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Ancient and modern

Cicero’s Brexit moment

It’s always a risk to greet an apparent historical turning point with joy

25 June 2016

8:00 AM

25 June 2016

8:00 AM

If Remain has won, for all the political and financial flurries, it will be business as usual for us plebs. But such is the EU’s octopus-like embrace, so it will be if the Leavers win, creating much disillusionment. Cicero felt equally impotent at a similarly dramatic turning point — the assassination of EUlius Caesar.

Cicero had long despaired at the slow collapse of the ‘free’ republic and the rise of the tyrant Caesar. ‘We ought to have resisted him while he was weak — then it would have been easy,’ Cicero wrote in a letter. When Caesar started the civil war in 49 BC, he exclaimed ‘Are we talking about a Roman general or Hannibal?’ and deplored Caesar’s desire for ‘that first of deities, “Sole Power” ’. His son-in-law Dolabella advised him to get real: ‘It is now time to take our stand where the res publica actually is, rather than pursuing its old image.’ Cicero would have none of it.


So it is no surprise that Cicero was ecstatic at Caesar’s assassination — free at last! His hopes quickly vanished. A week later one of the conspirators, Decimus Brutus, wrote to him, ‘We must yield to fate. I think we must get out of Italy… if things improve, we can return; if no worse, live in exile; if worse, we can take extreme measures’ — he meant suicide. Two months later Cicero wrote to Cassius, pointing out that nothing had changed: ‘We are rid of the despot, but not of despotism… The republic has avenged her injuries by the death of the tyrant at your hands, nothing more. What of her dignities? Which of them has she recovered? The right to obey a dead man, whom she could not tolerate alive? Are we defending the paper memoranda of one whose laws graven on bronze we ought to annul? Oh yes, we have so decreed.’ And so on.

And that is the point. After a Leave vote, it will take many years to prise off those EU tentacles, during which anything can happen, and great will be the fury of those who feel they have been utterly deceived.


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