Fantasy Dinner Party Part 3

Our leading journalists host a motley crew of characters from the past and present, while cartoonist Michael Heath draws the selfies

By Rachel Cunliffe

July 20 2023

Is it brave, or foolish to have invited Tacitus to dinner? I’ll settle for brave – the man himself said that in valour there is hope – but now I’m worried. On the one hand, very much a man for our times as well as his, he understood what cancel culture really meant, counting himself fortunate to live “when you can think as you please and speak as you think”.

He wrote the definitive account of the year of the four emperors, damn it, he’d feel right at home in our current political climate. But also a potential nightmare. Cutting, incisive, judgemental – the historian who used banqueting to explore the flaws and follies of the great. What will he think? What will he say?

The dilemma when hosting travellers is whether to make them feel at home or show off the pleasures of your own table. Sow’s womb, stuffed dormice, and drench the lot in garum – or smoked salmon, a cheese-and-bacon burger and truffle fries? Play it safe, I think – oysters and venison, foods he’ll know. But must I follow the example of Tigellinus, Nero’s cruel and debauched advisor, and fill the room with “naked prostitutes, indecently posturing
and gesturing”?

Messalina would know. Much-maligned Messalina was said to have sneaked out of the imperial palace to work clandestinely in a brothel under the pseudonym “She-Wolf”, traipsing back only when begged to by the pimps. Tacitus documented her downfall, ruined by the lust for power and, well, lust. Or perhaps she was a woman making her way in a man’s world and damned for it – and for daring to express sexual desire. Maybe she’d punch him in the eye. Maybe the whole company would become inflamed, what with all those oysters – and the indecent posturing.

Gordon Brown, Rachel Cunliffe’s dinner guest, claims to be a fan of rockers The Arctic Monkeys
Gordon Brown, Rachel Cunliffe’s dinner guest, claims to be a fan of rockers The Arctic Monkeys

Which would rather shock Gordon Brown, I’m afraid. The puritan-faced, Kirkcaldy-bred son of the manse might find himself a little out of his comfort zone. Perhaps he could be tempted to take a when-in-Rome attitude, as he did when he famously claimed to enjoy the Arctic Monkeys – actually, scratch that thought. But why is he here? Because “no one would have doubted his ability to reign had he never been emperor”, to mis-attribute another Tacitus line. The historian would appreciate, I think, the chance to discuss the vicissitudes of power with the man who would surely be remembered as the ablest Chancellor of the 21st century, had he never been promoted. “Those in supreme power always hate and suspect their next heir” – perhaps that might strike a chord with everyone.

But I wouldn’t want this written up by Tacitus. Few emerge well from his banqueting descriptions, especially those hosting. But his account of the poisoning of Drusus, son of Tiberius, reminded me of the time the crime novelist (among other things) Anthony Horowitz told me with a grin that the best way to murder me would have been to poison the sushi I’d just swallowed. Would he want to come? For over four decades he has observed, incisively, the interplay between power and people, and used the sparkle of entertainment to playfully smuggle some uncomfortable truths into print and onto screen. And I’ve always wanted to be in one of his books.

So, with expectations of a full-blown punch-up between two legendary figures of ancient Rome, Labour’s last Prime Minister holding forth, and the risk it will all end up on BBC iPlayer, what would be the venue? Where would the wine flow fast enough, the food satisfy all tastes, and the other diners sympathise if it all gets a tad chaotic? Well, I can think of one place, but I must just check their policy on prostitutes.

Rachel Cunliffe is a broadcaster and Senior Associate Editor at The New Statesman