Spartacus Blog

Is the European Union like the Roman Empire?

Boris Johnson has been using examples from history in an effort to persuade the British public to vote "No" in the EU referendum. Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Johnson said European history had seen repeated attempts to rediscover the "golden age of peace and prosperity under the Romans". Johnson told the newspaper, "Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods. But fundamentally what is lacking is the eternal problem, which is that there is no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe. There is no single authority that anybody respects or understands. That is causing this massive democratic void." (1)

Johnson could have added that it was only when the Romans, Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte and Angela Merkel headed east in Europe that they got into trouble. He might have been factually correct but like Ken Livingstone, when he referred to Hitler's negotiations with Zionist leaders in 1936, when discussing the anti-Semitism controversy, this did not go down very well. As one political commentator pointed out, “invoking the ghosts of Hitler and the Nazis in any political argument is a profoundly dangerous strategy.” (2)

The media ignored Johnson's comments about the Roman Empire but its difficulties in Europe is not so dissimilar to those facing the European Union today. It began as an attempt to protect itself against hostile forces outside Rome. In 509 BC the Romans decided to establish a democratic republic. They borrowed the idea of democracy from Athens where this form of government had lasted for 200 years in an earlier period. Participation was not open to all residents in Athens. To vote one had to be an adult, male citizen who owned land and was not a slave, and the number of these "varied between 30,000 and 50,000 out of a total population of around 250,000 to 300,000." (3)

The word "democracy" means the "rule of the people". In reality it never referred to the whole people in Rome, since it excluded slaves, women and non-citizens. Nor did each citizen have one vote. Power in Rome was in the hands of a small group of rich families. The male heads of these families were called patriarchs. Three hundred of these patriarchs met in a place known as the Senate where they discussed government matters.

Every year the senators nominated two men to become joint leaders of Rome. These men were called consuls. The senators could advise but it was the consuls who made the decisions (they had to be in agreement before they did this). The consuls controlled government spending, foreign relations and the appointment of military commanders and provincial governors. In an effort to prevent foolish decisions being made, the two consuls had to be in agreement before decisions were taken.

Although the senators nominated them, the consuls were elected by the Public Assembly. In theory all Roman male citizens could attend the Public Assembly held in the Forum, but it was organised in such a way that it was usually the patricians who controlled the decisions that were made. Sallust argued: "The Romans... introduced a new system in which authority was divided between two annually elected rulers; the limitation of their power, it was thought, would prevent them being tempted to abuse it." (4)

The Roman citizens who were not members of the ruling families were called plebeians. For hundreds of years the plebeians were not allowed to marry members of the patrician families so the two groups were kept very separate. The plebeians were in the vast majority but they were not free to elect who they wanted. This was because of a system called clientela. Every patriarch would have a large group of plebeians who were his clients. In exchange for financial and legal support, the plebeians supported the wishes of their patriarch. This included the way he voted in the Public Assembly.

In 494 BC the plebeians, inspired by what they had heard about democracy from the Greeks, had a meeting where they swore an oath of mutual support. They then informed the Senate that if it did not agree to their demands, they would form their own community outside Rome. As the plebeians provided labour for the fields and made up most of the army during warfare, the Senate was forced to accept their demands. (5)

It was agreed that the plebeians could each year elect two men to represent their interests. These men, who became known as tribunes, had the power to protect plebeians against the actions of the patriarchs. Tribunes were not paid and so they were nearly always fairly wealthy people. Following another campaign the Senate agreed that plebeians could also become consuls and praetors (officials who helped to govern Rome). Although it was far from the democracy that we enjoy today, this was the most successful early attempt to produce a system where politicians were accountable for their decisions.

In 387 BC Rome was invaded by the Celts (the Romans called them Gauls). They did not occupy Rome. However, they did take all the valuables they could find. Before they left, the Gauls set fire to Rome. The Romans were determined that this would not happen again. They decided to build a large stone wall round the outside of Rome. The wall was 2 metres wide, 8 metres high and 10 kilometres long. The Romans also improved their army. They borrowed a lot of ideas from the very successful Greek and Samnite armies. The Roman Army began wearing body armour made of metal and they also improved the quality of their weapons.

It was not long before the Romans had the best army in Italy. They were now in a position to take the territory of other groups who lived in the region. Gradually the Romans gained control over the whole of Italy. The Romans now began to look for other areas to conquer. In 202 BC they defeated the Carthaginians, the group that controlled territory in North Africa, Western Europe and three large islands in the Mediterranean (Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia).

