Has Boris Johnson ever given a speech without throwing in a classical reference or two? It’s part of the brand, clearly – and always reminds me of Josh Ober’s classic study of Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Ober noted the surprising readiness of wealthy Athenians, especially those who’ve chosen an active role in public life, to parade their wealth and their difference from the mass of the citizens, even when faced with the task of winning over several hundred jurors drawn from the ordinary population. The ancient equivalent of a modern British politician taking off his jacket and tie, rolling up his sleeves and dropping a few aitches is conspicuous by its absence.
In a similar manner, Johnson seems to perform the traditional role of the upper-class eccentric, whose authenticity is grounded in being wealthy and confident enough to say exactly what he thinks without filtering; he’s willing to parade his expensive education and patrician frame of reference, rather than trying to cover these up with, say, a professed love of Aston Villa, or whatever that other team is with the shirts – or, a claim to be a devoted fan of the Arctic Monkeys. Think Carry On Up The Khyber: a simulacrum of the old-fashioned Britishness that will insist on finishing a dinner party with proper decorum, despite the roof falling in, before massacring a native rabble. Regardless of what lies behind his larger-than-life public persona, one can easily believe that Johnson will still be making self-deprecating classical quips as he’s swallowed by a giant squid-monster from the ocean depths.
In other words, whereas in US political discourse classical quotes and references are intended at least in part to contribute to the debate by referencing broader ideas and traditions – for example, citing Pericles’ Funeral Oration in order to summon up images of democracy, courage and military service – in the UK they are all about the speaker’s self-presentation, and hence largely absent; the vast majority of British politicians don’t want to be perceived as the sort of person who might start quoting Aeneid 6.86-7 without warning. Apart from Johnson:
It is we in the Leave Camp – not they – who stand in the tradition of the liberal cosmopolitan European enlightenment – not just of Locke and Wilkes, but of Rousseau and Voltaire; and though they are many, and though they are well-funded, and though we know that they can call on unlimited taxpayer funds for their leaflets, it is we few, we happy few who have the inestimable advantage of believing strongly in our cause, and that we will be vindicated by history; and we will win for exactly the same reason that the Greeks beat the Persians at Marathon – because they are fighting for an outdated absolutist ideology, and we are fighting for freedom.
It seems deeply implausible that anyone will suddenly be persuaded to switch sides by the evocation of Locke, Rousseau and Voltaire as Brexiteers avant la lettre, or by the mention of the Greeks at Marathon; and it’s unlikely that Johnson thinks they will. And so there’s not a lot of point in observing that the Persians were on the whole not motivated by any sort of “absolutist ideology” (or alternatively, if you stretch the meaning of that phrase to incorporate any example of what we’d call imperialism, then it was scarcely “outdated” in the fifth century BCE). Nor will the entirely valid observation by Tim Whitmarsh on Twitter, that “the Greeks” were actually an alliance of fiercely independent sovereign states bound together by treaties and mutual interest, carry much weight; this isn’t about argument, or historical truth, but images and perceptions.
But it’s still worth saying, as that’s our job as researchers into classical antiquity: not to peddle our own myths of a single European identity founded in the classical tradition in order to argue for a vote for Remain, but to question the equally problematic myths propounded, without any of our scholarly caution or scruples, by those arguing for a step into the unknown on the basis of evoking Henry V. A bunch of academics isn’t going to swing the argument, but it’s still important to make it clear where we stand. That’s the stripped-down message for which Academics for Britain in Europe is now seeking support from current and former university teachers in all disciplines:
As academics from a variety of disciplines, we call for Britain to remain in the European Union. Each of us will bring his or her own perspective, both disciplinary and personal, into the ballot-box to cast a Yes vote on 23 June. But each of us believes that the interests of British universities and the knowledge economy they represent, as well as the wider future of our country and our continent, are best served by staying In.
Our call is addressed to the broad electorate and in particular to students. There is probably no more important thing that your lecturers and your professors will have to say to you. The future is yours. Don’t let the Out camp wreck it.
If you would like to add your name to the Classics & Ancient History component of this enterprise, you can either sign up under the relevant post on our Facebook page, or let me know directly.