I’ve recently been reading my good friend Dr Lee Rotherham’s latest book, The Discerning Barbarian’s Guidebook to Roman Britain. It’s well worth picking up – better known to readers of this site as an expert in the modern day “non-imperial empire“, the EU, Lee’s academic background lies in history and archaeology. The book itself combines the wit he brings to political subjects with a hard foundation of ancient history, and is both a useful handbook and a great introduction for anyone interested in learning more about the 465 years from the first of Caesar’s legionaries stepping ashore in a temporary invasion force in 55 BC to the final abandonment of Britain in 410 AD.
It also got me thinking about the complexity of our relationship with our Roman past. Tribes, monarchs, poets, civil wars and even a handful of invasions have all poured into Britishness in the last millennium and a half, but the echoes of Rome are still with us.
Consider the major political stories of recent months. Andrew Mitchell was accused of calling police officers “plebs” – a put-down drawn directly from the Roman social system. Russophiles dismiss the Ukrainian revolutionaries as “fascists” – a movement named after the fasces, a bundle of wooden sticks (plus an axe) carried by those accompanying senior Roman officials on business. A senator of 50 BC. studying Labour’s claims to represent “One Nation” against an Old Etonian clique, would easily recognise the attacks by Caesar’s party, the populares, against Brutus’, the aristocratic optimates.
Even the setting for our affairs of state are influenced by Roman history and culture. Our landscape is full of neo-classical architecture, a form we tend to interpret as a sign of authority, institutions and, of course, wealth – from the Bank of England to the white hall after which Whitehall gets its name. Across the road from Big Ben stands a statue of Boadicea, driving her chariot to the end of Westminster Bridge.
That statue hints at the British confusion about Rome. The queen of the Iceni led a rebellion against the Empire and burned Londinium to the ground – in her bronze form we celebrate her as a symbol of defiance and independence. It’s a fine sculpture, erected in the earlier years of the 20th Century. And yet at the same time those late Victorians and early Edwardians chose to celebrate a rebel, they simultaneously modelled themselves on the empire which she rebelled against.
While Britain had colonies of various sorts from the 16th century onwards, it was the Victorians who fully embraced formal associations with Imperial Rome. In 1876, Queen Victoria adopted the title ‘Empress of India’, notably around the same time that the press began to compare the long-lasting peace which had begun in 1815 to the Pax Romana – the “Roman peace”, two centuries of relative prosperity and stability begun by Augustus, the first emperor. It was a statement of intent, declaring that this was a long-lasting enterprise that would change the course of human history for the better.
Four years later, in 1880, The Times upgraded the phrase to Pax Britannica – the “British peace”. It did not, of course, last for two centuries, but for 34 years, when it was shattered by the First World War.
The rise of classical education informed the Victorians’ public policy, too. During the early years of Victoria’s reign, East India Company officials in India built a bizarre, now largely forgotten, structure.
In order to raise funds, they had hiked taxes on salt (a hugely unpopular policy which would later become a central focus of Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement). In order to enforce the tax, they constructed something called the Indian Salt Hedge – a 2,500 mile long complex of ditches, thorn bushes and customs posts running north to south across the subcontinent. It was typically Victorian in its scale and ambition.
In designing such a huge barrier, the officials looked to their school days and drew inspiration from the Roman Empire. The military planning of the hedge was almost identical to the system used to patrol Hadrian’s Wall – and the idea of using thorn bushes as a defensive measure may well have come from Julius Caesar’s accounts of his war with the Gauls. The Pax Britannica wasn’t just an idea – it was being enforced and upheld using Roman tactics.
We’ve become more troubled in our view of empire since, of course. Modern Britain is as uncomfortable with the idea of imperialism as it is with the disdain both the Romans and Victorians held for “barbarians”. That our celtic and anglo-saxon ancestors were barbarians in Rome’s eyes never seemed to bother the Victorians that much – today, we are happily less certain.
The degree to which we are different from the Romans is almost as startling as the degree to which their culture still runs through our daily lives.
On one level, any of us meeting a Roman today would be horrified by them. They had a very matter of fact view of death, at odds with our own empathetic approach, and were entirely relaxed about the concept of slavery, conquest and autocracy. While dictatorship still exists in the world, there are few who view it as a defensible form of government – still less as the ideal model. While we fret about the possible psychological harm of insensitive TV talent shows, Roman politicians won public favour by funding large-scale, public slaughter of human beings – the gladiatorial shows and circuses we all learn about at school.
On the other hand, we might find them surprisingly relaxed about sex, for example. For all the rhetoric of the first Emperor, Augustus, who campaigned, John Major-like, for a “golden age”, their graffiti and even their respectable histories are far from prudish. Indeed, we still sometimes find it a bit much – the Archaeological Museum in Naples has a separate room of erotica and pornopgraphic artefacts from Pompeii, with a warning that children ought not to enter. Their original, Roman owners seem to have been rather less embarrassed about displaying them than we are today.
As alien as that world seems, I bet anyone reading this article could find a sign of Roman culture in their daily life, in their own house, or perhaps even about their person. Britannia, who featured on our coins until 2008, was first used to decorate coinage by the Emperor Hadrian in the 1st century AD. The gyms we go to have a lot in common with the public baths of two millennia ago, where people exercised and then relaxed in plunge pools and steam rooms.
The same goes for the common themes in the news. ‘Dictatorship’ was a Roman constitutional invention. They, too, wrestled with the challenges of integration and globalisation – merging local cultures with their own where possible, and reacting violently to religions which fundamentally clashed with their concept of statehood, like Christianity. They even faced their own terrorist threats, such as the sicarii, Jewish extremists who sought to assassinate prominent Romans in public.
The ancient world may seem very distant, but our ancestors are with us in more ways than we realise – jangling in our pockets, mimicked in the architecture of our great buildings, jostling in the headlines of our newspapers, echoing in our political debates. The modern world isn’t quite as modern as we might imagine.