mould of the sensible Mrs Brown.
It’s true that all this has gone down in the standard literary accounts as gross immorality, binge drinking and wasteful excess. But those accounts are the largely the spin of Antony’s enemy, the future emperor Augustus, who was keen to portray himself as decent, modest, homely and down to earth kind of guy (a bit like our son of the manse, in fact) – while painting Antony and Cleopatra as, in every way, ‘unfit for government’.
So who is our modern Antony? Well Boris Johnson would look a better pick. Or even, with his penchant for the high-life, Peter Mandelson (whom Billington has down as Cassius with his ‘lean and hungry look’).
But that would still leave a problem of who Cleopatra might be.