Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘The Dream of Rome’

[Oh, God, what can I say? Look, it was 2013 and the bastard seemed relatively benign at the time. Just goes to show you can never be too careful. – A]

The danger when talking about The Dream of Rome, at the moment anyway, is that you start by reviewing the book and end by reviewing the author, for he is journalist, writer, TV personality, politician and Great Blonde Hope of the Tory Party Boris Johnson. Who knows, readers of the future, by the time you read this Boris Johnson may actually have become Prime Minister of Britain (or possibly just England, depending on how that referendum goes).

Johnson cuts such an instinctively endearing figure – it took a real effort of will not to just refer to him as ‘Boris’ just then – that the ever-present danger is of simply focussing on his image and ignoring the substance of the man. This book, written in 2006 before he became Mayor of London, should make some amends in this department.

The Dream of Rome is an attempt to analyse and explain┬áthe grip that the Roman Empire has taken on the political imagination of – it sometimes seems – every other major non-Oriental civilisation of the last two millennia. Boris is trying to discern why Rome was so successful, especially in contrast to the European Union, in many ways its temporal – if not spiritual – heir.

This involves a lot of history, as you might expect, but snappily and engagingly presented, and with some thought-provoking analysis. The book opens with a description of the Varus disaster, which Boris persuasively argues is one of the key events in European – if not world – history, responsible for creating the northern boundary of the Roman Empire and thus the faultline between Latin and non-Latin Europe which remains influential to this day.

Most of the meat of the book is made up of a look at the mechanics of how the Empire operated, and in particular how the various systems of control and unification were instituted by Augustus. For a noted Euro-sceptic, Boris is an unrepentant cheerleader for this previous attempt to unify Europe. Not for him the suggestion that the other cultures obliterated by the advancing Romans were, in their own way, as sophisticated and accomplished: these guys were primitives, and Rome was the best thing that ever happened to them, apparently.

At the other end of the book things are equally interesting, as Boris gives us his take on the final end of the Eastern Empire, which he dates to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This is the occasion for a look at the historically knotty and troublesome relationship between Christian Europe and Islamic Turkey – it’s a brave writer these days who suggests that, really, Islamic culture is not as rich as its Western counterpart, that it appears to have an inherent tendency towards violence, and that it genuinely is less tolerant, but Boris is up for it.

What’s left unsaid – and it may be that Boris himself doesn’t intend to suggest as much – is that the current division in Euro-Asian relations is not a clash between Islamic and Christian values, but Islamic and Roman ones: that our own society is still fundamentally a post-Roman one. The book suggests a close identification between Empire and Church; also that the success of the latter was mainly due to the effortless way in which its power structures mapped onto the pre-existing imperial ones – but holds back from the logical conclusion, the existence of a direct continuity between the two, on some level at least.

No matter what you think of the ideas Boris espouses in this book, the manner in which he expresses them is authentically his own: the massed horns of German barbarians sound like ‘Rolf Harris didgeridoos’, we are told almost on the first page, while Augustus was ‘the cornflake that gets to the top of the packet’. If Boris does ever get to be a world leader, his description of Christ pantocrator, as depicted in Byzantine art across the Mediterranean, ‘looking exactly like Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees’ may come back to haunt him.

Even more fascinating are the occasional glimpses we are granted into life chez Boris: stories of our guide cocking up hire-car booking, being put into a coma by Revenge of the Sith, and dragging his family all over various sites of antiquity. Needless to say the emerging picture is one of charming dishevelment: but surely we all know enough by now to be dubious of Boris’ self-mythologising.

As an introduction to the Roman Empire, this book is a jolly wheeze, and impressively thought-provoking. However, at this moment in time, the insights it provides as to what a genuinely very sharp customer Boris Johnson is are very nearly as noteworthy.

Read Full Post »