THERE are many reasons why the history and characters of ancient Rome hold such sway in our imaginations. I’ve often wondered, for instance, if the Roman Emperor Caligula was indeed just a pure, mad bampot or a slightly unhinged visionary who was just misunderstood by his people before his inevitable and bloody demise at the hands of his power-mad generals.

Caligula was reported to have loved his horse Incitatus so much that he made him a Roman senator and held lavish parties in the beast’s honour which the city gentry had to attend on pain of disembowelment. The veracity of these reports is difficult to pin down but what cannot be denied is how much big Incitatus was favoured by his unhinged master.

Caligula also regarded himself as a living God and had all the heads of Rome’s statues replaced with likenesses of his own. Like many of his predecessors he spent inordinate amounts of money on building projects and entertainment for the masses in an attempt to leave a legacy that Roman punterdom might appreciate.

My favourite of these was a two-mile floating bridge across the Bay of Bauli that he requisitioned many of Rome’s finest merchant ships to construct. There was no military purpose for this project. Caligula simply wanted to use it to practise his equine skills by galloping across it now and then on his horse. As well as making his highest ranking generals collect shells in their helmets he also made those senators who displeased him run in front of his chariot. This was when he wasn’t having affairs with all of their wives, although it seemed that he stopped short of announcing to his chums that he liked to grab women “by the pussy” and that married women were all just asking for it. There had to be some decorum in ancient Rome after all.

I’m not about to offer a revisionist theory about Caligula and some of his more egregious excesses. It’s just that, well, we like to think we now live in a more sophisticated age where our leaders would never dare to think they could get away with that sort of malarkey. And any comparisons between Caligula and the current incumbent of the White House are simply the product of a fertile and overwrought imagination.

I mean, would Caligula have spent an inordinate amount of money building a wall between Rome and a neighbouring city just because he didn’t fancy the look of its citizens? I think not. And I very much doubt that any self-respecting Roman emperor would be spending so much time on his local golf course while the enemies of Rome were attacking the gates and there was a threat of all-out war. Or decorating his favourite clubs with mocked up covers depicting him as a poster-boy for Time magazine.

Any depictions of Caligula always seem to portray him as a clever and fit wee chiel – even if he was at times madder than a bag of monkeys. You wouldn’t have found him wasting his time watching television on a 48-inch screen while scoffing giant cheeseburgers and downing 24 cans of coke every day and delivering semi-literate rants on social media. Everyone knows that a diet like that is unsustainable in the long run and can give you bad dreams. And nowhere in Edward Gibbon’s decline and fall of the Roman Empire does it record even the most irascible of the emperors boasting about being able to start a war that could wipe out humanity.

I wonder too what the chroniclers of ancient Rome would have made of life at the top of smart, sophisticated, 21st-century Britain and especially these last few weeks. At a time of national uncertainty in the shadow of a chaotic Brexit, the UK establishment has once more reached for the royal family to help get the country to rally round. Thus we’ll permit hundreds of thousands of pounds to be spent on our behalf providing another footless and gilded young prince with a fairytale wedding. Thereafter we’ll permit the happy couple to raid the soft furnishings department of Harrod’s to decorate a crèche for their offspring in one of the many palaces we give them rent free.

And just to help their big day go smoothly we’ll hoover up all the homeless and poor people off the streets just in case any visiting leaders get the wrong impression of what life is like in this country. Perhaps we could get some North Korean officials to advise on the best and most efficient way of doing this. After all, we don’t want our young royals to think that Britain is full of poor people and feeling guilty that they might epitomise inequality in their kingdom.

In the meantime we’ll take happy pictures of all the other wee princes and princesses at important stages of their privileged and contented lives. Look here’s one of them just about to attend nursery and here’s some of her big cousins on their first day at a three-grand-a-week school. And don’t Harriet and Eugenie and Poppy look simply adorable in their new clothes bought specially for them on their third birthday; their fourth birthday; their fifth birthday..? And if there’s any danger of an inconvenient pause in the royal production line then we’ll just persuade a few more of them to get a shift on and start thinking about taking a wife or a husband.

And while we’re greasing the wheels of the royal pantomime in this way we can always rely on the honours system which has served the elite so well in making the rest of us think we are valued. Of course sometimes a UK Prime Minister decides to rip the arse out of it by going too far and favouring all their chums and party lickspittles. Harold Wilson’s Lavender List was full of establishment footstools and David Cameron, in his last act in office, doled out honours like confetti for the ill-deserving and merely indolent in his 2017 Chancer’s Charter.

Despite his successor promising to prioritise in future honours lists those who have helped boost social mobility and tackle discrimination, the same old boys drawn from the same old networks were favoured last week. A quarter of all knighthoods went to politicians, including one Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers, and former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, presumably for making other losers feel better about themselves. The only woman to receive a top honour is Cheryl Gillan, who became Welsh secretary under David Cameron. She is now a dame.

Caligula’s horse Incitatus might not have deserved the honours that came his way but at least he seems to have provided the Emperor with unswerving loyalty and unstinting service. I’m sure the noble nag would have got a knighthood in 21st-century Britain, or a cheeky wee OBE at least.