Posted by: Sarah | January 22, 2006

The Dream of Rome

Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph carried an extract from a new book by the very busy, delightful and entirely dishy Boris Johnson, who wears his learning very lightly, to say the least. The book is called The Dream of Rome, and according to the Amazon blurb, it focuses on how the Romans made Europe work as a homogeneous civilisation and looking at why we are failing to make the EU work in modern times [.] This is an authoritative and amusing study from bestselling author Boris Johnson. In addition to his roles as politician, editor, author and television presenter, Boris Johnson is a passionate Roman scholar. A new television series, airing in March 2006 [or 29 January according to the Telegraph], will see him travelling throughout the Roman Empire in order to uncover the secrets of the governance of the empire, and the reasons behind why the Romans held such power and prestige for so long.

The extract doesn’t seem to be available on the Telegraph website, but here in brief are some points he makes:

From the beginning, Rome wasn’t defined ethnically or geographically. Rome was an idea, and anyone could become a citizen if he walked the walk and talked the talk.

The Romans were smarter than other enemies: their aim wasn’t rape, pillage and slaughter. They didn’t kill the enemy elites, they co-opted them, as Tacitus vividly, if cynically tells us, and gave them and their people a stake in the pax Romana, which was the product the Romans had come to sell and in which they had supreme confidence. This cunning strategy enabled them to run the provinces on a shoestring, obviating the need for a huge army of soldiers and bureaucrats.

The Roman Empire was inclusive: “it didn’t matter what your religion was or where your parents came from or what colour your skin was”. By the end of the second century, half the Senate was of provincial origin. And, unlike the modern European “citizenship” we have by courtesy of Maastricht, you had citizenship in your own right in a direct relationship with the Emperor, not by dint of membership in a particular group or nation.

Romans offered conquered people a new definition of what it meant to be human, the concept of humanitas, the attribute of a civilized man, which included goodwill, respect, austerity, reputation and authority, as well as some characteristics we don’t usually associate with Romans (my comment), gentleness and affability.

As well as common citizenship, the empire was united by a common currency and such cultural phenomena as the games, the theatre, the baths and the cult of the emperor. The EU has no counterparts for these, though not for want of trying in some quarters.

Boris asks: If we in modern Europe were to take the best of ancient Rome, what would we take? Surely, he says, we would take the religious, racial and intellectual tolerance, “the laissez-faire government of the High Empire in which the economy grew and people prospered with minimal bureaucracy and regulation…It would be good to recapture that enormous public-spirited creative energy of the Romans, to say nothing of the efficiency that allowed them to rule an empire of 80 million with 150 senior officials”.

He ends by saying that although we can never reproduce the Roman Empire, we’re fated never to stop trying.

Historians will probably dispute the details, but the premise is fascinating. And there’s another extract next Saturday.



  1. ‘Fraid I beg to differ re Boris Johnson’s dishiness :-), but the book and TV series sound interesting. Many thanks.

  2. Check out Tony Keen’s blog, he writes about the´TV documentary as well.

    Too bad I can’t see that one.

  3. Sorry Sarah, I’m with Carla on this one. Boris Johnson dishy?!

    He seems to cultivate being what I would call a ‘duffer’ – harmless, even amusing, and making much of seeming incompetent. I’m agog to see the series. I suspect the ‘Celt’ contingent won’t like it one bit, for starters.

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