It is not so long ago that Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, made a disparaging remark about Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minster of the Coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (Daily Telegraph 18/12/2013).
Disparaging remarks are nothing new in politics. After all, Octavius and Mark Antony wrote to each other in very blunt terms but what was unusual in this recent case is that Boris Johnson compared Nick Clegg to the Emperor Valerian (AD 253-c.260).
I can’t think of many politicians who would make such an erudite, if obscure comment. But Boris has ‘form’ in that he studied classics and has written books about the ancient world. Valerian was captured by the Persians and reputedly skinned and stuffed. Hence the political insult: Nick Clegg like Valerian is a man of straw, the external appearance, not the reality. In an exchange of tweets that followed the newspaper reports, one wag commented that to add to the insult of being skinned and stuffed by his captors, Valerian had suffered the insult of being compared to Nick Clegg!
The joke has additional relish because the coin – a silver antoninianus – that Keith Sugden, Curator of Numismatics at Manchester Museum, selected has an obverse that reads LIBERALITAS. I am sure that’s pure coincidence.
However, it is not entirely clear that Valerian did indeed suffer the indignity of being stuffed. It is also possible that he was on relatively good terms with the Persian king and was sent east with other prisoners-of-war to carry out civil engineering works. But an alternative story of Roman POWs and MIAs wouldn’t make for quite the same political gibe would it?