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Page last updated at 10:42 GMT, Tuesday, 13 May 2008 11:42 UK

What can Boris learn from the classics?

Roman soldiers in a TV dramatisation

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The new London mayor, Boris Johnson, has been accused of lacking experience and political nous, but he has always boasted one qualification for government - a good grasp of Latin, Greek and classical history. So just what lessons can a modern politician learn from antiquity?

The place of classics in the great British education has declined in recent years.

Once upon a time, an Oxbridge classics degree was considered the cream of all qualifications, a gold standard for young people planning a career in the professions, the civil service and even government.

Instead of keeping quiet about his stupidity, Claudius explained that it had been a mere mask assumed for the benefit of Caligula, and that he owed both his life and throne to it

Boris Johnson's father Stanley summed it up in a newspaper interview at the weekend, saying: "In the days when Britain ruled more than a quarter of the world, a classical education was considered more than adequate training for the job of handling populations certainly as large and diverse as London's."

Johnson himself has spoken of the value of the classics in understanding modern politics, having written a book comparing the European Union with the Roman Empire, and suggesting every child be taught Latin.

But can the modern politician draw any lessons from the classical historian and philosophers?


If there's one thing the classics gives you, it's a sense of what a precarious business being in charge is. Take the Twelve Caesars by the Roman historian Suetonius. It is a story dominated by a central theme - political leaders who let power go to their heads and then pay the consequences.

Of the first eight Roman emperors, only one - Augustus - died a natural death. His successors often suffered grisly fates.

Charles Gray as Julius Caesar in a dramatisation
The fate of Roman leaders show the value of watching your back

The emperor Tiberius, Augustus's adopted son, was reported to have been either poisoned, denied food while ill, or smothered. One of his many failings was his withdrawal from affairs of state, leaving these in the hands of the murderous Praetorian Guards commander Sejanus, and later his soon-to-be-successor, the insane Gaius Caligula.

Caligula was murdered by his own guards after a reign characterised by murders. The next emperor, Claudius, was probably poisoned on the orders of his wife. Future emperors had to watch out for children, wives, bodyguards, and generals. And who to delegate power to remains one of the key challenges for any leader.


Johnson is not alone among modern politicians to have suffered controversy because of a tendency to talk volubly when it might have been better to remain circumspect.

In the classical world there was a great value placed on not saying too much. Many of the great aphorisms that have made it to the present day are the most pithy. "Veni, vidi, vici" or "I came, I saw, I conquered" - famously uttered by Julius Caesar - has been drummed into many a British schoolchild's head.

As Plato once said: "The wise man speaks because he has something to say, the fool because he has to say something."

But the masters of classical pithiness were the Spartans of Greece. It is said Philip of Macedon once sent a hostile message to the Spartans saying something along the lines of "if I bring my army down to Sparta, I will knock down the walls and kill everybody". The Spartan oligarchs reportedly sent back the one-word reply "if".


Supporters of Johnson have long denied that he has affected silliness in order to disguise his considerable intellect. But this was not unknown as a tactic in the ancient world.

"They conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle." So Socrates, as quoted by Plato, described the Spartans.

And pretending to be stupid is supposed to have saved the life of the emperor Claudius when all his relatives were being murdered in a political merry-go-round.

Suetonius reports: "Instead of keeping quiet about his stupidity, Claudius explained, in a few short speeches, that it had been a mere mask assumed for the benefit of Caligula, and that he owed both his life and throne to it. Nobody, however, believed him."


Biographies and autobiographies have long been a thorn in the side of the modern politician. It has been suggested that the current crop - including those of Lord Levy and Cherie Blair - may be causing some discomfort to Gordon Brown. But any student of the classics will know this has always been a problem.

Perhaps the best example is of Procopius, historian to the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian. Apparently a loyal chronicler to his boss, he churned out eight volumes on the emperor's reconquest of Italy and north Africa.

This emperor was dissembling, crafty, hypocritical, secretive by temperament, two-faced; a clever fellow with a marvellous ability to conceal his real opinion, and able to shed tears, not from any joy or sorrow, but employing them artfully when required
Procopius on Justinian

But the same man who wrote the history of the wars is also credited with writing perhaps the most bilious biography of a political leader ever, the Secret History or Anekdota. The wise Justinian of the earlier histories became, in the infamous Secret History, a murderous, grasping, spendthrift, state-wrecker, controlled by his wife.

"Without the slightest hesitation he used to embark on the inexcusable murdering of his fellow-men and the plundering of other people's property... he was a unique destroyer of valuable institutions," wrote Procopius.

And much as recent occupants of Downing Street might have smarted from the revelation in books by Lance Price and Christopher Meyer they should be grateful there wasn't a Procopius around. The following assessment of a leader could have been written in recent years.

