Ancient and modern

Ancient and Modern: a war for ‘human rights’

Why the Romans would have applauded Putin

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

What a splendidly liberal leader Mr Putin has turned out to be, desiring nothing other for his fellow Russians than their human right to decide their own fate. How the Romans would have applauded!

In 215 bc, while Rome was desperately trying to keep Hannibal at bay in Italy, Philip the fifth, king of the powerful northern Greek state of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s territory), decided to ally himself to Carthage. He had in mind putting himself about on the big stage, among the Greek leagues to the south, and north into the Balkans (where Rome was beginning to have interests); and after some success, in 205 bc his gaze turned east, across the Aegean towards Asia Minor.

But in 202 bc Rome finally defeated Hannibal and, far from being exhausted by their efforts, decided to sort Philip out. They warned him not to make war on Greek states, but he ignored them. In 197 bc, Flamininus led the Roman legions to victory over Philip’s Macedonian phalanxes in Thessaly, and a year later, at the Isthmian games in Corinth, he announced Rome’s settlement: Greece was to be restored to freedom, ‘without garrisons, without taxes, to live as it wished under its ancestral laws’. At which ‘a shout of joy arose, so incredibly loud that it reached the sea… and ravens which chanced to be flying overhead fell dead into the stadium’.

In the event, the reverse was the case. ‘Freedom’ and ‘autonomy’ became slogans that could be used both as an excuse for war and extending their empire (‘this people’s freedom is threatened and needs protection’) and as a means of maintaining the status quo in the shape of a stable eastern frontier. Freedom, in other words, became conditional on submission to Roman control, and if push came to shove, the mighty Roman army ensured that the Greeks did not fail to understand it. The result was maximum control with minimum boots on the ground.

Which is precisely the game that Mr Putin is playing in the Ukraine. What a useful tool ‘human rights’ are for justifying imperial expansion.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments