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Crossing the Rubicon: Classical parallels with the occurrences of Brexit

by Francesca Flynn

In early 49 BC, Julius Caesar, breaking the ‘don’t march on Roman Italy with your own army’ rule, crossed the Rubicon, the border of Italy and Cisalpine Gaul, and hence irrevocably changed the political landscape of Rome.  After a civil war, a brief stint with Julius Caesar being ‘dictator in perpetuity’, an assassination, Octavian becoming his successor, and another civil war, Rome was no longer ruled as a republic but by emperors instead.  The small event of crossing a river had huge political consequences, some may say like the small act of David Cameron on 23rd January 2013, threatened by UKIP’s rise, promising a referendum on EU membership.

This promise led to the current political headache that is Brexit, and within the time since the Brexit vote was counted, there’s been a general election, political posturing from Tory back-benchers and also from Labour, and an ever-widening gulf between Remainers and Brexiteers. This seismic split has classical parallels with the Roman Senate being split between those exhorting Republican virtues such as Cato the Younger and Cicero, and the Populares, led by Caesar, demanding more power for individuals. We may not undergo revolution, but Brexit has already forced one Prime Minister to resign, and a second to enter a deal with the DUP. At the present moment, the Conservatives have lost much of the support that David Cameron had gained through the manner with which the current administration has handled Brexit. As every week passes, the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, which would affect everything from the City of London’s trading deals to whether pets would have to be quarantined when crossing the English Channel, increases. However you feel about Brexit, the shape of UK government is about to change, with unanswered questions about both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The transition from the Roman Republic to imperialism had some more creative ramifications too, with Virgil’s The Aeneid being shaped by his own experience of living through the turbulent times, and hence its’ propaganda-like qualities of praising Augustus – the bringer of Pax Romana. The impact of Brexit on the UK’s psyche has not yet been fully realised, but I suspect that my generation is more distrustful of the government, and more apathetic of traditional politics (perhaps the reason for Jeremy Corbyn’s success) than ever before. This apathy is, I believe, due to the sense of powerlessness over the result of the referendum due to our inability to vote, but having to live with the current tangle of consequences. I further expect that the literature from my generation, although it may be in the form of a 140-character tweet rather than the 12-book heroic epic, will be just as intriguing to future History students as the classical period.

Parallels can still be found between our current day issues and the issues of the Roman Republic 1,950 years ago, and although Brexit may not quite topple the political structure of the modern UK, the changes it has caused and could still cause, may be of similar importance as Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon.

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