Sunday, 24 July 2016

Review : The Dream of Rome by Boris Johnson

I read 'The Dream of Rome' by Boris Johnson the day after the vote for Brexit to see whether Mr Johnson has a philosophical reason for lately spearheading the Leave Campaign. I found it well written but I could have done with fewer schoolboy colloquialisms (slang). All written English should adhere to the rules of grammar.  Think Jane Austen, Boris!

I found that Mr Johnson was educated before he went to Eton, at the international school in Brussels where he was force-fed or imbued (whichever way you like to think about it) with Jean Monnet's ideas (the founder of the EU). These ideas gained no traction with him, or other boys, because they lack basic imaginative 'pull', in his view. Who cares about his birthday, he asks.The book compares the EU to the Roman Empire and finds the foundations of the EU 'lacking'. 

Johnson is a classical scholar and says that the 'Cult of Augustus' (and later the cult of the Emperor) was the driving force behind the Roman Empire and it worked - like a dream. There was much more intermixing and free movement in the Roman Empire than even dreamed of, even now, by the EU, partly due to this Cult and partly due to the shared Greek language (the Roman Empire's 'lingua franca').  He reports that in the Roman Empire dinner parties were veritably racially mixed affairs. By contrast, in Brussels, national groups still socialise among their own. 

His theory is that the EU is not founded on sufficiently appealing ideas to ever coalesce into a viable whole, like the Roman Empire, partly because it has no powerful imaginative concept at its core - such as that invented by canny world leader Caesar Augustus (after whom August is named). Its diversity will therefore, by the laws of nature ("things fall apart") inevitably collapse, which (forget Brexit) we are reportedly seeing across the EU. 

His last point is that Roman democracy did not exist : Roman ideas could be forced on the masses. Modern democracy (which is derived from ancient Greece) is a barrier that unelected EU elites cannot simply abandon, without being condemned as totalitarians. The barrier is democracy: EU Prime Ministers, if not EU bureaucrats, must regularly face their electorates and while is exists, this should prevent the EU becoming 'one identity', sharing one way of life, a feat that the Roman Empire achieved through its own less than democratic political structures. The key tool of the Romans was the concept of 'Roman citizenship' which gave one property rights, which EU citizens already have. In addition, the Roman Empire was apparently without racism. Eventually anyone could be Emperor and there were clearly black emperors. 

I was surprised and interested by Mr Johnson's insights into Christianity, even from his sceptical viewpoint. At least he knows the Gospels! He points out that Augustus was hailed as divine, saviour and son of God before Jesus. He half seriously suggests that the Jesus story is a kind of mirror of the wider 'Emperor Cult' story. He says that when Jesus holds up the coin and ask whose head this is, he sees him doing more. When He says "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's" he suggests that Jesus is saying something about the Cult of the Divine Emperor (the idea behind the whole Empire project) and making a parallel of the two major forces in the ancient world -  Empire "god" versus (in my view) true God. In my view, Jesus may be saying that Augustus is not God and therefore that the Empire is a false and doomed creation unlike His Kingdom, which has long survived it.

Mr Johnson's enthusiasm for the classical world is appealing - he adores ancient history. Written a decade ago, this is a strangely prophetic book worth reading in the light of Brexit. At the very least, it is a kind of reassurance that Mr Johnson, currently UK Foreign Secretary, has hidden depths of rational thought - and intention.  His other books include 'Churchill', the opening of scenes of which could be turned into a dramatic Hollywood script, and a history book on London 'The Spirit of London' which some report as being readable.

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