His­tory

Britain was run by the Ro­mans for four cen­turies be­fore go­ing it alone

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - David Hor­spool

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’

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