Bread and circuses

The latest candidate for bad historical takes is the fall of the Roman Empire. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, speaking at the G20 summit in Rome ahead of the COP Climate conference in Glasgow, said:

“If you increase the temperatures of the planet by four degrees or more as they are predicted to do remorselessly, you’ll have seen the graphs, then you produce these really very difficult geopolitical events…. You produce shortages, you produce desertification, habitat loss, movements … contests for water, for food, huge movements of peoples. Those are things that are going to be politically very, very difficult to control.”

He added: “When the Roman Empire fell, it was largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration. The Empire could no longer control its borders, people came in from the east, and we went into a Dark Ages…. The point of that is to say it can happen again. People should not be so conceited as to imagine that history is a one-way ratchet.”

Those claims were widely rubbished by leading historians on social media making numerous excellent points about the multilayered reasons for the fall of Rome.

I’m not going to get into great detail about the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. Rather I think politicians knowingly or otherwise using bad historical takes is a trend in recent years that get used for political advantage, or indeed exploited as we’ve seen in the UK around the consequences of British imperialism or the role of slavery in British history.

Johnson makes great claim to be a classicist, but note the language used here which is also very political like ‘uncontrolled immigration’- a phrase that is often used by British politicians and likely to trigger elements of British public which makes me think it was deliberate, even if he was talking about COP26. I think it is quite revealing about how he has operated, manipulated, public opinion over the years and parallels with Late Antiquity are actually instructive.

For example, when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister he promised the UK a “new age” but his Conservative party had already been in power since 2010 – hardly new – so he purged his parliamentary party and cabinet of trouble makers who might be a blocker to his Brexit plans. Was he reminded perhaps of the bloodier and more far-reaching proscriptions of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus who also heralded a new age for Rome?

Johnson imitates Roman emperors’ tactics in other ways. On the eve of Brexit, he addressed the nation with glowing optimism for the future:

“The most important thing to say tonight is that this is not an end but a beginning. This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act. It is a moment of real national renewal and change.”

Roughly 1700 years ago, a Roman commander named Carausius led a rebellion against continental power to establish his own empire in Britain. He too sought his subjects’ confidence in his ability to preside over an era of peace and stability, and broadcast his message through a series of coins that proclaimed him “Restorer of the Age”.

Johnson and Carausius both participated in a common form of political rhetoric: an attempt to legitimise one’s authority by demonstrating power and ability to usher in a “new age” for one’s country. It’s a common political tactic and new leaders will often try to portray themselves and their governments as uniquely gifted to end old quarrels, make new trade agreements, secure borders, and bring about a period of prosperity and general well-being: “Make America Great Again!” You get the idea. 

New age rhetoric by definition focuses on beginnings, not endings, as Johnson does. This is smart. Any attention to the close of an opponent’s “reign” or era highlights the fact that the new leader’s own period of power will come to an end, very possibly due to his own failures and rejection by fellow citizens. If Johnson was to dwell on earlier conflicts, he would detract from his promises of future concord: painful memories should be set aside, old wounds glossed over.

But new age rhetoric can never fully reject the past: it must acknowledge the values and traditions of one’s society. Hence the need to link “newness” to renewal and restoration, as Johnson does (and so did Carausius). “Progress”, in this sense, means a return to the good things of an idealised bygone time, a “Golden Age”, with a few tweaks and changes to keep pace with the modernised world.

Such tactics are probably as old as time. Carausius borrowed the idea from earlier emperors, particularly Augustus, who created a religious festival in 17 BC to celebrate his new age of peace after a long civil war. All British Prime Ministers have attempted this, both Labour and Conservative.

But Johnson’s rhetoric is more extravagant than that of his predecessors, and occurs at critical, emotionally charged moments in his political career. On July 25 2019, in his first address to the Commons as prime minister, Johnson proclaimed the “beginning of a new golden age”. After his first Queen’s Speech on October 14 2019, he told the Commons that delivering Brexit by October 31 meant a “new age of opportunity for the whole country”. And on December 19 2019, in the same context, Johnson reiterated that “a new golden age for this United Kingdom is now within reach”.

Like Augustus, Johnson understood that a long and bitterly divided nation craves stability and settlement – and is therefore more easily swayed by excessive promises of novelty. To that extent years of Brexit divisions between 2016 and 2019 were exploited: “Let’s get Brexit done!”.

But Roman history also hints at a note of caution: any new age needs to be delivered swiftly and successfully, and the rhetoric grows stale if used too frequently. The emperor Philip I (also known as Philip the Arab) celebrated a new age in the year 248 and was killed soon after, ushering in decades of civil strife in which dozens of competing emperors, including Carausius, announced their “new age” on coins during their pitifully short reigns. Britain’s new age of Brexit faces new economic threats that could de-rail plans.

Perhaps Johnson is also aware – and I don’t think for a moment he is stupid – of the connection between his rhetorical style and the official communications of Roman emperors. His degree at Oxford was in Literae humaniores, nicknamed “the greats”: an undergraduate course focused on classics. This serves him as a form of social capital (and it’s worth noting that such training was pursued by young men from elite Roman families in preparation for government careers).

He has also mastered the art of self-presentation: his signature hairstyle makes him easily recognisable to the masses. One is reminded of the myriads of busts scattered across Rome’s empire bearing Augustus’s perfectly dishevelled locks or Nero’s unfortunate neckbeard. New age rhetoric is only one facet of Johnson’s stage presence. It’s all an act if you like, but a carefully choreographed one.

Is Johnson’s new age rhetoric successful? It certainly didn’t harm the Tories in the last election. But any kind of highly dramatic rhetoric is vulnerable to parody: the philosopher Seneca wrote mockingly of the Emperor Claudius’s death as “the beginning of a most happy age”, turning official pronouncements on their head. The same is true of political commentary today where the media could turn against him if things go wrong. I think he gets that –  so there is more culture war to distract that enables him to play the Emperor to the crowds and that other form of Roman control, bread and circuses. Public approval is key but delivered by diversion, distraction, or by satisfying the most immediate or base requirements of the populace and erodes their sense of civic duty as the Roman poet Juvenal might have said. Immigration talk is one of those base requirements today.

“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions – everything, now restrains itself and anxiously  hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

(Juvenal, Satire 10.77-81)

The circus is now the political rally, the Twitter insult, the joke at expense of others, the photo opportunity, pretending to play the fool and so on. So here we are in 2021….but can they also deliver the bread that stopped the citizens of ancient Rome from rioting? I suspect not.


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