Rule, Britannia?

Onwards!!

Earlier this week I came across the Sky production of Britannia. Originally aired in 2018, this series depicts the conquering of Britain by Rome in AD 43. Whilst the historical accuracy may be a wee bit on the sketchy side (and was clearly never the aim), it does contain the elements one would expect from such a dramatization. Brutal Roman soldiers? Check. Sympathetic Britons? Check. Crazy, drugged out Druids? Double check. Part way through the first episode, after the Romans have interrupted the coming of age ceremony held by the Cantiaci tribe on the solstice, killing or enslaving most of the settlement, a conversation takes place between one young escapee from the slaughter and her reluctant saviour, an outcast of the Druids whose prophetic abilities warning of the invasion were ignored.

Cait: What’s a Roman?
Outcast: The Romans are devils. They are the foot soldiers of Locher, the great earth demon. He started a place called Rome.
Cait: What’s Rome?
Outcast: Rome is one of the seven mouths of hell. Basically, it was just some god-forsaken shit hole in the middle of nowhere but Locher came up from the underworld and made it his home on earth. And he filled it with his power and it grew and grew and grew, and now Rome spreads all the way across the whole world. Even here.

In a week when the ongoing disaster that is Brexit and the current government here in the UK has been ramped up to a point that is beyond the ridiculous, the above exchange made me think that in the minds of many in this country, the EU could replace Rome and the sentiment would remain true. But this disregards the benefits that came with both the Romans and the EU, and whilst there is little point re-iterating the ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ speech of Monty Python fame here (although….), it does illustrate something about how the British conceive of their own mythology and origins.

Take for example, Boudicca, the Iceni woman who led a revolt against the Romans about fifteen years after the invasion. She is, to this day, held as a paragon of British spirit and pride. Her image, mounted on a chariot with her daughters, sits on the corner of Westminster Bridge, only meters from the Houses of Parliament. More than once in the three years since the Brexit referendum vote, I have heard or read her name as an example to aspire to, her fight against the Romans equated to the fight against the EU. And yet, historically, she was a blip. This is something that always surprises my (British) students. Tacitus, the first century AD historian and only near contemporary source for the British conquest, deigns to give Boudicca three whole paragraphs in his Annals. Three. He says:

XIV.31 The Icenian king Prasutagus, celebrated for his long prosperity, had named the emperor his heir, together with his two daughters; an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom and household beyond the risk of injury. The result was contrary—so much so that his kingdom was pillaged by centurions, his household by slaves; as though they had been prizes of war. As a beginning, his wife Boudicca was subjected to the lash and his daughters violated: all the chief men of the Icenians were stripped of their family estates, and the relatives of the king were treated as slaves. Impelled by this outrage and the dread of worse to come—for they had now been reduced to the status of a province—they flew to arms, and incited to rebellion the Trinobantes and others, who, not yet broken by servitude, had entered into a secret and treasonable compact to resume their independence. The bitterest animosity was felt against the veterans; who, fresh from their settlement in the colony of Camulodunum, were acting as though they had received a free gift of the entire country, driving the natives from their homes, ejecting them from their lands,—they styled them “captives” and “slaves,”—and abetted in their fury by the troops, with their similar mode of life and their hopes of equal indulgence. More than this, the temple raised to the deified Claudius continually met the view, like the citadel of an eternal tyranny; while the priests, chosen for its service, were bound under the pretext of religion to pour out their fortunes like water. Nor did there seem any great difficulty in the demolition of a colony unprotected by fortifications—a point too little regarded by our commanders, whose thoughts had run more on the agreeable than on the useful.

XIV.35 Boudicca, mounted in a chariot with her daughters before her, rode up to clan after clan and delivered her protest:—“It was customary, she knew, with Britons to fight under female captaincy; but now she was avenging, not, as a queen of glorious ancestry, her ravished realm and power, but, as a woman of the people, her liberty lost, her body tortured by the lash, the tarnished honour of her daughters. Roman cupidity had progressed so far that not their very persons, not age itself, nor maidenhood, were left unpolluted. Yet Heaven was on the side of their just revenge: one legion, which ventured battle, had perished; the rest were skulking in their camps, or looking around them for a way of escape. They would never face even the din and roar of those many thousands, far less their onslaught and their swords I—If they considered in their own hearts the forces under arms and the motives of the war, on that field they must conquer or fall. Such was the settled purpose of a woman—the men might live and be slaves!”

XIV.37 At first, the legionaries stood motionless, keeping to the defile as a natural protection: then, when the closer advance of the enemy had enabled them to exhaust their missiles with certitude of aim, they dashed forward in a wedge-like formation. The auxiliaries charged in the same style; and the cavalry, with lances extended, broke a way through any parties of resolute men whom they encountered. The remainder took to flight, though escape was difficult, as the cordon of wagons had blocked the outlets. The troops gave no quarter even to the women: the baggage animals themselves had been speared and added to the pile of bodies. The glory won in the course of the day was remarkable, and equal to that of our older victories: for, by some accounts, little less than eighty thousand Britons fell, at a cost of some four hundred Romans killed and a not much greater number of wounded. Boudicca ended her days by poison; while Poenius Postumus, camp-prefect of the second legion, informed of the exploits of the men of the fourteenth and twentieth, and conscious that he had cheated his own corps of a share in the honours and had violated the rules of the service by ignoring the orders of his commander, ran his sword through his body.

