Ancient and modern

What ancient Roman Remainiacs can teach Matthew Parris

26 May 2018

9:00 AM

26 May 2018

9:00 AM

Matthew Parris feels that he has become a genuine Remainiac, and kindly readers, fearing for his mental health, have been springing to his aid. The Roman elite, who felt the same sense of disempowerment after the republic collapsed and Augustus became the first Roman emperor in 27bc, might have a solution.

The point about Augustus was that he did not call himself ‘emperor’ but princeps (‘first citizen’) or Caesar (as the later emperors did); and he maintained the trappings of the republican system (senators, consuls, etc). But he was now the final source of all authority. Any popular control over laws and appointment of officials was gone.


So Romans began to wonder how they should live under a system that allowed them no political say. What emerged was the idea of rule over oneself that allowed one to rise above the trivial concerns of everyday life, including loss of political liberty, and reach for true freedom. For Epictetus, it was a matter of realising that human desires could turn you into a slave. If you wanted office, he said, ‘you must stay up at night, run back and forth, kiss hands, wait on other people’s doors, saying and doing many servile things… No one loves the emperor — we just love riches, a tribunate, a praetorship, a consulship. We are enslaved to anyone who has these things at his disposal.’

The philosopher Seneca, the adviser to Nero, took a different tack. ‘If the state is corrupt beyond repair, degenerate to the core, the wise man will not pointlessly battle against it or sacrifice himself to no advantage’; he would look beyond that local, temporary res publica to the res publica of the whole cosmos, men and gods alike, and become a ‘citizen and soldier’ of that. Such a one, unmoved by passions, fully in control of his rational thought-processes, would always be free.

The paradox here is that the Romans were lamenting the loss of political liberty. Matthew Parris is lamenting the loss of political domination.

Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $20 for 10 issues


Show comments
Close