On Tuesday, Bob Diamond, the Chief Executive of Barclays Bank, one of the world’s biggest banks, was forced out of his job. He held that position for only 18 months, but he had been at Barclays for 16 years. During those years, Diamond led a revolution. He turned a staid old institution into an investment banking giant, increasing its revenues from £1 billion to £10 billion. But suddenly, he was out.
Diamond fell because of a scandal. Barclays admitted manipulating its lending rate, which caused global ripples affecting at least $500 trillion. Barclays has paid a record fine of $453 million. Other banks are under investigation and are likely to be found guilty too. Diamond says he knew nothing of the abuses but the British authorities insisted on his head.
So Diamond joins the ranks of fallen titans. He leaves a question, though. Was he a con man or a scapegoat?
To help with the answer, I turned to the Underworld’s greatest expert on fallen titans: Caesar’s Ghost.
“Hail, Professor. What concerns you today?”
“‘The sad story of the death of kings,’ as the Bard said. I mean, the fall of Bob Diamond.”
“He is a banker with the heart of a leader, a man of drive and vision with a magnetic personality. He built a financial empire and made England richer. Of course, he was forced from office and hauled before a Parliamentary committee to confess his sins. Perhaps Diamond should have changed his name to Rhinestone or something equally lowly – that might have inclined men’s minds his way.”
“Do I detect bitterness about the way free societies treat great men, Caesar?”
“Caesar is made of harder clay. He simply states the way the world works: The people expect their leaders to run every risk in order to bring them empire, as the Romans said – or, to bring them prosperity, as you call it today. If a few rules are broken along the way, the people don’t mind. Then, afterwards, when all is safe, men who leaned on their shields during the crisis turn and accuse the leader of violating the law.”
“Pardon me, dictator, but that sounds like an excuse for law-breaking.”
“The laws are all form and no substance.”
“So Diamond is guiltless?” I said.
“Hardly. Perhaps Diamond turned his eyes away from the truth he should have known, that his men were rigging interest rates. Diamond has a reputation for not wanting to hear bad news, which is like leaving an army without spies.”
“Diamond is certainly guilty of one thing, though – he let his star shine too brightly.
He took huge bonuses and came under fire for it. The Business Secretary in the last British government, Lord Mandelson, criticized Diamond’s lack of humility and modesty.”
“Then, last year Diamond said this to a Parliamentary committee: ‘There was a period of remorse and apology for banks. I think that period is over.’ Caesar would have spoken otherwise.
“For example, before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he called his men together to win their support. He did not say, “The period for remorse and apology by provincial governors is over.” Instead, he said that he was fighting not for himself but for the common people. In particular, Caesar said that was defending the tribunes of the people – those popular politicians – and the dignity of his soldier’s commander (who just happened to be himself).”
I thought to myself that Caesar was not always so diplomatic. After defeating all his enemies and returning to Rome, Caesar made fun of the Roman Republic and flirted with the trappings of monarchy. In other words, he gave up any remorse or apology for having plunged Rome into civil war.
The result was the Ides of March. By comparison, Bob Diamond got off easy.
Barry Strauss is author of Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar and the Genius of Leadership (Simon & Schuster, 2012).