Discussion / History / News & Events

M. Thatcher cos. ter.

The award of a ‘ceremonial funeral’ to the late Baroness Thatcher to be held this Wednesday has caused a huge amount of debate in recent days. Some are outraged she’s not receiving a state funeral. Some are outraged that she’s even receiving a ceremonial funeral. Some are outraged that she’s receiving a state funeral but in disguise. Some aren’t really sure what the difference is. In fact, in case you number yourself among the last category, dear reader, no one is, at least in terms of who should receive one. The official parliamentary briefing read as follows:

“The process for deciding when a state funeral should be held for a person other than the Sovereign is relatively unclear, not least since it happens so rarely and at long historical intervals. There is no official process set out in public”

The last state funeral, supposedly reserved for Sovereigns or “exceptionally distinguished persons,” was for Sir Winston Churchill in 1965. In the past, they have been awarded to other such famous individuals as Sir Isaac Newton, Admiral Nelson and the 1st Duke of Wellington, but also more obscure or controversial figures like Lord Napier of Magdala and the Earl Haig. Ceremonial funerals are, on the other hand, normally for “those members of the Royal Family who hold high military rank, for the consort of the Sovereign and heir to the throne” but have also been extended to commoners. The expense is still borne, though perhaps only in part, by the state: Thatcher’s estate will contribute an undisclosed sum towards her funeral but, horrified by the estimated £10m cost, many have revived calls to privatise her funeral in accordance with her political beliefs.

Now, it’s not my intention to advocate either side of this debate: I’m sure it will come as no surprise to the astute or regular readers of this blog that instead, I would like to draw some ancient parallels on the subject of funeral etiquette and public honours. While the practice of a public funeral and eulogy for the war dead in Classical Athens is well known thanks to Thucydides (2.34-46 relates Pericles’ oration at the outset of the Peloponnesian War), on the funerals of private individuals, such as Pericles himself, we know very little: these were not, by and large, the concern of the state.[1] It was the Romans who really took the funerals of individual statesman seriously and provide the best lens through which to consider the rationale and ideology of such occasions.

It is the virtuous and resolute aristocrats of the Roman Republic that seem to me to be evoked by the stern, morally upstanding statesmen and generals of 19th Century Britain, who received state funerals. Among their number was Liberal Prime Minister and sideburn enthusiast, W.E. Gladstone, of ‘Gladstone and Disraeli’ fame.[2] Many are now holding up his sober and low-key state funeral in 1898 as a model that the organisers of Baroness Thatcher’s should have followed (Disraeli on the other hand turned one down entirely). His statue was erected in Westminster Abbey shortly afterwards, proudly bearing the dedication:

“Erected by Parliament to the Right Honourable William Ewart Gladstone four times Prime Minister. Born December 29 1809 Died May 19 1898”

Substitute ‘Prime Minister’ for ‘consul’ and we could be in Republican Rome.

The combination of state funeral and public statue is certainly a familiar one. Cicero’s Ninth Philippic oration concerns just such a civic honour for Ser. Sulpicius Rufus, who had died in 43 BC (of natural causes) on an embassy to (Mark) Antony, who at the time was in only semi-legal charge of an army in North Italy. Cicero argues that though Rufus was not killed while serving the Republic, he is just as deserving as those who were (and in any case, Cicero says, poor old Rufus ‘told you he was ill’). It was the duty of the state to ensure that such public services are remembered. Far from glorifying Rufus personally (he was always a firm believer in the restraint of our ancestors, Cicero reassures us, and hated the excesses of the modern day), a statue would be a witness of an honourable death on state business and not a monument to Rufus’ own life; his professional achievements as a lawyer and personal virtues are enough on that front. When it comes to a state funeral, this is the greatest honour the state can bestow. Even statues crumble with time, Cicero claims, but the sanctity of a funeral exists in the soil itself and becomes more sacred with time.

English: Margaret Thatcher, former UK PM. Fran...

