Thursday, January 9, 2014


David Engels, Le déclin: la crise de l'Union européenne et la chute de la République romaine. Paris: Éditions du Toucan, 2012. Pp. 379. ISBN 9782810005246. €20.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Alex McAuley, McGill University (

Version at BMCR home site

David Engels has intrepidly ventured with elegant reflection and incisive insight where most fear to tread in his poignant monograph Le déclin: la crise de l'Union Européenne et la chute de la République romaine. The title tells all: Engels seeks to understand the current crisis besetting the European Union through the analogous lens of the late Roman Republic: an approach of historical parallelism that, though potentially fraught with peril, is employed with sobriety and precision. Given that he holds a Chair of Roman History at l'Université libre de Bruxelles, Engels himself is uniquely poised to undertake such a study. Seeing the politics and concerns of the present in light of the past, and the inverse, is hardly new. Yet in such treatments – whether the analogy is overt or hidden – one side of the comparison all too often remains imbalanced: if the ancient is eruditely discussed, the modern is glossed over, or vice versa.

Such is not the case with the monograph in question. What is novel about Engels' approach is the candour and directness with which he presents and develops his analogy. It comes as little surprise that Le déclin has garnered such a flurry of attention from at first European and now (French-) Canadian media, not just for its provocative frankness but also for its broad appeal.1 While we may instinctively avoid books such as this that smack of the popular, such instincts would in this case lead us away from a work that is equally insightful concerning both of these worlds.

The premise is simple: the European Union is in decline in a manner strikingly reminiscent of the twilight years of the Roman Republic. The roots of this crisis, in both the ancient and the modern contexts, run far deeper than the simply economic or demographic indicators: the problem, at its core, is the absence of a unifying identity. Contemporary Europe accordingly is poised at the brink: it can either return to being the influential political actor that it had once been, or plunge into obscurity as little more than a free-trade zone that is a "une sorte de musée de sa propre histoire" (16). In Engels' eyes a similar situation prevailed at Rome between the Gracchi and the Principate (c. 133-27 B.C.), when Romans – elite and common – were forced to face the collapse of the traditional character of their society and government. Yet here for the sake of argument I ought to note that there are intrinsic structural differences between the two: the EU is a fundamentally multinational and federative body, while the mid to late Republic, with its different tiers comprising Rome itself, tota Italia, and the (emergent) provincial system, is perhaps a more complex and convoluted entity, and one that might more fittingly be compared to the United States.

The precise nature of this crisis of identity is the subject of the book's first chapter, identifying the contemporary European dilemma as the (failed) attempt to ground a collective continental identity on abstract universal values (pp. 13-58). The intersection of what were once deeply entrenched attachments to nationalism, religion, and the family with a more pluralistic and integrative social climate is currently occurring in Europe just as it had in Rome. Both are experiencing periods of profound and rapid social and demographic change, and neither knows (or knew) precisely how to respond to such change. In what forms the core of the book's argumentation, Engels then proceeds to develop his analogy through considering the consequences of twelve central tenets of contemporary European identity and comparing them to their equivalents in the Roman context. The vigorous promotion of such values, according to Engels' principal thesis, hardly contributes to social coherence but rather destabilises continental unity and provokes a reversion to more traditional attachments.

The indices of comparison are all drawn verbatim from official declarations of the European Union, beginning with abstract values and their repercussions. (1) Promoting cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and integration in place of a more homogeneously defined society marginalises the traditional coherence of European member states in the same manner as the trends toward an affinity for Hellenic culture eroded the foundations of the Roman Republic. (2) The decreased importance of the nuclear family, together with social equality, leads to a concurrent drop in fertility rates that further broadens the demographic gap between immigrants and native-born citizens in contemporary Europe, Hellenistic Greece, and the Roman Republic alike. (3) Promoting the universal ideal of equality and the pre-eminence of the individual manifests itself in spiralling divorce rates which in turn compromise traditional forms of identity construction. (4) The emphasis on individual prosperity creates an ever-widening income gap between rich and poor, thus cultivating a political environment that is subject to the whims of the marketplace, all the while leaving the individual ever more isolated and socially impoverished. (5) Confronted with, respectively, Enlightenment and Hellenistic philosophy, the spiritual anchors of social identity are in decline and thus one of the most traditionally cohesive forces of civic solidarity is undermined. (6) Promoting integrationist and cosmopolitan policies has placed traditional mores on the chopping block, leading to the auto-denigration of native traditions in favour of syncretism.

