The Independent London Newspaper
26th April 2019

ILLTYD HARRINGTON: The lessons of Roman history

    Author Adrian Goldsworthy urges his readers not to draw parallels between Roman history and 'our own inert institutions' - but there is much that is relevant

    Published: 16 October, 2014

    HOW exciting it was, or must have been, on overcrowded commuter trains to hear on Monday morning that our leaders were to speak in a debate next May. 

    I do not feel, with the best will in the world, that they got up and cheered as they slumped together. 

    There was no spontaneous celebrations, no sign of a North Korean military-style demonstration to honour our dear leaders. All our leaders surround themselves with the semi-religious panoply of Westminster. In spite of myself I understand that we will be hearing, to use an Americanism, the sound of boots on the ground. 

    Somehow this has drawn me to reread Roman history. Adrian Goldsworthy, a Latin scholar has come up with a timely biography of Augustus. He was Julius Caesar’s adopted son who saw off his rivals and gave to Rome and its colonies a stability and a form of democracy which has a surprising significance to our own weary company of statesmen. After 500 pages of solid and often exciting history Goldsworthy urges his readers not to draw parallels with “our own inert institutions”. In spite of this warning I seem to think there is much that is relevant. 

    Augustus, after the murder of Julius Caesar, shared power in a triumvirate with Mark Antony and Lepidus in a short-lived coalition. Augustus was in his late teens in 44BC. He lived from 63BC to 14AD, nearly 60 years in power. His political genius led him to earn the title “father of his people”. After his death, the senate made him a god. 

    Rome’s territory was bounded by the Rhine and the Danube, but he refused to be chair-bound. He travelled constantly. He behaved in a way that many modern politicians have forgotten. He kept in touch. If there was a shortage of corn, as often happened, he shared his own with a quarter of a million Romans, with particular care for the poor. Upward mobility for the working classes in these times was to be a centurion in the army. He awarded them land and cash hand-outs. 

    He did assume the imperial role on state occasions and ceremonies, of which there were many in Rome. But his wife made his clothes which he wore from day to day. It is perhaps too much to see him as closet egalitarian, but in the many long journeys throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and Spain, he showed a willingness to listen to individual petitioners. In his 60 years of “dictatorship” he showed compassion, was capable of forgiveness and seems to have had a good humour. They even called a month after him. For he had been highly intelligent and active in the interests of Romans. 

    Interesting when we look at the focus groups and gurus who are brought in from America and Australia to advise potential prime ministers. At one assembly, Quintus Cicero advised candidates: “People want not only promises, but promises made in a lavish and complimentary way. Whatever you cannot perform, decline gracefully, or better yet, don’t decline. A good man will do the former, a good candidate will do the latter.” No doubts about Cicero’s political management. 

    For us, the politics of fear and hatred seem to be working. Extraordinary fears are raised about immigration. Even the most decent people will say “Enoch was right”. An afterthought: the leader of the opposition Ed Miliband, I am told on good authority, has an inner cell that shapes his thoughts. You are not a queen bee, Ed. 

    Think outside the box. That is what leadership is all about.

    Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor, by Adrian Goldsworthy (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25)