Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Boris Johnson, Brexit and the Roman Empire

By Peter Bowden - posted Monday, 24 February 2020

His book, The Dream of Rome, written almost fifteen years ago, with a much younger Boris Johnson on the cover, tells us much about the recently elected British Prime Minister - his ambitions, his political tactics, and most of all his reasons for supporting Brexit. He draws upon his analysis of the history of the Roman Empire to give us the reasons.

The cover of his book tells that European leaders throughout the ages have been "trying and failing to imitate the Roman achievement." The Romans were able "to weld together the peoples of Europe to create a single identity". He then gives us at least a dozen reasons, many drawn from the history of Rome, to tell us why that melding cannot be repeated.

He starts his story with an account of the battle of Teutoburg, in 9 AD, a massive disaster for the hitherto unconquered Roman armies. Deceived by a supposed ally, Arminius a German nationalist, into an unforeseen ambush, the Romans had several divisions completely wiped out. The Roman legions were led by Publius Quinctilius Varus. Arminius, a German officer in Varus's headquarters, had acquired Roman citizenship and had received a Roman military education, which enabled him to deceive the Roman commander; also to anticipate the Roman army's responses. Rome never again tried to conquer the barbarians, as they described them, beyond the Rhine. The result was romance languages on one side of the Rhine and guttural languages on the other. Never the two shall mix claims Boris Johnson. He adds chapter and verse on his reasons for deriding the European experiment. If the legions had extended the Roman Empire beyond the Rhine, he states, 'the Rhine would not have played its grim role in the history of our continent", … "the scene of hideous slaughter between the German speakers and the French".


He extends his concept of barbarians, however, to all Europe, to all countries of the current EU: They were, Johnson claims "by the standards of Graeco Roman culture, complete barbarians." (p.120). He repeats Tacitus' "contemptuous" description of the Fenni,a northern tribe identified with the Finns, 'who live in grotesque poverty". Boris sums it up by describing Europe under the phrase:" The whole thing is hopelessly uncouth."

Perhaps at the top is his experience with the concept of a European union was his experience at a Brussels international school.The English did not mix with the French (he claimed), and neither of them interacted with the Germans. That, we get the impression, was Boris' concept of the natural order of things.

His attack on the concept of the union of Europe is multi-pronged. One is its spending. Sitting Club Class in any European flight, he tells us, the chances are high that a person near you will be paid by the EU, attending some conference at a swank hotel ,on a socially important issue – the climate, sexual harassment, etc. and having a very enjoyable time ,"entertained by gorgeous pouting Interpreters."

Johnson uses Arminius, who has a 28 metre high statue erected to his honour not far from the battlefield, to promote his Euroscepticism. We are all divided he says, into Euro-sceptics and Euro-philes. Some prefer their national customs, traditions and national governments; Others prefer forming a single unit out of disparate nations.

Coming through the pages is Boris Johnson's high regard for Octavian, later the emperor Augustus,whom he describes as: "one of the most brilliant politicians of history" (p.63). His admiration for the emperor gives us an insight into Johnson himself. "Augustus was the first to understand the role of literature in organising political opinion." (p.74). Johnson has written five books. One of them, on Winston Churchill, the media pointed to Johnson's "not so subtle" attempts to draw a parallel between himself and Churchill.

Augustus, along with Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, formed the second triumvirate on 27 November 43 BC, with the enactment of the Lex Titia, which is viewed by some as the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic. The triumvirate issued proscriptions on their enemies. These proscriptions resulted in the execution of 4,700 opponents and the confiscation of their estates. Included was Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of the more incisive intellects to grace the human stage. He was singled out by Mark Antony for his condemnations of Antony in the Roman Senate (in a series of speeches titled The Philippics). Cicero's chief objection to Antony was political. Antony was Julius Caesar's second in command. It was Caesar, with his crossing of the Rubicon, and the resulting civil wars, who brought about the end of the Roman Republic. Cicero, although not one of the sixty senators who assassinated Caesar, supported the Republic, the earlier administrative system for Rome. According to the historian Plutarch, Antony spent his teenage years wandering through Rome with his brothers and friends gambling, drinking, and becoming involved in scandalous love affairs, which are among the accusations endorsed by Cicero.


Boris notes that it is claimed by some that Octavian argued with Marc Antony for two days to keep Cicero off the proscription list. But Johnson adds" there seems no reason to believe it". It was expedient for Octavian to be on the side of Antony (p.68). According to Plutarch, Antony's soldiers slew Cicero, then cut off his head. On Antony's instructions his hands, which had penned the Philippics against Antony, were cut off as well; these were nailed and displayed along with his head in the Forum. Boris adds a more objectional sequel, one that is not widely known, of the treatment of Cicero's head by one of Antony's ex-wives. She pulled out the tongue in the severed head and spat in Cicero's face. This writer is far from sure on where Johnson obtained this information, His book has no references The Penguin classics containing Cicero's On Living and Dying Well has a section on Cicero's death and over a dozen eulogies from later writers, the only one we may have heard of being Seneca. All of them condemn the killing: "His death was cruel"; "undeserving"; "shocking"; "Criminal weapons killed him" ;"Three tyrants killed him". None of them mention the tongue pulling. It might be reasonably ascribed to Boris Johnson's supreme ability to create fictional history.

Mark Antony who was responsible for the Eastern part of the Empire was defeated, along with Cleopatra, in 31 BC in the battle of Actium. From then on, Octavian was sole ruler; from 27 BC on, he called himself Augustus ("the exalted one").

Boris started his attacks on the European Union with the battle of Teutoburg: follows almost immediately with describing the signing of the treaty of union on October 2004 in Rome as a "shindig" (p.29). The deriding of Europe continues throughout his book:

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

8 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Peter Bowden

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Peter Bowden
Article Tools
Comment 8 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy