Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.28

Peter Jones, Vote for Caesar: How the Ancient Greeks and Romans Solved the Problems of Today.   London:  Orion, 2008.  Pp. viii, 264.  ISBN 9780752891408.  £9.99.  

Reviewed by John David Lewis, Duke University (
Word count: 1893 words

Peter Jones is one of the most energetic British promoters of classical studies for non-specialists, bringing readers of the Spectator into the world of ancient Greece and Rome through his Ancient and Modern column since 1996. This book has the same popular aim. Written entirely without jargon, bereft of footnotes and citations, it is an engaging exposition of real problems faced by the Greeks and the Romans, with suggestions about how we might use the past to think about the issues pressing on us today.

The organization is topical, as the Table of Contents makes clear:

1. Two capitals: Rome and London
2. Bread and (not) circuses
3. The Roman way of tax
4. Control Greeks--and Romans
5. Power to the people! Athens 508-323 BC
6. People's law and people's justice
7. Crime, punishment and education
8. Celebrity games
9. War and peace
10. The pleasures of paganism
11. Peering into the future
12. The science of living
13. The doctor could well see you shortly

We begin in the cities of Rome and London, each with seemingly intractable problems of congestion. Juvenal tells us about the crowds in front, crowds behind, elbows poking us in the ribs, a soldier's boot stomping on toes. Rome had one million people crammed into seven square miles--but without a transport system or "commuters," this seething cauldron of humanity lived where it worked, in small tenements crammed into an unplanned maze of narrow streets. In contrast, the seven and half million Greater Londoners are spread over six hundred square miles. The Romans lived at perhaps ten times this density, and had to deal with the fires and floods that threatened to collapse seven-story residential buildings, violence in unlit alleys, and seven hundred tons of daily excrement. The city had its own "Ken Livingston moment," a reference to the Mayor of London's vehicle congestion charge, which for the Romans meant strict restrictions on vehicles entering Rome by day. Despite this density and the immigration that caused it, Rome, like London, was no parasite. Its artisans and shopkeepers added value to their wares, and they had a sense of pride in their city. Jones thoroughly debunks a popular view of Rome as a city of villas, and of citizens bathing in calm repose amid luxury.

Roman entertainments, roads, buildings, aqueducts, brothels, and food distributions, are the concerns of the second chapter, while the Millennium Dome and the BBC--which the government should "throw out" in favor of private initiatives--are his modern targets. Chapter Three tells us how the Roman authorities paid for all this--they focused not on extorting Roman citizens, but rather on bleeding other people dry using the army. Jones' Mediterranean world "was in a fairly constant state of conflict either for self-protection or in order to extract the wealth" of others. (45) Inside Rome, the ruling aristocracy used the revenue to create a sense of personal beneficence and of loyalty among the populace. The contrast Jones creates with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs today begins with its spending of our money--not money taken from strangers--in a way that divorces our "payments" from any direct benefit to us. One suggestion Jones offers is whether Queen Elizabeth should provide some kind of Res Gestae for the British people--a return to the quid pro quo of personal benefaction found in Rome. Is Jones serious about trying to support the English state by taxing foreigners, and then distributing the spoils by personal largesse? Is it properly ironic to claim that the "lesson for our government" is to "concentrate on wondering how to screw it [taxes] out of someone else. That's the way to stay in power."? (50)

Chapter Four shows us how the Romans kept control over this cauldron--the key was to gain and keep the support of the population. We have heard very little of the Greeks so far--the first four chapters are consumed almost totally with the Romans. Chapter five, on the Athenian democracy, sets us on a path to a deeper discussion of the nature of government and of citizen participation. Jones is witty in his criticisms of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, berating him for "his promises to 'slash red tape' (for 'slash' read 'rearrange')" and to "'restore public trust in politics' (note: not 'in politicians')," along with his refusal to allow a referendum on the European Constitution "because he knows that the people do not want it and he would lose it." (80-81) The main point here is that we today do not live in a democracy--we never have and we never will--and readers should be aware of the contrast between us and the truly self-governing ancient Athenians.

What comes out of all this is a platform for non-specialists to think about how the ancients ("immensely fertile generators of ideas") handled problems not totally foreign to us today. Jones' suggestions are less proposals than they are food for thought, and although fraught with serious difficulties, they foster an active-minded approach to issues that are often not unique to us.

