This weekend I went to Xanten, near Duisburg in Germany, to visit its archaeological park, a large-scale reconstruction of an early Roman imperial settlement on the Rhine (the site is unlike any other I’ve been to and I highly recommend it). One of the recreated buildings juxtaposed politically-themed quotations from Latin authors with a photo of a modern parliament.
Explicit connections between past and present were not made and the visitor was left to draw his or her own conclusions: as I argued a few months ago when writing in the aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder about events in late republican Rome, it is not generally helpful to ask history to provide exact lessons for today. Developments in British politics in the last few days (and weeks, and months…) have been truly alarming, and I was particularly struck by the resemblance of Theresa May’s criticism of those ‘international elites’ who see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ to passages in a speech made by Adolf Hitler in 1933, but once again the differences are as important as the similarities. The likelihood that the UK will go the same way as Germany in the 1930s is very low, not least as we have that awful warning. Still, at Xanten my attention was particularly drawn to the quotation quid leges sine moribus (see the picture above): what good are laws without morals? It is from the Odes, four books of poetry on a range of themes written by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (known in English as Horace) in the 20s and 10s BC.
This followed the battle of Actium in 31 BC, the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra by the man (né Gaius Octavius) who became the emperor Augustus. On emerging as the last leader standing after two decades of divisive civil strife, Augustus set about consolidating his position and setting out his new vision for Rome. One of the most important parts of this was the idea he was ‘restoring the republic’ (scholars have argued over whether he explicitly claimed to be bringing back the old republican system of government, an oligarchic model in which all qualified elements of society had at least some political say, or merely to be undoing the damage of years of civil war as he made Rome whole again). He furthered this idea by ostentatiously returning power to the senate, even as his position at the head of the new regime ensured his continuing dominance by less overt means. He also launched a programme of moral renewal to end the perceived degeneracy that had flourished in the last years of the republic: religious observance, family life, and loyalty to the state, embodied by the emperor and his close relatives, were all celebrated (for example, marriage and child-rearing were incentivised and divorce laws tightened up). One historical source for this programme is the poems of Horace, especially the third book of Odes, where the above quotation features. Several of them compare the stern, self-controlled, battle-winning morality shown by ordinary Romans in the past with the laxer habits of more recent times, shaped by excessive wealth and foreign influence on those who had acquired power during the confused civil war years. The poet looks forward to people not only being legally bound but actively choosing to go back to the old ways under Augustus.
Horace and his works are more complex that my summary suggests (elsewhere he sounds reluctant to leave the private world inhabited by himself and his friends to engage with the regime, and I happen to think his evocations of private emotion echo more clearly across the millennia than those of any other Classical poet) but Augustus’ moral programme was real enough. Did it work? It did usher in a period of relative stability and prosperity for the empire as a whole, albeit one that was rarely marked by military triumphs of the kind enjoyed in the good old days, but there is evidence from a range of sources that the emperor’s attempts to regulate personal morality were not especially effective, and indeed his own household experienced not only childlessness and sexual scandals but dissent and conspiracy that stemmed at least partly from the unfinished business of the civil wars he had claimed to end: moreover, he established a monarchy but never solved the problem of how to ensure an efficient succession or reconcile opposing elements in politics.
In her party conference speech last week, made after a period in which serious divisions in British society were revealed and with the Conservatives now essentially in control of what happens next, Theresa May also announced that a turning-point had been passed. The UK’s foundations as a country ‘built on the bonds of family, community, citizenship’ will be celebrated; those who have served in, in war and at home, will be rewarded; ordinary people’s interests will be privileged over those of a out-of-touch liberal elite. Despite having been a nominal Remainer, she positioned herself on the side of the 52% of voters who voted out, making it very clear that these will be considered the winners of the civil conflict that was the EU referendum and that the future political agenda will be shaped by an ideology that favours their perceived interests, or a highly simplified version of them.
We cannot yet know how this strategy will play out. But while May probably remembers that, as in the case of Augustus, Conservative attempts to restore old-fashioned values have previously been derailed by scandal close to home, she seems to have forgotten a truth familiar to historians of ancient and modern civil strife alike: if victors do not conciliate, listen, take account of the positions of the losing side (provided they are reasonable), they are storing up trouble for the future. The Roman empire was struck by another cataclysm of internal fighting barely fifty years after Augustus’ death. Whatever happens in the UK, I don’t think we will have to wait that long to see it.