Gradually the Romans were able to take over the different parts of the Greek Empire. Wars produced a massive new labour force for the rich to exploit, as all captured soldiers were enslaved. These were sold to landowners to cultivate their estates at low cost. The slave population grew massively until, by the 1st century BC, there were two million slaves - compared with a free population of 3.25 million. The bulk of the slaves were adults, while the free population included many children. Also, one in eight male citizens were in the Roman Army. (6)

During this period the Romans began to take over western Europe. However, it was not until 55 BC that Julius Caesar decided to invade Britain. At this time the Romans were fighting the Gauls in a land that is now known as France. When Caesar heard that the Gauls were receiving supplies from people living in a neighbouring island he decided they needed to be punished. Caesar's first attempt to take his soldiers to the island he called Britain was not very successful due to bad storms in the Channel. The following year Caesar tried again. This time he was able to capture large areas of southern Britain. Surveys were carried out to find out whether Britain had any natural resources that Romans might need.

Julius Caesar reported: "The population is extremely large, there are very many farm buildings, closely resembling those in Gaul, and the cattle are numerous. Tin is found in the midland area, and iron near the coast, but not in large quantities. The bronze they use is imported... By far the most civilised of the Britons are those who live in Kent... their way of life is very much like those of the Gauls. Most of the tribes living in the interior do not grow grain; they live on milk and meat and wear skins. All the Britons dye their bodies with woad, which produces a blue colour and gives them a wild appearance in battle. They wear their hair long; every other part of the body, except for the upper lip, they shave. Wives are shared between groups of ten or twelve men, especially between brothers and between fathers and sons." (7)

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

Strabo, was not impressed by the people living on the island: "Most of the island is low-lying and wooded, but there are many hilly areas. It produces corn, cattle, gold, silver and iron. These things are exported along with hides, slaves and dogs suitable for hunting. The men are taller than the Gauls and not so yellow-haired... I myself in Rome saw youths (slaves from Britain) standing half a foot taller than the tallest in the city although they were bandy-legged and ungainly in build. They live much like the Gauls but some of their customs are more primitive and barbarous. Thus for example some of them are well supplied with milk but do not know how to make cheese; they know nothing of planting crops or of farming in general... Their cities are the forests, as they fell trees and fence in large circular enclosures in which they build huts and pen in their cattle, but not for any length of time."

Strabo could see no advantage of turning the island into a colony: "We have nothing to fear from Britain, since they are not strong enough to cross over and attack us. No advantages would arise by taking over and holding the country. If we deduct the cost of maintaining an army to garrison the island from the taxes, we will find it unprofitable. It will require at least one legion and a force of cavalry to collect taxes from them, and the cost of such a force would offset the revenue gained." (8)

The Roman government therefore decided that there was no economic benefit in taking Britain into their European Empire. However, the ideas about expanding the Empire changed when Rome brought an end to democratic decision-making. In 44 BC Julius Caesar declared himself as dictator for life. Rumours began to spread that Caesar planned to make himself king. Plutarch wrote: "What made Caesar hated was his passion to be king." Caesar denied these charges but the Roman people, who had a strong dislike of the kingship system, began to worry about the way Caesar made all the decisions. Even his friends complained that he was no longer willing to listen to advice. (9)

Eventually a group of 60 men, including Marcus Brutus, rumoured to be one of Caesar's illegitimate sons, decided to assassinate Caesar. When Caesar arrived at the Senate a group of senators gathered round him. Publius Servilius Casca stabbed him from behind. Caesar looked round for help but now the rest of the group pulled out their daggers. One of the first men Caesar saw was Brutus and was reported to have declared, "You too, my son." Caesar knew it was useless to resist and pulled his toga over his head and waited for the final blows to arrive.

After the death of Caesar, Augustus and Mark Antony were involved in a struggle for power. When Augustus eventually became the leader of the Roman Empire he changed the method of government. In 27 BC he established the imperial system where one man, the emperor, made all the important decisions. Although the Senate still met, the senators were now advisers rather than rulers. Not so unlike the way the European Union is organised.

