Peter Jones

Plutarch and the EU

Plutarch’s advice to Greek rulers suggests he would understand today’s politics to a T

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Boris Johnson argues that the current European Union is yet another failed attempt to replicate the golden age of a Europe united under the Romans. But how golden was it? The Greek biographer Plutarch (c. AD 100) thought it brought ‘peace, freedom, prosperity, population growth and concord’ but agreed that there was a price to be paid.

In his essay on statecraft, he advised the Greek politician ‘not to have too much pride or confidence in your crown, since you can see the boots of Roman soldiers just above your head. So you should imitate an actor, who puts his own emotion, personality and reputation into a play but obeys the prompter and does not go beyond what he allows. For on your stage, the result of failure is not just hissing, hooting and stamping feet — it’s your neck that is on the line.’

Further, Plutarch went on, while it was amusing to see small children trying on their fathers’ boots, it was not advisable for politicians to rouse the instincts of the mob by recalling the mighty but currently ‘unhelpful’ deeds of their ancestors. That way lay consequences ‘which are not amusing in the slightest’.

Likewise, ‘Not only should you and your city remain blameless in the eyes of our Roman rulers, but you should also have a friend among the great and good at the top table. They will prop you up very securely. Romans are very keen to promote the political interest of their friends. A man can reap a fine harvest from the friendship of the great… .’ At the same time, Plutarch went on, ‘While our legs may be fettered, we must not submit our neck as well to the yoke by referring all decisions, great and small, to our masters, reducing us to terrified impotence.’ So Plutarch would disapprove of banana regulations.

He concluded: ‘As for freedom, the people have as much as Rome allows. It is perhaps best that they have no more,’ and urged the politician to ‘settle for a quiet life: fortune has left us no other prize to fight for’.

Bananas apart, then, Plutarch understood the EU to a T.