Some POSIWIDs echo timelessly across the centuries.
Historical veracity aside, Robert Graves’s portrayal, in I, Claudius, of the way that Rome’s Imperial Purple passed from the slaughtered Caligula to his half-witted uncle, made unforgettable telly all those years ago. No one could have suspected that reality would eventually copy art.
Claudius, presented to us as a doltish stutterer, was discovered, trembling and blubbering, by the killers, in fear of the same bloody fate that had befallen his nephew. But with their future at risk in an empire lacking an emperor, the killers, the Praetorian Guards (for it was they) needed protection and decided that Claudius was their perfect cypher. The POSIWID of the emperor being to dispense the empire’s treasure, Claudius, stupid or not, would ensure they were paid regularly, that their pensions would be secure and that not too much strain would be put on them militarily. So instead of killing him they hoisted him on their upturned shields as was the tradition and proclaimed him emperor to their mutual prosperity.
All that was back in the year forty-one of mankind’s common era and it took thirteen years for Claudius himself to be murdered - a pretty good deal all things considered. The rest, as Gibbon tells us, is decline and fall.
A similar succession event, this time one with impeccable historical veracity, took place in the year two thousand of that same common era, in the far off empire that had replaced Rome, when Dubya was given the job of dispensing its vast treasures. Some things had changed of course although the echoes ring out. The fearful Praetorian Guard had given way to a collection of political obsessives and plutocrats, fearful for their futures and riches, and desperate to control the empire’s levers of power. Dubya was their perfect cypher, their own doltish stutterer, their own Claudius.
Claudius was Rome’s fourth emperor and had family connections with Augustus and Tiberius – the first and second. Throughout Rome’s history these two names would be evoked in POSIWID justifying control of treasure. A bit like being called Bush in America really. Without his name – if he’d been called Claudius or John Smith – Dubya, the forty-third emperor, son of the forty-first, would still be Waco’s town drunk and his empire’s treasures still vast and deep. But, hey-ho, decline and fall it is.
As a great American once said, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again.’