It happened today - June 8, 2016
On June 8 of 68 AD Galba became emperor. Seven months later he was dead of various wounds. And I know, I know, you’re ready for me to stop with the dead emperors. But I bring Galba up because of a deadly epithet rather than sword blow. After he was done, Tacitus dispatched his reputation with the terse “Omnium consensu capax imperii, nisi imperasset”, that is, “universally regarded as fit to rule, if he had not ruled.”
Now you can bury Galba as deep as you like. In fact his head was cut off, carried about and taunted, including by a freedman who bought it once Otho and his troops were done mocking it so he could throw it on the same spot his former master was executed on Galba’s orders, before being reunited with his trunk and placed in a tomb by the Aurelian Road. But I digress.
The point is that there are better political insults. I’ve always especially cherished Disraeli’s on Prime Minister John Russell, that “If a traveller was informed that such a man was Leader of the House of Commons, he might begin to comprehend how the Egyptians worshipped an Insect.” But there are few more lethal verdicts. And not just for Galba.
For instance Paul Martin here in Canada. John Major in Britain, or Gordon Brown, according to a reader of Britain’s Daily Telegraph who duly quoted Tacitus in the original Latin (approvingly noted by Christopher Howse in that same paper eight years ago in a column full of great insults including Dorothy Parker’s crushing drama review “The House Beautiful is the play lousy”). And doubtless you can think of others. I won’t say Barack Obama, because plenty of people doubted his abilities before he became president and plenty still defend him today. But there are many with sterling reputations, résumés and political backing who aim for high office, achieve it, and are instantly rendered or revealed as hollow before a horrified world and posterity.
There’s George Bush Sr. And there’s definitely James Buchanan. Few men have entered the White House with more impressive credentials, or faced a worse crisis with less success or visible sign of effort at coping, drifting rather than blundering into the U.S. Civil War and saying as he expired three years after that sanguinary conflict: “Whatever the result may be, I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that at least I meant well for my country.”
Oh shut up. It’s not enough to become president and mean well feebly, another deadly shaft aimed unkindly by Theodore Roosevelt at his former protégé William Howard Taft. I don’t say it would actually have been a mercy for Buchanan to be dispatched by rebellious cavalry like Galba was, or for Galba to be. I wish somehow the deed could have been performed politically rather than physically, and by a mirror that revealed their hollowness to them ahead of time rather than to the world too late.
Perhaps we could at least install mirrors over the sinks in the restrooms on Parliament Hill with the words “Omnium consensus capax” and hope people are curious enough to ask what it means and wise enough to reflect on the answer.