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February 28, 2006

We have had Augustus, Marilyn, and Diana - now we have Boris. Harry Phibbs explores the Cult of Boris: The Dream of Rome - Boris Johnson

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The Dream of Rome
by Boris Johnson
Pp. 210. London: Harper Collins, 2006
Hardback, 18.99

This is a short book on a big subject but its author is a famously busy chap. The typeface is large and the text is eked out with pictures of coins, statues, spears, "baffling scenes of flagellation" and so on. But what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. This is history as it should be told. Blood curdling, absorbing narrative. It is written with Boris Johnson's trademark boisterous wit but also with an eye for detail and a remorseless heroic intellectual honesty.

While some of the worthier, weightier tomes, bought with the best of intentions, remain neglected on the book shelf, this volume will quickly be devoured as a guilty treat. As enjoyable as P. G. Wodehouse, it is written in much the same style. Often you could take a Johnson paragraph and a Wodehouse paragraph swap them around in a sort of blind tasting and it would be hard to tell who had written what. There can be no higher praise for Johnson's writing than that. Maybe he's consciously imitating Wodehouse's style but I don't think so. Johnson's father Stanley is much the same sort of life enhancing character so I don't think it is an affectation. Anyway, I don't care. The end result is superb.

Here are the Romans facing the unthinkable; defeat by primitive German tribes in the battle of Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. How did the Germans pluck up the courage to take them on? Johnson writes:

If a barbarian retreated or was beaten back, it was standard for the wives to bare their breasts in a kind of Sun Page Three exhortation to the troops. "This is what you are fighting for!" they would cry, and the barbarian would pick up his sword or axe, wipe the blood from his nose, thank the girl for reminding him and run back to battle.
But while the barbarian women were a plus, Boris reckons the Roman women were a drag. Archaeologists using metal detectors have found:
casseroles, spoons, amphorae, jewellery, hairpins and a disc broach, strongly suggesting that the historian Dio Cassious was right: The legionnaires were not on their own but hampered by a great caravan of women and children.
The defeated Roman commander Varus literally fell on his sword:
At which point we are told all the principal Roman officers did the same, and when news of this mass suicide reached the rest of the army it would be fair to say that morale reached a pretty low ebb.
The Big Idea behind the book is to compare the Roman Empire with the current project of the European Union. In his heart Johnson is a Eurosceptic but his presentation is analytical in tone rather than abusive. Some even feel the comparison is rather flattering to the EU. He makes clear that he is not the only one to have spotted it. The ill fated European Constitution was signed in Rome in October 2004. Berlusconi, Blair, Schroeder, Chirac et al. were greeted by a flag with the Latin message:
Europae Rei Publicae Status.
[The establishment of a European republic.] A marble plaque, which is still there despite the Dutch and French referendums, offered in Latin the declaration that the Constitution would mean that:
the races of Europe might coalesce into a body of one people, with one mind, one will and one government.
Johnson adds:
It is surely no accident that the plaque echoes the old Roman slogan "plurimae gentes, unus populus" - many nations, one people.
It sounds to me as if the EU are trying to go rather further with their empire in trying to achieve a standardized European citizen than anything the Romans tried. The Romans didn't try to regulate every aspect of our life with a torrent of directives intended to extinguish national diversity. But the comparison is certainly instructive.

Johnson has a soft spot for the Romans although he acknowledges there was the odd blemish such as slavery. He adds though that for the vast majority of the rural population they might not even be aware of living under the Roman Empire:

For your average swineherd in Gaul, therefore, the Roman Empire was not so much a threat to ancient freedoms, it was just another way by which the same old elites consolidated their privileges.
To those shamefully ignorant about Roman history the volume is full of fascinating material that one ought to have known already:
Apart from the current ruler of Turkmenistan, whose bizarre reforms seem unlikely to endure, only two human beings have given their names to the months of the year, and one was the adoptive son of the other. There is a deep logic in the decision to preserve the names of Julius and Augustus Caesar. It reflects their pivotal role in the creation of our European civilization.
Johnson also notes that Augustus kept changing his name:
It is a mark of his protean political talents that our hero keeps changing his name. Before the death of Julius Caesar he is known as Gaius Octavius; thereafter he becomes Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus; and after he becomes emperor in 27 BC he is known as Caesar Augustus or Augustus Caesar, or just Caesar, or just Augustus. Got it? Let's call him Octavian until Actium and Augustus thereafter.
But if I were Johnson I would be cautious about poking fun on this point. Johnson's full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and his family still call him Alexander. Whatever the reasons for the changes, Boris and Augustus both score pretty high in name recognition. There are few people who can be identified immediately in the public consciousness by mention of their Christian name alone. Marilyn is one, Diana another, Augustus is a third. Boris is a fourth. This book can only add a further dimension to the Cult of Boris.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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In his TV programme Boris includes a specious piece of moral equivalence when he states that the early Christian martyrs were the Islamic suicide bombers of early times. Does that comparision exist in the book or is it the invention of a BBC scriptwiter?

Just interested.

Posted by: David H at February 28, 2006 04:09 PM

Why do the French claim Vercingetorix as the founding father of their nation, but at the same time try to bring to life a Frankenstein version of the Roman empire in the shape of the EU?

Asterix would disown them!

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 1, 2006 06:28 PM
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