Saturday, 17 May 2008

Like the Roman

This week's over-hyped "bust of Caesar", and the ensuing controversy, sent me back to the books. In The Oxford History of the Classical World (1986) I found this passage by David Stockton on the problems encountered by the emperor Tiberius on succeeding Augustus. I can't help thinking it strangely pre-echoes more recent events:

He came to the task of government in his mid-fifties with excellent and unrivalled credentials. But his character was dour and introspective, poisoned by unhappy private experience, with more than a touch of melancholia and insecurity. Above all, he lacked the consummate political adroitness of Augustus, his self-confidence and prestige..., the genial tact which had moved him to ask on his deathbed "if everybody had enjoyed the play". Men could never be quite sure what was going on in Tiberius's mind. This led to the view... that he was a hypocrite, a master of dissimulation, a view sometimes ludicrous in its strained invention or innuendo. In fact, the true dissimulation stemmed not from the man, but from the system which he inherited, the product of the great illusionist Augustus.

Obviously, comparisons can be pushed too far. Gordon Brown does not (so far as I am aware) employ trained slave boys to nibble his genitalia while he goes swimming. And Tiberius could easily have had Cherie Blair exiled to a small uninhabited island before her memoirs saw the light of day. But Stockton's summing up of the latter days of the emperor's reign as "years of gloom, intrigue and uncertainty" certainly rings a few bells, except that where Tiberius was "encompassed by astrologers" Brown has pollsters, special advisers and media monitors to shore up his misery.