Brexio, Brexis, Brexit: Globalisation and the Roman Republic.
The forces of globalisation left the Roman republican senate behind, the UK’s political parties face the same danger.
‘Et tu, Michael’, commented Stanley Johnson, Boris Johnson’s father, in response to Michael Gove’s leadership bid this week. The aptness of this historical analogy is perhaps even stronger with regard to Labour’s coup against Jeremy Corbyn. But while journalists have used such Shakespearean references to focus on the scheming of individual politicians, none have noticed that the historical factors behind Caesar’s assassination are comparable to the problems globalisation poses today, and are causing similar political turmoil.
Journalists have commented that the UK’s Brexit vote was a backlash from working class Britain, those ‘left behind by globalisation’(1). Global movement of capital has seen the UK’s economy eviscerated of its old industrial base, with jobs outsourced to countries with cheaper labour costs. This has resulted in former industrial towns become characterised by unemployment, closures and the need for ‘regeneration’(2). At the same time the foreign finance capital and inequality has inflated Britain’s house prices, as property in the UK has been seen as a safe and even lucrative investment. As a result, UK property ownership lies beyond the means of most people, and many Leave voters have attributed house price inflation to immigration. In response to the outsourcing of jobs and the increasing competition for the fewer opportunities remaining, those ‘left behind’ by globalisation therefore saw it in their interests to vote against a major institution of globalisation, the EU.
In summary, globalisation has encouraged a Brexit vote by producing inflationary pressure on property and deflationary pressure on the value of labour. Republican Rome faced similar problems. The expansion of the Roman Republic’s empire amounted to an ancient form of globalisation. Having profited most from imperialism, Rome’s aristocratic elite used their new found wealth to purchase land in Italy, forming huge estates known as latifundia. This led to a mass dispossession of Rome’s rural citizenry, which was exacerbated by importation of cheaper labour, in the form of slaves. Rome’s rural population found itself without farms or the opportunity to offer their labour competitively (3).
The result was political turmoil fuelled by populism and demagoguery. Many impoverished rural citizens moved to the city of Rome where they began to support populist politicians. The first of these, Tiberius Gracchus, demanded land redistribution in 133 BCE, but was assassinated on the streets of Rome by the Senate. His brother, Gaius, likewise was forced to suicide in 121 after assuming Tiberius’ mantle. Marius reformed the army in 88 BCE, allowing it to employ Rome’s urban poor. As a consequence, soldiers became loyal to their paymaster generals, and intense rivalries between these generals sparked civil wars, between Marius and Sulla (88–87 BCE), Caesar and Pompey (48–46 BCE), and ultimately, between Caesar’s successors Octavian (later Augustus) and Mark Antony (33–31 BCE). Augustus became Rome first emperor, and his victory marks the death of the Republic.
In our century similar pressures of globalisation are beginning undermine the established political order. Across the western world anti-globalisation sentiment is fuelling support for populist politicians on both the left and right: UKIP, Donald Trump and Podemos are but a few. Caesar, in a similar position to Corbyn, had little support amongst the established order of the senate and drew on support from Rome’s deprived urban citizenry on the one hand and from his soldiers on the other, in whose economic interests he acted (a comparable nexus exists between Labour and the Trade Unions). When the senate assassinated him on the 15th March 44 BCE, they did so to preserve their vision of a Roman aristocratic oligarchy, the Republic. They imagined they would be praised as regicides in a political culture that was supposedly hostile to one man rule, according to its imagined traditions. One of assassins, Brutus, a former ally of Caesar, even envisaged the assassination as his duty, given his ancestor’s role of bringing down Rome’s ancient monarchy in 509 BCE. The assassins thought they would be praised for freeing Rome from the ambitions of an upstart unconstitutional monarch. Our established political parties should pay attention to this historic event: the assassins could not have been more wrong.
The Republicans underestimated Caesar’s popularity with the Roman citizens, who, roused by Caesar’s ally, Mark Antony, forced the assassins to flee Rome. Ultimately the Senate would not recover their support in Italy and were defeated by Caesar’s successors, Mark Antony and Octavian, in Philippi, Greece two years later. The senate held to visions of the noble Republic and failed to see that these no longer reflected the reality faced by Rome’s citizenry, who supported the Caesarean revolution. The factors behind the Republic’s destruction were larger than the personality of Caesar, but were rooted in the problems an expanded empire brought: slavery, inequality and concentrated land ownership.
Our established parties are facing a reaction to globalisation in the form of widespread populism, whether it be through the Brexit vote or the strong hold Corbyn has over Labour party members. The lesson the Conservative and Labour parties should learn from Rome is that a change in leadership will not solve their problems. Globalisation means existential crisis for the status quo. They must respond to these challenges directly, or, like Rome’s Republic, become irrelevant in an unfolding new world.
Latin teacher, Churcher’s College, Petersfield
3 Scullard, (2011) p16, Chapter 1, section 8: Economic changes and the land problem. Crawford, M. (1992) p. 99f
Scullard, H.H. (2011) From Gracchi to Nero, Routlegde, London.
Crawford, M. (1992) The Roman Republic, Fontana, London