The Dream of Rome, by Boris Johnson

Floppy fantasy of a Eurosceptic empire

Denis Macshane
Friday 10 February 2006 01:00

Lovers of Latin and ancient history unite! At long last there is a warm, funny, erudite introduction to the Roman empire and the power of history's most important language. How I wish I had had this book to read at school alongside Kennedy's Latin primer and the Loebs.

The great radical journalist I F Stone learnt Latin and Greek in his seventies, as he told me it was the only way to understand the US drift to imperial power. We all want to be austere, modest republicans and hate Caesarism. But history does not allow power to escape its obligations to be, well, powerful - and there is no better study of today's politics than a study of Rome.

The success of The Dream of Rome lies in the modern twang of the author. It is an art Boris Johnson has to perfection. For him, when elderly Horace moans that all young girls think of is "sex, sex, sex! He sounds like some Daily Mail columnist after a particularly difficult tube ride."

Always, just over the horizon, lingered dangers for the Empire: the book begins with the awful slaughter of Varus and his legions by the tribes across the Rhine. Little Augustus clacked around on his high heels - a typical Johnson detail - wailing "Varus, Varus where are my legions?", but the Romans could never get to grips with the Europe of cold and afternoon darkness.

Today, Johnson's friend William Hague is being sent across the Rhine to open negotiations with the Homophobi, the Antisemiti and the Feminaeodiuntes (women haters) in order to forge a Conservative alliance with the weirdest political tribes of Europe. It will come to naught as the new Romans of Labour plod sturdily forward, like the tortoise of the Greek fable. Conservatives have the best scribblers, like Boris, but Labour knows the long game of Augustan power.

But always there is a shadow. For Johnson, it is the Christians. In one of his most powerful passages, he compares early Christians willing to die as martyrs to today's suicide bombers. The Christians attacked theatre and called for women to be "strictly veiled". For ten centuries after the victory of religious fundamentalism over Rome, Europe was lost to civilisation. There are wonders like the cathedrals or the Book of Kells, but Europe had to wait until the Renaissance to become again a continent of culture, tolerance - of civilisation. The one thing that did not stop when Rome fell was European predilection for war. From Caesar in Gaul to Stalin in Poland, in Europe until 1945 every generation heard the tramp of boots and the agonies of death and unfreedom.

A small miracle happened after 1945: European construction. Sadly, Tacitus Boris, a lively storyteller of Rome, leaps forward a few centuries to become Bourbon Boris, learning nothing and forgetting nothing, as he tries to spatchcock in his anti-EU obsessions. The EU, with 25 baleful national governments insisting on their sovereign rights, is about as close to the Roman empire as any parish council in his constituency.

Johnson makes a powerful plea for the Rome of the East, Turkey, to join the EU and thus reforge the unity of Europe. He is right. But he cannot spend the morning telling the British that Europe is a dreadful place and the afternoon arguing that Turkey should join a club he wants to leave.

The odd attempt to link a marvellous reader-friendly account of Rome with old-fashioned anti-Europeanism does not work. When the book comes out in paperback, Johnson should drop the anti-EU diatribes and focus on Rome. He has told a story in danger of being left to specialists when it belongs to every European. The day the history of Rome and the glory of Latin are no longer taught in British schools is the day the barbarians will have taken over.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and former minister for Europe

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