Tuesday, April 6, 2010

27th March 2010

Steven Byers looks more like one of the sellers as he touts himself round the House of Commons like a ‘taxi for hire’. Romans knew all about this sort of thing.The Latin for ‘electioneering’ was ambitio, and its cognate ambitus meant ‘bribery’. Since vote-winning was an honourable pastime, bribery did not automatically mean corruption. It meant doing favours by offering gifts for something in return, which could (at a pinch) be seen to be in the public interest. Such a culture was at the heart of all relationships, social, political, legal and business, in the Roman world. The general public too played the game, getting to the head of the queue by greasing palms. The emperor Caracalla (AD 198-217) offered sound advice to officials here: do not take ‘everything, nor every time, nor from every one’.For the great and good, this could be done on a huge scale. When Caesar and Pompey, for example, took steps in 59 BC to ensure that Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy XII became king of Egypt, they picked up a cool £50 million. Provincial governors, appointed from those who had served their year of office, found it easy to make a fortune in the service of Rome, even an honest one like Cicero. But as wits said, a governor had, in fact, to make three fortunes: one to recoup election expenses from climbing the greasy pole in Rome; one to bribe the jury on charges of provincial mismanagement; and one to live off thereafter.But where Byers went badly wrong was to suggest he had far more influence than he did. Romans had a word for this: ‘selling smoke’. When Severus Alexander (Roman emperor AD 222-235) heard that Verconius Turinus was making vast sums by claiming he had Severus’ ear, he set up a hoax petitioner to expose him. Verconius was tied to a stake in the forum, and a fire of straw and wet logs was constructed around him. There he was suffocated to death by the smoke, while the herald cried ‘He who sold smoke is punished by smoke’.Cicero once thundered ‘There is nothing by which those in charge of public affairs can more easily endear themselves to the masses than by incorruptible abstemiousness.’ It is a message which some of our MPs seem congenitally incapable of comprehending.caveat emptor – or Byers beware.

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