Historian Tom Holland’s interview on the Today programme made for interesting listening.
Is our Prime Minister really moulding himself on Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman empire? And the populist Pericles, the great statesman of Athens who led the city in the Golden Age of ancient Greece?
After his purge on 21 MPs who voted against him in the Brexit debate, Johnson reportedly compared himself to Octavian, who later became Augustus, who slaughtered his opponents and brought sixty years of peace to ancient Rome.
Holland, who will be speaking about his book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, at BridLit on Friday 8 November, told the Radio 4 interviewer Justin Webb that when he heard Johnson’s claim he thought, at one level, it was a ‘lunatic’ thing to say. Octavian’s purge was brutal, chopping off heads and having them brought to him.
He embroiled the Roman world in two violent civil wars and founded an autocracy on what had been a republic. But as Augustus, he presided over an age of peace, the Golden Age of Rome.
Holland said this offered a fascinating insight into Johnson’s hopes for what he’s doing – giving the Brexiteers Brexit and then doing whatever he wants. Just as Augustus claimed he had restored the republic by destroying it, it could be that Johnson, who Holland stated that everyone says is naturally a liberal Tory, is destroying Liberal Toryism just so he can restore it.
‘What classical history offers the ambitious politician is the notion that you can pursue your own ambitions while simultaneously serving the needs of your city,’ Holland said.
‘I think that Boris Johnson is hugely inspired by Plutarch’s life of Pericles and Livy’s account of the heroism of early Rome and I think that this does serve him as a genuine inspiration while also giving him a licence to pursue his own ambitions. There is a reason why he has a bust of Pericles. It’s because Pericles was both the defender of Athens but also a guy who ruled Athens for decades.
‘So it offers him both liberty and personal ambition and what more could an ambitious prime minister want?’