Ancient and modern

What Tiberius could teach Jeremy Corbyn about democracy

Labour’s new boss knows everything about claiming the high ground and nothing about the art of the possible

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

The virtuous Mr Corbyn is insisting that New Old Labour should return to its traditional republican ways and take decisions ‘democratically’. The emperor Tiberius (ad 14–37) tried this one and it did not work.

The first Roman emperor Augustus agreed to his stepson Tiberius’ accession only because death had cheated him of all his preferred options. The problem was that Tiberius’ heart was not really in it. A man with republican sympathies, he seemed to be keen to persuade the senate to return to involvement in the full process of ‘democratic’ rule and decision-making, duties which that body had embraced for nearly 500 years under the republic, but which Augustus had rather sidelined as he single-handedly turned the republic into a monarchy.

So on his accession, Tacitus reports, Tiberius said ‘the state should not concentrate supreme power in the hands of one man’, but that he ‘would take any branch of state entrusted to him’. He was ruffled by Gallus asking which particular branches he had in mind; recovering, he said he was rather reluctant to decide. Gallus replied that he was not suggesting that inseparable functions be divided up; rather, he wanted Tiberius to admit that the state was a single organism, requiring rule by a single mind. Others contributed in the same vein: Haterius asked ‘How long, Caesar, will you allow the state to have no head?’ Another asked Tiberius to vote on issues first, so that he would know how to.

Whenever Tiberius left the senate house, it was said, he exclaimed in Greek ‘Men fit to be slaves!’ But the senators were right. They knew who was ultimately in charge. Thoroughly disenchanted, Tiberius left Rome for Capri in ad 26, never to return; his treacherous sidekick Sejanus came within an ace of supplanting him.

Corbyn knows everything about claiming the high ground in virtue and nothing about leadership and the art of the possible. When he finally loses his corbygrip and flounces out under protest, one cannot see his Sejanus, deputy Tom, exactly grieving over Jerry’s departure…

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  • Man on the Clapham omnibus

    Your may well be quite the most prescient I have read on the subject.

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  • MikeF

    If Owen Jones were an MP he might make quite a good Caligula.

    • Ralph

      More of an Elagabalus…

    • liberalinlosangeles

      Claudius I would think.

      • varangarian

        Claudius was an intelligent survivor, I doubt if Owen would survive in that situation

        • liberalinlosangeles

          Owen strikes me as terribly wrong but also terribly slippery enough to flourish in the ebbs and flows inherent in Labour’s next decade or so.

          He’ll most likely end up Editor of the Economist. Sigh. And. Alas. (although the Economist in the last twenty years has become so wretched that this isn’t a real big sigh or alas)

          • varangarian

            I’ll concur the Economist is not what it was, but surely it can’t be that bad, if you’ve read Powell how about a modern version of Quiggin?

          • liberalinlosangeles

            I’m not that much of an Anglophile to know Powell/Quiggin, I had to look it up.

            But it looks like a solid series that I shall order at once.

            Thanks for the reccy!

          • liberalinlosangeles

            And yes the Economist is that bad.

            Especially in it’s coverage of US politics.

            Every issue has to have at least one piece about gay marriage in the US (I mean really, in a world where gay men are being thrown off cliffs by ISIL does the squabbles over a mere word merit so much valuable print-space?)..

            And then there are the Series of Shibollahs

            In every third issue will be an essay on why Texas! Is! Turning! Blue! Despite! Election! Results! Where! It! Gets! More! Red!

            Or Gun! Control! Now!

            Or Death! Penalty! Sucks!

            Or Social! Conservatives! Suck! And! Even! When! They! Win! They! Should! Never! Dare! Try! To! Advance! Their! Ideology! Or! Policies!

            Basically, a gay marketing cabal took over the Economist and the old-time liberals were too weak to resist.

          • liberalinlosangeles

            (and I write the above as a fairly cosmopolitan gay man)

          • varangarian

            It starts slow but is well worth it when you carry it through to the end.

  • Trevor Wilson

    ‘Men fit to be slaves!’ A lot of those going around these days.

    • Caractacus

      Rome was not stupid. Even when it was a Republic, it only was so in times of peace. When a disaster or war occurred, they appointed a Dictator. For the simple reason that leadership moves faster and more successfully than endless argument and compromise. They were entirely correct.

  • liberalinlosangeles

    Hmmmm. Me’thinks you elide a bit here.

    Most Senators who were capable of…..err….. “Senating” (ha!) and most families capable of producing Senators had been killed off in the last decades of the Republic.

    You sort of make it seem in your post as if these republican Senators, to a man, were incapable or unwilling to govern.

    These were not republican Senators but Imperial Senators. Men who had no experience and who were appointed to the Senate with no expectations other than the honorific and potential opportunity for graft.

    It would be as if in the 1980’s, Lady T had decided to chuck the entirety of the government to the responsibility of the House of Lords. Say what?

    So I don’t think it’s a very apt comparison unless you are saying the people of the UK are in the same boat.

    Have you read Erich Gruen’s Last Generation of the Roman Republic?

  • Mara Naile-Akim

    But when he finally reads the riot act to the Blairites, you lots will be whining about ‘purges’ and ‘stalinism’

  • Constantin Roman

    The “Leader” may be forgotten well before his physical demise…