Contemporary politics may not often crop up amid the (digital) pages Res Gerendae, but assuming the reader occasionally consults other news sources, they will hopefully be aware that recently there was a General Election. With victory for the Conservatives, and their promises of an EU referendum, a political debate has arisen with specific implications for historians of the ancient world.
The debate began with Professor David Abulafia, of this parish, publishing an article seen as a manifesto for his group, Historians for Britain, established to provide ‘a historical perspective on Britain’s relationship with Europe’ in the run-up to a planned 2017 referendum, and more specifically to demonstrate ‘how the United Kingdom has developed in a distinctive way by comparison with its continental neighbours.’ This group of ‘leading historians and academics’ supports British membership of the European Union, but only a ‘radically reformed’ one.
This has inevitably provoked a backlash from other historians, keen to point out that this view of British uniqueness within Europe, in her legal system, her politics, and her outlook, is rather reminiscent of a whiggish vision of British history, in which old Britannia has been marked out for world leadership, and even domination, by the sterling quality of her institutions, and the moral fibre of her inhabitants. The dissenters have a point, of course, and highlight many centuries of close connection and shared traditions with the continent, as well as the fact that every country fancies itself as exceptional. Yet this approach is itself open to criticism for its own pro-European assumptions.
It is not my aim, or area, to weigh in on the debate on British exceptionalism, or her relationship with Europe: it seems obvious to me that each side of the debate will be able to use and interpret British history in a way to support its own viewpoint. What interests me is what is left once we have accepted this fact: what role is left to history (and historians) if there’s no right answer? This question has exercised others in the debate too: never mind the misinterpretations of history, says Bret Cameron in Cambridge student-paper Varsity, ‘the past should not be the primary basis on which we make political decisions today. We ought to approach the referendum on Europe mindful of the present and looking towards the future.’
Strong stuff, and on the face of it surely true: why should we feel constrained by the past? Are we not better off shaping political futures unencumbered by precedent, guided only by ideals and reason? Perhaps this is something to aspire to but, as things are, history does seem to matter very much to us, whether it is Britain the island-nation, or Britain the country of immigrants. As Stephen Harrison recently explained for this very blog, the foremost place has always been given not just to the past, but to how we interpret it.
Why? Well, one answer would be ‘narrative.’ Humankind has, for as long as we can tell, told mythological stories to explain the world. We use narratives in history to provide the same kinds of explanations: it tells us ‘where we come from,’ ‘how we got here’ and so on. By applying a narrative to countless, seemingly random historical events, we make both them and the world around us comprehensible. Popular perceptions of the present are shaped by the narratives we use about the past.
Where does Classics come in to all this? Well, it’s not just British history that gets called upon in the debate over our involvement in the EU: back in 2006 the then MP for Henley-on-Thames, Boris Johnson, published a book entitled The Dream of Rome. As engaging and witty as one might expect of old BoJo, the book investigates how – in the face of ‘Romano-scepticism’ (like today’s Euroscepticism) – the Roman empire managed to unite so many disparate European nationalities and create ‘amazing uniformity, e pluribus unum.’ Roman success at forging a single ‘cultural and political identity,’ Boris argues, has inspired every subsequent generation of European tyrants and statesmen to try on ‘bits of that Roman apparel to see how it fits,’ not least the European Union.
Why did the Romans succeed? In Boris’ eyes, it is partly thanks to the vision of Augustus in integrating the figure of the emperor into every part of people’s lives, be it through religious worship, sponsoring gladiator games and public buildings or placing his mug on the Roman ‘single currency.’ The conquered provincials were offered the chance of citizenship and, for the upper classes, high political office. Fashions, foodstuffs, pastimes and private habits were enthusiastically spread across the empire to create a cultural homogeneity too. ‘Romanization happens by ritual and repetition, and by learning points of etiquette, like how to pass the sponge in the public latrines.’
And this is where we get back to the EU. All this, Boris argues, is why ‘we will never recover that vast Roman sense of political unity’ in Europe today: we will never have again ‘an emperor, with semi-divine status, having a direct relationship with every citizen in his divinely ordained empire.’ Without such a ‘political centre’ to draw together her disparate and contentious member states, neither the EU nor anyone else will ever be able to reproduce the unity of Rome’s empire, even if, Boris concedes, ‘history teaches us…we are fated never to stop trying.’
Now, on one level, of course, Boris wilfully misinterprets the EU in casting it as in any way similar to Rome’s empire: Rome did not set out with fraternal, humanitarian intentions, any more than the EU has expanded through military force. But in another way, he’s got it spot on: the progressive, even utopian, aspirations of the European Union are counter balanced by a deeply-felt need to anchor itself in some kind of precedent and to explain itself through the past. A historic common European identity has to be found, before it can become part of our future: hence the studiously generic architectural heritage depicted on the Euro, and hence Rome’s Capitoline Hill was the venue for the signing of the (later rejected) European Constitution, a fact with which Boris opens his second chapter.
The story of the Roman Empire, and Roman imperialism, can and will be told in many ways: a conservative people drawn to expand by threats to her borders, civilising Europe in the process, or an aggressive, militaristic society predisposed to conquest and exploitation are simply the two extremes. Both arguments have value, and it is only through their opposition that we see things more clearly.
Boris himself recalls the conversation between Arminius, Germanic ‘Romano-sceptic’ extraordinaire, and his brother, Flavus (or ‘Blondie’), who has taken the emperor’s shilling and serves in the Roman legions. Standing on opposing banks of the River Weser, they debate the benefits of Roman rule. Arminius laughs at Flavus’ military decorations – the ‘meagre wages of servitude’ – and calls on liberty, fatherland, family and ancestral gods; Flavus counters with the greatness of Rome’s achievements, the wealth of her rewards and the savageness of her punishments.
Our own blonde protagonist, Boris, finds in Arminius the Romano-sceptic voice he has set out to examine, a representative of the kind of nationalism that Rome triumphantly overcame and the EU will forever struggle with. However it is worth noting that all the examples of ‘anti-Roman’ voices Boris calls upon are, in the end, Roman. When Calgacus says the Romans made a wasteland and called it ‘peace,’ it is a Roman who put the words in his mouth. In fact, in the cases of both Arminius and Calgacus, the Roman in question is Tacitus, that most cynical of Roman historians, but many other examples can be found (take Livy’s Hannibal, for example).
Historians of Rome loved using such confrontations – whether or not they actually happened – to reflect on the nature of Roman power: they didn’t even need to involve non-Romans. One of the best examples is the debate between Cato the Elder and Scipio Nasica over the destruction of Rome’s long-standing enemy and rival, Carthage. Never mind what was actually said, it became the perfect opportunity for historians to air thoughts on Rome’s rise. Was Rome’s imperial expansion to blame for her apparent moral disintegration? And was the best solution to complete the process and achieve world domination, or use the threat of foreign powers to maintain good order internally?
No-one looked more critically at the mirror of their own history than the Romans themselves: how did we gain our empire? At what cost? These were questions raised insistently by Roman self-reflection. We too, now, face a debate about our present and our presence in Europe, in which both our own history, and the history of Rome, will play a major role. What matters is not establishing one side as ‘empirically’ right or wrong, but that we are able to hold that identity-forming debate about our own past in an informed and critical manner.