The Dream of Rome by Boris Johnson - review by Justin Marozzi

Justin Marozzi

One Sauce to Fit All

The Dream of Rome


HarperCollins 207pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

There he is on the cover, clever and tousled; there he is on the back cover, too, a little less scruffy this time, in suit and open-necked shirt. Then the author photograph, suit and tie to the fore, one hand artfully ruffling the flaxen mane. Three Borises, with only the hint of a Coliseum behind him. Never mind the imperial cult. This is the cult of Boris. What happened to Rome?

You’d be mad not to know Boris had a book out on Rome. That or you don’t watch television, read newspapers, listen to the radio or walk past high-street bookshops. Boris, like the head of the emperor Augustus on Roman coinage of the time, is everywhere. 

His latest project is a rumbustious, conversational foray into the classical world of Rome, informed by an interesting conceit which runs something along these lines: Rome was a marvellous, cohesive empire, minimally regulated and lightly taxed. It stretched from Scotland to Libya, Portugal to Iraq, its subjects bound by citizenship and a common identity. Today’s European Union, by contrast, is a meddlesome behemoth of nattering nationalities, highly taxed, smotheringly regulated, comprehensively unable to instil a common European identity. How did the Romans pull off their extraordinary feat, and how come the EU hasn’t been able to do the same?

The beauty of Boris – somehow it seems wrong to call him Johnson – in full flow is that he can switch from high classical mode to chatty aside in an instant and, however ludicrous some of the comparisons may at first appear, they entertain and add spice to his argument. Take garum, the notoriously stinky fish sauce with which Romans liked to enliven their food. It was a product universally available across the empire. Garum amphorae can be found in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and North Africa. It delighted palates in Nijmegen, Palestine, Bulgaria and Switzerland. What of the sauce world of present-day Europe? Alas, the nationalities are doing what they always do. They’re doing their own thing, divided by their shared borders.

‘We are still deeply sequestrated in our sauces,’ he writes. ‘The Belgians put mayonnaise on their chips – in a way that many British people find shocking – and are themselves appalled to find that we sprinkle our chips with vinegar. The Germans would not dream of putting English mustard on their frankfurters. The French would be quite disgusted if you offered them Marmite or Vegemite and the Italians know nothing of brown sauce.’

Not many classicists would come up with such a comparison. And, I venture to suggest, their books wouldn’t be as widely read, serialised, or made into television series, either. Boris, unlike some of his ivory-towered counterparts, isn’t afraid of being popular or populist. A trenchant Eurosceptic, he delights in illustrating the magnificent pomposity of our European rulers, the scale of their pretension and the futility of their pan-European – ie Roman – ideal.

Thus, to commemorate the meeting in October 2004 of the twenty-five EU leaders preparing to integrate us in ever closer union, the Italian Government had a marble plaque inscribed with a legend in Latin boasting of the treaty drawn up so that ‘Europae gentes in populi unius corpus coalescerent uno animo una voluntate uno consilio’ – ‘so that the races of Europe might coalesce into a body of one people with one mind, one will and one government’. And, if there was any doubting that Rome was harking back to her imperial past, in the heart of the piazza of the Capitol a flag fluttered with the proud legend, ‘Europae Rei Publicae Status’, the proclamation of a European republic. The Dutch and French electorates put an end – albeit temporary – to such grandiose claims, but the ambition was, and remains, clear. They yearn to recreate the simplicity and grandeur of the Roman Empire.

Boris makes much of the aspirational aspect of Roman citizenship. People wanted to buy into the dream of Rome. It was the most sophisticated and advanced civilisation available. Its economic primacy was underpinned, too, by architectural and literary foundations which spread the message far and wide. It might be a poem by Virgil, an amphitheatre in London, or an aqueduct in Provence. The culture of Rome was so much more attractive than anything else on offer. It had no rivals.

Which places modern European leaders with a penchant for a European state at a distinct disadvantage. Their powers of coercion are limited, the temptations of what they are offering us hardly compelling. There is only so much interest in European regulations dictating acceptable limits of lawnmower noise. Boris does not say it, but Europe’s leaders are also faced with troublesome electorates rather than more or less pliable subjects. To put it crudely, an emperor could throw someone to the lions if he didn’t like what Boris might call the cut of his jib. The Eurocrats, luckily, have more circumscribed powers. If they are to put together this latter-day Roman Empire, chances are it will be against our wishes. Not that this will put any brake whatsoever on their madcap ambitions.

He spots parallels between the bloated bureaucracy that is Brussels and the first seeds of the decline of the Roman Empire. In its heyday it had been run by a senior cadre of 150 people; by the fourth century, the ranks of bureaucrats had swollen to 30,000. By AD 400 there were 6,000 jobs in Rome commanding senatorial status. ‘For the first time Rome was afflicted by the sclerosis that we have seen in so many modern European economies, when the bureaucracy becomes so big that its prime concern becomes self-perpetuation.’ And then Christianity and Diocletian came along, and emperor-worship gave way to the veneration of Christ. ‘It was the beginning of the end of the magical web that Augustus created – the semi-religious identification between the citizen and the central power. It was the beginning of the end of the egg white in the cake. As a coagulating ingredient, Europe has never found anything to match it.’

The Dream of Rome is an attractive argument, leavened with the Boris brand of humour that eludes professional classicists. It should be required reading for them and, above all, in Brussels, where it would be as welcome as ketchup on chips.

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