21 January 2020

Latin lessons: what the Romans can tell us about our age

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Modern authors who decide to liken Donald Trump to Nero or Brexit to the fall of the Roman Republic sometimes incline me to reach for what I’ve come to call my “Bad Classics Klaxon”.

Often, all they’re doing is showing how clever they are, while passing over more obscure (but equally interesting) historical periods, periods that are, perhaps, actually useful as analogies — just not ones that provide readers with ready mental furniture on which to sit. I’m sure the Ming Dynasty had its share of bonkers people who swore a lot and threw their weight around. We Westerners simply don’t know who they are. Relatedly, both writers and readers often forget just how different people in the past were. It really is another country.

The biggest gulf between our political class and that of the Romans — apart from one roughly 100-year period of extraordinary peace and good government (known in the trade as “The Adoptive and Antonine Emperors”) — is the regularity with which they killed each other.

Yes (unlike supremely sexist Classical Athens) the Romans had flamboyant and powerful women, a recognisably modern legal system, and a thoroughly modern military. But Julius Caesar really was knifed on the floor of the Senate House, Cicero really was decapitated and his head pinned to the rostra outside the Senate (whereupon Fulvia, Mark Antony’s “better half”, stuck her hairpin through his tongue), and the Roman barrister Ulpian really was fragged by his own men (he was Prefect of the Praetorian Guard) because he stopped them torturing people at the drop of a hat.

Take the well-known Caesar story and allow me to draw a comparison. Imagine, last year, in one of the fraught Commons debates leading up to the General Election, if one of the burlier Brexiteers had got hold of John Bercow and spear-tackled him head-first into the Despatch Box.

Well, you can imagine it, but something like it will never happen, and it won’t happen because the willingness to resort to public violence is one of the chasms separating pre- and post-industrial civilisations. To a degree it still divides the developed and developing worlds, and is a reminder that what was the most advanced civilisation in antiquity would today be a developing country — and quite a poor one.

This is why the nation was so shocked by Jo Cox’s murder. Precisely because the way she was killed did resemble something from the Roman Republic: the murder in a public scuffle of Tiberius Gracchus, a politician who even in modern terms can legitimately be described as left-wing and desperately concerned with poverty.

A long time ago, I read classics. These days, however, I’m a lawyer. Classics gave me the ability to translate public school mottoes and read a great deal of Greek and Roman smut. Law, meanwhile, paid the bills (this is one of its chief appeals).

Asa Bennett has turned from classics to journalism, and what allows his Romanifesto: Modern Lessons from Classical Politics to avoid the pitfalls sketched out above is his upfront acknowledgement of the violence in Roman society, his refusal to take himself too seriously, and his ability (honed, no doubt, by years of working as a reporter) to tell what Australians call “ripping yarns”. A fine sense of humour is not only apparent in print; his interview with CapX editor John Ashmore is also very amusing.

The deftness of his touch as he interweaves the Best of British with the Romance of Rome is really notable. Romanifesto is also helpfully decorated with sketches blending the two histories. Nigel Farage as a fag-smoking, pint-swilling centurion with a sky blue Brexit Party shield, for example, or Donald Trump on horseback in the uniform of a Roman General bearing a legionary standard inscribed “MAGA” instead of “SPQR”.

A lengthy parallel history of Brutus coordinating Julius’s Caesar’s murder with Michael Gove’s taking down of Boris after Leave’s victory in 2016 is beautifully constructed, never feels forced, and is also a timely reminder that — at least in the Tory Party — he who wields the knife can never wear the crown.

There is also a splendid collection of insults, both Roman and British, all helpfully contextualised and explained. Personally, I think Nicholas Soames wins the prize for describing a politician undertaking a doomed and disruptive leadership campaign as “a chateau-bottled, nuclear-powered, ocean-going shit”.

And there are genuine lessons to learn, too, particularly financial ones. In this respect Bennett really shines. Rather than making use only of personal histories and obvious biographical parallels (Nero the actor, Trump the reality TV star, say), his experience covering economic aspects of Brexit for The Telegraph is put to good use.

The Romans were the first civilisation wealthy enough, mercantile enough, and with sophisticated enough population records to figure out that price-fixing doesn’t work, devaluing the currency leads to inflation, and that “commodity money” — where value inheres in the quantity of gold, silver, or copper in each coin, e.g. the denarius was traditionally 80% silver — cannot be replaced with something like modern independently valueless “fiat” currency unless it is backed by centrally held gold reserves. These are good lessons, and Bennett makes a compelling case for their combined role in the eventual fall of the Roman Empire.

No doubt in part because Romanifesto was published before the recent general election (where UK pollsters performed with commendable accuracy), Bennett also takes a chapter-length swipe at forecasting of all kinds, comparing it to the Roman use of astrology by everyone from the great and the good in the halls of power to ordinary people at street stalls on Market Day.

“Astrologers were the pollsters of their day in Ancient Rome: popular, but regarded with suspicion. Showered with money and appreciation when they’re right, but mocked and cast out when they are not. While politicians like Cameron may wish they could punish pollsters for their misleading predictions by throwing them off Big Ben, they should restrain themselves.

“Ancient and modern history shows that it is much healthier to take pollsters’ pronouncements with a pinch of salt, as the Romans did, knowing how often events can defy what has been foretold.”

John Kenneth Galbraith once quipped that economic predictions were invented to give astrology a good name; Bennett wisely does not quote the great economist, letting the immense roll-call of forecasting failures speak for itself.

Romanifesto is funny and light, but also a timely reminder that while politics and politicians may not have changed much since classical antiquity, the societies they govern have changed enormously for the better.

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Helen Dale read Law at Oxford and won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Her latest novel is Kingdom of the Wicked; it was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction.