THE British Museum is holding an exhibition on the Roman emperor Nero. How apt.
One hesitates to use the alliteration ‘neo-Neronian’ to describe our political age, but there is certainly more than a whiff of ancient Rome in the culture of the current administration. The caddish Boris Johnson, it has previously been observed, is essentially a ‘pre-Christian’ figure, and he leads a sybaritic patrician class enjoying the pleasures of the flesh while denying them to the plebeian masses, toying capriciously with their fears, wants and desires: Freedom Day one minute, lockdown the next; businesses and lives ruined, but elite pleasures such as Royal Ascot unrestricted; foreign travel is an ever-changing traffic light, but visiting dignitaries such as UEFA don’t have to obey the rules, treated as feted guests at the great games from which the masses remain largely excluded.
The parallels don’t end there: in the green agenda, we have the worship of a pagan god – Gaia – and what self-respecting god-emperor would be without an immense programme of public works to stand as monuments to his glory? Maybe at the HS2 Euston Terminus will one day stand a great pedestal inscribed: ‘My name is Boris, Sh*gger of Sh*ggers, look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ (With apologies to Shelley, Ozymandias)
Confused, frustrated and angered by the hypocrisy and decadence of it all? Don’t you worry, you’ll have your bread and circuses, and Matt Hancock, caught fiddling with his mistress as Britain burned, has been offered up as a human sacrifice.
Will it work? I am not so sure. In recent weeks we have had a series of debacles which have sorely tried the public’s patience: the cancellation of Freedom Day; the G7; Royal Ascot and now Hancock in flagrante. Even before June 21, adherence to restrictions was noticeably slipping; it will surely slip much further now.
Toleration for this administration’s antics is, finally, wearing thin. As a trained classicist, Emperor Boris would do well to remember that Nero topped himself after the Roman Senate, spooked by widespread public revolts, declared him a public enemy. We should also draw strength from the moral of Nero’s demise: ultimately our fate really is in our hands; all this will end only when we take back our freedoms ourselves.
Let us once again turn to Shelley:
Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.
(From The Mask of Anarchy, written after the 1819 Peterloo Massacre)