Nicholas FitzRoy-Dale's personal journal. I also write a programming blog and a tumble log. Contact me at or subscribe to my RSS feed.

Jul 31, 2016
Review: The Dream of Rome
The Dream of Rome, Boris Johnson, 2006

Boris Johnson has a charming, avuncular style of writing, weaving hundreds of interesting stories of the Roman empire together to trace its history, through its apotheosis under Augustus to its decline. He always treats the reader as an intellectual equal, leading them gently through a complex tangle of issues, which he has dotted with facts in the same way that one might sprinkle dressing on a salad, to arrive at the conclusion that any reasonable person should make — i.e. the one which the author happens to be promulgating. This style is so fun to read, and so charmingly beguiling, that it’s easy to miss that half the time the author, by the end of the chapter, has started, apparently without noticing, to argue against himself.

The problem is that what could have been a very engaging history of the Roman empire is also interspersed with analogies to the current-day EU. These comparisons appear infrequently and unexpectedly, like dog poos in a public park, and one is left with the feeling that the Classics scholar felt compelled to demonstrate how much one can learn from history, but wasn’t really sure how to go about it.

There simply isn’t a lot of commonality between the EU and the Roman Empire. This causes Johnson problems in two ways. The first is that you can’t use one system as a model for another until you’ve demonstrated that they are sufficiently similar in the areas of interest. Johnson doesn’t do this, or even get close, so he is stuck with a sort of parody of comparison in which he points out the things which made the Roman empire great, and then points out that the EU does not have those things. He then leaves things there, presumably expecting the reader to make the obvious, but incorrect, logical leap.

Worshipping the emperor, for example, was one of the shared practices which united the Roman empire culturally. Nobody is going to worship any president of the EU, whose high-ranking members are so far the opposite of “charismatic leadership” that it sometimes feels that they were specifically selected for unpleasantness. That doesn’t, of course, mean that the EU is doomed to failure — it just means that it’s not like the Roman empire.

But Johnson’s failure to draw reasonable parallels between Rome and the EU causes a second problem, which is much worse: he ends up contradicting himself.

Take the issue of Turkey entering the EU, for example. This crops up near the end of the book, which has been busily occupied with teaching us that the Roman empire succeeded because it established a common, but loose, cultural identity — a common religion (but not an exclusive one); a common Roman architectural style, even an empire-wide favourite fish sauce. Part of the reason for its decline was that it spread itself too thin, and accepted local rule. With that act, a lot of the unifying Roman-ness disappeared. Without the egg-white in the cake, as Johnson puts it, the empire fell apart. The implication is of course that the empire should have avoided this if possible — retain a cultural identity; consolidate power in Rome; and so on.

But Turkey, with its Muslim population, is very culturally distinct from the EU. Some people, writes Boris, would argue that this means they shouldn't join it -- it wouldn't work, would dilute the common values, such as they are, and would weaken the union.

Miraculously, Johnson at this point attempts to turn his argument about on its head. The EU will never be the new European empire, he writes. There is no common culture! No common architectural style, no common customs. Certainly no common fish sauce. So why not give up on these half-baked ideas of commonality and let Turkey in? His reasoning is mostly based around security — better to have Turkey striving to align itself with the EU’s goals than working against them. I happen to agree with the reasoning, but it is an argument for increasing the cultural diversity of an already-very-diverse EU — rather oddly-placed in a book which has just finished making the case that too much cultural diversity and division of power destroyed the Roman empire.

The EU portion seems like a wash — the connections are poorly placed and never come together coherently. The history portion, however, is great — and, fortunately, that’s the majority of the book.

Overall, it’s a fun walk in the park if you watch where you step.