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The Tory Megacrapolis

Francis Ford Coppola’s latest film centred on a ‘New Rome’ gets STEPHEN ARNELL wondering about the similarities between lame-duck PM Sunak and one of the last Roman emperors, Honorius

DIRECTOR Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Megalopolis premiered to mixed reviews in Cannes last week.

The plot concerns a “New Rome” on the Hudson (basically New York) blighted by an accident which throws the city into contentious debate as to its potential rebuilding. Either as a resident-friendly utopian “Megalopolis” of the future, or as just a barely functional updated version of the previous iteration.

Such debates have informed wannabe sci-fi-esque burghs such as Saudi Arabia’s proposed city The Line, a 500m tall, 200m wide, habitation extending 170km into the desert.

But our concern is primarily with the quasi-Roman setting of Coppola’s motion picture. Whereas the movie attempts to bring the chaotic events of the late Roman Republic into the present-ish day, my preferred comparator with Britain in its current state would be the reign of Western Roman Emperor Honorius (393-423 AD), the entitled boy-ruler who set the seal on the collapse of his half of the vast centuries-spanning domain.

Honorius was an immature figure (both in years and attitude), mainly concerned with irrelevant preoccupations (including his pet chickens) and easily manipulated by populist ministers determined to end the immigrant crisis of incomers from outside the empire’s borders.

Remind you of anyone?

Admittedly current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wouldn’t go as far as massacring the families of Gothic migrants (as happened in 408 AD), although the likes of peevish Reform UK deputy leader Ben Habib recently suggested that Britain should “absolutely” let asylum-seekers drown in the Channel.

His full words, “Absolutely, they cannot be infantilised to the point that we become hostage to fortune. But, of course, if people are going to repeatedly throw themselves in the channel and refuse the help of our specialised force in order to get back in the boats and go on to France — of course their lives are going to be in danger. What else can come of that?”

Habib is presumably one of the budding recruits the reliably odious Jacob Rees-Mogg is urging (along with Nigel Farage and Richard Tice) either join or ally themselves with the Tories. Farage and Habib have thus far publicly spurned this overture.

Sunak’s obsession with mathematics qualifications, Rwanda, bland filmic rom-coms, helicopter rides, awkward self-publicity and generally OCD-ish behaviour does bear some comparison with Honorius’s peculiar fixations, such as the emperors aforementioned passion for his pet poultry.

Indeed, when Rome fell to Alaric’s vengeful Goths in 410 AD, the safely Ravenna-ensconced Honorius was distraught, mistakenly believing his pet chicken “Roma” had been killed. In Procopius’s History of the Wars, the Byzantine courtier recounted that the emperor, on hearing the message “Rome has perished,” was at first struck with panic, exclaiming: “But it has just taken food from my hand!”

One can imagine similar outrage then subsequent relief if PM Sunak was informed that he could take one of  his cherished chopper trips rather than (as previously told) slum it on the railways with the common herd.

In the same year as the sack of Rome, Zosimus said that Honorius, “wrote letters to the cities in Britain, bidding them to guard themselves.” Pretty much Sunak’s attitude to those without his considerable funds (up by £120 million to £651m in 2023) and tax payer-funded protection.

Half a century after Honorius passed away in his bed from dropsy, the Western Roman Empire fell. The emperor faced at least eight usurpers during his reign; currently Sunak stands without challenge, as none of the possible contenders can (at least at present) face inheriting for a few months the dog’s breakfast he has made of Britain.

And lastly, on a lighter note, bearing in mind the PM’s oft-ridiculed shortness of trouser length (“I tend not to like lots of baggy, baggy stuff at the bottom of my ankle.”), his imperial forebear once issued a decree during his reign prohibiting men from wearing trousers in Rome (then considered a “barbarian” look).

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