“We were your Romans, you know. We might have been your Normans”
This is from Tom Stoppard’s Play, Indian Ink, a comment from a former memsahib to an Indian. It is an intriguing idea, not least because I wonder how many people would know what she was talking about.
Britain has been invaded twice: by the Romans In the 1st century BC or AD depending on how you define an invasion, and by the Normans who took over in 1066. Yet our views of the two are completely different, ie Romans good, Normans bad. Yet surely invasions are all bad.
Most people think of the Romans as having brought civilisation to these islands, but for that we have to define what civilisation is, and if it was so great, why did so many people oppose it? Sure, they built roads and aqueducts and peace, but that assumes people wanted to travel long distances, and that the place was in a state of perpetual war which it seems was far from the case.
The Roman army had a huge negative impact here. Just feeding thousands of hard marching and fighting centurions put a huge strain on existing food production. And their settlements took up good farmland, and when the soldiers had served their 25 years, they were often given land to retire on, so more of the country was taken from locals. One of the reasons for the revolt by Queen Boudicca was that the Britihs had become second class citizens in their own country. The Romans also established civic law involving magistrates touring their region to administer justice, which continued into the modern age.
The Normans did a similar job of dispossessing locals, forcing them to pay for the priviledge, and of course they killed an English king. They introduced a lot of French terms into our language, such as those referring to interiors, prisons, and food. They built castles and cathedrals, and they were here for about 500 years, the same as the Romans.
So, why do we still see such a difference between them?
One reason is that the British Empire saw Rome as a model for its own wars and empire building. So did/does the United States for that matter – the White House is a Roman building.
But I think more important was the role that acquiring a classical education, including the Grand Tour to Rome, played in the English enlightenment. In the wake of the Reformation, much learning was lost, so Rome became a major source of information on science, architecture and society. The Protestant countries had a real problem building churches, as they rejected the excesses of the Catholic Baroque, so turned to Rome’s pagan architecture. So it seems that history trumped propaganda.
But there were also similarities between the social life of the Romans and that of the Georgians. They were noisy, larger than life, fond of drinking to excess and misbehaving, which is what the British young aristocrats often did when they went to Rome instead of or as well as soaking up a good education.
And there was the issue of slavery – Romans and the Georgians, in particular the American colonials, found it possible to justify slavery by referring to the Roman model, though of course the practice of slavery in the two ages was massively different. But it did inspire many great men to free their slaves when they died.