Diary

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t like Caligula’s horse – he’s like Caligula

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

Jeremy Corbyn has been compared to plenty of people over the past few months — a geography teacher, Michael Foot, Brian from the Monty Python film — but my favourite comparison was to a horse. Steve Fielding, professor of politics at Nottingham, declared Corbyn’s election ‘an act of political stupidity unparalleled since Caligula appointed his horse to the Roman senate’. As someone with a book just published on Rome’s first imperial dynasty, I was doubly thrilled. First, Professor Fielding had confirmed the conviction in which I had written my history of the first Caesars: that two millennia on, the West’s primal examples of political excess continue to instruct and appal. Secondly, though, by repeating the widely believed story that Caligula had made his horse a senator, Professor Fielding was also demonstrating just how important control of the narrative has always been for leaders. In point of historical fact, there was never any equine entrant into the senate. Caligula did declare his intention to appoint his favourite horse to the consulship, the highest-ranking magistracy in Rome — but only to rub the noses of the aristocracy in the brute fact that everything was in his gift. Ultimately, though, the joke was on him. In the decades after his death, the quip was enshrined as proof that he had been mad. The slander is still repeated. Jeremy Corbyn should consider himself warned: a really good political smear, once it has stuck, can endure for all time.

If the new Labour leader is to be compared to anyone from imperial Rome, then it is not to Caligula’s horse but to Caligula himself. Granted, Corbyn is yet to turn the Houses of Parliament into a brothel, set the British army to picking up seashells or ride across the Channel on a chariot (although I live in hope). Nevertheless, the essence of his political strategy is not a million miles from that of Rome’s most notorious emperor. Caligula, like Corbyn, came to power impatient with what he saw as a sclerotic and obstructive establishment. Determined to vest his authority in the love and support of the people, he sought to reach out to them over the heads of the senatorial elite. Many of the stunts which so appalled conservative opinion were consciously designed to mobilise the enthusiasm of the plebs. ‘The people loved him — because he brought their goodwill with money.’ On occasion, Caligula would take this policy to literal extremes. A couple of times, he stood on the roof of a basilica, and showered the crowds below with gold and silver coins: an exercise in ‘people’s quantitative easing’ that John McDonnell might consider emulating. Truly, talk of a new politics is one of the oldest things under the sun.


Last week I headed to Gloucester, where I was speaking about the first Caesars at the city’s excellent new history festival. For me, the trip was a form of pilgrimage. Æthelflæd, the daughter of Alfred the Great who was buried in the city, has always been a particular heroine of mine. A warrior queen whose commitment to revitalising dilapidated Roman cities such as Gloucester and Chester was no less heroic than her scouring of the Vikings from the Midlands, she played a decisive role in the forging of England. Without her, the English might never have been brought together into a united kingdom. Yet in Gloucester, as elsewhere in the country, there are few memorials to her. Nerva, the dull emperor in whose reign Gloucester was founded, gets a statue outside the main shopping centre; but Æthelflæd, who relaid the street plan, endowed it with beautiful stone buildings, and loved the city so much that she was laid to rest there, gets nothing. With the 1,100th anniversary of her death in 918 fast approaching, it is time to make amends. Not just in Gloucester but across England, due tribute should be paid to the Lady of the Mercians: the most remarkable Englishwoman of whom most English have never heard.

The impure mind, wrote Æthelflæd’s father, is like a hedgehog, which, ‘as soon as it is caught, curls up into a ball, drawing in his feet as far as he can, and hiding his head’. Its defences today are liable to seem a good deal less impressive than they did to King Alfred. The hedgehog, an animal as woven into our culture and our affections as any in Britain, is in critical danger. Its numbers have fallen by more than a third over the past decade. Such a statistic should serve us all as a reminder that we have a due of responsibility to the wildlife of these islands as well as to our fellow citizens. It is still not too late to take part in the National Hedgehog Survey, which concludes at the end of this month. The prospect of living in a country which has allowed its hedgehogs to go extinct is simply too awful to bear.

Tom Holland is a historian; his books include In the Shadow of the Sword, Persian Fire and, most recently, Dynasty, about Roman emperors.

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Show comments
  • pobjoy

    If ‘Caligula’ removed corrupt leaders, and distributed wealth to the plebeians, he may have saved a lot of trouble.

    It all depends on how you look at it; as a historian.

    • aspeckofboggart

      He couldn’t. They became non-doms.

      • pobjoy

        It was hard to become a non-dom in those days.

