Over the last few weeks I’ve read two books, and watched one movie, that deal with early British history, as well as another book that, though centred on the Roman Empire, but with no connection to Britain, touches on many of the same themes.
The books, The Last English King and Kings of Albion by Julian Rathbone cover the Norman conquest and War of the Roses respectively: both suggest that with the arrival of William The Conqueror, or William the Bastard as he was known at the time, something was lost. That prior to his arrival, England was a fairer society, based on collective responsibility and with a more understanding ruling class.
The film, The Eagle, covers the Roman occupation of Britain. And whilst the use of American actors to play the Romans, and English to play the natives, is a none too subtle point about modern empires, it also left me feeling that when the Romans left, we lost something.
This is a feeling that’s compounded by Julian, a novel by Gore Vidal about the life of the Roman Emperor Julian: he’s gone down in history as Julian the Apostate due to his, unsuccessful attempt, to turn back the tide of Christianity. Vidal paints a picture of a civilisation being strangled by a foreign religion, and of something, going back to the days of ancient Greece, being snuffed out.
So, what ties all of these together?
Well, it’s the fact that in all of these cases, I was left feeling nostalgic for things that I had no direct experience of, indeed was separated from by centuries, or even millennia. And that these things probably don’t deserve the wistful longing that the creators of these books and movies have managed to imbue them with.
Sure, William was undoubtedly a bastard, in both senses of the world. But who’s to say that if he’d failed the Saxon rulers of Britain wouldn’t have followed a similar path? Or, if they hadn’t, does that mean that we never would have had Shakespeare, or The Beatles? I’m not sure that’s worth getting nostalgic about.
Or what about the Romans, and, through them, the ancient Greeks? Of course, as the famous Life of Brian scene points out, they were responsible for some amazing innovations, and the fact that we forgot how to make straight roads, or buildings that weren’t made out of wood & shit, for hundreds of years, means that the Dark Ages are well named.
But they also sacrificed animals by the thousand, and had an attitude to the worth of slaves and gladiators that makes their collapse seem like maybe it was a good thing.
And let’s not even get started on the fact that the mail characters in Rathbone’s book, and The Eagle, aren’t the original Britons – they got wiped out by successive waves of invaders.
Where does any of this lead us? To be honest, I’m not really sure. But, what I do know is that all around us are plenty of people trying to whip up hatred and anger by playing on ills that go back generations. The fact that one of the other books I’m reading at the moment is an (excellent) history of Ireland is, I’m sure, entirely coincidental.