Boris – lessons from Ancient Rome

Memories of simpler times. Do you remember prior to his rise to prominence as London Mayor, later as an MP and one-time favourite for the Tory leadership Boris Johnson was best known for his frequent appearances on Have I Got News for you? In each programme, whether as host or guest Boris played the part of the bumbling, unintentionally amusing, Oxbridge-educated Toff to perfection.

These appearances were of course only part of Boris’s carefully cultivated media profile, there was also his editorship of the Spectator magazine, including the infamous publication of an article in 2004 which erroneously suggested that Liverpool supporters were partially to blame for the Hillsborough disaster . There was an appearance in Peter Andre: My Life, cameo in Eastenders as well as hosting the occasional documentary such as Boris Johnson and the Dream of Rome in 2006. That Boris should host a documentary about the Roman empire (and release a follow-up book) and use it to draw specific parallels with the modern EU should not be too surprising. After all he had studied  Classics, at Balliol College, Oxford where he was apparently deeply unhappy about receiving only a second class honours mark.

In his “Dream of Rome” documentary there are quiet a few moments when you can see the awe in which Boris holds various Emperors of Rome, this even strikes one of the experts, a Professor Carandini as Boris is seen to utter the following line:

Professor Carandini: “You would like to be an emperor, I can see it in your eyes.”

Boris Johnson: “I can see a worst fate.”

That Boris would be drawn to the personality cults that surrounded most Roman Emperors does not seem too surprising given recent events and his career to date, and given his knowledge of Roman history it caused me to ponder whether his turn away from Europe and his championing of the “Leave” side in the Brexit referendum was ever so slightly influenced by a reported episode in the life of Julius Caesar. When Caesar was sent to govern what it now south-Eastern Spain the writer Plutarch tells us that

he came to a little town in passing the Alps; and his friends, by way of mirth, took occasion to say, “Can there here be any disputes for offices, any contentions for precedency, or such envy and ambition as we see among the great?” To which Cæsar answered, with great seriousness, “I assure you I had rather be the first man here than the second man in Rome.”

So much of the discussion around Boris’s rationale for taking the “Leave” side when it would appear to fly in the face of all that he had stood for beforehand centres around his desire to be Prime minister and to replace his old school chum David Cameron. Whatever glory there lay for Boris in being Mayor of London, a media celebrity, and latterly an MP would seem to be insufficient, he would always be the second man in Rome.

It also strikes me that in the throws of uncomfortable victory after the referendum and his subsequent decision not to run for the vacant Prime ministerial post Boris may have recalled the life and reputation of the Roman Emperor Honorius. The same Emperor Honorius who succeeded Theodosius the Great but who by the end of his reign had witnessed the sacking of Rome by Alaric, King of the Visigoths and the continued decline of the western Roman Empire. Honorius retreated back to his palace in Ravenna, a city surrounded by impregnable marshland and offering relative security while the Roman city walls were breached for the first time in 800 years.

Honorius as Emperor is remembered primarily for being in the hotseat when Rome fell to the Goths, while many argue that the Roman Empire did not cease until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 the sacking of the city by Alaric remains a landmark date for the Roman Empire, and for some an end date. The only other item of note that tends to be remembered about Honorius is that he banned the wearing of trousers under punishment of exile.

Perhaps Boris Johnson thought about that when he withdrew from the running for the top job. Many man have dreamt of imitating Julius Caesar, few have wanted to be Flavius Honorius Augustus.


The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410 by Joseph-Noel Sylvestre


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