A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of the Euro disintegration…. first issued as a physical currency almost thirteen years ago, the Euro quickly became more than anything else, the embodiment of the European Union dream. That same currency, full of symbolic value, is now on the brink of collapse. The financial crisis has washed away the appeal of the notion of closer integration in Europe and old national rivalries and grudges are quickly resurfacing. If the Euro breaks apart, it is hard to see how the European Union will be able to survive.
At this time of crisis, the European politicians would do well to look back into European history and see what they can learn from the past. In particular, the history of Rome provides extremely valuable principles to guide us through the present turmoil. Let us not forget that Rome, first as a republic and then as an empire, lies at the very foundation of Europe and lasted, at least in the west of the continent, for over a thousand years. What made Rome so successful? Certainly its armies and the Roman gift for engineering played a big role but, in my view, its success was fuelled by a set of principles that could be distilled and used to enhance any political organization:
1) Ensure that the top political jobs have a short tenure of office and implement measures to mitigate the development of political monopolies. In Rome, all regular senatorial offices were held for a year and it was not possible for the same senator to hold the same office in consecutive terms.
2) It is crucial that the different territories and communities are closely bound not only by well-developed physical infrastructure but also by a clearly defined legal framework. When Rome annexed the cities of Latium, the ancient Latin identity was preserved but only as a body of rights, duties and privileges enshrined in Roman law.
3) Define an identity for the political organization that can accommodate the identities of others but introduce mechanisms to place the overall identity as the prominent one. The Romans would assimilate foreign practices, religions and traditions at an incredible speed but always on Roman terms. For example, when they conquered the Etruscan city of Veii in 396 BC, the worship of Juno (Veii’s chief deity) was relocated to Rome, where she was worshipped as the queen of the Roman pantheon. The Romans also incorporated into their foundational myths the tales of the Trojan Aeneas and the Greek demigod Heracles but blended them into a uniquely Roman narrative.
4) Above all, build the vision of the organization upon a doggedly determination to overcome obstacles and losses. As Richard Miles has said “The Roman state responded to defeat not with offers of peace treaties and truces, but with the sending out of new armies to recover what had been lost”. Such an incredible resilience was the very heart of the Roman state and it was displayed against it s most ferocious rivals. From the refusal to parley with Pyrrhus in 280 BC after shattering defeats to the obstinate refusal to negotiate with Hannibal after their over 80,000 Roman soldiers were killed or captured at the battle of Cannae.
Stricter controls on politicians, clear and unified legislation, a willingness to accommodate cultural differences but within parameters that enhance the overall political entity and steely determination to preserve a political ideal are just a few of the lessons that the European Union can learn from the Romans.
It seems to me that the current structure of the European Union is severely flawed and an excessive focus on administrative matters has made its leaders lose sight of the importance of defining what Europe should mean for its citizens and how to sustain that vision. It is in that area that the Romans were unquestionable masters, all we have to do is to learn from our history or be condemned to repeat its worst chapters…
P.S. For anyone interested in learning more about how the Romans displayed those principles against Carthage (arguably its fiercest enemy), I highly recommend “Carthage Must Be Destroyed” by Richard Miles.