For the first time in many years, the ruler of London addressed the assembled populus in Latin. Boris Johnson, mayor of the U.K. capital, climbed onto the podium at the opening of the British Museum's Hadrian exhibition and began spouting classical prose.
After awhile, he paused to ask the audience, ``How much more of this do you want? There's yards of it.'' The July 23 audience didn't demur, and perhaps some of them understood what he was saying since there were several professors of classical studies present.
So the mayor plunged on. He is himself, as Neil McGregor, director of the museum, pointed out, the ruler of a vast empire, namely the London government machine.
It was an impressive performance. Tony Blair is able to speak in passable French; President John F. Kennedy famously declared ``Ich bin ein Berliner'' in German. But most British officials nowadays probably no longer have a working knowledge of Latin.
It may be that this was the best Latin speech made by a British politician since the Romans departed in the fifth century. Mayor Johnson studied Greats -- a four-year program in classics -- at Oxford, and is evidently a master of the Latin language. MacGregor, thanking the Italian ambassador for his help, described him as ``the representative of the former colonial power.''
Then the mayor moved into English, saying, according to British Museum curators who are experts in deciphering ancient texts, what he had just said in Latin.
Where's Our Pantheon?
Emperor Boris, it turned out, had a bone to pick with the other emperor, Hadrian. He admitted to ``a vague sense of insult'' at the level of attention the Roman sovereign had given to the damp northern province of Britannia. In the rest of his empire, Hadrian had constructed magnificent palaces, villas and temples such as the Pantheon in Rome, still one of the greatest buildings in the world. But what had he put up in Britain? A wall.
Admittedly, the mayor went on, it was possible to sympathize with the purpose of this: to keep out ``the Caledonians.'' Even non-classicists might suspect a reference here to the current Caledonian prime minister of the U.K. An effective wall, in fact, would have excluded several members of Gordon Brown's government.
The Romans, according to Imperator Boris, had a low opinion of Britain and the British. The Emperor Augustus, the mayor said, had described with horror their habit of drinking milk. Hadrian, though he did actually visit the country, headed for warmer climes after a mere three months. If Hadrian -- or Publius Aelius Hadrianus (A.D. 76-138) -- were to return, he would find that the blue-painted, rain-soaked citizens of Londinium had created, among other things, the greatest financial center in the world.
There are some, particularly in New York, who might dispute that claim. Still, the mayor gave a stellar performance. How many other politicians could open an exhibition with such aplomb? You could have sold tickets for the event. It raised the question of what's next for Emperor Boris? Hadrian ruled most of the territory of the EU, plus North Africa and the Near East. We shall see how far his charm and eloquence will take London's new mayor.
... anyone finds a copy of the text of the speech (or if Mr Mayor would like to send it in himself) please drop me a line; I haven't found it at the Mayor's page ...