The European Union and the Roman Empire …

A contribution by one of our guest bloggers, Peter Candy, a PhD candidate in Roman law at the University of Edinburgh, School of Law:

The ‘artificial media twit storm’ generated by Boris Johnson’s recent comments seems to have arisen out of the prolonged spell of low (intellectual) pressure hovering over the EU referendum campaign. A lot of attention has been paid to the aptitude – or otherwise – of Boris’ comparison between the European Union and the Third Reich. The claim that the EU is yet another attempt to recreate the Roman empire has, however, hardly been scrutinised at all.

If making sweeping historical comparisons is a risky business, and interpreting history through the lens of present concerns riskier still (the fallacy nunc pro tunc, to coin a phrase of which Boris would approve), then his narration of long-term trends to supplement a political argument is a game of historical roulette. It seems wrong to accuse Johnson of Whiggery; his narrative of European integrationism recalls Yeats’ vision of the ‘widening gyre’ more than a game of happy families. Instead, we should look to A.J.P. Taylor’s description of ‘Toryism,’ which “rests on doubt in human nature; it distrusts improvement, clings to traditional institutions, prefers the past to the future. It is a sentiment rather than a principle.” For better or worse, Johnson clearly trusts the longstanding (if imperfect) tradition of British parliamentary democracy more than any project, however well-intended, of European unification.

Even so, the assertion that the current European project is yet another attempt to recreate the Roman empire is superficial at best. It is often claimed (even by modern scholars) that the pax Romana – the apparent antecedent of today’s pax Europaea – engendered the emergence of a market economy characterised by free movement, monetary union and a universally applicable system of laws (sound familiar?). No doubt centuries of enforced peace reaped benefits for Romans and provincials alike (or at least for those who were not enslaved). Nevertheless, if we are to avoid Whiggishness, or indeed Toryism, we ought to take heed of the words of Herbert Butterfield, an historian of the early twentieth century: his advice was to “evoke a certain sensibility towards the past, the sensibility which studies the past ‘for the sake of the past’, which delights in the concrete and the complex, which ‘goes out to meet the past’, which searches for ‘unlikenesses between past and present.’”
To highlight one unlikeness – which leads me to the point of this article – there is a marked difference between the way in which the official laws of the Roman empire operated and those of the European Union today. Most strikingly, Roman, unlike EU, law, was not ‘supreme;’ it was one set of rules among many, circulating in a plural system in which individuals might search for diverse solutions to their legal problems. Indeed, the ius civile – that part of the law reserved only for citizens – cannot have been used widely in an empire where probably no more than one third of the free population of the provinces held citizenship by the beginning of the third century A.D. In sum, the territorial imposition of a uniform system of law across the continent would have been be unrecognisable to a second-century Roman. Far from this author to discourage historical debate; instead, it is incumbent on scholars to shine a light on the rhetoric and scrutinise each claim as it comes. Nevertheless, sometimes one wishes that politicians would stick to more exciting subjects, like Roman roads.