‘For freedom and the republic’: tribunes and Catalans in flight

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.

parc-guell-332390_1280

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).

Continue reading “‘For freedom and the republic’: tribunes and Catalans in flight”

Advertisements

The Thucydides Trap and the importance of context

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’.

travel-2152792_1280

Continue reading “The Thucydides Trap and the importance of context”

Gesture politics: Beata Szydlo and Bibulus

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’.

julius-caesar-492483_1280 (2)

Continue reading “Gesture politics: Beata Szydlo and Bibulus”

‘They believed that worse was still to come’: 2016 in Roman historiography

I’ve had a lot of new experiences since I left academic life a couple of years ago. One has been the realisation that the ancient historians I used to research and their presentation of politics and politicians are not as far removed from the contemporary world as they sometimes used to seem. One question I kept asking myself in 2016 was ‘how would Tacitus [the subject of my thesis] and his peers have described the year’s events?’ Over Christmas, I decided to ‘reconstruct’ one possible answer – in English and Latin.

(For anyone whose Latin is a bit rusty: plays on words in the Latin version are highlighted – unfortunately it’s all but impossible to translate these exactly, but I’ve marked what they literally mean in English.)

natio Belgarum divisa est in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Flandrici, aliam Wallones, tertiam Bruxellani. urbem eorum, sicut ego accepi, condidere atque habuere initio pauci Germanorum Gallorumque quod, compluribus bellis gestis, quandam concordiam in varietate petebant. hi postquam in una moenia convenere, dispari genere, dissimili lingua, alii alio more viventes, incredibile memoratu est quam facile coaluerint. sed ubi labore atque iustitia res publica crevit, nationes magnae sine bello consociatae, aemula pactio Varsoviae ab stirpe interiit, decretum denique omnes eodem auro uti, saevire fortuna ac miscere omnia coepit.

The country of the Belgians is divided into three parts, one inhabited by the Flemish, one by the Walloons, and the third by the people of Brussels. Their city, I hear, was initially founded and occupied by a few Germans and Gauls, since after several wars they were seeking a kind of unity in diversity. After they had come together in one place, with their divergent origins, different languages and individual ways of life, the story of how easily they became unified is incredible. But when their state had grown through hard work and fair dealing, great nations had joined them without any fighting, their rival the Warsaw Pact had been completely obliterated, and finally it had been decided that everyone should use the same currency, fortune began to rage and to throw everything into confusion.

Continue reading “‘They believed that worse was still to come’: 2016 in Roman historiography”

Hostes publici and #enemiesofthepeople

It’s been another day of sweeping comparisons between the past and the present: this time, the slew of hysterical headlines responding to the UK high court’s ruling that a parliamentary vote will be required to trigger Article 50 have been seen to echo similar diatribes from 1930s Germany (and, interestingly, contemporary Poland). As I make clear every time I write about this, there are plenty of differences as well as similarities, although as 2016 goes by the feeling that we are living in a chapter of a history textbook is becoming more and more real. But the idea of ‘enemies of the people’ is not confined to Nazism: it goes back via the Russian and French revolutions all the way to ancient Rome. In that context it is often associated with the emperor Nero, who was declared a hostis publicus, or public enemy, after being deposed in AD 68 and died an ignominious death as he fled the city. But this was not the first or the most significant time someone was designated in this way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Continue reading “Hostes publici and #enemiesofthepeople”

The republic restored? Horace, Augustus and Theresa May

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.

wp-image-552317103jpg.jpg

Continue reading “The republic restored? Horace, Augustus and Theresa May”

Late Republican Rome and the UK today: a few thoughts

This post was originally published as a guest post on my friend Chris Kendall’s blog.

As a British citizen living in Brussels, I have observed the events in the UK of the past week with dismay and, from Thursday afternoon onwards, utter horror. Some very striking historical parallels have been drawn: most notably, many people have compared the ‘Breaking Point’ poster unveiled by UKIP on Wednesday with images from a Nazi propaganda film. A consciousness of the past is only one of the many things that will, I hope, prevent what happened in the 1930s being played out again today: the apparent simplicity of such parallelisms is both helpful and unhelpful. History leaves us with as many questions as answers.

Being a western European born in the mid-1980s, however, with all the privilege that implies, I am struggling to find a frame of reference for what is happening. In no context have I ever witnessed the febrile atmosphere, the stunts that go beyond parody, the  hateful rhetoric expressed both in formal contexts and in a thousand different variations in the streets and online – and what now looks like the willingness to kill for (abhorrent) ideological reasons – that have gripped the UK. In my previous career I studied Roman history and historiography, and it is in the ancient past that I am trying to make sense of all this.

As I read about the past week’s events and the opinions they have generated I keep thinking of one particular period: the late Roman Republic, roughly the years between the defeat of Rome’s main rival Carthage in 146 BC and the civil wars ultimately won at the battle of Actium in 33 by the man who became the first emperor. Of course, as with the 1930s, ancient Rome cannot be easily mapped onto the present, and it is highly unlikely that the UK will end up with an Augustus of its own. But there are many individual points of comparison.

Continue reading “Late Republican Rome and the UK today: a few thoughts”