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Ancient and modern

May needs to get dramatic over Brexit – and fast

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

It is becoming clearer by the day that Mrs May was right not to consult her colleagues, let alone the Brexit-loathing parliament, on what the withdrawal agreement from the EU should look like. Had she done so, negotiations would never have begun. She must now show similar resolve in bringing matters to ahead. The Romans can show her the way.

In 241 bc Rome finally defeated Carthage (in North Africa) in a long drawn-out fight for control of Sicily. In 237 bc Hannibal’s family conquered southern Spain with its silver mines, agricultural wealth and manpower and put themselves in a position to take on Rome again, if necessary. Rome was well aware of this, and when in 219 bc Hannibal sacked Rome’s allied Spanish town of Saguntum, Rome sent an embassy to test the waters. The Carthaginians accused Rome of treachery and enquired about their intentions. Fabius, ‘laying his hand on the folds of his toga gathered at his breast, said: “Here we bring you peace and war. The choice is yours.” The reply at once rang out: “Whichever you want: it is all the same to us.” Fabius dropped the folds and said: “We give you war.’’ ’


In 202 bc Carthage was defeated, and Rome turned to punishing one of its allies, King Philip V of Greece. In 168 bc the king of Asia, Antiochus IV, decided to intervene. He was Greek, and his ancestors had become rulers of Asia 150 years earlier on the death of Alexander the Great. His first target was Egypt. But there he was met by a Roman envoy, Popillius Laenas, who ordered him to withdraw or it was war. Antiochus said he would consult on it. Using his official staff, Popillius drew a circle around him in the sand and said: ‘Give me your reply before you step out of this circle.’ Antiochus thought about it and decided to withdraw.

Mrs May has written letters asking her own MPs for support. She needs a more dramatic public gesture. Let her don her metaphorical toga and do a Fabius on the deal/no deal options with all MPs on live TV. She might then be in a position to draw a circle round M. Barnier and ask which he prefers: and a reply, please, before you step out.


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