Peter Jones

Rome vs the EU

On the eve of the first day of 2002, when the euro became the official EU currency, this column turned to Tacitus for its judgment: ‘the ignorant called it civilisation: it was in fact a mark of their servitude’; and ended ‘the issuing of a common currency, with all that implies in terms of ideology, autonomy, political identity and assertion of power, could be a useful first step in the servitude stakes, if nothing else’.

And the last one too, if you ask the Greeks. So what is to be done? Everyone is in favour of a form of economic union, but it is time for an alternative. We should extrapolate from the behaviour of the Romans.

Roman provinces (the first was Sicily, 241 bc) were ultimately controlled by military rather than economic force. But the empire in the west lasted 700 years till ad 476 because Rome’s aim was first and foremost to bring the locals onside and show the benefits that empire would confer. Local elites saw the point and were, on the whole, willing to play the Roman game. So when a governor went out to his province, he took only a handful of assistants with him; he needed no more. Again, Romans imposed relatively little on provincials: most controversially, taxes and the right to station armies where and when needed, but otherwise some laws, though with plenty of room for local manoeuvre, currency only c. ad 300 and virtually nothing else. Further, people actively welcomed access to the emperor to right wrongs. We have many examples of the emperor offering justice to people all over the empire who did not think they were getting it locally.

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