Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 18 October 2008

Upward mobility

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I owe English Heritage an apology. In last week’s column I was scornful of the content of the short historical documentary they show every half hour on a screen suspended above the ruins of Lullingstone Roman Villa. Specifically, I took issue with the idea expressed in the film’s narrative that Romans — or Romanised Britons — were social climbers obsessed with material gain, upward mobility and dinner parties. My objection was based not on historical knowledge to the contrary, but on a suspicion, sometimes amounting to wild paranoia, that our communist rulers are pointedly insinuating their miserable secular morality, their vulgar materialism and their anti-English sentiment even into the public pronouncements of cultural organisations such as dear old English Heritage.

But according to the Oxford History of Roman Britain by Peter Salway, which I turned to after my visit to Lullingstone, the narration was in fact spot-on. There were dinner parties. After the Roman conquest, the more impressionable sections of the ruling British élites forsook their cauldrons and mud huts in favour of the town house and the cruet set with indecent haste. In the soft south, former tribesmen were nid-nodding over glasses of imported wine while their friends in the north were still battling tooth and nail with the Roman legions for the right to remain backward. Britain’s first yuppies weren’t city traders under Thatcher, but members of the opportunistic Trinovante tribe (from Essex) under Claudius. And upward mobility was not merely the preoccupation of the vulgar few, says Mr Salway; in the Roman Empire it was an ideal pursued by all classes, from slave to senator.

Mr Salway writes carefully and lucidly, appears to know all that a healthy human being would want to know about the subject, reliably errs on the side of caution where the evidence is less than overwhelming, and he keeps his political opinions to himself. If he describes life for sections of the newly conquered British élite as a continual round of dinner parties and saunas, I for one am willing to believe him. And if fine dining in first-century Britain (or any other century) sounds a bit far-fetched, Mr Salway quotes the patrician Roman historian Tacitus describing the creeping Romanisation of the British under Agricola, his father-in-law (Tacitus’ father in law, not Peter Salway’s). Agricola was appointed governor in AD 78, just 35 years after the invasion:

To English Heritage, if anyone noticed: I apologise. And while I’m on the subject of Roman Britain, here’s another surprising detail of that extraordinary period I came across in Mr Salway’s book. We all know that these smart dinner parties were rudely interrupted in AD 61 in the south east of England by the dramatic revolt of the Iceni tribe led by Queen Boadicea. And we all know that the root cause of this revolt was the insolent behaviour of the colonising Roman veterans, their looting of the royal household, and their flogging of Boadicea and rape of her two daughters. For anyone with a thing about strong women, the stone depiction beside Westminster Bridge of an imperious, insulted queen astride her chariot at the head of the avenging horde is surely the most erotic statue in London.

But the well-informed Mr Salway draws our attention to a lesser-known account of the revolt written by the Greek historian Dio Cassius, which asserts, astonishingly, that the main cause of the Iceni disaffection was a credit crunch. I kid you not. According to Dio’s account, the Iceni were angered above all by the Roman procurator peremptorily demanding the repayment of loans issued by the emperor Claudius. And, at the same time, the philosopher Seneca also recalled at short notice, and in an ungentlemanly manner, ‘huge loans that had been previously forced on to the unwilling Britons’. If anyone thought that persuading the impoverished in the United States to borrow large sums was cynical, what does that make the celebrated Stoic philosopher’s practice of forcing huge loans on recently subdued Iron Age tribesmen living in mud huts on the north Norfolk coast?

In the subsequent fiscal adjustments, Tacitus estimates that 70,000 Roman citizens and ‘friends of Rome’ were slain in the holocausts at Colchester, St Albans and London. The Iceni and their Trinovante allies ‘took no prisoners’, he says, and ‘wasted no time in getting down to the bloody business of hanging, burning and crucifying. It was as if they feared that retribution might catch up with them while their vengeance was only half complete.’

Those were the days.