Ancient and modern

The fall of the Roman republic – and the rise of the EU

Students of imperial history will find ominous echoes in today’s European debates

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

As both sides of the great EU debate line up their forces, it is worth reflecting on the implications of the collapse of the Roman republic in the 1st century bc and its transformation into an imperial system under the first emperor Augustus.

Romans dated the start of the collapse to 133 bc. Up till then, they felt that relations between the senate, the traditional, if de facto, ruling authority, and the Plebeian assembly, with its tribunes who could veto senatorial proposals, had worked pretty well, without any serious clashes. This all changed when the ambitious aristocrat Tiberius Gracchus got himself elected tribune in order to use the Plebeian assembly to introduce legislation without senatorial agreement. This was within the law, but the issue — the redistribution among the poor of technically illegal land-holdings of the wealthy — was highly contentious. That passed, but an associated proposal ended in a bloody riot, started by senators, and Tiberius was murdered. His brother Gaius suffered the same fate ten years later.

With the ‘constitution’ now in tatters, powerful dynasts, with money and private armies behind them — Marius, Sulla, Julius Caesar, Pompey — fought it out for power in a series of coups and civil wars. The last man standing in 31 bc was Octavian, the adopted son and heir of Caesar, and it was he who, as the first emperor Augustus, invented Rome’s first standing army. With no obvious rivals and the military’s backing, he restored order and the rule of (his) law to Rome. Historians like Tacitus saw it for what it was: authoritarian one-man rule.

The EU is hardly in the state of late republican Rome. But its central mission, universal economic integration, imposed at whatever cost on member states, has failed. So it proposes yet closer union. But further enforcing such chimerical ends threatens Europe with an even more centralised and undemocratic Augustanism. If that is where the EU is heading, it is time to wave it goodbye.

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  • Lady Magdalene

    The EU has always been about the imposition of governance by an unelected, unaccountable Elite.

    There is nothing democratic about the EU.

    • Bonkim

      To get true democracy EU countries will have to merge into a federal system and remove their national parliaments. EU populations are diverse and most have little understanding of the mindsets and cultural norms prevailing in other parts of the EU. That is light-years away. In the mean time not many within the EU have any idea how the EU Parliament works or the party system there or how laws and regulations are brought and passed. As a trading block O.K but as a collective nation – bonkers. How many would be prepared to lay down their life for the EU that would be the ultimate test. I won’t jump in to save the EU if it is threatened.

      • ManOfKent

        I won’t jump in to save the EU if it is threatened.

        I’d actively sign up to those threatening the EU’s destruction!

        • Bonkim

          Be careful you don’t sink with the ship.

    • Planet Vague

      You sound tired, Lady M. Are you all right?

  • Castro Spendlove

    ‘..universal economic integration, imposed at whatever cost..’ or the means justify the ends whatever the cost. Lenin and Stalin must have been thinking the very same thing.

  • Spenglersdog

    Spengler and Yockey are being proved correct year by year. What a shame they are not widely read. The Age of Absolute Politics is advancing step by step, the Imperium is emerging in spite of all the 19th century ideologies attempting to usurp its reign.

  • oroberto

    The quality of the leadership of the EU institutions is more on a par with the early 20th century leadership of the Austro-Hungarian empire than with even decaying ancient Rome.

    • pobjoy

      Some of them will even pretend to agree with that.

  • ManOfKent

    Whether the EU is comparable to the Roman Empire or not the outcome will be the same. When it collapses (and it will collapse) chaos will ensue. The legacy of the EU will be a new ‘Dark Ages’.

    • pobjoy

      Chaos would not ensue, because the economic interests of the majority would make very sure that did not occur. If you are right about collapse (and I think you may be) a realignment on a more realistic basis woukd be very possible.

