Sunday, 12 March 2017

Roman Britain? Why, for pity's sake?

There’s something strange about the notion of ‘Roman Britain’. So strange as to seem nearly incomprehensible. And never more so than when I travelled home to England from Rome on Friday.

That morning I had a couple of hours free before I set off for the airport. I decided to pack my coat in my suitcase and head out to find ‘I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza’, the pastry shop my wife discovered and was seduced by when she was out there with me in February.

This meant I was out of doors in a shirt and light pullover. Pretty soon, I was regretting that I hadn’t packed away the pullover too. It was early March but I was wandering the streets in shirtsleeves with a pullover draped comfortably if not particularly stylishly over my shoulders.

At the time of Roman Britain, Rome was certainly the most prosperous city in Europe, in the running for most prosperous in the world. And the weather was doubtless as glorious as it is now. Why would anyone want to go and stand guard on the Empire’s borders in fog-bound, rain-swept Britain?

These were thoughts that invaded me once the glow of homecoming with pastries from ‘Granny Vincenza’ had faded to be replaced by the duty – a pleasurable duty but a duty nonetheless – of walking the dogs. They enjoy their walks and I’m sure they cope with the rain. They even look quite amusing when they get soaked, whereas I suspect I just look bedraggled and a bit sad. Wouldn’t it be fun if we had some of the weather here that I was enjoying in Rome?

A certain charm when wet
I couldn’t help wondering why on earth anyone left Rome to go and stand guard in the fog and rain of Hadrian’s Wall, the Trump-like structure the Empire built against the weird and dangerous barbarians who inhabited Scotland then as now.

The truth, of course, is that few of them did. I imagine the officers would mostly have been younger sons of middle-ranking families, perhaps men looking to make a name for themselves in the legions in the hope of building a career later somewhere more promising and more comfortable. Even they, though, would I suspect have drawn a short straw.

Among the rank and file and the non-commissioned officers, there might have been a few Romans. But the majority were Germans. Tribesmen desperate in the ghastly, and even wetter plains and forests of northern Germany, who had worked out there were only two ways of enriching themselves: raid the prosperous empire west of them, or go over to it in the hope of sharing some of its wealth. The ones on the wall had made the wise choice of joining an army they couldn’t beat.

The orders on the Wall were probably given in Latin. I expect they were executed in German. I’m reminded of a young black colleague in South Africa, who explained to me that as well as English, he also worked in Zulu and Xhosa, but “naturally, I know how to take instruction in Afrikaans”. It was probably like that on the wall.

Hadrian's Wall: Trump-like structure
A failed last line of defence against the scary Scots
After the Romans left Britain, the Romanised Celts who took over clearly felt they could play the same game. They brought in more Germans, mercenaries, to help them fight the wars that broke out between their little kingdoms. But unfortunately, though they saw themselves as inheritors of the grandeur of Rome (one of them was probably the prototype of ‘King Arthur’), they didn’t have the clout of Rome. At its height, Rome probably only had between 15,000 and 20,000 legionaries in Britain, but they were redoubtable troops and the real fear for, say, rebellious German auxiliaries – maybe 40,000 strong – was that the legions could quickly be reinforced from the Continent by men who would exact a terrible vengeance.

The British kings didn’t have that deterrent force. When their mercenaries decided they didn’t want to go home, but preferred to stay, grabbing themselves some of the best land without so much as a thank you, and more likely with a blow, there wasn’t much the little kings could do about it.

And before very long the Celtic tribesmen, Romanised or not, found themselves either (a) dead, (b) pushed into Wales or (c) assimilated into the new Anglo-Saxon dispensation that had taken over the land. A large portion of Southern Britain had become England.

It occurs to me that this may be the root of the xenophobia so many Englishmen continue to suffer from and which fuelled the Brexit vote. Deep in our atavistic souls we feel that we are immigrants ourselves, outsiders who overstayed our welcome and took over. Some at least fear that the same thing might happen again, as we bring in Poles and Bulgarians to run our health service, our hotels and our trains, and worry that they won’t go home. After all, there’s a terrible risk that Johnny Foreigner may prove much better at those jobs than a lot of our own people.

We know what happened when we pulled off that trick against the original Brits.

Strange, though, isn’t it? After all, if I could choose between a balmy March morning in Rome and a wind- and rain-swept one in England, I know which would seem preferable. 

Believe me, I’ve had recent experience of both.

No comments: