Julius Caesar in the 50s B.C.E. on the Euro-Crisis in 2011 C.E.

… fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt
… for the most part people cheerfully believe what they want to believe
Caesar de bello gallico 3.18.5

[NOTE: What follows is a strictly personal ‘thinking-out-loud-on-paper’ by someone (moi!) who was born in Africa as and has always been an American citizen (although, for geopolitical reasons utterly beyond my control, did not arrive on these shores until the age of nine and speaking not a word of English), who loves both Europe and America, who is not a historian, who is not an economist, who is not a mathematician, but who does know a thing or two about Latin (and ancient Greek) and Latin (and ancient Greek) literature, and who did grow up and lived in Europe during its darkest and most precarious days of WWII — and later.  I imagine not everyone will agree with all or perhaps anything below, and therefore I encourage any reader to leave comments – but please do make them rational and reasoned, polite and polished, and never ad hominem but only ad scriptum.]

Back on 1 January 1999 the euro (€) was adopted by eleven countries (Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal) as a common currency, and on 28 February 2002 the national currencies of the final twelve (that current sort-of enfant terrible Greece had joined in 2001) were discontinued as legal tender.  To me all of this seemed at the time entirely, irrevocably idiotic – not as a conceptual desideratum, perhaps, but certainly as something that could be pragmatically implemented.  It appeared to me to be a very dangerous form of magical thinking, and it was based on the assumption that each of the twelve would adjust their national economies and life styles in accordance with agreed-upon conditions (the so-called Maastrich Criteria) before gaining admittance to membership in this fellowship of felonious folly.

These criteria dealt with allowable rates of inflation — a member’s rate had to stay below the average inflation of the three countries with the best rates; with ratios of debt and deficits relative to GDP; with the need to adhere to these rates and ratios for at least two years without devaluing its national currency relative to that of any of the eleven others; with establishing reasonable exchange rates for the value of a euro relative to each country’s national currency; and with permissible interest rates.  (See, further, here, here, here and passim. –  e.g. here.)

As one might have expected, given the convoluted complexity1 of these arrangements


Note 1

Take one example: the problem of figuring out a ‘valid’ rate of exchange for the euro vis-à-vis twelve wildly different national currencies before 1999 when the euro did not even exist was originally mathematicized [NB I love mathematics and almost majored in it in college, but sometimes its deployment and application – but not mathematics itself — in modern life have a distinctly witchcraft-y air about them] as follows:
xe,j = cxp[ze,j +11Σ i=1 wi log xi,j]
– I assume that somebody somewhere remembered to change the summation index 11 above Σ to 12 once Greece joined the cabal.] One has to wonder how many European citizens in those twelve countries knew what this bewitching elegance meant, and would come to mean for their daily lives in the years to come – if they’d even been informed of this mathematical intellectualization (!) — indeed, how many of the politicians trying to peddle that magic knew what it meant (certainly not a one could have known what it would come to mean for their daily lives in the years to come)?


and the muddied monitoring of compliance, there was much to digest and much to discuss and flagrant cheating from the beginning, starting with exceptions that simply had to be made in order to qualify some applicants (who never truly did meet the criteria demanded).  As it turned out, then, all conditions that all had agreed to were not fulfilled by all nations.

I recall being utterly dumbfounded at these collective delusions:  the Portuguese economy is on a par with the French economy?  the Spanish work ethic is on a par with the Dutch work ethic?  the Greek tax collector is on a par with the German tax collector?  Maybe one of those infinitely clever mathematicians should figure a way to square the circle!

Thus, at the time, I wrote myself a longish essay explaining in some detail why this nonsense would never work.  I sent it to a few friends, but I regrettably lost it.  Well, I thought to myself a few years later when it appeared that this euro thing was working out just fabulously, just as well – save myself a reminder of embarrassment.  But I did send out a groveling recantation and admitted that my analysis of a few years earlier had been totally wrong, and I’m sorry, and please destroy my words if you still have them.

Then came 2008 and 2009 and 2010 and …, and that tight ball of flimsy fuzzy yarn known as the Euro-zone started to fray and unravel in alarming ways.  I was not pleased, to be sure, for who wants to see that what happened there should happen anywhere?  But I had been right.  And pretty much what I had said would happen was starting to happen and, as we have seen the last few years, is happening today with a scary kind of vengeance.

So I sent out a non-gloating recantation of my recantation!

But why did I write originally what I wrote —  in its nuclear essence, that this chimera, cobbled together though it has been by Europe’s putatively best and brightest, simply would never work!

Here is where Caesar, he of the epigraph, he of the 44 B.C.E. assassination, leaps into salient relevance.  For my take is that the designers of our monster never read Caesar’s de bello gallico (On the War in Gaul), the dictator’s own account of military operations of plunder and pacification all over what is now Europe – except for the Scandinavian peninsula (the Roman never really did make great inroads there).

Lets’ look once more at the epigraph, cited from Caesar’s de bello gallico 3.18.5:

fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt (“… for the most part people cheerfully believe what they want to believe”).  Could there be a more eloquently succinct penetration to the core of what precipitated the current macro-mess across the pond?

The horrific cruelty and criminal behaviors in modern warfare compare favorably as it were with Caesar’s siege of Alesia (contemporary Alise-Sainte-Reine) in 52 B.C.E. in the northeastern part of what is today modern France.  It has been estimated that on Caesar’s victory as many as 40,000 inhabitants of Alesia were taken prisoner and either distributed as booty to the Roman soldiers or sold off into slavery to enrich Caesar for electioneering (gives ghastly meaning to the term ‘campaign financing’).

Caesar may well have been a charmer in private, but in public his pragmatic cruelty allowed for little sentimentality.  Reading about his feral depredations and dealings with the scattered tribes up and down the European continent and the British Isles (later operations in what we know as the Iberian peninsula, the Middle East, Egypt and coastal north Africa west to the Pillars or Hercules are dealt with in the de bello civili [‘On the Civil War’] by Caesar and in other works by others), one is nonetheless struck by not only the vast scope and spatial extent of his military operations but also the organizational genius that must have lain behind their controlling implementation.  To his charismatic capacity for holding the allegiance of his soldiers one must surely add his masterful realization of the details of warfare in the field.

And Caesar’s confident deployment of men and matériel is mirrored in his complex yet economical and elegant use of the Latin language to lay out transparently all aspects (e.g., cultural, familial, geographic, historical, technical, topographic) of the adaptable tactics and over-arching strategy of his seven-year-long (58-51 B.C.E.) ravages in pre-European Europe.  Pre-European Caesar understood, without  wishful thinking and delusional what-ifs, the dynamics of pre-European populations in a way contemporary European leaders did not and do not understand contemporary Europe.  For Europe’s bloody history since Caesar’s day (and before) is in many ways still that of a series of warring tribes living in not entirely comfortable but enforced contiguity with each other.  To be sure, today, at the end of 2011, they may not be at each others’ throats militarily (yet!), but economically the rivalry is ferocious – and why should it not be?  Caesar had no puerile fantasies that distant Germanic peoples in the continent’s northeast or roaming Celtic tribes to the northwest or the Romans in the Italian peninsula itself were a homogeneous entity living their lives by similar rules and understandings of how the world worked and how to work it.  Yes, Caesar could try to impose some kind of coherent control by brutal coercion – but whether he did or not is problematic.  But I for one certainly do not believe there is any evidence that he deluded himself into thinking that these vastly different groups would lay aside their specific self-interests and unite honestly and honorably in an irenic idyll of mutual coöperation.

And that is where in my opinion the fatal flaw in the very concept of a European monetary union lay — at its planning stage, in its optimistic inception, and during its disastrous implementation.  The human reality of cheating for selfish ends, becoming economic ‘free riders’, and getting ‘mine/ours’ while that getting was still a viable possibility simply refused obdurately to conform to the high intellectualizing of theory among the academics in Maastricht and Brussels! Probably at least some of the originators of this foolish experiment had read at least parts of Caesar’s de bello gallico in their lycées and gymnasia but were with equal probability  more preoccupied syntactically with unraveling tricky gerundive constructions, thorny ablative absolutes and tense sequences of final-clause subjunctives than culturally with the instructive anthropological and historical substance of what they were so desperately trying to translate – orderly, marshaled, elegant though that Latin surely is. [Sidebar: for me Caesar’s de bello gallico is on many levels one of the truly great works of world literature!  You can order an English translation here – or the much jazzier version in the original Latin here, or even a bilingual copy here.]

Some Europeans and some European leaders have a love-hate relationship with the United States of America (which, though hopelessly clumsy and cloddish, is meant yet again [remember WWII?] to come to the rescue of the sophisticated Europeans: today’s [Thursday 1 December 2011] Wall Street Journal runs this account: “Wall Street Pushed Federal Reserve for Europe Action”.) – and I wish to emphasize ‘United’.  In the case of America that ‘United’ developed over almost two centuries (let us not forget that while the first thirteen states united in 1776, Hawaii and Alaska joined the forty-eight United States only in 1959), and that development was organic and a natural outgrowth.

What the intellectually superior and self-assured Maastricht mavens wanted, I believe (but readily confess that I do not know), was, yes, a United Europe, one on the analogy of the envied and in some quarters nonetheless despised United States, but they wanted this ‘union’ imposed not gradually through history (as I have just suggested, that had not worked for over two millennia) but artificially and coercively through fanciful fiats and illusory ‘agreements’ that today, sadly, still validate Caesar’s brilliant observation that … fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt  (“… for the most part people cheerfully believe what they want to believe”).

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One Response to Julius Caesar in the 50s B.C.E. on the Euro-Crisis in 2011 C.E.

  1. heather says:

    Absolutely agree!

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