|Abusing the Aeneid led to this|
45 Years ago today, classical literature was put to its most shameful use in the history of British oratory, when Enoch Powell MP quoted lines from the Aeneid to incite racial hatred. At a Conservative Party meeting in Birmingham, he emotively described the alleged plight of the white working-class in the face of immigration, and said that it was bound to end in violence: ‘like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.’
|'So do you want a work permit or an Italian passport?'|
If Powell had written this in an essay for me, I would have failed it and pointed out that it was no ‘Roman’ who said this, but the Greek Delphic Apollo, via his priestess at the equally Greek colony of Cumae, near Naples. She told Aeneas (no Roman, either), who was applying for an Italian work permit, ‘I see wars, horrid wars, and the Tiber foaming with much blood’ (bella, horrida bella / et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno’ (6.86-7).
Powell’s speech roused the more ignorant amongst the white British working class to anger against the proposed 1968 Race Relations Bill, which at last made it illegal to refuse housing or work to anyone on the ground of their ethnicity. He was heard by racists as legitimising their abuse of citizens with Indian or African ancestry, especially the Sikhs whom Powell’s speech singled out for criticism. There was an instant rise in race-hate crimes. He helped the Conservatives win the 1970 election.
|'I think I will stare at my cornucopia rather than foam with blood today'|
Powell was himself from an upwardly mobile family of petit-bourgeois aspirations only two generations out of the Welsh coal fields. He never got over the fact that he was frightfully good at Latin and Ancient Greek. After grammar school in Birmingham and a glittering student career, he had been appointed Professor of Greek in Sydney at the age of only 25. But he did not exactly help Classical scholars look like desirable members of the community.
And he got the Aeneid so wrong. Of course Aeneas was going to have a few spats with the prejudiced and xenophobic indigenous Italians, but he brought Trojan style and enterprise, accepted that his people needed to learn the indigenous language if they were to stay, and helped found the alliance of peoples which constituted the Roman Republic. If the sophisticated Trojans hadn’t come to Italy, it would have remained the narrow-minded provincial backwater they discovered there. Instead, they (along with the locals and immigrants from Greece who had already got there) helped create the economic miracle that was ancient Rome.
Powell’s lauded high IQ did not help him understand economics any better than he understood Vergil. He was not bright enough to understand the benefits that immigration has always brought to Britain. In a series of important research projects conducted at UCL’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, it has been proved that an immigrant is 60 per cent less likely to claim benefits than a British national, and 58 per cent less likely to live in social housing. Immigrants are mostly young, strong, healthy, enterprising, and at work. They have children in British hospitals and the children go to school. But immigrants work and demonstrably pay in more to the economy than they take out.
|'WHY CAN'T I BE VICEROY?!!!'|
Powell himself made the British Tiber foam with some blood. His influence can be still be felt every time a black person is mugged. The image of Classics is still suffering from the ill-treatment of one of the world’s greatest poets by this deluded scholar-demagogue. He had never recovered his sanity after Indian Independence in 1947 forced him to realise that he couldn’t achieve his lunatic dream of becoming Viceroy of India. I still don’t know why anyone could ever have taken him seriously. But I am planning a trip to Birmingham today and a table near the hotel where Powell spoke, in an excellent restaurant specialising in Punjabi cuisine. I foresee a Tiber foaming with much lager.