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Ancient and modern

Brutus: the Steve Hilton of ancient Rome

Ancient and Modern compares to roles of Brutus to Caesar and Steve Hilton to Cameron

2 July 2016

9:00 AM

2 July 2016

9:00 AM

A traitor to one man is a hero to another. So debate rages around the role of David Cameron’s old friend and adviser Steve Hilton — is he a noble Brutus who saved parliamentary democracy by throwing in his lot with Leave, or the traitor who destroyed Cameron’s European dream?

A foundational story of Rome was the expulsion in 509 BC of the last king, the tyrant Tarquinius Superbus (‘the arrogant’), and birth of the free republic. Well before Caesar met his end on the Ides of March 44 BC, Romans were remembering that story and relating it to Caesar’s growing power and ambition. ‘Absolute power vested in one man easily and quickly degenerates into a tyranny,’ said Cicero, who hated Caesar’s assault on old Roman values. When Caesar made himself dictator for life, freedom-loving Romans, led by Brutus and Cassius, made their move. As Brutus wielded the knife, Caesar cried ‘et tu, Brute’ (or rather, in Greek, ‘kai su, teknon’) — ‘And the same to you!’


And so, in fact, it turned out. In 42 BC, Brutus and co. were defeated by an alliance of Caesar’s 18-year-old heir Octavian and his long-standing ally Marc Antony — despite Cicero’s best efforts to stop them (which cost him his life). It inaugurated a brief reign of terror. When that alliance fell apart, Octavian emerged as Augustus, Rome’s first emperor (31 BC), initiating nearly 500 years of imperial rule.

Even so, Brutus and Cassius were still felt to be noble martyrs, standing for all that was best about a free, republican Rome. Augustus admired Cicero’s commitment to liberty, and future emperors were encouraged to see them not as enemies of Caesar but rather of oppression; and they mostly acquiesced, assuming their own spotless reigns would be held up as examples of those ancient values.

So will Brutus Hilton be seen as a saviour of the old English way of parliamentary democracy? Or will the dream of Europe yet prevail? Already there is talk of deals to remain in the single market, at whatever cost, and even of a second referendum. The game is not over yet.


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