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Does Rome hold lessons for the EU?

Updated Tuesday, 5th August 2008

The Open Minds programme hosted a discussion on the lesson the EU could learn from the Roman Empire.

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Roman soldiers re-enactment

Meet the participants

Dr Ray Laurence

Dr Ray Laurence Dr Ray Laurence is a lecturer in ancient history at the University of Reading. His major research interests began with the Roman city, on which he has published numerous works.

Ray has also been involved in the study of cultural identity and housing in the Roman Empire, as well as another major project on landscape history – particularly the construction of Roman roads in Italy. Current projects include the Roman life cycle, the use of architecture and townscapes in modern Europe and the USA, and the landscapes of the Roman Empire.

Robert Evans

Robert Evans MEP Robert Evans MEP Robert Evans MEP (for London North West) is Labour's European spokesperson on education and culture.

After graduating from London University Robert worked as a teacher in Hounslow until he was elected to the European Parliament in June 1994. Robert campaigns and speaks on anti-racist issues, has a lifelong interest and concern for animal welfare and writes regularly for the Times Educational Supplement.

He also enjoys spending time with his family, skiing, playing cricket and hockey, visiting the theatre or cinema and playing with his lawnmower!

Dr Chris Kelly

Dr Chris Kelly Dr Chris Kelly, is a Lecturer in Classics at Cambridge University and Dean of Corpus Christi College. He studied Law and Classics at the University of Sydney before moving to Trinity College, Cambridge for his doctorate.

While a graduate student he rowed for the college and was the first Australian President of the Cambridge Union Society.

As a historian, his principle work is on the Roman Empire especially late Antiquity. He is particularly interested in imperial power and ideology, the administration of the empire, and the rise of Christianity.

Discussion question

Rome ruled Europe for hundreds of years – not a bad innings when you consider the problems its closest modern equivalent, the European Union has had to overcome in its mere forty years of existence. This week our Open Forum discussion looks at the ways in which the Roman Empire compares to the EU, and whether there are any lessons to be learned from the past.

There are many dissimilarities – whereas the Romans conquered their empire through force and military might, the European Union has come about through cultural evolution and politics. But there are similarities too – just as there was some popular resistance to the Romans’ arrival in ancient Britain, the EU has experienced its own difficulties in persuading the citizens of member states that the benefits of joining outweigh the disadvantages.

Common currency

We may think of the common currency as a modern idea, but the Romans did it all before us - and the Roman currency system may not have been viewed with the same suspicion that some people today view the Euro. Even before the invasion in AD 43, coins from all over Europe would have been in circulation. British coins often carried Roman designs and the smaller Roman coins were particularly favoured for their usefulness.

While modern coinage is only representative of its face value (the metal in a 10p coin is actually worth much less), some coins of the Roman period had real intrinsic value and in times of crisis early Britons would have been able protect their financial status by hoarding and burying coinage. If modern Europeans did this they would no doubt find themselves much worse off when they came to dig it up as our coinage tends to lose value over time.


The Roman Empire was built on a privileged elite and stability was maintained by the very actions that we condemn as corrupt today, such as nepotism and bribery. The European Union has also recently had to come to terms with allegations of corruption. As MEP, Robert Evans says: "It’s not even an issue for several European countries at the moment. It’s not recognised as a problem in other countries in the same way that it is a problem in this country."

Clearly the Romans had a very different way of ruling from that adopted by the European Union – are there any lessons we can learn? Dr Chris Kelly suggests that: "If you want to maintain a small isolated elite in power then you decide that jobs for the boys are a good way of running things. If you think that you want a system which wants to share power and share rewards then you’d better call those kinds of things corrupt and turn your back on them as soon as possible."

Take it further

Cultural Identity in the Roman Empire, Ray Laurence and Joanne Berry (Routledge)

The Roads of Roman Italy: Mobility and Cultural Change, Ray Laurence (Routledge 1999)

The Roman Empire (2nd edition), C Wells (Fontana History of the Ancient World 1992)

The Roman World 44BC-AD180, M Goodman (Routledge History of the Ancient World 1997)

Roman Civilization: Selected Readings Volume II The Empire, N Lewis, M Reinhold (Columbia University Press 1990)

University of Reading Classics Department

Cambridge University Faculty of Classics and the Museum of Classical Archaeology

European Parliament

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