  • mf

    This is a completely nonsensical comparison. EU is an association of nation states. The superstructure that is the EU puts some restraint on the national interest and it is up to these states to calibrate the balance. They will, detractors notwithstanding. Comparisons between EU and something like a Roman Empire are completely ahistorical and actually discrediting to the author and the publication, as there is obviously an ulterior motive in the thesis.

    • pobjoy

      EU is an association of nation states.

      How many of them have a consistent record of democracy, for as long as, say, a century? Not Portugal, Spain, Germany, Italy, Austria, Romania or Poland. Even France was in two minds about German occupation. That’s the majority of the EU population, by a large margin. What is more, some of them are long industrialised, while others are barely industrialised, the factor that has meant the absurdity of a common currency; which factor looks like a basis for a complete separation, in some form. So there are serious and possibly incompatible divergences in both political and economic spheres.

      The superstructure that is the EU

      It can’t be a superstructure if is also an association of states. That’s the problem, as perceived, and not just in the UK. Matters are decided without ordinary people getting any sort of say. How many of the current EU leaders have personal associations that are soundly democratic? Not so many as there were.

      it is up to these states to calibrate the balance.

      They can ‘calibrate’ it all they like! Though I’m sure they have total awareness of all the data they find important. What we should have read is ‘it is up to these states to re-balance’, re-balance the power, that is. To make decisions increasingly locally based, and to make them transparent. That is the challenge to the EU’s leaders today.

      Comparisons between EU and something like a Roman Empire are completely ahistorical

      On the contrary. The Roman method was often to make stealthy political associations before a complete take-over. Which is exactly what happened in Britain.

      • mf

        “How many of them have a consistent record of democracy, for as long as, say, a century?”
        Are you actually trying to hold Great Britain in front of us as a sole paragon of democracy? Really? The sorry remnant of the largest empire in the history of the planet? (

        “It can’t be a superstructure if it is also an association of states”
        Really? The United States is an association of states, with a superstructure. It may look to you like a single unitary state, but actually it is an association of self-governing states, each with it’s own elected government. No contradiction whatsoever.

        Doing the same in Europe is harder, because of history, ethnic fragmentation, some religious fragmentation. It is however no less necessary, particularly given European history combined with the power of modern warfare.

        “On the contrary. The Roman method was often to make stealthy political associations”
        sure, they were called the legions and marched around a lot, burning down and slaughtering when deemed necessary.

        All this whining about lost sovereignty and encroaching imperial Brussels is actually the age old technique of political demagogues. People who make political careers out of sowing divisions. Nothing new. Unfortunately they sometimes succeed in seducing the masses, and the rest becomes history.

        • pobjoy

          The United States is an association of states

          States associated by many common factors, that in reality makes them equivalent to counties.

          Are you actually trying to hold Great Britain in front of us as a sole paragon of democracy?

          Probably the turning point in the war against Nazism was the moment at which Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville turned the guns of HMS Hood on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir. The world then knew that Britain was not going to roll over in the face of Nazism. Had Churchill not commanded that action, or something like it, the whole world today would be under Axis control.

          • Edward Studor

            Yes, Mers-el-Kebir is hardly known about. Unlike events such as the Battle of Britain, but it is just as important in Britain and the allies success.

    • MrJones

      The EU is an attempt to destroy the nation states so the comparison is fine.

    • goodsoldier

      Ok you win, it is more like the USSR and the DDR. Merkel wants to go back to the way it was in her youth.

    • Not ahistorical at all. Actually, the architects of the current regional system during the 1940s explicitly looked back to the medieval model of the Holy Roman Empire, which in its turn was based on the Augustan principate.

  • LloydDrako

    What’s not mentioned here is that traditionally, military service was expected of land owners. The expansion of Roman power generated more and more wealth inequality, because men on long service in Spain or Illyria neglected and lost their land to wealthier, better connected Romans. It became more and more difficult to maintain military recruitment and morale. Absent even more far-reaching reforms than the Gracchi carried out, the only recourse was to mercenaries more and more inclined to fight for their commanders–Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Julius Caesar–and less and less attached to the ideals of the Republic. The end point was the Principate of Augustus.

