I’ve recently been reading Charlotte Higgins Under another sky1 – an account of her journey around the sites of Roman Britain.
I will admit to also being fascinated by the Romans – when we lived in Europe I spent way too much time visiting Roman sites from Vindolanda to Volubilis.
I started out being fascinated by the monuments, but as I saw more changed to being fascinated by the small things, such as the wooden bath pattens in Vindolanda decorated with a drawing of feet – something that gave a connection to the Romans themselves – someone with a sense of whimsy had chosen them over standard plain pattens.
Higgin’s book is much more than simply a recounting of her travels and her meetings with archaeologists and historians – rather than as a straight travelogue it can be read as a book about the encounter between early modern and modern British culture with the Roman past – either the imagined past or the reality.
One of the first quotations in the book is from a play about Boudica by John Fletcher – Fletcher is little known now but he was a contemporary of Shakespeare and also wrote for the King’s Men, becoming their lead writer after Shakespeare’s death collaborating with a number of other writers.
Conrad, and the quotation from Heart of Darkness I found especially telling. Conrad, was of course writing about the Congo, but in the opening passage of the book he imagines the early Roman settlement that became London, twitchy scared soldiers, not sure why they’re there, with a small scrappy settlement of whores hucksters and associated hangers on.
Perhaps because I’d recently watched the ABC’s production of The Outlaw Michael Howe, a bleak story of early Tasmania, with the convicts and settlers clinging to Hobart town, half out of control soldiers and always outside the frightening scary otherness of the bush and the aboriginals, and their supposed violence and cannibalism. (in reality it was more the violence of fugitive convicts and their occasional descent in cannibalism when lost in the bush that was scary) I could imagine parallels with the early settlement of Australia both with Conrad and the Roman colonisation of Britain.
And that is what Higgin’s book is about. On one hand we have the physical remains of the Romans, their forts, their tiles, even their toilets, but culturally they are something else – they live on in our imagination from everything from detective novels to bleak canvases for tales of colonial exploitation.
Even though we now know from the Vindolanda tablets that as military postings go, Hadrian’s Wall not especially bad, yet Auden used it to as a backdrop to his poem encompassing the state of bored fright of squaddies everywhere from Afghanistan and Vietnam to the borderlands of south Armagh.
They have enlivened and enriched our culture in many ways, as a source of fine phrases, as an inspiration for monumental architecture (why does the old parliament building the Colombo look like a Roman temple standing on the waterfront?) to a backdrop for bleak stories about things too uncomfortable to discuss in a present day context …
- As well as Auden’s original, and the slightly arty version made available by the Guardian, Alex Harvey recorded a slightly different version some thirty or so years ago. Not only that but the poem and the Vindolanda tablets seem to have inspired the British metal band Skyclad to come up with Not the Roman Wall Blues …