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How to Be Popular: Historical Tips for Leaders

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Modern politics is tougher than a leather sandwich. We live in a 24 hour world, where the news media has transformed itself into the living embodiment of the Ancient Egyptian Ouroboros (a mythical serpent that devours its own tail, in an eternal loop of ill-advised munching). Stories that once had the paltry longevity of an X Factor winner's career are now running longer than the Lord of The Rings trilogy director's cut boxset.

Worse, politicians can no longer ignore unflattering stories, because that itself becomes a story. "No Comment" used to a cheeky loophole, deployed on the doorsteps of the disgraced to stifle a scandal. Now it is a thundering admission of guilt, or a red rag to a red-top-hack. It implies "I'm hiding something", and merely incites further prodding and probing until the house of cards collapses.

Alastair Campbell supposedly used to ritually sacrifice anyone who dominated the front pages for 10 days running. I'm not sure whether he eviscerated their vital organs from atop an Aztec pyramid, but they certainly didn't look well afterwards...

Journalism used to be merely reflective of the news, but now it can be interrogative and instigative - how often do we see politicians on the back-foot, trying to quash embarrassing stories that have been dug up through diligent (or illegal) investigation? This is obviously a healthy thing for democracy (phone-hacking aside), but a bloody nuisance for all those in power. Politics is a funny old game today - as soon as you are voted in, people are trying to push you out.

So here for the benefit of all those put-upon politicians is a short historical guide - a modern Machiavellian handbook, if you will - to ensuring maximum popularity with the electorate, sure to keep you in power despite all the best efforts of those pesky journos.

1) Arrange Your Own Assassination Attempt
Ancient Athenian schemer Peisistratos faked his own assassination attempt so he could receive a bodyguard unit of troops to 'protect him'. Enjoying the resulting public sympathy for his 'traumatic attack', Peisistratos then deployed his newly-appointed heavies to take control of the city and declare him Tyrant. Win!

2) Refuse To Admit Defeat... Literally
Ramesses II went down in history as the greatest of all the Egyptian pharaohs, largely because he swaggered around bragging about his awesome victory at the Battle of Kadesh. He inscribed enormous sculptural reliefs, depicting him in valiant combat against the Hittites, and made sure everyone knew just how brave and brilliant he was. This was a slight exaggeration... he hadn't actually won the battle, and very nearly died in the fighting. Still... who's to know, eh?

3) Don't Rename The Nation After Yourself
It seems an obvious one, but occasionally people get carried away. Alexander the Great named 16 cities after himself (all of them called Alexandria), but he was quite an impressive man so he got away with it. Less impressive was Emperor Commodus of Rome (yes, the bloke from 'Gladiator') whose only real talent was being gorgeous, in a posh sort of way. Commodus got a little big for his boots, and declared that Rome - a name with a 900 year heritage by that point - should be henceforth renamed Commodiana, in his honour. This was met with a frostier reception than One Direction headlining at a Slayer gig. He was strangled to death not long after.

4) Stay Out of Religious Affairs
People hate it when you mess with their faith. Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Queen Nefertiti tried to switch Egypt to a monotheistic religion worshipping just one god, Aten. This was met with anger, though he did manage to build an enormous new capital city, Amarna, fit for 50,000 worshippers. As soon as he died, the city - which was seven miles in size - was immediately abandoned on a matter of principle. As dramatic statements go, it's significantly more pouty than saying "talk to the hand, girlfriend..." Even Naomi Campbell would applaud that level of city-wide stroppiness.

Henry VIII's dalliance with Protestantism and the destruction of monasteries caused a northern Catholic rebellion in 1536, called the Pilgrimage of Grace. 40,000 men, women and children marched against the King, and forced some embarrassing government U-turns... though Henry survived the uprising by reacting to the rebellion with characteristic subtlety. Sorry, did I say subtlety? I meant violence. My bad.

A century later, King Charles I, the absolutist monarch, literally lost his head over his meddling with the Prayer Book in Scotland and England. It didn't help that he also treated parliament like it was an ATM machine, punching in his demands for cash and getting angry when it tried to give him an advice slip.

5) Don't Embarrass Yourself
These days, we like our leaders to be sporty. Obama can dunk, Putin can wrestle tigers, and Cameron can watch Obama dunk. Yet, the Romans were much less impressed when their Emperors took to the arena or stage to show off. Athletes and musicians were normally slaves, and such behaviour was unbecoming of the purple toga.

Nero was the first great public embarrassment, the Boris Yeltsin of the Ancient World. A poet, singer and bagpipe player (yes, really...), Nero demanded adulation wherever he went. He even competed in the Olympic Games, changing all the events to suit him, and declaring himself winner of the chariot race despite crashing his chariot and failing to finish. He bussed in professional audiences, who he paid to applaud him, and sources say some people even feigned death just to be spared another stanza of his terrible verse. Understandably, he was murdered, possibly out of sheer embarrassment on his behalf.

