Sunday, 5 June 2016



‘Seldom has a government so long fostered the peace and prosperity of its nations as the empire of Rome’, wrote German historian Mommsen. Boris Johnson, historian and British PM in waiting, adds that all our institutions ‘are ultimately the product of imperial Rome…It was above all Rome that shaped the European mind-set’.

The priest is a Roman. He agrees. Though there have been many great empires. Persian, Macedonian, Arab, Turkish, Russian, French, British…you name them. But is an empire needed now? That is the question.

Would an empire help to sort out the Middle East morass? Democracies can’t do it, that’s all too clear. Democratic America is sometimes supposed to be the new Rome in terms of world power. Really? Do me a favour! The US cannot even compel tiny Israel to do justice to the Palestinians. New Rome my foot!

Think: if there was an empire around – a real, mighty empire, never mind if Roman, Persian, Turkish, or Russian – the Syrian civil war and its millions of dead, wounded and displaced persons would not have lasted five years and counting. It is a festering sore destabilising the whole Middle East and even Europe, given the waves of desperate Syrian refugees pressing at the continent’s doors. An empire worth its salt would have poured its armies in and sorted it all out. Whatever the cost. Unlike the ineffectual US, EU, UN, Arab League and similar such noise-making bodies.

Nor would a nightmare threat like the ISIS sadistic thugs would ever have endured in the Levant. One of their ancient trouble-making counterparts in Palestine, the Hebrew terrorists known as the Zealots, once rose up against Rome. Titus’s legions dealt with them for good. The fanatics were exterminated.

Or imagine the endless confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians. A conflict that might escalate into a WWIII. An empire would do what America is either unwilling or incapable of doing. An empire would bang the heads of the two sides together and demand a compromise. Forcing Netanyahu to allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state, close down the West Bank settlements and give up East Jerusalem. In return, Israel’s existence and security would be firmly established and woe betided either party if they broke the agreement.

‘But empires have to act ruthlessly. Crushing an obstinate enemy’s resistance might cost many lives.’ Indeed. Still, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Peace and security can only be won at a price. Civilisation has to be paid for. Arrian’s account of the campaigns of Alexander the Great in the East – as far as India - shows the ruthlessness and the ferocity the King of Macedon used to subjugate hostile nations and tribes. Yet, Alexander created a new world. The fusion of East and West into a Hellenistic unity, combining the best features of both cultures. Read Plutarch’s biography to get the full measure of Alexander’s personal charm and magnanimity.

There are, allegedly, liberal empires. Like Britain’s defunct one. ‘The wonderful boyish schoolmaster of the world’, Roger Scruton rhapsodises. But after the Indian Sepoys’ rebellion captives were tied to the muzzle of big guns and blown off. Huh! Boys will be boys, eh?

Or like democratic France. She of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. Slaughtering and torturing one million people in the Algerian colonial war. Some liberals, eh?

Empires do not last, wise guys assert. Sooner or later, they are bound to fall. A stupid argument. The life of a human being also necessarily comes to an end. Does that mean there is no point in living it? Besides, democracies perish too. Where are now democratic Greek city states like Athens?

A Muslim friend suggests that empires and democracies are not the only alternatives. There is third way. Does he mean some ideal, humane caliphate? Unlike that of hair-rising ISIS? Nice idea but it is pie in the sky. Utopian. I might as well hope for a non-violent Christian commonwealth, ruling by love and compassion. Come the promised heavenly Jerusalem, yes. Not in this harsh, post-lapsarian world.

An empire cannot be conjured into existence as if by magic. But, for the hell of it, here are four conditions necessary for the miracle to happen. First, an empire requires a founding emperor. A central, inspiring chief. Thinking back to Rome, a super-hero like a Caesar or an Augustus. Someone capable of creating a new political consciousness. (Boris Johnson is right when he says that a reason the EU is so politically limp and doomed is that it lacks such a charismatic figure.) No leader today even approximates that status.

Second, the empire must have technological excellence or hegemony. The British Army under General Kitchener wiped out the Dervishes led by Khalifa Abdullahi at the battle of Omdurman because of Lee Enfield rifles and Maxim machine guns, capable of firing six hundred rounds a minute. Superior military equipment then trumped faith, however fierce.

Third, an empire crucially functions on what Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldun termed ‘asabiya’. Difficult word to define. Social cohesion or solidarity? Team spirit? Energy or drive? Martial virtue? Khaldun thought the wild tribes of the desert exemplified asabiya. I myself wonder whether a powerful, vital ideology would not also release its own asabiya. Like the bolshevism that engendered the Soviet revolution. Quite possible.

Fourth, a spiritual, dynamic connecting bond. All Europe can offer today is the flaccid rhetoric of human rights. Feeble is the great faith that shaped our continent. Even the ‘triple tyrant’ execrated by Milton, the Pope, has turned liberal. O tempora, o mores!

Still, hope springs eternal…

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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