Britain was run by the Romans for four centuries before going it alone
Whenever thoughts turn to the historical context for the mess we’re in, the record is stuck on the remark by Dean Acheson, Harry S Truman’s Secretary of State: ‘Great Britain has lost an Empire but not yet found a role.’
We like the idea of ourselves as a sort of Jake Lamotta of international relations, living on old glories or cringing about them, and forever muttering ‘You never got me down, Ray,’ as some other power walks off with the big prize.
Our imperial past, we tell ourselves, is why we didn’t fit in with the EU, why we like cricket and the Commonwealth Games, and why we take so much more interest in American politics than French or German, let alone Italian.
It’s worth recalling that, on this island, we were part of someone else’s empire for longer than we were empire-builders ourselves. The Romans – for four centuries officially and a little longer informally – kept Britannia in their imperial trophy cabinet.
Because of the strange habit of teaching children about things that happened longer ago at a younger age, then inching ever closer to the present day with each passing school year, we tend to have a fairly rudimentary notion of Roman Britain.
We also fall into the trap of thinking that, because we learnt about them in primary school, the Romans in Britain were an unsophisticated bunch (though admittedly not as unsophisticated as the Britons). We know all about the glories of Rome itself. But surely Britannia was a miserable northerly outpost, the Roman equivalent of being sent to Siberia? The chief material legacy of Roman Britain was a wall. A long wall, admittedly, but it’s hardly the Pantheon, is it?
That wasn’t how the Romans saw it. The Senate offered thanksgiving for Caesar’s first expedition. Augustus opened up trade with the island but balked at the difficulty of invading; that nettle was grasped by Claudius, who successfully conquered Britain in AD 43.
We know the Romans thought this conquest was a big deal because the Senate decreed that two triumphal arches should be raised to celebrate it: the first in Boulogne, from which Claudius had embarked, and the second in Rome itself. Neither survives.
The Emperor also enjoyed a Triumph – with a lavish procession, and a display of spoils and captives – back in Rome. They didn’t celebrate another one for 26 years. Claudius even honoured the general who had made the preliminary inroads in Britannia with a ‘lesser Triumph’. To conquer Britain was to win a glittering prize. Holding on to that prize took up many of the resources of the Empire, and might ultimately have had something to do with its overstretch.
It could also upset the Romans’ centre of gravity in unexpected ways. Constantine the Great, the man who made the Empire Christian, may have been born in modern-day Serbia, and moved the imperial capital eastwards to the city that was named after him, Constantinople. But he was proclaimed Emperor in AD 306 at Eboracum – that is, York. That’s right: in addition to opening batsmen, fast bowlers and schools of hard knocks, Yorkshire can take credit for the large-scale establishment of Christendom. ‘And if you told that to young people today, they wouldn’t believe you.’
Not long ago, we could still get excited by the Romans in Britain. I don’t mean the Howard Brenton play of that name, which does actually sound as unpleasant today as it seemed to many on its premiere in 1980 (leaving aside the moral outrage).
No, I’m thinking of the moment in 1954 when the remains of a temple of Mithras were discovered on a bombsite in the City of London, and as many as 30,000 people a day queued to watch the excavations.
By contrast, rather little popular excitement seems to have greeted the discovery of potentially the largest Roman villa yet seen in Britain, in the grounds of Broughton Castle, in Oxfordshire, earlier this year. Other discoveries in the past two years include a 5lb bronze hand by Hadrian’s Wall and a remarkable ‘licking dog’ sculpture at Lydney, Gloucestershire.
Oddly, the whole site of the London Mithraeum was subsequently picked up and moved around the corner to allow building to continue. Perhaps predictably, the 1950s office block had a rather shorter shelf life than the Roman temple.
After the office block was demolished in the new millennium, the Mithraeum was returned last year to its proper place on the banks of the buried River Walbrook. And there it lies, under the gleaming Bloomberg building, with its beautifully preserved foundations of a slightly spooky ancient ritual site.
You can go and see it yourself if you make an appointment (it’s free). And while you’re there, you can reflect on the rise and fall of civilisations, and take consolation that, once before, Britons survived the break from a mighty empire.
‘It’s well-drawn but I don’t get the joke’