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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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