What Boris Johnson's Book Reveals About The New PM And Brexit

Published: August 13, 2019 13:19 IST
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Once again, a man who studied Classics at school and university has become the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. With his education in Greek and Latin and an abiding fondness for classical tags, Boris Johnson is a throwback to the days when Britannia ruled the world. No one in the nineteenth century would have been surprised to hear that a boy who studied Greek and Latin at Eton and read 'Greats' at Balliol College, Oxford, had become the PM.

Like his illustrious forebears, Johnson doesn't hide his classical learning; in fact, he flaunts it at every opportunity he gets. And why not? Scores of British politicians, of course, have studied Classics at school and university, and the history of Classics in British political life is long and packed with great names. 20 Prime Ministers went to Eton, which still employs more Classics teachers than many universities; though not all will have read Greats, 28 Prime Ministers were educated at Oxford, which has the largest Classics faculty in the world.

I'm using the word 'Classics' to refer to the formal study of ancient Greece and Rome since this is the sense in which the term is still used in many schools and universities across western Europe and North America. In India and elsewhere, the term 'Classics' has a wide and flexible meaning and can refer to everything from music to the Ramayana to Shakespeare. But the study of Greek and Latin, under the heading 'Classics', is still popular in western Europe and the USA. It's this subject that Boris Johnson eagerly pursued in Eton and Oxford. In fact, Oxford has a distinctive if charming way of referring to its undergraduate Classics course, but let's not get into that here!

Johnson is so devoted to Classics that he wrote a book on the Roman Empire, The Dream of Rome, which appeared in 2006, and hosted a BBC documentary of the same name. I can't help thinking that one reason why Johnson still speaks fondly of Classics is that it reminds him of Britain at its zenith, when it really did exercise its writ over a quarter of the world. It's not a coincidence that the campaign for Brexit, with its impossible yearning for England's past glory, has chosen him to be its tub-thumping champion.

You need only look at the relationship between Classics and the British Raj in order to grasp the significance of Greek and Latin before the Second World War. For decades, during the period of British rule in India, the entrance examinations for the Indian Civil Service were heavily skewed in favour of Greek and Latin, or Greek and Roman History. In many years, Classics students, and especially Classics students from Oxford, dominated the lists. More surprising than that is the point made by Richard Symonds in his excellent book on Oxford and Empire. Symonds writes that in the late 1930s, just before the Second World War, six of the provincial Governors in India had read Greats in Oxford and a further two had been students at Oxford. Benjamin Jowett, Professor of Greek and Master of Balliol, was enthusiastic about sending his Classics students into the ICS. Between 1888 and 1905, three successive viceroys of India (Lansdowne, Elgin, Curzon) were Balliol men. It's impossible to read about the role played by men (and a few women) raised on the histories of Greece and Rome and not come away with the conclusion that Classics shaped the British Empire in a deep and lasting fashion.

Let's return to that book, The Dream of Rome. The title seems vaguely to nod to the dream of Scipio, which is in fact a dream that Cicero writes about, or perhaps to Ridley Scott's film, Gladiator, with its enigmatic evocations of the dream of Rome ("There was once a dream that was Rome. It shall be realized," says the dying Maximus, played by Russell Crowe). In Johnson's book, the Roman Empire is held up as an example for the European Union. He doesn't call outright for Britain to leave the EU, "do or die", as he likes to say these days; rather, he writes in the book that the EU ought to reform itself by emulating the best features of the Roman Empire. Hold back "the slavery and the mines and the psychotic cult of the ego; the militarism and the cruelty" and bring on "the religious tolerance, the racial tolerance, the intellectual tolerance and curiosity". He adds that the member states of the EU "would surely want the laissez-faire government of the High Empire, in which the economy grew and people prospered with minimal bureaucracy and regulation". Not only should the EU follow ancient Rome in these matters; it should also welcome Turkey to the club. Johnson reminds his readers that the eastern half of the Roman Empire didn't fall until 1453, whereas the western half fell in the fifth century CE, and observes that "it would be good to bring the Turks in, and reunite the two halves of the Roman Empire". 

Given the accusations of Islamophobia he has had to face in recent years, the last chapter makes for fascinating reading; the chapter is entitled "And Then Came the Muslims" and was added to the book when it was re-issued in 2007. This is an incoherent appendix in which Johnson veers between tendentious Islamophobia and historically informed remarks about Islamic civilization. This chapter is something of a missed opportunity since Johnson makes many reasonable and sensible comments about both Christianity and Islam, but they are drowned out by the exaggerated denunciations of the latter. Why he felt the need to add this section to the book is a mystery.

The Dream of Rome contains no major historical errors, though it offers many oversimplifications, and one comes away from the text in search of a profounder, more complex, and less superficial understanding of history. The book is certainly the jauntiest history of the Roman Empire that I've read. I also expected it to be a racier and steamier romp, given the author's reputation, but it turns out to be less racy than Gibbon, who figures in the narrative occasionally. The very first paragraph of the preface alludes slyly to Gibbon, but there are few similarities between Johnson's work and Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Certainly at the level of style, Johnson's prose bears no comparison to Gibbon's, and the Decline and Fall remains a far more cosmopolitan and erudite guide to the ancient world than the Dream of Rome. Gibbon's history is an undisputed historical and stylistic masterpiece, whereas the Dream of Rome is a hastily written screed, sometimes funny, sometimes perceptive, and lacking insight into either the Roman Empire or the European Union.

As provocative and absurd as the argument seems, the book harks back to a Johnson who was content to reform the EU rather than leave it altogether. In 2019, Prime Minister Johnson is adamant that he will lead Britain out of the EU and deliver Brexit to the nation. What would Edward Gibbon say?

Phiroze Vasunia is Professor of Greek at University College London and the author, most recently, of 'The Classics and Colonial India'

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