The name of Arminius, the Germanic tribal leader whose forces ambushed and massacred three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest (near Osnabrück) in the year AD 9, is unlikely ever to be forgotten. Over the centuries his legend grew, and in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries he was reincarnated as ‘Hermann’, a proto-nationalist symbol in the newly unified Germany. Towards the end of that period, some nationalists took Tacitus’ monograph on the ancient Germans, the Germania, as ‘evidence’ that a militaristic and racially pure Germanic nation had existed many centuries before their own efforts to create its modern counterpart.
As I recall it, Boris Johnson first made major headlines in November 2004. He’d been in the public eye for some time beforehand – as a Telegraph journalist, MP, and editor of the Spectator – but it was his refusal to resign as a shadow minister when his denial of an affair with a colleague was shown to be untrue that dominated the news for a couple of days. There was some debate over the extent to which politicians should be held to account for their private lives, but even though Johnson was sacked by Tory leader Michael Howard, and there were at least rumours about even dirtier episodes in his past, the scandal blew over quickly.
All this happened mid-way through my first term as an undergraduate at Oxford, and when I see the conjunction of names ‘Petronella Wyatt Boris Johnson’ I immediately remember how I felt that November. Cold (probably because I wasn’t eating enough), overwhelmed by the workload, intimidated by others’ self-confidence. My own credentials are solidly middle class, and I believe that Oxford was, relatively speaking, much more diverse in the mid-2000s than the mid-1980s. But I had never encountered so many upper-middle-class people before and, although the majority of those I met were down-to-earth and friendly, this was also the term when the Bullingdon Club wrecked a village pub just because they could. Johnson and I both studied Classics. I wondered if, for all his affluence and charm and ambition, he ever felt the same self-doubt that I did as a new student struggling to learn Greek irregular verbs. Still, back then, we inhabited the same relatively cosy world: on its way to London, the Thames flows through both Oxford and Henley, Johnson’s constituency. A few months later his former college tutor died unexpectedly and I watched him slip, late, into the back rows at the memorial service. It was still just about possible to pretend not to recognise him.
I have changed a lot in the last fifteen years – Boris has too, or perhaps it’s just that his innate qualities have revealed themselves (Tacitus would have appreciated those alternatives). The messy-haired buffoon, the half-hearted womaniser has become someone whose actions recall episodes in the ancient history about which we both learnt in Oxford. I never expected anything akin to the power-grabbing and abuse of the constitution that happened in the late Roman republic to recur in the UK today. Nor, I suspect, did my peers studying modern history and political science believe that their textbooks and monographs would need revising quite so quickly. We thought we understood the past, that we controlled it in fact, and so in Orwellian terms we thought we controlled the future; but now others control the present. How do we – if to say ‘we’ is not too presumptuous, a product of the forces that have warped our society – get it back?
It’s over a year since I last posted here: I’ve been working on a longer project (well, a book) about my journey from studying Classics in academic libraries to experiencing European affairs in Brussels (via Oxford, Paris and Romania), and I’ve also been writing articles for the forthcoming Tacitus Encyclopedia. One of the topics assigned to me by the editor, possibly because she saw my postal address, was ‘Belgica’: the Roman province of Gallia Belgica, Belgian Gaul. Its initial inhabitants, the Belgae, were first mentioned by Julius Caesar, who famously called them the bravest of all the Gauls (not least because they lived furthest from the enervating influence of Roman civilisation and closest to the savage Germans). Under Augustus and subsequent emperors in the first century AD, the Gallic provinces were organised and reorganised, and the inhabitants got used to being subjects of Rome, despite a rebellion during Tiberius’ reign mentioned by Tacitus (and, probably, others that go unreported) – until the year 69.