      • Sue Smith

        “nondoms”? Is that when you can’t afford to sleep in the dormitory and have to emain outside, loitering with-in-tent?

        • aspeckofboggart

          er…more like ‘you sleep in suite and pay dorm rate.’

    • Sue Smith

      Sorry, but wasn’t Caligula barking mad? Oh, OK, in that sense he resembles a socialist. Got it!

  • patwin

    What a load of codswallop.

    • gillardgone

      A bit like Caligula and his horse a long time dead, reminds me of corbyns policy’s and his party with any luck.

    • trace9

      Corbyn?

      • patwin

        No, this so called journalism.

  • Phonetoholic

    The modern equivalent of most remarkable forgotten Englishwoman must be Blythe Masters who reportedly conceived (single-handedly) the modern Credit Default Swap. What’s she up to nowadays?

    • fartel engelbert

      She didn’t. It’s a myth.

      • Phonetoholic

        I can’t believe you now deny it. Rewriting history again?

        • fartel engelbert

          She did BISTRO. And was on the ISDA credit derivatives committee. But she did not invent the CDS. Tim Frost did more.

  • psd

    During his assassination, Caligula was stabbed 30 times, and killed. His body was dumped into a shallow grave, and his wife and daughter were murdered. What is Tom Holland trying to say here?

    • Caractacus

      History treated him better than it will Corbyn?

    • justejudexultionis

      He is dangerously close to saying that Corbyn is an incestuous, murderous tyrant. I suggest Holland is, at this point, entirely deranged.

      • psd

        On the contrary, Corbyn would make the prefect tyrant. The only way to usher in the Utopia he espouses is with the help of the firing squad. And for the greater good, I am pretty sure Comrade Corbyn wouldn’t hesitate.

        • justejudexultionis

          The army swears allegiance to the ‘queen’ in this country, and not the People, in whom sovereignty must reside as natural justice dictates. The ‘queen’ has indeed betrayed the People and she must go!

          • Alexsandr

            which queen? stephen fry? graham norton?

  • mammal

    Please tell me people don’t subscribe to this horseshit. Surely only a masochist pays money to have their intelligence insulted by these no-good hacks.

    • patwin

      Plenty of masochists on here it seems.
      The turkeys will vote for christmas!

      • Sue Smith

        I would refer you to the famous Bugs Bunny cartoon where Daffy Duck gets into shape for Christmas instead of the turkey!!

  • trace9

    Little Boots, had little Brains
    & In his Head
    Sharp, shooting Pains
    He loved his Siblings, and his Horse
    & Also fu**ed the rest, of Course.

  • Ezra Pound

    It sure seems like Mr. Corbyn has the corrupt, treasonous, Jewish-occupied ruling class of Great Britain sweating bullets. I’m no socialist but I support Mr. Corbyn 100% for the sole reason that he has these criminals scared stiff. When will British people free themselves from the anti-British yoke of Amero-Jewish domination?

    • davidofkent

      Anti-semitic bile like yours has no place in a British newspaper.

      • Ezra Pound

        How can truth be “anti-semitic” unless Jews hate the truth?

        • whs1954

          The ideas that we are under a Jewish yoke, or that Corbyn is our saviour, have a very distant relationship with truth.

          • Ezra Pound

            Britain is most certainly under a Jewish yoke and has been for a very long time. It’s sad that you don’t know this most basic truth about contemporary British life….

          • greencoat

            Gosh, I thought nutters like you were extinct. Look after yourself mate, in case the Elders of Whatsit sneak up behind with a death-ray.

          • Ooh!MePurse!

            Weird…

          • Alexsandr

            well your comment has been moderated out. clearly unacceptable.

          • Ezra Pound

            You seem to believe that moderators are infallible. Yet I’ll bet you would scoff at the “superstitions” of the Faithful.

    • grimm

      When will tiresome “knowing” political dullards like you stop using the Spectator comments section as though it were a soapbox on Speaker’s Corner?

      • Sue Smith

        Lots of trolls use cyberspace as a Speaker’s Corner. That doesn’t mean we have to listen and engage – we are free to walk on by.

  • Junius

    ‘A couple of times, he stood on the roof of a basilica, and showered the crowds below with gold and silver coins:’

    I’d like to see Wurzel try and repeat the stunt. He’d have his collar felt by the Health and Safety Executive before he could say Earthy Mangold. Do you realise how much damage a flying fifty pee might do? You could have someone’s eye out, squire. In fact, the Speccie is probably breaching H and S regulations by even mentioning it. Do think twice in future before you post such irresponsible stuff.

