Ancient and modern

Will we end up with a Paphlagonian Brexit deal?

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

Freed from the bonds of the European Union, Britain is now in a position to sign whatever trade deal it chooses with the EU — or none at all. But such are the entrenched positions among many Remainers and Leavers, it is guaranteed that whatever deal is struck will be greeted with outrage on one side or another. One wonders if the Paphlagonians felt the same about a treaty they signed with Rome in 3 BC.

Paphlagonia was a territory located on the central southern coast of the Black Sea. At the time, it had recently been annexed to Rome, but it presumably saw advantage in signing an oath of unconditional loyalty to the emperor Augustus as a god: an oath designed in the expectation of his god-like protection of their community for ever.

The terms of the oath are exceptional. The Paphlagonians swear it in the name of ‘Zeus, Earth, Sun, all the gods and goddesses plus Augustus himself’ as well as his future offspring, thus aligning the emperor and his family with the power of a divinity.

They swear in word and deed but also in ‘will/inclination’: there is a real commitment on their part. Any who revolted would be pursued ‘whatever the danger… over land and sea’. If the oath was broken, utter destruction was called on the perpetrator and his family for all time.

The oath was signed and sealed in all cities having imperial shrines, by every citizen in turn, and also by Romans there on business, in the Roman manner that emphasised the individual’s personal fidelity to it. The date was recorded in Roman form, not in the name of the consuls of the time but only of Augustus; and most astonishing of all, there was no reciprocal oath on the part of Augustus or the Romans to uphold it.

It is a cast-iron certainty that many will regard our trade deal with the European Union — whatever it is — as little better than what the Paphlagonians signed up to. But it is worth remembering two things. First, working on trade deals can continue for as long as it takes; and second, if we the people do not like it, we can boot the government out.

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