Is Boris Johnson a "patrician cynically whipping up the mob to gratify his own ambition"? Illustration: Kate Hazell

From Catiline to Boris—the Roman lessons for Brexit Britain

Is Boris Johnson with "the people" or the mob?
August 22, 2018

Ithe mid-1st century BC, Rome’s republican constitution, which had served the city well for hundreds of years, was coming under strain. The people’s assembly voted military leaders such as Pompey exceptional powers, overturning traditional checks and balances, often because of real or imagined threats from foreign powers. This febrile, violent period eventually resolved into strong-man rule under Augustus. For history enthusiasts, it is one of the most fascinating going—providing thrilling material for Rubicon, a novelistic history of the period by Tom Holland, and a trio of historical novels by Robert Harris.

It was recorded in real-time detail by the statesman and philosopher Cicero in countless letters and speeches. Reading them you can feel that the dark arts of political manoeuvring and skulduggery haven’t changed all that much—except that in Rome, the stakes were considerably higher. Forget being the victim of a Twitter mob: in this political atmosphere you could be the murdered victim of a real mob. Cicero ended up dead, his severed head displayed in the Roman forum. A political enemy, the aristocratic Fulvia, reputedly took out her hairpins and stabbed his tongue, in revenge for his barbed wit and weaponised oratory.

Your mob, my popularis

The divisive question of populism was absolutely central to the rows that pulsated through the late republic. The adjective “popularis”—meaning “of the people”—could either be a term of abuse or a badge of honour, depending on your perspective.

The aristocratic Clodius Pulcher is a case in point: according to Cicero, he was a mob-pleasing, power-hungry brute, who terrorised the streets with his militia. He had also, allegedly, committed a gross act of sacrilege: turning up to a female-only religious ritual disguised as a woman, in order to steal a night in bed with Pompeia, who also happened to be Caesar’s wife. Clodius was acquitted in the ensuing trial, after members of the jury were offered “women or upper-class boys as they preferred,” in the words of Holland. 

These are great stories, and might remind us of all kinds of modern tales of political sleaze. The trouble is, nearly everything we know about Clodius comes straight from Cicero, his sworn enemy. But was there an alternative view? Clodius’s actual policies, such as distribution of free grain in Rome, suggest he may have been a principled, radical reformer, operating with the people’s interests firmly in view. A Rome for the many, perhaps, and not the few. Clodius as a much-maligned Momentum-style activist.

Cicero vs Boris

Clodius is a character in Harris’s novels, which have been adapted for the stage. Shortly after resigning as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson went to the show, the first part of which features Cicero’s famous speeches against another populist aristocrat, Catiline, whom the orator accused of conspiring to overthrow the Roman state. Some have argued that Cicero exaggerated the danger for his own political purposes—a view that Johnson shares. “There are those who say the Catiline Conspiracy was an early example of that basic utensil of politics—scaring the public witless,” Johnson wrote. “Otherwise known as Project Fear.”

To which the arch-Remainer Harris responded on Twitter, “Surprised he didn’t recognise that the patrician cynically whipping up the mob to gratify his own ambition is actually him.” In our times as in theirs, when you’ve got them on your side they’re “the people,” but the moment a rival is better at winning their hearts, they’re the mob.