The Roman Empire grew even more rapidly after dictatorial rule. Countries were incorporated into the Empire because it gave more power to the emperor rather than because it made economic sense to do it. Rome began to spread its tentacles into eastern Europe. The only area in the west that was not in the empire was Britain. In 54 BC it was concluded that it would be difficult to make a profit out of the country. They therefore decided not to take Britain into the Roman Empire. Ninety years later the Romans changed their minds about Britain. In AD 43 Emperor Claudius ordered another invasion of Britain. (10)

The Romans were not very impressed with the people who they found in Britain: "For most part the Britons are naked... being unfamiliar with the use of clothing... They tattoo their bodies with various designs and pictures of all kinds of animals. This is the reason they do not wear clothes: so as not to cover up the designs on their bodies. They are extremely warlike and bloodthirsty, though their armament consists simply of a narrow shield, a spear, and a sword that hangs beside their naked bodies." (11)

Jordanes agreed: "They (the people of Britain) live in wattled huts, a shelter used in common with their flocks, and often the woods are their home. They paint their bodies with iron-red... They often wage war with one another, either because they desire power or to increase their possessions. They fight not only on horseback or on foot, but with a scythed two-horse chariots." (12)

There was some resistance to the invasion but the Roman Army was too powerful and quickly established control. The people complained bitterly about the imposition of taxes. Quintus Petillius Cerialis, the Roman commander of Gaul, explained to one defeated tribe: "There were always wars throughout Gaul until you submitted to our laws... we have only charged you the cost of maintaining peace. For you cannot secure peace without armies, nor maintain armies without pay, nor provide pay without taxes." (13) However, as the British tribal leader, Calgacus, pointed out: "The Romans have exhausted the land by their plunder... Robbery, butchery... they create a wasteland and call it peace. (14)

Britain was never profitable for the Romans. They did find small deposits of gold (Wales) and silver (Mendip Hills). They also exported grain, lead, iron, copper, salt, oysters and some agricultural products. However, they imported far more than they exported as they had as many as 50,000 soldiers based on the island.

By the second century AD the territory of the Roman Empire covered the area occupied by the following modern-day European countries: England, Wales, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland, parts of Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Monaco, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Rumania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Turkey, Greece, Albania and Serbia.

Edward Gibbon was a great supporter of the idea of a united Europe. He argues in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776): "In the 2nd century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth... The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces." Gibbon adds that "if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed between the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus (from AD 98-180)." (15)

Modern painting of the Forum where meetings of the Public Assembly took place.
The Roman Empire (AD 117)

Britain was the edge of the Roman Empire in the west and north. Its border in the south was northern Africa. These borders were very secure. However, it began to have problems as it pushed east. The Romans called the people who lived outside the Roman Empire, barbarians. In the 4th century AD the Roman army had considerable difficulty in stopping these barbarians from entering the empire from the east. These tribes were called Vandals, Goths and Huns.

By the end of the 4th century the Roman army had grown dramatically. What is more, the emperors became more reliant on the expensive mercenary armies that now numbered 650,000. Taxation had to be increased to pay for this large army. Whereas taxation had accounted for only about 10% of the peasant family's produce under the republic, it now reached nearly a third. (16)

These taxes were higher than most people could afford. Some Roman citizens formed themselves into an armed resistance group called the Bagaudae. Paulus Orosius wrote: "There are certain Romans who prefer to live in freedom among the barbarians than the constant oppression of taxation among the Romans." (17)

In 407 it was decided to recall the Roman Army based in Britain in an attempt to protect its territory in mainland Europe. However, this was unsuccessful and by 419 they had lost Spain to the Vandals and large parts of France to the Franks. Salvian was a Christian living in Marseilles at the time. He wrote: "The Romans were once the mightiest of men, now they are without strength; of old they were feared, but now they live in fear. Under the judgment of a just God we are paying what we owe." He then goes on to quote Jesus Christ: "What men have sowed, they shall also reap." (18)

Is this the way the European Union will die? Has it grown to a size that makes it economically unviable? Is it possible to rule such a large area from an undemocratic centre? Britain was the first country to leave the Roman Empire in 407. Will it be the first country to leave the EU in June 2016?


(1) Boris Johnson , Sunday Telegraph (14th May, 2016)

(2) The Daily Mail (16th May, 2016)

(3) John Thorley, Athenian Democracy (2005) page 74

(4) Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline (c. 40 BC)

(5) Peter A. Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (1993) page 58

(6) Chris Harman, A People's History of the World (2008) page 72

(7) Julius Caesar, The Gallic War (c. 52 BC)

(8) Strabo, Geography (c. AD 20)

(9) Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar (c. AD 110)

(10) Cassius Dio, Roman History (c. AD 215)

(11) Herodian, Roman History (c. AD 240)

(12) Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths (c. AD 550)

(13) Quintus Petillius Cerialis, talking to the Treveri tribe after their defeat in AD 70.

(14) Calgacus, quoted by Tacitus in his book, On the Life of Julius Agricola (AD 98)

(15) Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) pages 1 and 89

(16) A. H. M. Jones, The Roman Economy (1974) page 83

(17) Paulus Orosius, letter to a friend (AD 418)

(18) Salvian, On the Governance of God (c. AD 450)

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