Ancient and modern

Master charlatans at work

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

To watch the Revd Paul Flowers being grilled by the Treasury Select Committee on his role in the demise of the Co-op Bank is to watch a master charlatan at work: dignified, polite and supremely self-assured, even as he is stripped to the bone by Andrew Tyrie. The ancient world boasted plenty of such, and they all exhibit identical characteristics.

Take one Peregrinus, whose story is told by the Greek satirist Lucian (ad 115–180). He was exiled for killing his father, but saw there was advantage to be gained through the new religion on the block, and became ‘Christian’. He soon turned himself into a prophet and church leader, interpreting their scriptures, inventing others, and revered as a god ‘next to that man who was crucified in Palestine and started it all’. When he was thrown into prison, he played the victim card, and strenuous efforts were made to defend, help and rescue him. Money poured in to his coffers. Eventually it all ended in tears.


Or take another of Lucian’s subjects, Alexander of Abonoteichos, with his ‘piercing eyes, pleasant but powerful voice … inquiring mind, excellent memory … on first meeting, one got the impression that he was the most decent, honest fellow in the world, the most straightforward and unaffected.’ He started life as a rent-boy, set up a scam to fleece fatheads, and then devised a scheme to exploit people’s readiness to be oppressed by hope and fear for the future, ‘out of which you can make a lot of money’: he bought a tame snake, fooled people into believing it was a god, and set up a snake-oracle. It was a phenomenal success, Lucian tells us, extending Alexander’s fame, income and sexual opportunity far across the empire, even into the imperial court in Rome, though (again) it all came to a bad end.

Unshakeable self-confidence, total plausibility of manner and appearance, and a determination to exploit people’s trust in the power of religion: it is a winning combination. It certainly fooled the FSA, which interviewed Flowers twice and agreed on both occasions that he was the right man for the job. How many other Flowers are blooming, one wonders?

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