by Bryan Ward-Perkins
Friday, 1
July 2022
Factcheck
09:45

Boris gets his Roman history wrong (again)

The PM keeps cherry-picking the wrong parallels
by Bryan Ward-Perkins
Julius Caesar, you are not. Credit: Getty

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.

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Harry Child
Harry Child
1 month ago

Dear God preserve us from journalistic cherry picking.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Harry Child

He’s got to earn money somehow – but I’m surprised that Unherd publish such nit picking nonsense.

Selwyn Jones
Selwyn Jones
1 month ago

Interesting that Johnson once touted arguments against inward migration. Under his “leadership” vast numbers have settled in Britain and the southern shore remains porous. How typical.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  Selwyn Jones

‘Vast numbers’ is a bit overstated isn’t it? After all you’re losing more than you’re birthing (Covid helps in that).. so unless you make up your net losses with fit, healthy, young, resourceful men (!) who’ll pay your pensions? Merkle saw that in Germany and imported 1 million all at once! It’ll take you 20 years to match that! ..a lot more if you rid GB of such a valuable resource sending ’em to Rwanda!
The simple fact is that Alf Garnet is a very poor breeder and so your dream of a white Protestant GB is pie in the sky! Why not let these guys stay provided they learn to speak fluent English, convert to CofE and join the Tory party. In no time you’ll have more Richi Sunaks than you’ll know what to do with.
When we in Ireland had unwanted migrants, ie you English, we made ’em more Irish than the Irish themselves! So.. either breed or get with the program!

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

The rate of net migration to the UK is approximately equal to the rate of abortions.

Selwyn Jones
Selwyn Jones
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

What complacent nonsense.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

It’s a bit rich accusing England of being full of Alf Garnett racists when Ireland is a much whiter and less multicultural nation, with much higher statistics of racist abuse to minorities

Rob Britton
Rob Britton
1 month ago

The truth is that Boris Johnson says the first thing that comes into his head, regardless of any apparent contradictions or anomalies. Hence his thinking out loud recently about whether he should continue as prime minister into the mid thirties when he is probably not even likely to last until the middle of next year.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob Britton

It went over your head as well as the writer too?

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago

I think the writer has missed the joke.

Last edited 1 month ago by Matt M
Jeanie K
Jeanie K
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

I don’t think so. He knows Johnson is a joke.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeanie K

Wow great wit!

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 month ago

He was being funny to underline an interesting concept, not giving a learned lecture!

Oliver Nicholson
Oliver Nicholson
1 month ago

I hesitate to take issue with the author of a distinguished study of the Fall of the Roman Empire, but I thought that the current thinking in Vienna was that the Germanic immigrants to the Roman Empire arrived not with large armies but actually with rather small ones.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago

Were the Goths Germanic?

Oliver Nicholson
Oliver Nicholson
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Yes. It was the Huns who were not – and they were not there to stay. Priscus’s account of an embassy to meet Attila in the mid-5th century is one of the most gripping pieces of Byzantine ethnography.

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
1 month ago

Was there a serious point being made here? If so, it passed me by. Usual ramblings of a buffoon, given credence by another?!

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  Jean Nutley

Nope: you got it right. If you’re looking for serious points my advice is don’t listen to BJ.. If, on the other hand you want a good laugh, he’s a sound bet!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago

It’s funny how the writer refers to the Romans brutal military conquest – and yet those conquered areas didn’t want the Roman peace to end.
A bit like the evil British Empire.

Martin Bide
Martin Bide
1 month ago

Rome imported vast numbers of slaves mostly from the middle-east. At one time it is estimated that 90% of Rome’s population was of slave origin. This may have been a contributory cause of Rome’s enfeeblement and collapse: so perhaps Mr. Johnson is both right (immigration is dangerous) and wrong political expansion around the ‘Med is a good thing?
Wouldn’t this be typical for Mr Johnson?

neil pryke
neil pryke
1 month ago

The most recent aspirant to “Mare Nostrum” was Benito Mussolini (Il Duce), and look what happened to him!

Terry M
Terry M
1 month ago

Et tu Bryan?

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

The author sounds like a delight to work with.

Bill W
Bill W
1 month ago

Glad to see this piece by this author and look forward to more.