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Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

The French may legislate to ban the all-enveloping burka/niqab worn by some Muslim women, but Claudius, Roman emperor ad 41-54, would no more have banned them than he did trouser-wearing Frenchman.

31 July 2010

12:00 AM

31 July 2010

12:00 AM

The French may legislate to ban the all-enveloping burka/niqab worn by some Muslim women, but Claudius, Roman emperor ad 41-54, would no more have banned them than he did trouser-wearing Frenchman.

In ad 48, Gallic chieftains who had long-standing treaties with Rome and were of citizen status decided they wanted the right to enter the Roman Senate. Fierce debate ensued. Some Romans opposed it. They argued that there were enough properly bred Romans to fill the Senate, and enough non-Romans had been admitted anyway. The Gauls who came in would be descendants of people traditionally hostile to Rome, who had fought Julius Caesar and earlier still (390 bc) even sacked the city. Let them be citizens, but they must not cheapen Rome’s high office.


Claudius was having none of this and addressed the Senate on the matter (the original speech survives on a bronze tablet put on display at the time in Lyons; Tacitus’ version elaborates on its main points). Claudius argues that h`e wants men of excellence in the Senate wherever they come from, and reminds his listeners that Romulus welcomed in enemies wholesale the day after defeating them. The fatal weakness of Sparta and Athens, he goes on, was to refuse conquered subjects any citizen rights. As for past battles, he points out, Rome has lost to many tribes who were now fully integrated, and the loyalty of Gallic peoples is now unquestioned. They have assimilated Roman customs and culture and married into Roman families. Let them spend their wealth here rather than keep it to themselves! All ancient institutions, he concludes, change over time. Innovations become the norm, and so will this one.

The Senate approved the speech, and the Gauls were granted the new right. The key point here is that the Gauls were already assimilated to Roman ways: they had given up their breeches (bracae) and wore togas — there was no reason not to admit them. In that light, the immigration minister Damian Green was right to reject the French approach. If Muslim women refuse assimilation to our ways, their children and grandchildren who wish to remain here and succeed will pay the price. In the tolerant British way, let our culture and tradition do their silent work.


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