The next chapters build on this background, dealing with political issues prior to matters of philosophy. Chapter Six turns to law; a comparison with British Parliament distinguishes us from the Athenians in that we do not make the law ourselves. In one of his many inset boxes dealing with a narrow topic of interest today, Jones points out that for many Greeks, the law was what separated us from animals; although animals perceived and felt, they had no use of reason, no capacity for mutuality and contracts, and therefore no "rights." In matters of crime and punishment (chapter seven), Jones adopts the Platonic view of punishment as properly bringing a cure to the offender, rather than providing retribution, the protection of others, and deterrence, His proposal for today is that prison sentences hold a convict until he is cured, rather than to a fixed term--a proposition that, if taken seriously, would invites arbitrary power over psychiatric wards, but that nevertheless challenges us think about our ineffectual reliance on incarceration for repeat offenders. (149)

A similarly open-ended proposal is found in education, which for the ancients depended upon the self-motivated energy of the pupils to engage in active learning. Today's students are passive receptors of knowledge, who, to borrow Plato's metaphor, are "lying in a lecture hall like beached seals, using their skills and judgment to roll over now and again until lightly educated on both sides" (132) This would have been incomprehensible to the active-minded Greeks and Romans. For education as for crime, Jones' proposal is untenable--that everyone be allowed to attend college for one year, after which the school will dismiss the say 50% who cannot make the grade, while the other receive a free education thenceforth--but the idea that education is an active process remains a valuable starting point for educational reform today.

Celebrity (chapter eight) would have been well-known to the Romans, although the terms of stardom today--to be famous for being famous--would have shocked them. War and peace (chapter nine) reveals another big difference between ancients and moderns. In their world, the status quo was not a given "fighting successfully was the single precondition of every society's existence," which left "little room for niceties." (166) That no ancient god would have been jealous over the worship of another god suggests why religious wars were unknown in ancient times. The next step for Jones is to revel in the "pleasures of paganism" (chapter ten), in which he reminds us that the polytheists of the past showed little concern for foreign cults, unless they were state-sponsored, or their adherents turned nasty. Surely modern readers do need to know that it was Christian claims to exclusivity that the Romans recognized as a threat--and that the Romans would be baffled to see our officials today celebrate Islam after "some adherents of Islam express a desire to extirpate us." (182)

Jones builds on paganism by stepping through a series of issues--rituals, slavery, leisure time, cause and meaning, etc.--en route to chapter eleven, on peering into the future. Jones' focus on self-reliance extends through the Delphic Oracle and its clash with the Athenian democracy, which made its own decisions even when trying to avoid displeasing the gods. The pagan approach to the future was, for intellectuals such as Seneca, to use our reason to ensure that nothing unexpected happens to us, not to create a culture of victimhood by blaming every adversity for our own conditions. Chapter twelve, "the science of living," takes us to the essence of Greek culture: it was the first "where issues that were (normally) the monopoly of religious authorities or already settled by traditional beliefs . . . were debated in public, in humanly intelligible terms . . ." (212) The development of logical thinking, the study of man, the problems inherent in calendars, the nature of the "expert," and atomic theory, are among the topics that Jones connects to "logical accounting" of proper arguments, and to his leitmotif of reason as man's distinctive characteristic.

At many points Jones asks whether we today aren't living under forms of "tyranny" of our own making--the "tyranny by numbers," for instance, which has not allowed the sciences to understand the non-quantifiable fields of the humanities. The Greeks had their own straitjackets--without the use of experimentation, for instance, by which hypotheses are tested against further observation, they remained locked into deductive speculation. Jones sees this same pattern in our politicians today, in which the "Tory hypothesis" that lower tax rates and markets will solve economic problems runs counter to the opposite, socialist hypothesis. Greek medicine, chapter thirteen, demonstrates a similar hypothetical method for ancient doctors, with a final parallel between the Hippocratic Oath and its modern counterpart, released in 1997 by the British Medical association.

This book is handsomely produced with few errors (should "Cato" be "Cicero" on page 142? And where, for instance, is Aristotle p.000 on page 41?). It does require a basic background in classical history, because its topical, comparative method allows it jump around with no regard for chronology. This is so even within chapters; "Hannibalic lessons" (170-172) precedes "Afghan Alexander" (172-173). A novice reader might think that the city of Rome with its million inhabitants existed before the classical city of Athens. This aside, Jones' comparative approach will challenge readers to think as much about the modern city of London and its cultural environs as about ancient Rome.

Vote for Caesar could function well as a recommended reading in a classical civilization or culture course. Jones' ability to parallel ancient problems with those of our own day will entice readers to think outside the square about the issues we share. Perhaps the best lesson of this book is for us to care about the noble, the beautiful, and the true, and not to turn to the trashy, the tawdry and the cheap, "when so much that is truly excellent is so widely and freely available" (259, emphasis original). "Thanks to the degrading 'culture' of the world we live in," Jones asks "Would I vote for Caesar? You bet I would." (259-260) I wouldn't, because I do not see a good result in bringing loot home from foreigners and then distributing it as personal favors. But one might disagree with the vote for Caesar while recognizing the overall value of the culture in which he lived.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2009
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:33:33, Friday, 03 April 2009