Do classicists and ancient historians have a particular relationship with Europe or special reasons to fear a British exit from the European Union, compared with other academic disciples? I’ve been asked this question in relation to the newly-founded Classicists for Europe, which aims to add our voice to the campaign for the UK to STAY, and my answer would be: basically, no. We may perhaps be more likely than some to feel an affinity to Europe, given that most of us work on material from other European countries in close collaboration with continental colleagues, while the cultural inheritance of classical antiquity clearly transcends national claims or identities. But even if this gives us a slightly different outlook from historians of early modern England or analytical philosophers, it’s clearly about Europe rather than the EU; when it comes to the latter, our fears are those of researchers, teachers and students in all the other sciences – the threats to mobility, funding and infrastructure, the consequences of prolonged instability and uncertainty – and so the message of the campaign is ‘Us Too!’ rather than ‘We’re Special!’
Indeed, I imagine that we have a better idea than most of the problems and tensions inherent in the ideas of Europe and its allegedly common cultural traditions, not least the uses to which such claims were put in legitimising European imperialism. We are more rather than less aware of the gap, if not the gulf, between ancient and modern, and hence the complexity of trying to bring these two worlds into dialogue with one another. Of course Pericles would have voted for Brexit; so too would Aeschylus, Plato, Demosthenes, Hesiod and probably Odysseus and Achilles as well. But the next step in the analysis – unless your aim is polemic rather than understanding – is not to declare that therefore we too must take up arms to defend freedom and democracy from vast hordes of foreign bureaucrats, because classical Greece.
Rather, we need to think about the underlying differences: not just between ancient and modern ideas of freedom and democracy (cf. recent discussions by scholars like Wilfried Nippel and Paul Cartledge), but also in terms of scale. The communities for which (some) ancient Greeks were prepared to die in struggles against other such communities counted their populations in thousands, not millions; the autonomy for which they fought was that of Hove (actually) refusing to cooperate with Brighton, or Castle Cary being at daggers drawn with Bruton. And even in this radically simpler, less integrated world, such communities were vulnerable to larger and more powerful forces, and so frequently had to band together or perish.
We live in societies where identity is more obviously invented and imagined rather than the apparently natural product of regular face-to-face interaction with the same group of fellow-citizens – which doesn’t mean it isn’t real or important, but does show that it’s malleable. People learnt (or were induced) to shift their allegiances in response to a world in which the absolute independence of Edgbaston no longer made sense, and this new regional or national identity came to feel natural instead – but that doesn’t make it eternal. Meanwhile, the forces that threaten us are still vaster and more powerful than they were in the period of the development of nationalism; clinging to British or English particularism makes a lot less sense in the face of Amazon or climate change, just as Athenian or Melian particularism was incapable of standing up to Macedon or Rome.
If we’re going to look for models or inspiration in antiquity at all, then it’s important to remember that there’s a variety to choose from – Greek microexclusivity is not the only option. It’s rare that I have a good word to say about Cicero, but his idea of the two patriae – that one can become fully Roman without thereby ceasing to be fully a member of one’s community of birth – has a lot going for it. Part of the success of the Roman Empire was the way in which, at least in theory, it abandoned exclusivity based on birth in the Greek manner to accept as citizens those who wanted to become Roman, and permitted ‘nested’ identities. In such a model, being English or British doesn’t necessitate ceasing to be Lancastrian; feeling European doesn’t imply a rejection of national identity. Some cosmopolitans are actually quite rooted…
The real argument is not whether Pericles or Cicero is a better model for us today; the obvious answer is neither. What Would Pericles Do? Provoke a gratuitous and ultimately disastrous confrontation with France and then die at an inconvenient moment… Of course these analogies carry some rhetorical and persuasive force nevertheless, or people like Boris Johnson wouldn’t evoke them, but their main analytical utility lies in thinking through the contrast, using them as a place to stand from which to contemplate our own situation.
Classicists for the EU. Because we believe in engaging with the present, and making pragmatic decisions for an uncertain future, rather than getting stuck in an imaginary, idealised past… Please ‘like’ the Facebook page, or contact me directly if you’d like to sign up to the campaign.