Thus far all of Engels' indices have been drawn from the social realm, but in the latter half of his oeuvre he takes a rather different tack by considering the impact thereof on governance and policy. Accordingly, (7) individual liberties are being sacrificed in exchange for a more guaranteed sense of order, in reaction to the perceived widespread violence of post-9/11 society and Roman tumult in 70s and 60s B.C., respectively. (8) Absenteeism and apathy among the electorate is rampant, leading to a staggering drop in voter participation and compromising the representative character of elected bodies. Concurrently, voter coercion and misinformation bordering on propaganda run rampant. (9) The state has become professionalised and technocratic to the point of being opaque and inaccessible, prioritising commercial interests to the extent that disenchantment and pessimism flourish, leading some to pursue extralegal resolution of pressing issues. (10) The traditional right of personal liberty has fallen by the wayside, paradoxically leading to a passive citizenry overshadowed by ever more interconnected government systems. Engels then proceeds to drive the analogy home with his last two indices, which make the bold – though certainly well-supported – comparison between the European Union and the Roman Empire. The promotion of peace (11) and the state's responsibility to maintain a pacified state of affairs creates an ideological basis for forcible internal and external intervention. Finally, the promotion of solidarity (12) rooted not in social but in economic criteria similarly compromises the agency of peripheral member states, and creates a fiscal hegemony from which escape is nearly impossible. In the end, all of the above serve to blur the differences between the Roman Empire and the potential character of the European Union, and the analogies between the two are "sont plus étroites que l'on pourrait imaginer" (252).

In his conclusion, Engels (pp. 253-264) elegantly unites all the various strands of the preceding points into an argument in favour of looking towards – though not necessarily returning to – the heritage of the European Union and finding therein a more lasting basis for future cohesion. The Roman example thus transcends mere parallelism by being a potential paradigm for the future. If the lessons to be found in the Roman experience are not learned, however, Europe risks either implosion or a slide towards autocracy.

Unsurprisingly, it is Engels' adventurous epilogue (pp. 268-287) that has garnered the most attention in the press. In this he permits himself to speculate on the potential consequences of the current state of European decline, and the forecast for the future is decidedly grim: if Europe continues on its present course, the shadow of Augustan-style totalitarianism as a means of guaranteeing peace and social order looms just over the horizon. The new EU that would result would be a contemporary echo of the Augustan regime, and through this assertion Engels advances his broader model, in which an attempt to impose universalist democratic values on a society or federation will lead inexorably towards traditionalist authoritarianism. Pessimistically parallel, to be sure, but not altogether unbelievable. Nonetheless although early Augustan Rome and the EU are presented as both being in periods of profound crisis, one wonders to what extent the gravity of nearly a century of civil war, proscriptions, two triumvirates, and violence in every corner of the Mediterranean is really matched by the contemporary economic privations of the EU. While I would imagine that Engels' indulgence in speculation will draw criticism, the manner which he clearly separates this epilogue from the broader scope of his analysis and openly indicates when he is editorialising makes the addition of such speculation to me seem at once methodologically sound and insightful.

There is a pessimism that calls to mind tones of Sallust or Tacitus pervading Engels' work, and a deep conservatism at times comes to the fore that is further reminiscent of late Republic and early Imperial historiography. But such is precisely his intention and is integral to his approach; as he concludes his epilogue, "Mais il y a des époques dans l'histoire humaine où tout 'optimisme' n'est que lâcheté et aveuglement irresponsable, alors que le 'pessimisme' permet de faire face – honorablement – à l'inévitable." (287).

Nevertheless in this otherwise admirable book there are potential critiques that ought to be made. Perhaps the most obvious aspect with which a Classicist would find fault is the inevitable disconnect between ancient and modern evidentiary material. In discussing the contemporary state of affairs, Engels employs statistics from opinion polls furnished by EuroStat and Eurobaromètre, bolstered by material drawn from EU documents and policies and political studies. All is soundly quantitative and objective, and seemingly beyond reproach. Unsurprisingly the ancient evidence affords no such solidity: nearly all of his assertions regarding the problems besetting late Republican society are supported by quotations from ancient authors, ranging from Republican period historiographers to Imperial-era playwrights and beyond. The contrast between 'popular' quantitative evidentiary material for the modern case, and exclusively elite literary evidence for the ancient is often difficult to surmount. The reader at times wonders to what extent such elite ancient views can be held as exemplary of broader contemporary sentiment – especially given the chronological distance. Yet such is the nature of the beast, and the care and reservation with which Engels employs his ancient source material does much to neutralize the potential danger.

Second, the title of the work is rather misleading: the ancient chronological scope that Engels discusses spans (generally) from the Second Punic War into the Augustan period, and thus strictly speaking transcends what is canonically held to be the fall of the Roman Republic. Instead, the ancient analogy that is drawn herein is more to Rome's transition from Republic to Empire. A final – and an admittedly minor – point is that to the potential irritation of some researchers Engels' 609 continuously-numbered notes have been compiled into a single reference section, and the volume lacks a comprehensive bibliography.

These details aside, however, Engels has done a highly commendable job of simultaneously grasping the slippery strands of ancient and modern scholarship. His identification and analysis of the similarities between Rome's tumultuous transition from Republic to Empire and the crisis which threatens to tear the European Union apart at its foundation is in equal parts convincing and unsettling. Regardless of whether the reader agrees with his either sobering or pessimistic conclusions, Engels has handled his subject with a candour and honesty that can only serve to incite further debate, discussion, and reflection – just as was his intent. And given the recurring frequency with which the ancients have been painted in neoliberal colours particularly in the years following September 11th, it is intriguing in this instance to glimpse them from the other side of the aisle.


1.   Engels himself has compiled a list of all relevant press excerpts and interviews on his personal website

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