We have already met Commodus, but it's worth mentioning his outstandingly cringe-worthy hobby of pretending to be a gladiator. He was, in fairness, pretty good - he killed countless men in the arena, some of them ex-professional legionaries skilled in the ways of combat. That said... it should be mentioned that all of these men were, in fact, amputees with most of them missing a leg. To make matters worse, the hopping amputees were tethered together with ropes, like at a particularly cruel school sports day, and they were armed only with sponges. Frankly, they would have failed to do much damage at a coconut shy, so a heavily armed emperor was always going to be an impossible task...

To be fair to him, Commodus did not only take on defenceless men... he also enjoyed slaughtering defenceless exotic wildlife, on one occasion killing more than 100 animals in a day. His speciality was ostriches, which are quite aggressive up close. Understandably, therefore, Commodus shot them from distance with his bow. What a guy!

Upon revelling in his unfairly-inflated masculine awesomeness, the unpopular emperor managed to increase public hatred by subsequently declaring he was the Roman incarnation of Hercules, the mythical demi-god of Classical legends. A replacement emperor was already being lined up by this point. Much like a manager of Chelsea football club, his downfall was swift and inevitable.

6) Blame Someone Else For National Problems
Two words: Adolf Hitler.

Of course, it wasn't just Hitler who persecuted the Jews and blamed them for the nation's problems. Anti-Semitism was rife in the Middle Ages, and one of the bloodiest and most shocking attacks on Jewish communities occurred in England during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. On 16 March 1190, 300 Jews were attacked in York and were forced to flee to Clifford's Tower for safety. They were besieged by an angry mob, and many chose to commit suicide through self-immolation rather than be torn apart by the not-very-Christian Christians. A few who chose not to burn to death were assured they would be spared... and were promptly bludgeoned to death seconds later when they opened the gates. The attacks on the Jews spread throughout England, with religious propaganda being used to justify it. However, a more sinister reason seems to have been the cause - Jews were often money-lenders, and many were killed by those who owed them money. What did Richard the Lionheart do? Nothing. He gave tacit approval. They didn't show that in the Disney version of 'Robin Hood'.

In 1666, The Great Fire of London was blamed on French Catholic terrorists, and one Frenchman was even executed, despite not having been in the country at the time of the fire. Even in the 18th century, Catholics were despised in Britain and their rights were curtailed by law. When this law was repealed in 1780, the infamous Gordon Riots proved the extent of anti-Catholic hatred that lurked in the country... though, in fairness, Britain hated pretty much everyone at that point.

America was not exempt either. In the 1840s, the largely Protestant urban population of the now prosperous nation was disgusted by the arrival of German and Irish Catholics, whose beer halls were perceived to be Papal institutions of sedition. Many politicians jumped on the bandwagon, trying to turn this hatred into a platform for election. Ironically, such was the number of new immigrants, very quickly the Protestants were outnumbered and outvoted!

7) Put Yourself On Show
Swanning around looking wealthy is not always idea in austere times... just ask Marie Antoinette's severed head. However, if you want the public to love you, don't be a stranger. King Charles II, a PR operative of the highest calibre, used to enjoy dinner parties with various ambassadors in full view of the public, who were permitted to stand and watch the king munch his dinner... or at least, try to. You see, the delicious spread on the table would often prove too much for the hungry commoners, and Charles would find the food vanishing into greedy mouths, or into cavernous pockets for consumption at a later time. The pragmatic Charles allowed it to happen, aware it had only a positive impact on his reputation, and sat down for a proper meal indoors an hour later... away from the mob this time.

8) Bread and Circuses
The art of being popular effectively consists of bribery and distraction. Every Roman leader knew that entertainment, in the form of gladiatorial games and such alike, was what the public craved. It was vital, therefore, for leaders to sponsor such events. Titus unveiled the famous Colosseum in 80AD, and immediately won the crowd over with arguably the world's longest opening ceremony. London 2012 should take note, Titus inaugurated the arena with no fewer than 100 consecutive days of games. By the end, they were starting to run out of animals to slaughter and had to improvise with stray pets. Unlike China's Olympics, there were no CGI fireworks back then...

Yet, providing entertainment for the mob wasn't simply enough. The sponsor had to be seen enjoying the spectacular. Famously, Julius Caesar was chastised by the crowd for doing paperwork while he was meant to be watching the contest in the arena. Can you imagine Cameron and Obama being booed if they tried sneaking in a meeting with their economic advisors while enjoying a sporting occasion? Actually... yes. But mostly because people boo them anyway.

When people weren't being entertained, they were hungry and bread was the other thing required from a political figure. Emperors and politicians were privately wealthy, almost as rich as Mitt Romney, and it was expected that they would provide for the neediest in a welfare system of individual generosity. Agrippa, the lifelong best buddy of Emperor Augustus, paid for the people of Rome to have free haircuts and baths. This is extraordinarily generous, though I doubt 'Antonius et Gaius' were quite so pricey back then...

Today, our politicians are rarely associated with philanthropy. Indeed, perhaps the most famous carer for the needy is the Manchester City footballer Mario Balotelli, who is renowned for driving around dishing out cash to random strangers. He has managed to encompass the bread and the circus in a shrewd package - he does the public entertaining on a Saturday afternoon, and then dispenses wealth the rest of the week. At this rate, it won't be long before Balotelli is Home Secretary.

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