Ancient and modern

No wonder Damian McBride has attracted the contempt even of Alistair Campbell

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

Damian McBride’s revelations about back-stabbing in Gordon’s imperial court raise a serious question: what was in it for him? The Roman delator (‘informer’) was not some little squirt from central casting, but a man on the up with an eye on power.

The model delator, as the historian Tacitus describes him, was one Hispo, who, ‘poor, obscure, impatient, creeping to the emperor’s cruel nature by his secret accusations, spelled danger to anyone of eminence, and won power from the emperor, but hatred from everyone else. He was the model which allowed imitators to exchange poverty for wealth, to inspire dread in place of contempt, and destroy fellow citizens — and eventually themselves’. His ambition was to ‘gain priesthoods, consulships, offices’ and make a fortune in the process, because a successful prosecution for high treason (maiestas) — the usual charge against political opponents — brought financial rewards in the form of a share of the victim’s property.


The refined Vibius Crispus (c. AD 10–92), witty, eloquent, charming, gained fabulous riches through his delations, becoming thereby a close friend of the emperor Domitian and consul three times. The satirist Juvenal took one line about him, mocking his ‘pleasant old age’ on the ground that he reached it by maintaining a cowardly silence on all the evils of Domitian’s reign. The historian Tacitus took another, depicting him as one of those who helped clamp down on that freedom of speech which senators had once enjoyed under the republic. Tacitus says that his ‘money, power and cleverness ranked him not among the good, but among the notorious’.

What a loser, by comparison, McBride turned out to be! No wonder he has attracted the contempt of professional creeps like Alastair Campbell, whose word on the subject is now treated with such awed reverence by commentators. But to return to the question: what kept McBride going? Or, perhaps, who? And why did nobody step in? No wonder MiliBalls and co. are rather keenly inspecting their fingernails.

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