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Ancient Rome was more modern than our alt-right

Roman - Credit: Archant

Social media went into overdrive when a BBC kids’ programme included a black centurion.

What have the Romans ever done for us? They certainly gave us plenty to talk about it would seem.

Centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Germanic chieftain Odovacar in 476CE, we’re still working out just how much we owe to the plucky tribe of Latins who made the Med their own personal swimming pool and what, if any, relevance they have to our modern world.

Take last fortnight’s Twitter typhoon for example. Paul Joseph Watson, editor-at-large of everybody’s favourite conspiracy site, InfoWars. took umbrage at a BBC educational cartoon, which had the temerity to portray a soldier at Hadrian’s Wall as being black (or at least darker-skinned). He then took to Twitter to sneer about ‘historical authenticity’ to his audience of tinfoil-chewers.

Knowing a little about the period, I chimed in with a few pertinent facts about people of colour in Roman Britain. At this point, it must be said, Twitter reacted – mainly with fury.

JK Rowling, among others, retweeted the exchange and the ensuing internet firestorm nearly broke my phone. Things took on a whole new, white-hot intensity when Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge and National Living Treasure, waded in to support my initial assertion.

Two weeks later and Internet Nazis are still screeching from their cellars on both Professor Beard’s and my timelines, outraged at the notion of the Romans as anything but oh-so-slightly tanned. All of a sudden, I’m deluged by amateur racial scientists, looking for any excuse to discount historical fact – that the remains of people from across North Africa have been found across Roman Britannia, and point to them playing an integral role in that society.

Why do they care so much? Why does it send them into screeching paroxysms? I’ve never quite understood the Right’s devotion to Roman symbols and imagery. Sure, they look pretty badass held aloft on a banner, and there is a certain muscular masculinity to them. However, any prolonged view of the Roman Empire shows us that much of the fascist ideal is refuted by the reality.

From what we can draw both from extant texts, and physical traces left behind, it is clear that the Romans simply didn’t have the view of race that many have today – back then, your colour, or inherited physical attributes didn’t define you. Rather, what mattered was whether you were Roman or not. Those inside the borders of the Empire (and later, the Eastern and Western fragments) viewed those outside as inferior, barbarous, no match for the might of Empire. This view could change fairly quickly, too, if those outside consented to submit to Rome.

Nor did the Romans see where you came from in the Empire as a necessary barrier to rise through the imperial hierarchy. The Emperor Trajan, of the column and the market, was born in Spain. Of the two supposed ‘black emperors’, Septimius Severus was born in Libya and Caracalla, in France. What mattered within the empire was one’s ability to play the game, to navigate the path to greatness through politics, battle or a little Game of Thrones-style intrigue (of which there was plenty).

There are other aspects of Roman culture that seem grossly out of place with today’s alt-right nativism. Take their laissez-faire attitude towards border controls. While we might think of Hadrian’s Wall and, elsewhere, the Limes Germanicus (the barrier separating the Empire from the Germanic tribes) as great, impenetrable barriers, archaeological studies show us that they were more for show than a concerted attempt to keep barbarians at bay. Trade and movement both in and out flourished, with tolls providing a handy revenue stream for local governors. There were no restrictions on travel, as we would understand it, apart from rare instances of war or plague. Some have posited that these barriers were mainly considered a sort of advertisement for ‘Romanitas’ – the values and cultural touchstones of Rome.

In these days of rampant Islamophobia, it’s also worth considering Rome’s attitude towards religion. While we’re all aware of the Roman pantheon of deities such as Mars, Jupiter and Vesta, we must also acknowledge the Romans were masters at appropriating faiths. Wherever they went, local gods and goddesses of conquered peoples were absorbed. We see a fantastic example of this in Bath, the former Aquae Sulis. Translating as ‘The Waters of Sulis’, it was once the site of shrine to the Celtic goddess of the same name. Rather than stamp out her cult, the invading Romans encouraged her worship, as they felt she had many similarities to the goddess Minerva. Many Romans also adopted the worship of gods from conquered lands, such as the Egyptian Isis, and Mithras, adapted from the Zoroastrian faith. In short, who you worshipped didn’t much matter, as long as you at least acknowledged the existence of others – not much of a stretch in the centuries before and shortly after the birth of Christ.

Place these different aspects of the Roman Empire into context, and we see something that, while obviously backwards and brutal in many respects, wasn’t quite the fascist utopia that many seem to think it was. Instead, we get a picture of tolerance and openness that seem centuries ahead of their time.

So why the uproar? Why the firestorm of anger and hatred? While some of it must be garden-variety racism, I think there’s a certain element that hasn’t quite been addressed in the ensuing debate. Globalism, that great boogeyman of the Right, is supposed to this new, toxic force, suddenly closing factories, severing local connections, destroying communities. Rome, with its legions, walls and sense of superiority seems a trusty historical bulwark against such fearful developments. Reveal this image of Rome to be false and the stool gets knocked out from beneath those who cling to it. Folks tend to be rather adverse to that kind of thing.

The fact is, the world’s always been a connected, diverse place, thrumming with the movement of people, goods and ideas. Nothing ever stayed still, change was, and is a constant. All that has changed is that spanning those distances has become as easy as clicking one’s mouse. Something for Paul Joseph Watson to consider, next time he turns on the webcam for another bilious broadcast.

Mike Stuchbery is a history educator, broadcaster & writer. He has worked as a historical researcher for the Australian government, taught at schools in Australia, Germany, and the UK and authored textbook materials. He regularly contributes to a number of newspapers and opinion sites, both in the UK and abroad.

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