M. Thatcher Alf. f. cos. ter. de metallicis triumphavit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, Cicero, as ever, has many, many ulterior motives for taking Rufus’ side here: he wants to stir up resentment towards Antony and probably felt some professional solidarity with Rufus as a man of law. But the criteria and motivations that he uses to make his argument are interesting, as is the fact that, just as today, there were no hard and fast rules for deciding such things. Cicero had to play the spin doctor and justify ‘a timid and respectable jurist lacking in pronounced political opinions’ (Syme, The Roman Revolution, OUP 1939, p.45) being worthy of state honour. Of course ideally there would be no such need: in the early Republic, Menenius Agrippa, a successful general and popular statesman during the Secession of the Plebs (think Miners’ Strike and then some), left very little money when he died (he was too busy being morally upstanding to worry about money, you see). On learning that he would receive a poor man’s burial, the plebs in Rome all chipped in towards the funeral. At this, however, the senate stepped in and covered the cost, thinking it a disgrace that they should let “the most illustrious of the Romans” be buried by private contributions. The state, in their eyes, had a moral obligation to respect its leading citizens. Incidentally, the plebs refused the return of their contribution and gave it to Agrippa’s children instead. This, Dionysius of Halicarnassus tells us, was the most honourable and splendid funeral that a man ever had (6.94).

This picture of inter-class co-operation may be suspiciously idealised, but the idea of the state having a moral imperative to ensure their worthy citizens are honoured in death is an interesting one. It was perhaps a similar motivation that made the Romans provide funerals at public expense for two enemy kings, who had fought against Rome and seen out the rest of their days in captivity, Syphax of Numidia and Perseus of Macedon. Valerius Maximus uses the publicly funded funerals of these men as examples of the philanthropy and clemency of the Roman senate, who would not allow the remains of royalty to be left without due honour (5.1.1). Tacitus uses the failure to provide distinguished honours for distinguished citizens as a measure of the declining morality of the state under the emperors: Tiberius begrudged his nephew and rival in public affection, Germanicus, the same lavish Republican funeral that Germanicus’ equally popular father had received from Augustus (Annals 3.1-6).

Such public honours were beginning to be reserved for the emperors alone. It is noteworthy that perhaps the most lavish state funeral under the Republic was that of erstwhile dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla. After a long and bloody period of civil war with the populist party, the victor Sulla attempted to reassert the power of the aristocracy with a swath of controversial reforms, before resigning his indefinite dictatorship and dying soon after. The bitter factional debates that raged in Rome on the issue of his funeral and his political legacy were not that dissimilar to the current argument over Thatcher: the Sullan party secured a state funeral and his cortege was escorted through Rome with 2,000 gold crowns and such quantities of spices that effigies of Sulla were made out of them, before the greatest orators of the day gave eulogies in the Forum. Even his opponents, from the scale of the procession, conceded he was uniquely fortunate in his successes (Appian, BC 105-6; Plutarch, Sulla 38). In the immediate aftermath, the anti-Sullan consul Lepidus turned on the state in armed rebellion and was crushed. The current anti-Thatcher protests are unlikely to lead to anything so drastic, but it is worth noting that subsequently it was Sulla’s own supporters who over the course of the next decade dismantled his unpopular reforms.

State funerals were, however, the exceptions: most citizens, even the rich and famous, received private ceremonies. For the aristocracy though, this still meant a very public event, involving a procession, eulogies in the forum and sometimes public banquets, but there were strict sumptuary laws in place limiting expenditure and ostentation (for which, see Cicero, de Leg. 2.22-6). There were exemptions for state funerals (and for the wives of dictators such as Sulla, see Plutarch Sul. 35), but everyone else had to find new ways to display their pedigree. Thus a frugal and plain funeral, such as Gladstone’s or Disraeli’s, became as much of an ostentatious public statement as one of extreme luxury and extravagance. Some professed poverty (as Livy tells us Cato did, Per. 48.9), but this was more a claim to the moral high-ground of ancestral frugality than actual fact. Others used their forefathers more directly, saying it was not riches, but rather imagines, the representations of a Roman noble’s ancestors, that were a fitting decoration at a funeral (48.11). Imagines represented everything that made a Roman noble noble – an illustrious lineage, adherence to ancestral tradition, distinguished public service. These virtues were set against personal wealth and affluence in the rhetoric of funeral display.

