New pope? New Roman emperor?
A comment from Roy Lewis on the last post reminded us that the claims that Pope John Paul I had been "eliminated" were not unlike all the rumours about the suspicious deaths of Roman emperors. They may have died (like John Paul I) in the their beds, but that didnt stop the rumours of murder by smothering or poisoned mushrooms or whatever taking hold.
It made me think that the first weeks of a new Pope were much more like the first weeks of a new Roman emperor than the first weeks of a new Prime Minister or President are. It is not a question of going off and making your mark in parliament, winning votes or whatever. It's a question of establishing a relationship with the people/worshippers -- and of balancing that with making the right impression with the elite of the Catholic hieracrchy.
I am right now in Italy. And many people I have met have been dead keen on Papa Francesco. They have loved the idea that he appeared on the balcony of St Peter's and said "have a good lunch". It has also gone down well that he talked to his fellow cardinals as "brother cardinals", and that he rejected the papal limo and went almost incognito to visit a friend in hospital.
My first instinct was to think: what a nice guy. My second instinct was to think: what an excellent PR machine.
My third instinct was to think that the PR machine was well acquainted with the dynamics of Roman imperial rule, and how Roman emperotrs got a good start.
The first Roman rule for a new emperor was to speak directly to the people (and going off script and talking about Sunday lunch would really fit the bill there).
Second was the idea that you didnt lord it over the rest of the elite. The best emperor showed himself as primus inter pares... so "brother cardinals" was spot on.
And the final thing of course was to distance yourself from the faults of your predecessor. So Francis makes it clear that he is not the kind of academic, austere, remote theologian that Benedict was -- just like Nero said he wouldn't be doing things behind closed doors like Claudius had; or like Caligula burning all the records of the secret police when he came to power.
The only trouble was that most of these emperors started well, but things went quickly to the bad. Caligula, for example, did make his bonfire, but he had carefully kept a copy of those records for future reference.
So we wonder how Francis I will turn out.