Saturday, 28 September 2013

Under Another Sky

Now, I will get around to dealing with the third part of De Re Militari, but before I do, I really want to review this book. The book in question is ‘Under Another Sky’, by Charlotte Higgins (Jonathan Cape, 2013).

The book is subtitled Journeys in Roman Britain, and is a series of accounts of travels into various parts of Britain (including Scotland), looking at Roman remains (or at least, the remains of Roman Britain) and giving something of an account of the meaning of such items, how they were discovered and how interpreted.

The author of the book is a journalist at The Guardian newspaper and a classicist with a useful grasp of Latin and Greek and knowledge of Roman poetry and mythology which comes in handy in interpreting inscriptions from monuments and mosaics.

As a wargamer, of course, her book is somewhat peripheral to my main interests, but it does serve as a useful reminder that much of Roman Britain was peaceful under the Empire, and culture did exist, commerce even, perhaps, flourished, and, possibly, no one, in general, was unhappy enough to rebel or invade terribly often.

The most interesting aspect of the book is that it is about how Roman Britain came to be uncovered, interpreted and assumed into our picture of the way the world is. I’m sure I have mentioned before this aspect of history, in general. The popular view of history is that it relates to fact, to dates, and battles, and kings and so on. However, as Miles Russell points out in his book mentioned last week, even a skeleton of undisputable facts can have more than one interpretation attached to it.

Higgins is not, as mentioned, an archaeologist, but she has an eye for detail, even though it sometimes lapses into slightly purple prose. Even well known Roman sites are sometimes overgrown, she comments, and some, like Hadrian’s Wall are possibly overblown, although the local economy is coming to rely on the tourism it generates.

Mostly, Higgins tells us the stories of artefacts and how they are interpreted. In this, she largely, I think, would agree with Russell. The archaeology is fragmented, and does not tell us a single, or at least, straightforward, story. The interpretation of them is similarly fraught. For example, she discusses the pictures commissioned for the Palace of Westminster. A number of scenes from Roman Britain were proposed, but none included. British history starts, there at least, with the conversion of Saxon kings to Christianity. As Higgins remarks: ‘Perhaps the problem is, and has been since antiquity, that Roman Britain is too jagged and unsettling and ambiguous to be pulled into line. It will never settle into telling us one thing: it will just as soon tell us the opposite’ (p 228-9).

How, then, can Roman Britain be interpreted. Of course, the Victorians and those earlier had views. For example, Higgins describes how, for example, William Camden, writing in the 1580’s, saw savage Britain being civilised by the Romans. Such a view continued throughout the eras of the British Empires, and became, perhaps, a reflection of how the intellectuals of that Empire, educated, of course in the classics of Greece and Rome, saw their own mission.

Of course, it was possible to peer down the other end of the telescope. The existence of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall could be used for Scottish purposes: clearly, the ancestors of the current residents had never been conquered. Of course, the current state of Roman Britain led to warnings of the potential end of the British Empire.

The Victorians, or some of them, also used Roman Britain as a terrible warning for their own age. They could take, say, Tacitus’ warning about the growing decadence of Rome during the early second century and apply it to themselves. The Roman Empire fell because of this growing softness. This could be applied to Britain, the civilising world power of its time. Rome, in the end, failed, and failed after becoming a publicly Christian state. This is, of course, something that troubled St Augustine, as well.

As Higgins notes (p. 175) the pendulum has swung. Post-colonialism now means that the Romans (and, for that matter, the Victorians) are now viewed as the villains of the piece. This, of course, politicises Roman Britain for our present day. We tend to over-empathise with the conquerors, because they wrote the history. Roman-ness was only wafer thin, and so we return to Russell and Laycock’s ‘Un-Roman Britain’.

These views work themselves out into our culture. Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ is perhaps one of the most popular stories of Roman Britain. It has been filmed, recently, and as such has consciously, perhaps, been displayed as a modern problem. A tenuous military hold is maintained over a restive native population. The landscape is unknown, treacherous, dangerous. Disaster is just around the corner, or over the hill.

There is, thus, a conflict at the heart of our interpretations of Roman Britain, between the civilising Romans who bought all sorts of benefits to the place, and the savage Romans, who bought death, destruction and slavery to the freedom loving Britons.

