Many years ago, when I spent five years having Latin, the language of ancient Rome beaten into me by a combination of Christian Brothers and Oblate Fathers, one of the sentences that stuck in my mind was from the works of Julius Caesar, the emperor of Rome between 49 and 44BC, and it went: Omnes Gall in tres partes divida est.
Now, if you’ve had Latin beaten into you too, you’ll know that translates as: “All of Gaul — (modern-day France) — is divided into three parts.” It’s taken from his Gallic Wars, and describes Caesar’s battles against the barbaric tribes there.
But that was more than two millennia ago. And the reality too that today, modern-day France is indeed divided between three tribes — Socials on the left, the centrist tide won by President Emmanuel Macron, and those on the right, who used to be associated with the policies of Marine Le Pen and the National Front, but are now marketing their far-right politics under the badge of National Rally.
That’s the funny thing about the Roman Empire. If you were to look at a map of modern-day Europe, stick a pin in Istanbul — it was Constantinople, the Byzantine centre for Rome then — draw a line up to the border of England and Scotland and then turn a sharp right at Gibraltar and include all of North Africa, that’s pretty much the territory today that concerns Matteo Salvini, the Deputy Prime Minister of Italy.
Salvini has taken his small nationalist party, the National League, rebranded it as the League, and convinced enough Italians 15 months ago that it deserved to impose its anti-immigrant, anti-EU policy on that almost-broke nation. That victory has since given Salvini enough clout to lead him to launch a right-wing alliance taking in all those European states who take umbrage with the very notion that people should take care of each other, particularly those less fortunate — even if they’re Muslim, a different creed or a different colour.
More than 400 million Europeans are entitled to cast ballots for a new parliament in Strasbourg this week. For the first time in four decades, in large part thanks to Salvini’s doing, Social and Christian Democrats across Europe will fail to have a majority stranglehold on that parliament. Salvini will be the ideological leader of a broad coalition of right-wing parties in that new parliament.
There will be Francoists from Spain who want laws on domestic violence against women relaxed, French fascists who want mosques shut down, Italians who think that those who rescue refugees from the Mediterranean should be slapped in jail, and Slovenes who believe fleeing refugees should be starved and held in barbaric conditions before being returned to wherever they came from.
Julius Caesar, who wrote in great detail in Latin of his efforts to unite Europe under the banners of the legions of Rome, would no doubt be suitably impressed.
So, who is this new imperator of the right?
Well, if the truth be told, he was a secessionist who believed northern Italy should break off and become an independent state called Padania.
He once held his fellow countrymen in such contempt that he even supported Germany over Italy in the 2006 World Cup.
“Italy ... is the worst of the worst,” he said at the time. “My support goes to anyone who is more serious.”
Today, the 46-year-old has adopted “Italians first” as a political ideology and is in many ways the European leader who most resembles Donald Trump, from his embrace of impulsive and often racist rhetoric, to his rejection of democratic norms. He has served as Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister and has upended long-standing policies on migration and asylum.
Domestically, Salvini’s responsibilities are technically limited to oversight of immigration, elections and domestic security. But the head of the League has deftly used his political skills, including stoking fear of immigrants, to overshadow the country’s weak new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, and outshine his coalition partner Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement.
Salvini’s political story began in the 1990s on the far left, when anti-globalisation protests formed the basis of his populism and he headed a small communist faction within the Northern League. The party was neither left or right but instead unified by its militant belief in secession and often infused its campaigns with blind hatred for southern Italians. Salvini was once recorded chanting a derogatory song mocking Neapolitans, saying they “smell so bad, even the dogs run away”.
He had been born into a middle-class family in Milan and did not — according to his biographer Alessandro Franzi — have an especially promising future in a party commanded by strong leaders.
But Salvini’s first major break came as a talk radio host at Radio Padania. He developed a quick-fire style he still uses today, in contrast to the stereotypically measured, cautious, and long-winded Italian political establishment.
That establishment and his control of it come this week, may very well shape the rise of Salvini’s Roman Empire for a long time.
—With inputs from agencies