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Ancient and modern

The fall of the Roman republic and the rise of Alex Salmond

They have a surprising amount in common

4 April 2015

8:00 AM

4 April 2015

8:00 AM

Alex Salmond, the ex-first minister who proved incapable of making Scotland independent, has assured the world that he and his handful of SNP MPs will force Westminster to dance to his tune, or else. So his response to humiliating failure is the threat of political blackmail. At least it is now clear what the SNP stands for.

For Cicero (106–43 bc), surveying the ruins of the Roman republic at the hands of ruthless dynasts such as Caesar and Pompey fighting for power with personal armies at their back, the question of the ethics of public service — the duty one owed to the state — loomed large. What he saw disturbed him intensely: here were people of a wealth and education that fitted them for honourable public service exploiting their power to serve their own dishonourable ends. Romans once striving for true gloria through service to the state had degenerated into those seeking blood-soaked gloria for their own advantage. What was needed was a way of directing laudable ambition for greatness back into patriotic ends.


Cicero saw the answer in a combination of honestas (honourable behaviour) with utilitas (usefulness) to the state. This would cover both the man of war and the man of peace. Those with a penchant for military gloria — every upper-class Roman (even Cicero) longed for triumphs — could win that accolade only if they were found to have served the cause of justice and the public good. Those for whom a life of military gloria was not an option, Cicero continued, must strive for a life of honestas, i.e. the integrity that won the respect of the community. One could achieve that by identifying one’s personal interests with the republic’s, and by the extent to which one’s actions usefully served it.

High-minded stuff? Certainly. But Cicero argued elsewhere that the people at the top set the example for society. The behaviour of Salmond and his sort, reported without any hint of disgust, illustrates the degradation of political life at the top.


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