    The real comparison with the EU is not the end of the Roman Republic, but the end of the Western Roman Empire four centuries later, as more and more Germanic barbarians, some military adventurers, some genuine refugees, some with and some without Roman permission, forced their way through the borders to settle in Gaul, Spain, Britain and Italy itself.

    • MrJones

      The comparison is apt. Rome balanced the interests of all its citizens for a long time until the rich imported vast amounts of cheap labour – in the form of slaves in their case – which upset the balance.

      • Edward Studor

        And the immigration of Visigoths into Rome.

  • hanekhw

    Study up on Arabic, Farsi, the Koran and the dis-assembly and assembly of the AK-47. Those are the skills you’ll need if you keep going the way you’ve been going EU. Oh, and the care and breeding of goats and sheep. Sheeple.

    • Abie Vee

      Gosh… you were ding so well until yo got to sheeple… after that you lost it: BAAAH

      • blandings

        Peter Jones invariably writes interesting articles on the ancient and the modern: So far and yet so near.
        Do not spoil them with your presence.

        • Abie Vee

          That’s my role: popping bubblewrap !

    • Abie Vee

      On the other hand, I might study up on how to run over you in a tram.

  • misomiso

    It’s quite important for us Eurosceptics to not fall into the trap of the Nationalists in Scotland, or the Milibandista’s, and not just talk to ourselves.

    We have A LOT of work to do to convince the country we will be better off out Economically.

    Never forget that.

    • Abie Vee

      You’re darned right:. It is the black hole at the heart of your argument… because you cannot prove that we would be better off. All you have is wishful thinking. And that will never be enough to convince us.

      • Hospitaller

        It is impossible to prove what the future is going to be. If you don’t understand that simple fact of life is then you deserve everything that happens to you

        • Abie Vee

          You are so right!

          It’s like this knight… we know where we are, but we haven’t the faintest clue where Moses Fridge is going to lead us.

    • MrJones

      The EU is corrupt. A corrupt system will always produce worse results because the people pushing the worst options necessarily pay the biggest bribes.

      All the rebel alliance have to do is show the EU is totally corrupt.

      Why else do you think the BBC covers it up?

  • MrJones

    “The EU is hardly in the state of late republican Rome.”

    The republic in this version are the individual nation states being turned into an oligarchy by the europhile political class.

  • LG

    Absurd comparison.

  • jim

    If you want to draw comparisons between Rome and the EU then the obvious parallel is the later undermining The Roman Empire by demographics when The Barbarians moved in.

  • The Delian League is a better comparison, when poor Thrace attempted to leave the other members invaded her – a taste of things to come perhaps?

  • jackhope

    Nice comparison but wrong century, and most af all wrong place.

    If anyhow a comparison can be done with roman age, just do it considering sociological, geographical and economical problems. I mean: Europe, and UK too, is on the verge of a demographic decay while experimentig the top of social and political complexity. Its different national identity roots, based in the medieval (postclassical) world, are today put under heavy pressure by globalisation. Europe today influence is mostly cultural, because its political field is kept safe by an other western pover, America.

    This resembles by all means the situation of ellenic speaking people inside the roman world at the turn of the fourth century. The hellenistic world had a high level od division inside the many states, but it was under pressure from southeast Asia, and it had a huge demographic problem because of a declining population because of high tax pressure combined with prolonged recessions. As in the roman world, barbarians were put into army to save the commerce ,as today modern barbarians are placed into factories to save industrial production; and the roman powerhouse, the big brother of hellenistic world, was living a deep decay, as the US influece is waning today in Europe and Middle East.

    This is the fourth century a.D., not, the first century b.C.
    What the Eu is running the risk to build is in my opinion a new ”american empire” (United States of Europe) in the East of the western world, just as the Byzantine empire did moving its center form Rome to Costantinople, in order to survive the roman (american) decay.