Our own interpretation of Roman Britain is liable, I think, to be influenced by whichever of these views we happen to subscribe to. And so, the way we wargame is going to be influenced by it as well. How do we view the invasions of Britain? An invitation from a client king in trouble? A piece of theatre designed for the home audience? Are the Roman armies the cutting edge of a civilizing force or a crushing lapse into even greater barbarism?

You may well think that these issues are nothing to do with wargaming, but I think I would claim that they do have at least some contact. To start with, whether we like it or not, such resonances rebound through history. The classical world has been rediscovered several times during our history and used to redescribe the world in those terms. As noted, even the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been portrayed in terms of Roman Britain.

Secondly, of course, we have only the same sources as the Victorians to play with. Tacitus is Tacitus, the same as he was for them. We have other interpretations, but of course most of us do not read Latin so miss the nuances. Varying interpretations and applications of the lessons of history are, themselves, lessons from history. Wargaming itself is built on such shifting sands. 


  1. Another interesting post 'march. I've often wondered about the reliability of eye witness testimony, not least because it often varies so wildly between witnesses. I recall reading a piece in a newspaper about an incident that had occurred near where I had been several days previously - it was only after comparing dates and times that I was able to work out that the journalist in question had attended the scene of the incident that I had been at. But the narrative he presented was unrecognisable to me. I don't think he was trying to be misleading - but I was very surprised at how much his account of what occurred differed from my experience.

    I suppose with regard to Roman Britain, I trust the earlier narratives, not because they are any less prejudiced or partial than our own, but because they wear their partialities openly. I'd rather an openly partisan account, than one that is partial, but claiming not to be.

    1. Aye, there is a classic exercise to do with collecting all the newspapers for a given day, finding the same stories and then getting people to discuss them having only read one. The range of story is vast. And journalism is supposed to be the first draft of history...

      I fear that part of the point is that all accounts are partial, just more or less conscious of that partiality. Tacitus, for example, was clearly a man on a mission to save Rome from itself. While he cannot strictly be accused of making stuff up, his relationship to the things he reports can be rather dubious. somewhere in the archive is a bit about a battle he reports between (I think) Armenia and the Sarmatians in the 30's AD. He cannot have had clear information about it, writing in Rome 70 years later.

      And yet the battle is reported in some detail (and some wargame rules base their classifications on it, apparently).

  2. Not much on the middle ground are you? I tend to live in the grey between extreme views, Rome may well have been all these things at different times during a relationship that lasted over 400 years (assuming it started before the invasions and lasted beyond the withdrawal of troops but that at some point it becomes a different relationship).

    I find that our sense of time tends to get distorted when we look back. Roman Britain is one chapter in a survey of British history so the centuries collapse into a brief summary and a single event for those not making in an area of particular study. Might as well ask what the relationship was between Britain and the US between 1600 and now or for that matter Britain and India and which was colonizing which in the end?

    As an aside, we have the same written sources as Victorians and Georgians but there has been considerable archaeology over the last century and while there is lots of room for theory and conjecture, we do learn from it,

    1. Of course, the grey area is likely to be the case, but the point is that we cannot tell. The archaeology has improved massively over the last 100 years or so, but part of the problem is that it does not really agree with the histories, nor tell a story of its own.

      So we are left with a fragmentary, biased set of data points which are open to all sorts of interpretation. This then leads to a suspicion of any meta-narrative interpretation of data, which is one aspect of postmodernism.

      So we really cannot say that the middle ground is correct either. And yet we need some sort of connected story to actually write a set of wargame rules. A series of disconnected points is not going to cut it.

      As for the relation of America and Britain, or Britain and India, well, I really must get my post-colonial rhetoric up to speed on that.

      Who colonizes who? Well, that is arguable, of course, but usually, I suppose, the answer is the one with the firepower.

  3. Absolutely, and grey comes in many different shades. I think the lesson is not to be dogmatic that any one version is positively right because there will always be some new piece of information just around the corner. We're never going to have the full picture and we might as well get used to it. What we have is 'best guess'.

    Didn't someone say that recreating Roman Britain from Tacitus was like trying to recreate the Falklands War just from back issues of The Sun?

