In humour, profundity. Asa Bennett’s Romanifesto: Modern Lessons from Classical Politics is a deftly written and erudite reminder that, as Mark Twain put it, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. As I read it a second time last week, Bennett’s fine scholarship – he is a classicist himself – suddenly brought our best known classics graduate into sharper relief.
You will know some of the allusions. When Boris Johnson became mayor of London, he compared the media reaction to his victory as “like a ravening Hyrcanian tiger deprived of its mortal prey”. Theresa May’s Brexit deal, he once said, meant “Carthaginian terms”, or the humiliation that Rome forced upon that city, limiting its navy to ten ships. But when, in 2019, Rory Stewart said that Boris reminded him “not of a Roman senator, more of Catullus” – a mere performer – he told us two things. First, Boris forces even his critics to raise their cultural game. Second, Boris in power has been disproving this criticism.
Asa Bennett recalls how Boris once suggested, “If, like the Roman leader Cincinnatus, I were to be called from my plough to serve in that office, I wouldn’t, of course, say no”. Few politicians could get away with comparing themselves to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. In 2019, we remembered why Boris could.
Rome in the fifth century BC was in constant peril, and Cincinnatus became consul in 460BC after the man meant to serve that year was killed by a gang of outlaws. Having stepped up once, he retired to his farm.
Yet Rome’s time of troubles continued as the Aequians to the east betrayed their peace treaty and marched on the city. A Roman counter-attack stalled, and Livy records the panicked city seeking the one man who could come to its aid. Cincinnatus was granted the powers of a dictator, which he quickly renounced once the crisis was passed (I am sure this will have occurred to Boris as extraordinary powers were put at his disposal through the Covid crisis).
Again, with the job done, Cincinnatus resigned, but he returned once more to deal with a man called Spurius Maelius, who had gained attention by promising to distribute grain freely among the people, then tried to become king of Rome. Again, Cincinnatus returned to his farm after Rome was safe. Not just rus in urbe, but rus in rus, as Stanley Johnson said of his son.
After he left the Conservative leadership race in 2016, Johnson said that “the plough, the row I am hoeing now is far more important”. But when he finally became leader in summer 2019, it was, as Asa Bennett puts it, “almost as if by acclamation”. As he consigned Jeremy Corbyn to history, perhaps Boris will have thought of Spurius Maelius when he warned: “Delay means defeat. Delay means Corbyn.”
There are but a few good political ideas, and most of history consists of forgetting and relearning them. To study the classics is to understand that, and Boris is steeped in that scholarship. That appreciation of the genuinely liberal heritage, which Asa Bennett also demonstrates in Romanifesto, allows him, with levity, to raise the cultural bar.
A friend who helped establish a free school recalled seeing this in action. Most state schools deprive their students of the opportunity to study classics. When asked to vote on how to use a free period, the mainly ethnic minority students of this one chose ancient Greek, and invited Boris to join them for conversation, which he did.
Later, Boris defended Athens over Rome in a debate with Mary Beard at the Royal Geographical Society. Now we can better understand why.
When Boris became prime minister, Asa published a piece in which I proposed similarities between our Brexit era and Athens after the Peloponnesian wars. In 431 BC, militaristic Sparta faced Athens, a cataclysm that drew in much of the known world. Exhausted post-war Athens kept its democratic assembly on the Pnyx hill, but when it met again, some claimed the democracy had had its day, even somehow caused the trouble. The oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants rebuilt the assembly to face towards the continent. No more would Athens dream of freedom – that was just imperial nostalgia. Rebellion soon began, but a loss of confidence had taken hold of the Athenian elite. Its democracy staggered towards Alexander; democrats gave way to kings.
Today, many politicians claim to be confident about our country, then they choose oligarchy. Boris, however, is different – and we can feel it. But he has so much to do, and so much to reform, if, pace Tennyson’s Ulysses, no seas shall wash us down. “We alone do good to our neighbours not upon a calculation of interest, but in the confidence of freedom”, said Boris’s hero and the great general of those wars, Pericles. Great nations fail if they make the wrong choices. We pray that Boris will not fall, like Pericles, with the battle for Brexit yet unfinished.
With Boris fighting for his life, there is a sense of our national life acutely reduced, in volume and palpability. That tells us something: Boris has qualities that point to a Periclean premiership. One section of Bennett’s book is built around Pericles, who in his oration for the men who fell defending democracy told Athens: “I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas; while I doubt if the world can produce a man, who, where he has only himself to depend on, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility as the Athenian.” Not just bread and circuses, but the higher democratic virtues.
I hope, then, that Boris will recall king Odysseus of the island of Ithaca:
“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Romanifesto: Modern Lessons from Classical Politics is published by Biteback Publishing.