That is it. Her rebellion quashed with some eighty thousand dead Britons, her suicide by poison, and very little damage to Rome or Roman soldiers. Of course, this is the history written by the victorious, and there is always that element to take into consideration in assessing its validity. But the fact remains that Rome was successful in conquering Britain, and more or less peacefully ruling here for hundreds of years. If this is the model for British independence from the EU, (or in any other international political sphere) I cannot help but feel a better example is warranted. This is not a David and Goliath underdog is surprisingly victorious story. Boudicca was a failure, and largely an insignificant one, historically speaking. Using her as an example, as part of the mythology of a nation’s identity, implies resistance, but also failure. Much like the defense to the onset of Roman rule being organised by Cantiaci tribesmen at the end of the first episode of Britannia, the end result will be defeat.

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Civis Britannicus Sum

Today marks an odd sort of anniversary for me: sixteen years ago I arrived in the UK, with the intention of completing a MA and returning home to the US at the end of a year. Clearly, that didn’t quite go to plan, and here I remain. Earlier this month, I became a British citizen. In many ways this was a decision made for practical and legal issues rather than a sudden overwhelming desire to be British, but the ceremony itself, in conjunction with a number of other issues currently in the forefront of my native country, got me thinking about what it means to be a citizen of any place, at any time, and how the concepts of citizenship, nationalism, and patriotism can become so muddled.

In the defensive action that made Cicero’s career, In Verrem (II.5.162), Cicero described an event of a man being beaten who defends himself with the words ‘Civis Romanus sum.’ He believed his claim to Roman citizenship was enough to protect him from torture and death. This idea has resonated politically – it was quoted by Lord Palmerston in a speech to Parliament in 1850, is the basis of President Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech, and was referenced by (unfortunately) fictional President Jed Bartlett in The West Wing. However, Cicero also said ‘But no one who had any acquaintance with our laws or our customs, who wished to retain his rights as a citizen of Rome, ever dedicated himself to another city.’ (Pro Balbo 30). I’ve not only dedicated myself to another country, but to another ruler and thus, in essence, form of government. As part of becoming a citizen of the UK, I had to swear the following oath:

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This is interesting for a number of reasons.  It is asking naturalised citizens for an oath that is not demanded of the born citizenry. Not only is there no request for such an oath if born here, but there are many Brits of a pro-Republic leaning who would balk at promising allegiance to the monarchy, and thus wouldn’t be able to fulfill the same requirement asked of someone willingly choosing to become a citizen. More to the point, however, it reminded me of another oath, one sworn by citizens of Paphlagonia in 3 BC:

Paphlagonian Oath OGIS 532.
‘In the third year after the twelfth consulship of Imperator Caesar, son of the god, Augustus, on the day before the nones of March at Gangra in the market place, this oath was sworn by the inhabitant of Paphlagonia and the Romans who do business in the country.
I swear by Zeus, Hera, the Sun, and all the gods and goddesses, and Augustus himself, that I will be loyal to Caesar Augustus and his children and descendents all the time of my life by word and deed and thought, holding as friend whomsoever they so hold, and considering as enemies whomsoever they so judge, and for their interests I will spare neither body nor soul nor life nor children, but will endure every peril for their cause. If I see or hear anything being said or planned or done against them, I will lay information and I will be the enemy of such sayer or planner or doer; whomsoever they themselves judge to be their enemies, them I will pursue and resist by land and by sea, with arms and with iron. If I do anything contrary to this oath or not according as I have sworn, I invoke death and destruction upon myself and my body and soul and children and all my race and interests to the last generation of my children’s children, and may neither the earth nor the sea receive the bodies of my family and my descendants, nor bear crops for them.
The same oath was sworn by all the rural population at the shrines of Augustus in the districts beside the altars of Augustus.’

This was a remarkable thing at the time – wherein citizens of a province were required not to swear an oath to Rome – but to a single man, Augustus. Cicero’s concept of Roman citizenship seems to have been superseded by a notion of patriotism, that is, loyalty to country, fatherland, and etymologically, ultimately the father. Augustus was, after all, named Pater Patriae by the Senate in the following year. The notion of being a citizen of Rome seems not to have changed much on the ground (as far as the evidence reveals), but the ideas of what that means and to whom one is loyal fundamentally shifts with the onset of empire.

I think, in essence, the idea of empire and monarchy are what Rome and Britain have in common in terms of what they ask of their citizenry, both natural born and naturalised. I am not quite sure if the same can be said of the US. In the years I have lived in the UK, I have become aware of an acute difference between what for Brits is nationalism (especially in regards to identification as English, Welsh, etc.), and for Americans is patriotism. The American idea of patriotism (so many flags!) is one I have struggled to negotiate most of my life, and has recently become a larger issue as part of protests arising around the national anthem, the Black Lives Matters movement, and other social injustices. And yet, no one (as far as I am aware), who knows I am now a citizen of two countries has called into question my allegiance to either.

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Regardless, I am keenly aware that whatever passport I hold, on some level I will always be identified as an American, and not British. Cicero would probably have a few choice words for me, but somehow, I think the Paphlagonians might be more understanding.