The current debate over Thatcher is attempting to answer the question of what, if anything, makes her worthy of the respect (and money) we are paying in giving her a ceremonial funeral with full military honours. It is an important debate and we have seen a number of different criteria by which Roman recipients were judged worthy. But there is also the parallel process: the different ways in which the circumstances and manner of a funeral, public or private, demonstrate the worthiness of the recipient, and I would like to end with some thoughts from everybody’s favourite comparative historical biographer, Plutarch. In Plutarch’s view, while it was right that devoted statesmen who neglected their own affairs and died near penniless received public funerals, such as Aristides and Epaminondas, this reflected more on the humanity and uprightness of their cities than their own virtues (Arist. 27). It said much more of Fabius Maximus, the Roman statesman and general, that, though he died with ample funds, the Roman people each contributed the smallest coin they had voluntarily, to pay respect to a man they saw as a father and benefactor of his country (Fab. 27). The public burial of Pelopidas the Theban by the Thessalians, on whose behalf he died fighting, was a deserved honour for his selflessness and sacrifice for them (Pel. 33-4), but that Marcellus, the Roman general, received the same respect from Hannibal, his enemy, provided greater honour to his character (Comp. Pel. Marc. 3).

It is not, Plutarch seems to argue, a state funeral alone which glorifies the recipient and confers honour, but the spirit in which it is given: Aemilius Paulus, he says, was blessed with everything conducive to happiness, when people showed ‘a desire to adorn his virtue with the best and most enviable obsequies’ (Aem. 39, trans. B. Perrin, Loeb). This was not manifested in gold or ivory or riches, but in the goodwill not just of the Romans, but of the Spaniards, Ligurians and Macedonians, whom he had fought wars against, but who looked on him as a benefactor because of his mildness and humanity.


[1] I am, I admit, simplifying: Aristides, who, dying near destitute, had his funeral paid for by the state, as well as his daughter’s dowry (Plut. Arist. 26-7).

[2] See Ch.57, 1066 And All That, Sellar & Yeatman, 1930. I’m an ancient historian, this is as intelligent as the modern references will get.

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7 thoughts on “M. Thatcher cos. ter.

    • I perhaps should have added a triumph, ‘de Argentinis’ – wouldn’t a toponym imply she’d actually done some conquering though?

  1. Great post, Josh! One thing this whole debate reminds me of is a quote I can’t remember right now from The Thick of It (maybe Season 1?), where the minister wants some sort of empty policy to get people of their back, and Ollie and Glenn suggest something random, saying, “And we can probably throw a few million at it.” To which the minister replies, “Oh good – because that sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?” Obviously, the irony is that that actually is a lot when you’re thinking about one person, but I think it’s worth reflecting on how the numbers in state expenditure are always so skewed and skewable that the actual figure is always going to be an elusive point of argument. Exactly as you point out, it’s the rhetoric that’s at the heart of all this debate, and actually, given the rarity of long-term prime ministers, it’s very hard to tell how to read Thatcher’s funeral relative to similar occasions. It’s presumably going to be a long time before historians can compare her to Tony Blair, for example, and sensibilities have changed so much in the UK since Churchill.

    • Yes, I think it’s interesting how the (supposed) precedents have been used. Lots of people want to compare the expense to either government cuts or previous funerals, but the results are pretty unhelpful. It seems like a scene worthy of The Thick of It too, when you consider that the police expenses are in part so large because of all the people expected to go out a protest the expense… Other people want to assess her worthiness in comparison to previous Prime Ministers, but as you say, there aren’t direct or recent equivalents. In this light, looking ideologically at any and all remotely parallel occasions is more interesting, if not actually more ‘helpful’. There’s a lot that could be said on the recipients of Victorian/Early 20th Century state funerals, I think, that has been overlooked in favour of how much they cost.

    • Perhaps – I was thinking of stern Republican generals, rather than the Empire (it’s all about the moral decline). Mind you, there was still Marcus Antonius ‘Creticus’, but I think even he must have realised that that was ironic…

    • Actually, I think there’s something in Valerius Maximus (2.8?) about triumphs only being for extending the empire, not regaining bits of it. Not that the rules weren’t bent, I’m sure…

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