Ancient and modern

What MPs need is an oath with consequences

The emperor Augustus knew how it was done

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

Before taking their seats in Parliament, all MPs must swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. Mark Durkan, MP for Foyle in Northern Ireland, recently suggested that they should also swear an oath to do no wrong. In this election year, that could set a useful precedent.

Political orators in the Greek world talked of the good citizen as one who cared for the like-mindedness of all citizens and for his city’s interests — defending the fatherland, obeying the laws and authorities, and honouring the state’s cults — and young Athenian males swore to this effect when they reached the age of 18. The Roman emperor Augustus made all citizens swear an oath to be loyal to him and his descendants, having the same friends and enemies, reporting on any plots and being ready to take up arms on his behalf.

Oaths could also be sworn to guarantee personal business and legal transactions; and they were always sworn between enemies making peace treaties — neither side could trust the other an inch. But friends would never need to swear oaths, unless dodgy business was afoot.

To ensure the oath was kept, ancients sealed it in the name of the gods. The theory was that anyone who broke it would therefore be subject to divine as well as human retribution. Oaths frequently defined what would happen to the oath-breaker. In the case of Augustus’s oath, this encompassed ‘the destruction and total extinction of my body, soul, life, children, my entire family, and everything essential down to every successor and every descendant of mine, and may neither earth nor sea receive the bodies of my family and descendants nor bear fruit for them’.

That sounds a suitably positive note, which the Speaker would surely endorse. A minimum requirement might entail MPs swearing, in the name of ‘Democracy’ (which the Athenians made a god), to honour their election manifestos — or else.

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