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Could today’s politicians do better if they looked to Ancient Rome?

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Ouch! The death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1806
Ouch! The death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1806 Credit:  Corbis Historical

Our politicians love drawing comparisons to ancient Rome – and betraying their muddle, as Asa Bennett’s Romanifesto finds, reports Harry Sidebottom

Boris as a Roman general, Rees-Mogg the slave whispering in his ear, Corbyn the Druid, and Farage the legionary having a crafty fag – the cartoons on the cover of this book set the tone.

The text of Romanifesto is demotic, full of slang, reliably jocular. The Romans, we are assured, saw the ancient Britons as “brutish Neanderthals”, while their own political life was a “rhetorical bear pit”. But the book also claims serious intentions: to be a “trusty” guide to the Roman precedents behind modern politics, so that MPs can avoid “making fools of themselves with half-remembered references” and the rest of us can catch them out. 

Leaving aside Boris Johnson, with his Upper Second in classics, today’s politicians seem to struggle with Roman history. John McDonnell has read Robert Harris’s Imperium, but the fact that he felt sorry for the “poor guy Cicero employs to write all this up” suggests he failed to understand it. Rees-Mogg betrayed his ignorance when he cited the Praetorian Guard as an exemplar of loyalty.

One MP tried to stir up his fellow Eurosceptics by quoting the speech on freedom that Tacitus put in the mouth of Calgacus the Caledonian, until another MP pointed out that the Caledonians “all got annihilated!” Even Johnson was pulled up by Ken Livingstone for confusing Pericles of Athens with Pericles of Tyre, although that is really more to do with Shakespeare. Other examples are adduced in this book, but the level does not improve. Unsurprisingly, our political masters emerge from Romanifesto as ill-educated, blithely unconcerned with the accuracy of their statements.

The book is at its best recounting anecdotes from Westminster; after all, the author is a Telegraph political journalist. It is entertaining to be reminded how David Cameron imparted urgency to his speeches by drinking lots of water to make himself “desperate for a pee”; of John Major expounding “back to basics” while minister after minister was forced to resign from his government after being caught with their pants down. (As one complained, it seemed as if there was a policy of “one bonk and you are out”.)

Emerging from yet another of Theresa May’s opaque cabinet meetings, one minister fulminated: “F--- knows, I am past caring. It’s like the living dead in there.”

The problems come when the Romans tramp into view. Cicero did not write 12 Philippics against Antony (here always misspelt as Anthony): 14 survive, and at least three more are lost. Nero did not “take over” from Caligula; the reign of Claudius intervened. Diocletian was not forced to retire by the failure of his price edict. “Did Hadrian manage to get the Picts to pay out for his wall?” – probably not, as the Pictish tribes did not yet exist. The Roman ceremony of a Triumph was not “typically” granted for great military victories; they were the only reason for the award.

The ancient history feels bent out of shape by the need to hammer out the contemporary parallels. To forge a link between the Punic Wars and Brexit – the need to keep supporters on side – the Romans are said to “clinch victory” thanks to the Numidians deserting Carthage.

In reality, it was Rome’s Italian allies not switching sides that brought eventual victory. Although engaging, and written with verve, Romanifesto is hamstrung by its central conceit that the politics of Rome – leave aside the inclusion of women, the differences in technology, and the absence of actual bloodshed – is just the same as that of Westminster.

Harry Sidebottom’s latest Roman novel, The Lost Ten (Zaffre), is out in paperback