Enter the Emperor
Why Boris Johnson is our Caligula
With his love of himself, vanity projects and grand pronouncements, Britain’s new Prime Minister shares more than a few similarities with the Roman Emperor who proved too good to be true argues Otto English.
Rome Learnt the Hard Way
In March 37 AD, the new Emperor, Caligula, rode into Rome on a wave of popular adulation.
This young, tousle-haired chap was generally seen as a breath of fresh air – so different from stuffy, tired, old Tiberius. Caligula was tall and hairy and had a reputation for getting things done.
Soon, he was sweeping away unpopular taxes and rolling out populist policies. He held spectacular games and gladiatorial contests. He gave the Praetorian Guard a whacking great pay rise to keep them on side. He liked to build stuff and put up viaducts, giant obelisks, temples and a marble stable for his much loved horse, Incitatus. He brought back democratic elections – to the delight of the tiny number of citizens who could vote and to the displeasure of the ‘elite’ who questioned his motives. And, for a full year, all of Rome basked in the glow of his reign.
But, very quickly, Rome learned the hard way that when you slash taxes and go on a spending spree, the money runs out. Before long, a financial crisis had engulfed the Empire. The Emperor tried to stymie the disaster by re-imposing taxes, but it didn’t stop him building – far from it: his projects grew increasingly grand and bizarre.
He constructed a colossal floating palace and then a two-mile pontoon bridge which he flamboyantly rode across on Incitatus, before declaring his horse a consul. At around the same time, he decided that he was a God and turned his palace into a brothel before getting hacked to death by his bodyguard – to the general relief of all.
Our Rocky Ride Ahead
Boris Johnson is a big fan of the Romans.
He studied Classics (Latin and Ancient Greek) at Oxford University. He wrote a book The Dream of Rome with an accompanying TV series in which he talked favourably about how that great civilisation achieved peace and union in Europe.
Sycophantic journalists like to compare Johnson to Churchill, but Johnson is no Winston. Churchill did not create the crisis from which he led Britain – on the contrary, he spent a decade warning against its coming tide. Churchill would never have sacrificed the future of a country he loved on the bonfire of his vanity.
No, Boris Johnson in his shamelessness, in his callousness, in his privilege and his mad vanity is our Caligula – although his sense of entitlement would put even that Roman Emperor to shame.
He’s all about the bombast and the triumph. Like any Caesar, he likes to give big robust and essentially vacuous speeches which are about him, his words, and the adulation of his adoring audience. “DUDE” is his veni, vidi, vici.
As with Caligula, he’s also a fan of big, decadent and pointless schemes. It is estimated that his tenure at City Hall as Mayor of London cost the taxpayer £1 billion in vanity projects. He has a particular penchant for water crossings – from the dim-witted garden bridge that set the taxpayer back some £53 million, to the stupid cable car across the Thames that goes from nowhere to nowhere.
Johnson is so busy keeping both eyes on posterity and all the books that will be written on his general fabulousness that he has little patience for the details of government or the minutiae of policy.
He’s interested in the stuff that will get him headlines and plaudits, the stuff that will get him remembered alongside the Gods of Parliament Square. He’s no more bothered with the problems of the plebeians than Caligula was.
While Johnson was swaying on a zip-wire or embarrassing us on the international stage as Foreign Secretary, it was just about possible to laugh at the absurdity of it all – but now he is Prime Minister. Elected to power by just 0.25% of the population, this blathering fool is charged with slaying the monster he helped to create. But, there is nothing in his CV to suggest that he is up to the job.
That this vain, dangerous, egotistical liar would end up in charge was always the logical end-game of Brexit, but Britain is in for a rocky ride and a host of pointless vanity projects as this now plays out.
If there’s any benefit to come from the impending upheaval it is this: finally the lunatic is in charge of the asylum and, as he lurches from embarrassment to humiliation, the population will quickly long for it all to be over.
One can only hope that the metaphorical Praetorian guard are standing by – waiting to save us from the madness.