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Ancient and modern

Why the Roman empire worked – and the EU empire doesn’t

Something that grows piecemeal has much better chances than a ‘we know best’ masterplan

11 June 2016

9:00 AM

11 June 2016

9:00 AM

The principle of countries working harmoniously together is wholly admirable. Why, then, has the European Union become such a disaster area? The success of the Roman empire may offer a clue.

Romans won that empire almost entirely by military might. But they could not have maintained it that way: for some 500 years, a mere 300,000 legionaries patrolled this area of approximately two million square miles and about 60 million inhabitants. So what was their secret?

The key is pleasingly paradoxical: the Romans never consciously planned an empire at all. Once they had started down that road, they saw the material advantages it could bring, but there was no blueprint for it. Success was a result of hard-won experience.

It started with Rome’s piecemeal subjugation of Italy, completed by the 3rd century BC. What Romans learned here was that legal treaties and alliances, involving commerce, intermarriage, citizenship and shared military manpower, could turn enemies into friends.

The Romans’ first conquest of Carthage in 241 BC landed them with their first province, Sicily; their second victory (against Hannibal) in 202 BC would bring them North Africa and Spain. It being ‘abroad’, Rome needed to work a bit harder to win locals over: hence governors, a small staff and a military presence, working with local elites, for ‘mutual advantage’. But the same general principles applied. Best of all, Rome made minimal demands: keep the peace, pay taxes, put up with troop emplacements. Of course there were revolts and disturbances; corrupt officials, too, but at least there was legal process in Rome to bring them to book. Five hundred years tells its own story.

If the EU had proceeded similarly, feeling its way, step by step, without unprecedented ‘we know best’ masterplans for a single currency, a US of Europe and detailed legislation on cucumbers, it would not be a car crash waiting to happen, from which those not in the car will have eventually to pick up the pieces.

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