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

The Analyst

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”.






The Analyst

About Helen Dale

Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford. Her most recent novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, was shortlisted for the Prometheus Award for science fiction.

Articles by Helen Dale

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