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Who is History’s Worst Political Adviser?

Four historians consider the harm caused by those who should have helped their political masters.

Claudius is proclaimed emperor, by Charles Lebayle, 1886. École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts / Wiki Commons.

‘Many bristled at Nikephoros’ tactless behaviour’

Peter Frankopan, Professor of Global History at the University of Oxford

History, as we know, does not repeat itself. It is simply a coincidence that in the Byzantine Empire in the second half of the 11th century an adviser who was too clever and cunning for his own good polarised polite society, compromised the leader and helped wreck the economy.

Byzantine emperors, like British prime ministers, often relied heavily on a trusted adviser. In the 1070s, Michael VII turned to a man named Nikephoros, a high-flyer who had enjoyed several brushes with scandal in the past, mainly for rubbing people up the wrong way.

Nevertheless, he had his admirers, such as Kekaumenos Katakalon, who thought he was ‘generous and very clever’, ‘an extremely reasonable man’ – just what the stuffy civil service needed at a time of change and rising pressure from Byzantium’s neighbours.

Few others saw it that way. Many bristled at Nikephoros’ tactless and aggressive behaviour, at the way he locked others out of important decisions and limited access to the ruler. He was accused, too, of giving his friends a leg up and showing them favours they had not earned and did not deserve. He was arrogant, clumsy and scorned those who criticised him.

The changes he introduced were supposed to allow the empire to take back control and regain momentum. They sounded good on paper, but were a disaster in practice. A tax hike to boost public spending went wrong from the start, while the plan to stabilise grain supply and prices, centred on the introduction of a system of centralised distribution, had the effect of causing shortages, inflation – and chaos.

Although he was a highly divisive figure, nicknamed ‘Nikephoritzes’ (‘little Nikephoros’) as a term of contempt, some turned their ire on the emperor. Michael VII ‘lacked steady judgement’, wrote one contemporary, ‘and showed no lack of childish immaturity’. Too lazy to do the job properly or to make decisions, he simply handed control over to his adviser.

It did not end well. The emperor was deposed; Nikephoros was exiled and abused; and the empire slumped to its knees. Nikephoros would have blamed the elites in glitzy Constantinople for many of the problems facing Byzantium, and perhaps not without reason. None of it, of course, was his fault. That’s the thing with advisers: it never is.

 

‘The accolade for worst adviser must surely go to Sejanus’

Catharine Edwards, Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London

Advisers to Roman emperors often get a bad press. The emperor Claudius, bookish and absent-minded, was at the mercy of self-serving ex-slaves – Narcissus, Pallas and Polybius – or so snobbish Roman aristocrats, their noses out of joint, insistently claimed.  Poor old Seneca did his best to guide his wayward pupil Nero and probably doesn’t deserve some of the accusations against him, but it’s hard to defend the letter he ghost-wrote explaining away Nero’s murder of his own mother.

The accolade for worst adviser, though, must surely go to Sejanus, prefect of the praetorian guard for much of the reign of the emperor Tiberius. The emperor himself was wily enough, but Sejanus seems to have played on his paranoia, persuading him to concentrate the praetorians in barracks on the edge of Rome, where their menacing presence made clear the military underpinnings of imperial rule. Sejanus was rumoured to have seduced the emperor’s daughter-in-law Livilla and, with her, to have plotted the poisoning of the emperor’s son, Drusus, who died in AD 23. Encouraged by Sejanus (historians claim), Tiberius eventually retreated to the island of Capri in AD 26 – leaving Sejanus in control in Rome. Prominent figures who challenged Sejanus were picked off in a series of treason trials. And Tiberius was induced to cut a swathe through his own family.

His widowed daughter-in-law, Agrippina, the emperor Augustus’ granddaughter, had long been a thorn in Tiberius’ side. Accused of treason and declared a public enemy, she was sent into exile. Badly beaten (she lost an eye), Agrippina died in suspicious circumstances, as did her oldest son. Another son was imprisoned in AD 30 – and later starved to death. 

But Sejanus overreached. A letter, from his sister-in-law Antonia, finally got through to Tiberius on his island retreat and the emperor moved against Sejanus. Condemned by the Senate, he was summarily executed. Public loathing for this political adviser was such that his body was torn to pieces by the mob and thrown into the river Tiber, his statues were torn down – and even his children were executed. 

 

‘Eadric Streona bears much of the responsibility for this disastrous turn of events’

Levi Roach, Associate Professor of History at the University of Exeter

Few political advisers have received such justified opprobrium as Eadric Streona (‘the Grasper’). Eadric rose to prominence following the turn of the first millennium and was the grey eminence of the later years of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’. This was a period of political turmoil, which saw successive conquests of England by the Danish rulers Swein Forkbeard and Cnut. Eadric bears much of the responsibility for this disastrous turn of events.

Eadric hailed from the Midlands and his star rose in the wake of the ‘palace revolution’ of 1005-6. This was a dramatic changing of the guard at court, which saw Ealdorman (i.e. Earl) Ælfhelm of Northumbria executed and his two sons blinded. Later sources implicate Eadric in these events and there can be little doubt that they are correct. Ælfhelm came from the Midlands himself and it was Eadric and his kin who benefited from the family’s eclipse.

As befits his moniker, Eadric’s later career was marked by self-interest. His fortunes rose swiftly after 1006 – and with them, those of his brothers. Yet their loyalties were to each other, not to king and country. Already in 1008, fighting between one of Eadric’s brothers and a Sussex magnate led to the loss of a large part of the English fleet. Then, at an assembly at Oxford in 1015, Eadric tricked Morcar and Sigeferth, two other leading figures at court, into his quarters. There he had them ‘basely killed’, as a contemporary observer has it. This act of intrigue was another move against a rival faction and it is no coincidence that Sigeferth was married to a relative of Ælfhelm.

But it is above all Eadric’s actions during Cnut’s invasion which have earned him censure. He initially defected to the Danish king in the summer of 1015. Then, following Æthelred’s death and the accession of Edmund Ironside (in the spring of 1016), he returned to the English side, only to defect once more, at the decisive battle of Assandun, sealing Cnut’s conquest. The wily Danish monarch, however, saw through the English quisling and Eadric was soon executed alongside Cnut’s English opponents.

 

‘The worst has got to be Johann Friedrich Struensee’

Kate Maltby, critic, columnist and final-year PhD student in the English Department at University College London

When there are bold new ideas in the air, it’s easy to fall for intellectual conmen. The world has never been short of men who bulldoze their readers with million-word screeds – whether blogposts or pamphlets – or of easily impressed rulers who mistake verbosity for cerebral supremacy. In the changing winds of the early 18th century, plenty of chancers with half an understanding of Enlightenment principles found their way to the centre of European courts.

Two of the most dangerous were Scottish economists. John Law, as France’s Controller General of Finances, convinced that nation to back his Mississippi Company, the collapse of which began the economic turmoil that would lead 60 years later to the French Revolution. William Paterson, after travelling the world making money from the slave trade, managed to cripple the governments of both Scotland and, after Union, Great Britain. The former through the ‘Darién Scheme’, a half-baked idea to set up a Scottish empire in Panama, and the later through the South Sea Bubble, whose failure he did not live to see.

But if there’s one way to screw over a king, it’s to undermine the legitimacy of his heirs. So of all the disastrous royal advisers of the Enlightenment, the worst has got to be Johann Friedrich Struensee, a German doctor who took charge of Denmark in 1770 while Christian VII descended into mental decline. He didn’t do a bad job by liberal norms: he abolished torture, slavery, censorship of the press and many hereditary privileges. Unlike Law and Paterson, he had a healthy sense of fiscal prudence. But he got too close to Christian’s wife, the British princess Caroline Mathilde; it was widely understood that her daughter, Princess Louise Auguste, was Struensee’s child. In 1772, it all got too much for the courtiers of Copenhagen and a traditionalist coup seized power, arranging the execution of Struensee and reasserting control over the ineffectual Christian. Struensee was said to have kept the king locked in a cell and beaten regularly, while he himself cavorted with the prisoner’s wife. In the end, the worst advisers – and those who meet sticky ends – aren’t those who propose disastrous policies, but those who seek to usurp the office of a king. 

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