    Fun to interpret though, ain't it?

    1. Or, indeed Ed Milliband's family history from the Daily Mail...

      i think the point I'm trying to make is that we do have a nice narrative of, for example, the Roman invasion which most wargamers accept (how many articles on the Battle of the Medway have you read?).

      The story is underdetermined by the evidence however; there are many more stories which could be told commensurate with that evidence. And these are possibly more interesting than the standard narrative, as with a small Roman support corps for a British army advancing on the Thames, for example.

      At least it might get us out of the comparatively stale 'historical' battles, or the verging on fantasy made up ones.

    2. Indeed, if people in such a well-documented age as our own are capable of making such leaps of imagination, what hope do we have with a far-flung corner of an ancient empire when contemporaneous records are scant to non-existant?

      [Note to Mr Dacre: it's not wise to encourage people to consider public figures' antecedents. Especially when it involves looking back to the 1930s and 40s.]

    3. I think we have to accept that most ancient wargaming falls very close to 'fantasy' in its broadest sense.

      What is a bit more tricky is that more modern wargaming seems to as well, and we are less keen on accepting that...

  4. Not really connected, but I'd be interested in your view:
    I've been reading Tom Holland's Persian Fire - this early period isn't one I'm hugely familiar with - but I came up against the phrase 'Cyrus established 12 new cities on the banks of the Jaxartes'.

    Whoa, thought I. How, practically, do you go about that? It struck me that I've seen the same phrase used in Herodotus and Arrian but, of course, there's no explanation of how it's actually done.

    Does the king in question just transplant a population from somewhere else, or does he lay out a plan on the ground and invite all comers to build on it? Or perhaps just appoint a governor and leave it to him?
    What do you think?

    1. Interesting question.

      My guess is that you mark out a boundary and give tax breaks (exemption for sales tax for a fixed term, for example) for people who resettle there.

      I have some doubts about how effective mass relocation was for ancient societies; the exile of the Jews from Jerusalem was clearly not effective in removing everyone, for example.

      The Greeks spent quite a whole colonizing the Mediterranean as well. So far as I recall, they called for volunteers and appointed a governor. there were incentives in terms of tax breaks, citizenship and land as well, I think.

      The Romans used demobbed soldiers to found cities, often on land confiscated for one reason or another (or just because they wanted it).

      So various ways to create a city, or at least a hamlet of a few hovels...

    2. Well, yes, I assumed there is a fairly loose definition of 'city'. I reckon some of them must have been pretty scanty examples.

      Also wonder how long some of them lasted after the tax incentives were removed - I had a vision of itinerant city dwellers who moved around setting up shop wherever was most financially suitable and moving on as soon as the tax demands are issued, like small companies do on modern industrial estates.
      Intriguing idea, eh?

    3. I think some of Alexander's settlements "out East" failed rather rapidly; settling Macedonians in the middle of the steppes didn't really work some of the time, at least.

      And I suspect that some people, at least, were much more itinerant than we are; after all, possessions that you can load on a donkey and no education for the kids means you can move around a lot more, if only to escape the tax man / soldiers coming visiting.

      I imagine that land was the most important factor. As my trusty classical dictionary points out, colonization is a modern, politically loaded term anyway. Expanding populations may well have simply been appropriating otherwise unused land, at least in early phases.

      The Romans, inevitably, were a lot more aggressive about the whole thing, and much more likely to provoke rebellions, such as Boudicca's.

    4. Also wondered if the proclamation, in some cases, might have read: "This village, formerly known as X, is now the city of Xopolis and you are all part of the Persian (or whatever) empire." City founding on the cheap.

      I am fascinated by the idea of a relatively mobile urban population.

    5. I suspect that there were a fair number of merchants and craftsmen who were fairly mobile; there are Gallic potters in England from an early date, for example. However, I wouldn't run away with the idea that these folk were particularly numerous, just that they could and did take advantage of new foundations and so on.

      I think I'd agree that often new cities were founded on old; in some cases it was explicit (such as Corinth), and other just plonking down citizens on pre-existing inhabitants (Colchester?).

      A major inducement to moving to a new city could be the offer of citizenship, of course. The legal privileges were well worth it.