July 1, 2022 - 9:45am

The last time Boris Johnson invoked the Roman past as a lesson for the present was when he attributed the fall of the Roman empire in the fifth century AD, and the ‘dark age’ which followed, to the effects of ‘uncontrolled immigration’. By failing to explain that the fifth-century immigrants came in the form of large armies, which dismembered the Roman empire by force or by the threat of force, he implied that they were similar to today’s immigrants arriving in their small boats or in the back of lorries — thereby suggesting that the latter are as threatening to our well-being as were the invaders of the fifth century to that of Rome

This week he treated us to another dubious comparison with ancient Rome by suggesting that we should seek a Mediterranean-wide political and military alliance that mirrors the Mare Nostrum of the Roman empire:

My view is that we should rebuild the whole concept [of a united Mediterranean]. I think that Turkey should be there, and I think that the Maghreb should be there, and I think we should basically be recreating the Mare Nostrum of the Roman empire.
- Boris Johnson

So far so good: the Roman period was indeed the last time the Mediterranean was a political unit completely at peace, and, for that matter, the last time that economic well-being was spread fairly equally around its shores. But is the Roman parallel helpful in the present day?

Leaving aside the question of what to do with the states of the Near East — Syria, Lebanon and Israel (all integral parts of the Roman empire) — we should remember that the unity of the Roman Mediterranean was created not by its different peoples suddenly deciding to get on well together, but by brutal military conquest.

Given this, ‘Mare Nostrum’ is not a neutral term that can be straightforwardly evoked in the cause of present-day unity. The last time it was used extensively was by Mussolini’s Italy in its attempt to dominate the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. During this period, the Italian and French colonial rulers of Libya, Tunisia and Algeria constantly pointed to the great Roman monuments in North Africa as parallels for their own achievements. But there is very little sense amongst the present-day inhabitants of the Maghreb that their Roman past was ever truly theirs. Nor will suggesting to Erdoğan that he rules Asia Minor instead of Turkey do much to bring him into a pan-Mediterranean fold.

Johnson’s evoking of ‘Mare Nostrum’ thus isn’t quite what he seems to think it is. And if the Roman past is his vision, it seems reasonable to ask whether that includes other defining aspects of the empire, such as its single currency and its free movement of people, or the return of its northern boundaries, namely Scotland and Ireland, which were never ruled by Rome.

Cherry picking parallels from the Roman past is a dangerous game.

Bryan Ward-Perkins is an archaeologist and historian of the later Roman Empire