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What did the Romans do for us?


MOST TWITTER SPATS end up like a bunch of epicene drunks scrapping in a muddy gutter, calling each other names and flailing about in the hope of landing some knockout blow but never succeeding. They usually start over the usual things: how Donald Trump is literally Hitler or hates disabled children, or how Brexit should be cancelled because the people who voted for it were hoodwinked by something written on the side of a bus. I never thought I’d see a rumpus about the Romans in Britain, but it has happened, and attracted a number of tweeters and retweeters, including Prof Mary Beard, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and J K Rowling.

So what did the Romans do for us that stirred up the twitterati sixteen hundred years after the people called Romanes gathered their legions and went the house (Monty Python joke for anyone of the right age)?

Paul Joseph Watson (of Infowars infamy, fascist boo hiss) criticised a BBC education video for 7 – 11 year-olds, “Life in Roman Britain”, for featuring a black family: “Thank God the BBC is portraying Roman Britain as ethnically diverse. I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?”

This provocation had an immediate and expected response: “Roman Britain was ethnically diverse, almost by design,” tweeted back Mike Stuchberry, having initially called Watson’s followers “mouthbreathers” (not a good start). “To begin, occupying legions were drawn from other parts of the empire.” Personally, I would have left it there, not because it’s inaccurate but because it’s true. This ethnic diversity was the result of imperial invasion and colonisation, and I’m sure the anti-Watsonites are no fans of empires and colonialism, are they? And I’d be right in assuming that since the Romans themselves were foreigners, they already represented ethnic diversity whoever else they brought in.

But it was already too late, happily for those of us who loved watching the avalanche of well-informed disingenuousness, vituperation, name-calling, point-missing and point-scoring that followed (laced with some genuinely informative material, it has to be said) as every scholar and historical justice warrior piled in. Watson made one of his videos scorning the claim that he’d been “owned” or “schooled” by Stuchberry. Stuchberry kept punching back, buoyed up by complimentary tweets and mentions in various papers (Elle, indy100). Taleb weighed in with data on genetics. Prof Beard told him to go read a book. And so it goes on.

Holding up Roman Britain as a time when the country was supposedly ethnically diverse and welcoming to foreigners is…both historically and morally wrong.

This argument of course isn’t really about Roman Britain; it’s about Britain now. It’s about immigration. On the one side you have those who believe immigration should be controlled and on the other those who don’t. Immigration is important because it is indissolubly linked with identity. Those who want controlled immigration want to protect and preserve national identity. Those who want mass or uncontrolled immigration don’t want to preserve that identity and may indeed want to dilute or delete it. In political terms it’s straightforward: those who favour mass immigration = left; those who don’t = everyone else (conservative, right, extreme right, far right, fascist, etc, depending on how hysterical you feel). Holding up Roman Britain as a time when the country was supposedly ethnically diverse and welcoming to foreigners is a way of rebuking those who want stricter controls on immigration as being both historically and morally wrong.

This is where we need some honesty. It would be helpful if those advocating diversity explained what they mean by it. Is it measured by colour, tribe, religion, culture, language, ethnicity, or what? How many of which groups are required for a country to qualify as acceptably diverse (is there a set of quotas, like the BBC?). Should diverse communities and individuals be expected not just to integrate but assimilate? Should the populace in general decide on how diverse the country should be or should someone else make that decision? What is so wrong with the country that it needs to be improved by increased diversity in the first place?

And lastly, if the pro-diversity lobby watched the BBC video why have they ignored the feminist complaint of the daughter of the Roman family that she’s not allowed to join the army because she’s a girl? They’re not sexist, are they?

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.

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