It is at this point – in history, and in my 750-word encyclopedia article – that things get more complicated. After Nero’s death in 68, the throne was claimed by successive emperors with about as much longevity as the average Brexit Secretary: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and finally Vespasian, who did manage to stay in place and in fact establish a small dynasty. Tacitus describes what happened in his work the Histories. Vitellius was governor of the province of Lower Germany, and he marched south to meet his rival Otho in battle in northern Italy. On hand to take advantage of the chaos was Julius Civilis, a high-ranking member of the Batavians, a Germanic tribe, who had also served in the Roman army and (as his name suggests) become a Roman citizen. Initially in alliance with Vitellius, he then unleashed a major revolt against Rome.
Vetera, a legionary camp overrun by Civilis’ troops
Last week, Europe’s attention was focused on the sudden appearance of Carlos Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders in Belgium on 31 October, in the wake of calls for them to be prosecuted by the Spanish authorities for rebellion, sedition and the misuse of public funds. After several more days of confusion, along with the detainment without bail of other Catalan separatists back in Spain, on 5 November the group handed themselves in to the Belgian authorities, who will decide whether or not to implement the European Arrest Warrant issued for them. To the infinitely complex question of Catalan demands for independence is added the prospect of a legal dispute between two EU countries.
The dramatic flight of Puigdemont and his colleagues has echoes of events in Roman history at the end of the 50s BC. Julius Caesar had spent this decade mainly campaigning in Gaul, extending Rome’s empire and earning the loyalty of several legions, while other politicians back in Rome witnessed long-established political checks and balances gradually dissolve and placed their hopes in Caesar’s former political partner Pompey the Great to keep order without taking undue power for himself (at one stage he was chosen as consul – the Roman state’s highest office – without a colleague, which was unprecedented in the republic’s history).
At this highly unpredictable time in world politics, commentators are increasingly turning to the past to make sense of the present (I’m just as guilty as many far more eminent figures). As part of this trend the so-called ‘Thucydides trap’ has recently come to prominence, thanks to a project run by Harvard University’s Belfer Center and a forthcoming book by its director, Graham Allison. Allison is interested in the Greek historian Thucydides’ statement (at 1.23.6 of the History of the Peloponnesian War) that the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BC) was inevitable, because of the fear felt by the Spartans, an established power, of the rising Athenians. For him, this handful of words is a key to more recent historical confrontations, and the project website contains brief analyses of 16 other rivalries between ruling and rising powers between 1500 and today, making the point that 12 of these ended in war; readers can suggest other examples to be considered as part of the second phase of the project. Allison’s main thesis is that what happened with Sparta and Athens is a cautionary tale for today’s US and the threat allegedly posed to it by an ascendant China: it is in fact ‘the best lens for understanding the most critical foreign policy issue of our time’.
In a year of significant elections, this week has been particularly eventful in electoral terms, with the Turkish referendum, the surprise announcement of a UK general election, and the first round of voting for the next French president. In each country, overseas voting has made headlines, whether because of the contribution made by Turkish expats to the referendum result, the fact that the controversial 15-year limit on British non-residents’ right to vote will not be lifted in time for June 8, or the fear of cyber-attacks which means that French citizens overseas will not be able to vote online in legislative elections scheduled for mid-June.
For people who live in democracies where they hold citizenship, voting is generally a fairly straightforward process (although there are exceptions). For long-term residents abroad (generally excluding those posted as diplomats or similar), it can be much more complicated. The UK is not the only country to limit the franchise for expatriates, although amongst current EU member states it is in a minority of five. Moreover, each country has its own ways of enabling expats to cast their ballots: the sheer diversity of this is impressive. I decided to look further into the different arrangements for overseas EU voters.
This week the European Council met in Brussels. At the beginning of the summit, the reappointment as President of Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister of Poland, was blocked by Beata Szydlo, the current Polish Prime Minister, for domestic political reasons. Nevertheless, Tusk’s re-election was carried by 27 votes to one. In response, Szydlo refused to endorse the summit’s conclusions, which meant that for the first time ever the document summarising them was ‘supported by 27 Members of the European Council, but it did not gather consensus, for reasons unrelated to its substance’ (credit to whoever drafted that nicely understated turn of phrase). Cue strong words on the Polish side, more measured ones from Brussels, and headlines about ‘EU unity in ruins’.