Prospect Magazine: Roman Britain, Mary Beard, and the battle for control of the past

Published in Prospect Magazine website 11 August 2017.

As bizarre as our political discussion has become in recent times, it’s still unusual to see the history of Roman Britain on the frontline of debate. But last week, an ugly online row broke out after alt-right apparatchik Paul Joseph Watson seized upon a BBC Teach video that showed a dark-skinned man in Roman Britain, claiming it was an “historically inaccurate” attempt to force 21st century multiculturalism on Britain’s ancient past.

Acclaimed historian Mary Beard waded in, suggesting the representation of some ethnic diversity might be “pretty accurate,” and what followed was a dispiriting culture war as once-esteemed philosophers threw cheap insults at Cambridge classicists, all accompanied by a whirlpool of right-wing trolls swirling on the touch-lines. All roads were once again leading to Rome.

After the storm had calmed, I spoke to Beard to reflect on the events. Was she surprised at the backlash? “Personally yes,” she tells me. “I defended a BBC kids video from the attack of an alt-right commenter; then the heavens opened. In retrospect, I can begin to see a nerve was touched.

“I do come away, though, thinking: if an elderly lady academic gets this shit for saying that there were people of colour in Roman Britain, what on earth must be thrown at, for example, young black men every day? It is hard to avoid the conclusion of racism here!”

It is probably fair to say that the offended parties weren’t motivated by a new-found interest in policing ancient historical authenticity. It’s difficult to imagine Watson and his followers taking issue with the video had it incorrectly featured, say, anachronistic water irrigation systems, as opposed to a black man. (Of course, genetic research by the likes of Adam Rutherford suggests that people of African origin probably were present in Roman Britain—as if Beard’s claim were in any doubt). The spat is a classic expression of insecurity by people upset that the past doesn’t necessarily match their perceptions of it—albeit an extreme version, extending to two-millennia-old history. But what drives this insecurity? Why do corrections from historians provoke such anger? And is the problem getting worse?

I put the first question to Beard. “That is a huge issue and there is no single answer,” she says. “A lot of it [does] stem from insecurity, and a distrust of people like me telling them that the history of their country is not as they had always imagined it. Yet, it is also clear—if I have judged the Twitter participants correctly—that that insecurity is being fanned by people on the hard, alt-right.”

As Beard suggests, our attitudes to the past are shaped by a collective amnesia about Britain’s interaction with other cultures dating back many centuries. This view is reinforced by the culture we consume: a rare strand of criticism for Christopher Nolan’s dazzling epic Dunkirk this summer was the accusation that it ignored the contribution of Indian soldiers to the evacuation.

“Growing up we’re hugely influenced by the films we see, the television we watch, the books we read, the culture we grow up in—the way the past is personified or projected,” Greg Jenner, the TV historian behind CBBC’s hugely popular Horrible Histories series, told me. “Quite a lot of it actually comes to us through mediated images and that means we have a certain understanding of Britain’s history.”

Like the producers behind the BBC Teach video, in his next work, Jenner’s team is “now trying to a do a little bit more global stuff, we’re trying to put things in perspective.” He cites an episode on Magna Carta, in which “at the same time as King John was running around doing his Magna Carta stuff, we also did a sketch about Genghis Khan, and what was happening in Asia at the same time.”

He’s not alone. Beard, alongside David Olusoga and Simon Schama, is one of the presenters of BBC Two’s Civilizations, due to air next year, which hopes to “tell the story of art from the dawn of human history to the present day, for the first time on a global scale.”

Jenner says positive schemes like this are motivated by two things: the latest trends in scholarship, and an awareness of the global world we now live in. “As a historian, I’m pleased we can be doing more of a global history because the world that the kids are living in is globalised. Everyday they’re going to hear about global news, and if they haven’t got any comprehension of those nations and cultures then it’s all a bit bewildering.

“What we’re trying to do with Horrible Histories is just give them the tiniest little bit of understanding about the interaction between British history and global history. Because actually the history of Britain is the history of interactions, of trade, of immigrants and emigrants, of people coming and going, of ideas and, of course, of the British empire and its impact on the world.”

Global approaches aren’t just changing the way history is taught in videos aimed at seven-year-olds. They’re shaping university syllabuses, too: next year, I’ll be one of the first students to take Oxford’s new global history course which, building on campus campaigns such as “Why is my curriculum so white?,” attempts to place European history within a wider, global, framework.

The move is “generated by a deeper understanding that we live in a global world in terms of the movement of people, commodities and ideas,” explained Oxford University’s Professor of Modern European History, Robert Gildea. “Global history methods explore connections between the global and the regional, national or local. This is not the same as ‘world history.’ You could write a global history of Bristol, looking at the slave trade, or the East End of London, looking at migration, or of Oxford, exploring global networks of ideas.”

But again, Oxford’s move faced a fierce backlash, with parts of the media accusing the History Faculty of caving in to political correctness. “Angry responses,” Gildea suggested, “may have something to do with a mistaken view that global history aims to unseat the study of British history from its central position, or is a post-colonial bid to prioritise ‘non-white’ history.”

As the emotionally-charged Roman Britain dispute highlights, a significant challenge will come when these approaches are applied to the way we think about British history. “Actually, I don’t think the task is so hard as this Twitterstorm makes it appear,” Beard tells me. “One of the best days I had in the last few years was going to a country fete in rural Sussex with David Olusoga, when he was making his Black British TV programmes. We took a photo of the reconstruction of black Beachy Head Woman who had been excavated nearby, and we tried to get into a discussion about her at this all-white occasion. It was fun and very cheering—people were surprised, curious, retrospectively welcoming.”

The importance of providing a global view of history is more important than ever. Around the world, insecurities surrounding identity are encouraging fanatical leaders to rewrite history to fit their own political needs. From the distortions of Hungarian dictators to the imperial delusions driving Brexit, it seems who owns the past—and for what purpose—is more important than ever.

Yet the historians I speak to are adamant that these battles are nothing new. “It’s always been contested,” says Jenner, “I mean the past is political—as Orwell said, ‘who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past.’ It’s always been hugely a battleground between ideological opponents.”

These battles often centre around questions of national identity, Gildea argues. “National identity has been threatened by global forces in recent times and its perceived fragility has resulted in attempts to reinforce it. This can be seen in Britain and the USA, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Russia.”

An interest in global history can allow researchers and academics to counter some of the myths of our history which, as the Roman Britain backlash shows, persist. Through new ways of learning about history, we can begin to question some of the false political narratives we are being fed. As Beard says: “We should not live with a glaringly false view of the past, as snowy white. Relooking at the story of Roman Britain helps us re-examine the myths we have about ourselves.”