"This emperor was dissembling, crafty, hypocritical, secretive by temperament, two-faced; a clever fellow with a marvellous ability to conceal his real opinion, and able to shed tears, not from any joy or sorrow, but employing them artfully when required in accordance with the immediate need, lying all the time."

The emperor's wife Theodora gets it too.

"There was not a particle of modesty in the little hussy... she would throw off her clothes and exhibit naked to all and sundry those regions... which the rules of decency require to be kept veiled and hidden from masculine eyes."

But the Secret History was not published in Justinian's lifetime. Emperors always had the option of executing those who wrote unflattering works and burning all copies.

Modern politicians have to content themselves with keeping an eye out for those with an axe to grind.


Another lesson Johnson will take from antiquity is that the enduring legacy of any leader is very often the buildings they leave behind.

On his deathbed, according to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, the Emperor Augustus boasted: "I found Rome of clay; I leave it to you of marble."

And can it be any coincidence that many of the better-regarded Roman emperors are those that have left great buildings - Claudius left a great aqueduct, Vespasian the colosseum. And Justinian, for all the badmouthing he gets from Procopius, at least left the world with a building as magnificent as the Hagia Sophia.

While wary of any future Millennium Domes, the modern British politician will still appreciate the value of leaving a monument or two.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Tacitus, the Roman historian, summed up the emperor Galba in four words: "capax imperii nisi imperasset" or "up to the job until he did it". A possible epitaph for Gordon Brown?
Andrew Guest, London

Yep, lets us look forward to Boris implementing the Spartan ideas on proto-communism, the state as a military training camp, state controlled infanticide, secret police etc, all vote winners.
A Hughes, Manchester

No such place as Oxbridge may exist, but then neither does Redbrick. Both were terms coined by the Liverpool academic EL Peers who wrote under the pseudonym Bruce Truscot in the 1940s. The concept of both was clear: 'Oxbridge' as an amalgam of Oxford and Cambridge referred to a collegiate education at an ancient university (with international reputation); Redbrick referred to the Victorian universities which often featured red bricks in their construction. The majority of them also had Classics departments. The argument therefore follows that if one does not exist then neither can the other. Stat Roma pristine nomine, nomina nuda tenemus. Far from suffer, many of us rejoice in a 'redbrick education'.
Simon W, London

RE: "a redbrick education". No such place exists. Presumably Philip suffers from having had an Oxbridge education.
Ian Murray, Woodbridge

Unbelieveably, I think Philip from Winchester is correct, there is no such place as Oxbridge (unless you count the "Oxbridge Square" shopping centre of Chesterfield County, Virginia, USA). Perhaps Boris' Oxbridge degree was one of those "correspondence courses"?
Ben, Brighton

The claim that classical education is in decline in Britain is a popular one, but I'm afraid that it is not an accurate one. In fact, there are more students studying Classics at my university (Oxford) than ever before; moreover, Latin in schools has increased threefold in the last seven years, while there is increasing demand for Classics teachers in schools (according to an article by Chris Arnott in the Guardian Education section on 5th February this year).
James Morton, Oxford

Boris may also remember the warning of Plato that those who should have power do not want it, and those who seek power should not have it.
M Owen, Manchester, UK

Another example of Spartan wit can be found in Dienekes retort to the news that Persians would fire so many arrows as "to blot-out the Sun", to which he replied, "So much the better; we shall fight in the shade."
DS, Croydon, England

Boris, bless his cotton socks, will also know that in Roman history populist rabble-rousing ends in failure (the Gracchii, Julius Ceasar), the most successful politicians play a long game (Augustus) and that senatorial dignity is worth keeping. All of which should suggest a slow and measured approach to Mayoral office...
Mark, Reading

And the Athenian leader Pericles left us the Parthenon. As the historian Thucydides said: "Suppose... that the city of Sparta were to become deserted, and that only the temples and foundations of buildings remained, I think that future generations would... find it very difficult to believe that the place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be. If, on the other hand, the same thing were to happen to Athens, one would conjecture from what met the eye that the city had been twice as powerful as in fact it is."
Anon, UK

Imagine the situation... two politicians that had started political life at roughly the same time subsequently became very powerful and eventually rulers of their country. Infighting destroyed them both - once one had been removed, the other committed political suicide by pursuing a policy which had been unpopular amongst his contemporaries. Finally, a young political novice rose up from amongst the debris to steal the crown and rule for an unprecedented number of years. Answers on a postcard?
Tony, London

I read this article as far as "Oxbridge". No such place exists - Boris Johnson went to Oxford. Presumably whoever wrote this suffers from having had a redbrick education.
Philip, Winchester, UK

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