  • jeffersonian

    ‘If the new Labour leader is to be compared to anyone from imperial Rome, then it is not to Caligula’s horse but to Caligula himself. Granted, Corbyn is yet to turn the Houses of Parliament into a brothel, set the British army to picking up seashells or ride across the Channel on a chariot (although I live in hope). ‘

    Chuckle 🙂

    • justejudexultionis

      If you find that amusing you might like to reflect upon the alleged debauchery of the English upper classes, particularly one David Cameron.

      • jeffersonian

        I’m afraid I can’t get too exercised about ‘alleged debauchery’.

        • justejudexultionis

          Well in that case, why don’t you get exercised about the persistent, endemic and proven corruption of the Political Class in this country? Do you consider the monarchy and House of Frauds do be democratic institutions?

          BTW Cameron’s policy blunders and cabal of Etonian advisors, sychophants

  • jeffersonian

    ‘ ‘The people loved him — because he brought their goodwill with money.’ ‘

    …an r too much?

  • grimm

    Can’t help thinking that Corbyn is more like Claudius than Caligula.

  • Abie Vee

    What self-indulgent tripe.

  • mdj

    So the horse is apocryphal; but it can never be banished from the record that Corbyn was elected with the support of more than one cat.

    • eclair

      He was bought with quite a lot of £3 cats who may well go the way of all cats…. silently into the night.

  • Mara Naile-Akim

    Are we scraping the barrel yet?

  • Mary Ann

    The amount of stories there are about Corbyn, anyone would think he was expected to win the next election.

    • KingEric

      No, it’s just that it’s still a bit mind boggling that someone so unelectable has been chosen as the leader of a political party that aspires to power.

  • Reg Cheeseman

    This remind me of Michael Gove’s rants about Trotskyites. Step back, breathe in and calm down. This sounds like desperation, bordering on hysteria, and convinces nobody.

    • justejudexultionis

      Gove’s rants are all the more bizarre given that there are only a tiny handful of Trotskyites left in this country and their number is diminishing by the day.

      • Sue Smith

        And thank God, say I.

      • Fraziel

        Most of them are in Glasgow and its more than a handful i reckon.

  • justejudexultionis

    This ranks as one of the most stupid, vicious and outlandish smears I have read coming from the Corbyn smear industry. It is all the more depressing coming from an historian of Holland’s calibre. The tone is hysterical and more akin to an adolescent GCSE essay than the reasoned work of a mature historian. I don’t agree with many of Corbyn’s policies but to compare him to a murderer and tyrant is surely a new and shameful low for this publication.

    • psd

      But Corbyn is a lunatic, right? How can anyone still be singing The Red Flag in the 21st Century? He’s lost in a time warp? Or just stupid?

      • even stares

        How can anyone still be singing ‘God save the Queen’ in the twenty-first century? Hanoverian time warp I would suggest.

        • justejudexultionis

          Monarchy is a joke but it is, thankfully, on the way out.

          • Sue Smith

            Then why is nobody laughing, if it’s a joke?

      • Sue Smith

        All. Don’t limit yourself to just the one.

    • King Zog

      I don’t get a sense of hysteria from this at all. The murderous tyranny of Caligula is really not part of the comparison. It seems to boil down to a comparison between Caligula’s ‘bread & circuses’ populism and Corbyn’s ‘buying’ of the electorate through policies like People’s Quantitative Easing.

      • justejudexultionis

        Why use Caligula in particular, then? Why not use Trajan or Augustus?

        • King Zog

          Well, Caligula – as I understand him – was particularly anti-establishment. He went over the heads of the Roman establishment to appeal to the Plebs, in a way that perhaps isn’t true of Augustus or Trajan (though I’m stretching my Roman history knowledge at this point, I will admit). OK, beyond that Corbyn=Caligula is a bit far-fetched, but I think that’s the point he’s basically making.

      • Fraziel

        Not sure you can compare anyone to Caligula without including the murderous tyranny. The article is preposterous clap trap and boring into the bargain.

  • Tamerlane

    There just aren’t enough Corbyn articles these days.

  • Frankfurt 13

    I get it. Corbyn is Caligula and John McDonnell’s is a horse’s ass…

  • Fraziel

    Self indulgent, preposterpous clap trap and boring to boot. How does this sh*te get past the editor?

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