The Roman Empire means blood, gore, backstabbing and ruthless political expedience. But, to encompass so many different peoples, across such a vast geographical landscape, public discourse had to be powerful but moderate to avoid an easy dissent into constant upheaval. The Roman Empire is not so much a blueprint for civil discourse — far from it — but the values and principles that constituted ‘proper’ public debate are relevant for us today.


Meaningful dissent

Nobody can deny that Romans mastered the art of persuasive oratory, making speeches that were rich and nuanced — in contrast to reductionist sound bites that shape public debate today. Tacitus, one of the most highly regarded Roman historians, stands out as a moral authority just as much as a skilled orator. In 97, Tacitus delivered the funeral oration of Verginius Rufus, a renowned soldier who had rejected the chance to compete for power after Nero’s death. This was one of the highest honours, and strongest endorsement of his personal integrity that Tacitus could receive. Notably, Rufus put aside his own political ambitions, with his tomb unashamedly reading: ‘Here lies Rufus, who after defeating Vindex, did not take power, but gave it to the fatherland’. In our contemporary society however, this virtue has been replaced by virtue signalling. Presently, any attempt at acting in good faith is viewed with suspicion, and tribal party politics would make this sacrifice ‘in the national interest’.

Tacitus could be accused of being just another ‘yes’ man. After all, to be a public official with ‘integrity’ means being loyal; but to the state or the people? Tacitus believed his own father-in-law, the eminent Roman General, Agricola, ‘died in suspicious circumstances’ because he ‘constituted the threat of a good example’ to the tyrannical Emperor Domitian. But what was this ‘good example’ of dissent? Although known as a man of action, it was Agricola’s lack of action that made the Emperor suspicious of him, whilst endearing him to the people. It is meaningful dissent (always looking beyond one’s self), rather than dissent for the sake of it, that is necessary.

Just as today, the most dramatic dissenters and campaigners are open to accusations of being self-interested, Tacitus was ‘equally contemptuous towards those of high rank who planned an overthrow of a tyrannical emperor’, seeing them as ambitious and vainglorious’ themselves. Tacitus’ political commentary sought to draw ‘distinctions between those wishing to retain the right to speak out … and those who formed conspiracies … to remove the emperor’. Referring not only to the sincerity and motivations behind dissent, but also thinking practically,Tacitus’ dissent is grounded in realism — something missing from today’s debates as we get swept up in bold gestures and catchy slogans.

In a speech that Tacitus attributes to barbarian chieftain, Calgacus, he displays a very Roman colouring of dissent. Calgacus may be readying his troops for the most physical act of dissent, but it’s his words that are documented, not his military plan.

Identity evolves

But what about identity? It is no surprise that the barbarian groups at the periphery of the Empire were most troublesome for the leadership. Their distance, however, was perhaps more geographical than cultural. The battle between Agricola and Calgacus illustrates a shared Roman identity, but one that still diverges. Calgacus’ speech  embodied core Roman beliefs about enslavement, freedom and honour, yet he was a barbarian. Agricola was ‘Roman’ in his military might and brute force. Both are Roman, but reflect different elements of the identity. Indeed, Tacitus provides a bridge between the two, being a product of Rome’s imperial system, but internalising – and praising – the virtue of barbarians (rooted in early Roman identity) compared to the now gluttonous lives of those in Rome.

There doesn’t seem to be much ‘shared identity’ with all this fighting, but these battles between the barbarians and the Imperial Roman army were about power and land, rather than a cultural disconnect. Calgacus’ speech criticises Empire rather than the idea of being ‘Roman’, that is; the leadership elite, not the citizen. His speech could be read as condemning the way Rome, the epicentre of the Empire, has become less Roman, as opposed to just a call for autonomy. Ironically, a trait of Roman identity was fearing the loss of that identity. We should remember, however, that as the Empire expanded outwards, the growing diverse population diluted the once shared Roman identity.

This episode in the Empire’s history, which despite great upheaval, also shows the depth and thought Romans gave to the understanding of their own identity, stands in contrast with today’s lack of engagement. Any debate is diminished to two entirely opposing sides and a rigid ideology for all to follow. I’m not saying we should go to battle, but at the very least we should broaden our discussions. When in Rome then, is it do as the Romans do, or the barbarians — or find the overlap and do that? Importantly, we should learn from the Romans that collective identity evolves, and to move forward successfully you have to take everyone with you.