Monday 3 May 2010


Celebrity classicists Mary Beard and Boris Johnson talk on Radio 4 news this morning about the similarities between elections today and those in the first century BC. In passing Boris mentions Catiline (Lucius Sergius Catilina if you want to be pedantic) but not the details of how he narrowly failed to win popular support and take control of the Roman government in 63BC on a ticket of debt cancellation. Like today a large proportion of the population had borrowed heavily in a boom and then got into greater debt as the inevitable bust followed: these disgruntled citizens, blaming everybody but themselves, were enticed to support Catiline by the revolutionary concept of cancelling private debt. The similarity had first occurred to me when the bank crisis struck last year and there were then some desperate voices suggesting cancellation of substantial personal debts as a way of stimulating movement in the economy. However, no serious political party has sought votes on this basis. For the record Catiline saw his political ambitions thwarted by the rhetorical skills of Cicero, a surprise to me and fellow students of the tortuous logic and unfunny witticisms of the sadly extant "In Catilinam" speeches (see picture of this schoolboy's translation nightmare banging on in the Senate). No doubt equally unimpressed Catiline raised a great army of debtors, took to the field, and was crushed by the creditors' forces; observing that his novel economic policy was in tatters he died bravely in the front line. We trust that the results of this Thursday's election will be respected peaceably by all sides.