Ancient and modern

Will all roads soon lead to York?

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

Should the PM move parliament to York? There is, of course, historical precedent for such a move, as he very well knows.

Rome was founded in 753 bc and when it became a republic in 509 bc it had a population of about 40,000. By about 260 bc it commanded manpower across Italy of about 730,000. At the collapse of the republic in 31 bc when Augustus became its first emperor, Rome controlled all Italy and an empire from Gaul to North Africa and Syria.

Rome’s powerful defensive position on its Seven Hills, halfway down the Italian peninsular with easy access out to the sea and inland via the river Tiber, put it in a good position to extend its power across the mainland, forging alliances with the cities it defeated — invaluable experience in building an empire — and making Latin the universal language. Road signs emphasised Rome’s physical and psychological centrality by indicating only the distance toRome, not from it: as you approached Rome the distance got shorter and as you left it, longer. All roads, literally, led to Rome.

The enormous authority of Rome and, by association, its provincial governors, maintained Rome’s pre-eminence across its empire for a remarkably long time. But then in the 3rd century ad, the cracks began to appear. Co-emperors were invented, and other imperial centres sprang up in Milan, Trier, Split, Thessalonica and elsewhere. Slowly, as the Sibylline books had once prophesied, Romabecame rhumê, Greek for ‘alleyway’. In 410, when the emperor Honorius in Ravenna was informed that Rome had perished, he exclaimed: ‘But I just fed it!’ ‘Rome’ was the name of a favourite pet chicken. The message referred to Alaric’s assault on the city. Clearly Rome was no longer an imperial priority. When Rome’s western empire finally collapsed in 476, Constantinople in the East became its imperial home.

It was need that drove that change across the vast, crumbling late empire, but it is hard to see what need, or advantage, would justify moving parliament from London to York, unless parliament had become an irrelevance, simply an ‘alleyway’. Perhaps that is the masterplan.

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