The thing that I know most about in this world is Romans. I love the Romans with the kind of fiery passion that most people reserve for their children, pets and members of One Direction. I started studying Romans by chance, because my Sixth Form College offered trips to Greece and Italy as part of the A-Level course and that seemed like fun (it was), and in the first couple of weeks was introduced to Suetonius, Bob Guccione’s Caligula and the first Triumvirate and I was falling. By the time we went to Italy six months into my A-Levels I had fallen so hard for the Roman world that I could never be saved. Twice since then I have tried to stop studying my beloved Romans. I tried to do a psychology degree, and lasted a mere 8 weeks before I quit to return to Augustus’s sweet embrace. At the end of my BA, I tried to be a librarian. I hadn’t even started the MA course before I realised that I needed the Romans more than libraries would ever need me and did a Masters and a PhD in Late Antiquity instead.
The Romans have everything I like about humans and the world. They are brutally ruthless, to an extent most people can’t believe; they have an ambition and belief in their own greatness which is awe-inspiring; they have an inventiveness and verve and fizzing, continual activity throughout the empire that – to me – gives them a level of humanity that is exciting and hilarious and frightening. They are nothing like us and everything like us. They complained about the young people, and wrote novels about men becoming donkeys. They crucified dogs and buried men and women alive. They wrote poetry and philosophy and terrible plays. They accused their leaders of everything from incest to forgery to the premeditated murder of houseflys (trufax). They conquered the world in the first century and, in so many ways, they still rule it today. I named my fish after the First Triumvirate (they died in reverse order). I have a cat named after Augustus’s wife. I visit the bust of Augustus in the British Museum as often as possible, sometimes weekly, just for a chat. I like them, is what I’m saying.
Now, I’ve completed a PhD on the end of the Roman empire, written a bunch of articles, given more than enough conference papers, bored anyone who’ll stop to listen to tears talking about my research, read thousands of books and articles, am writing two books and have consumed every piece of Roman themed media I can get my tiny little hands on and I can’t stop. So, I thought, one day at my desk (bed), why not turn this into entertainment. I get a lot of odd questions when people find out that I am a Roman historian and I answer them as best I can while tipsy or eating or on OKCupid. But here, I can do that with references! And who doesn’t love references, right? So bring me your questions, your queries, your huddled misconceptions and I shall apply my years of education and angry devotion to answering them. It won’t be funny, but it will be fun.
My two favourite things in this world are Romans and science fiction (and my cat, who is named after a Roman). Because I am bad at career planning and apparently never want to be financially stable (financial stability is for squares), I made Romans my profession. I spend a lot of my time thinking about, talking about and writing about Romans and so obviously I also like to read about imaginary science fictional Romans in my spare time too. And now I’m going to tell you about them.
Romans and images of ancient Rome are incredibly common in modern science fiction, so common that if I began to list them all we’d be here all day. Just think about Panem in the Hunger Games series (from Panem et circenses, bread and circuses) where everyone in the decadent capitol has a Latin name. This isn’t so surprising when you think about it. The Roman empire underpins most western ideas about civilisation and empire, about decline and fall and decadence and stoic morality. The entire structure of American governance is based on the Roman model. Practically every big building in London is based on the model of a Roman temple. The British Empire modelled itself on the Roman empire. And so did the Nazis, with their eagles and monuments and iconography. So when it comes to thinking of sci-fi models, the Romans are fairly obvious as an inspiration.
There’s three broad categories of sci-fi Romans: Space Romans, The Rome That Never Fell and Time Travel. There are some works that transcend boundaries, and in recent years there have been a lot of amateur works that seem to be starting a new trend: Rome Rises Again. I know about this one because a guy on OKCupid once sent me 2000 words of his novella about Rome Rising Again In Space as an attempt to chat me up. I still have it somewhere.
Probably most common type of sci-fi Roman is the Space Roman. They’re so common they have their own page on TVTropes. The TV Trope refers to any kind of alien society that bears an unusual, and frankly unlikely, resemblance to an ancient society on earth for no good reason other than coming up with new alien civilizations is really hard. The classic of this genre is the Star Trek (original series) episode Bread and Circuses which ticks all the boxes that you need to tick to show that this is Rome: gladiators, people called something ending in -us, slaves, Christians, a lot of nice white columns, and a swooning girl for Kirk to seduce. Such things are vital for the more thumpingly obvious versions of Space Rome.
The most thumpingly obvious of all the thumpingly obvious Space Romans is the brilliant Red Rising Trilogy which happily rips off both Romans and the Hunger Games to have Space Triumphs for the ArchGovernor of Mars Nero au Augustus overseen by the wicked empress Octavia who has undermined the senatorial oligarchy to rule all by herself. Obviously the Red Rising trilogy is brilliant because it’s basically Space Romans with guns and the rulers are literally golden and that’s ridiculous and wonderful. Notably, however, the Space Rome of the Red Rising trilogy is a dystopia, defined by its impossibly rigid class structure, eugenics, slavery and war. All the things we like least about the real Romans.
At the other end of the sci-fi spectrum we have the more subtle versions of Space Rome, which tend to be big empires that have gone decedent and wrong. The classic of this type is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series, where his Galactic Empire was famously based on Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Of course, Gibbon thought that Christianity weakened the spirit of the Romans so they couldn’t fight barbarians properly, but still. He made for an interesting sci-fi series. What Asimov mainly took from Rome was the idea of a huge, old empire that had become arrogant, bureaucratic and corrupt. From the start of the first Foundation story, Trantor (Space Rome) is home to the emperor and bureaucrats and nothing else. It is unable to feed itself and completely dependent on its empire, from which it is increasingly distanced in terms of culture and contact. Eventually Trantor is sacked by a barbaric rebel, the emperor flees and Trantor declines. The parallels to Rome, to be honest, require you to have at least read the Wikipedia page on Gibbon.
The same cannot be said for the second type of sci-fi Romans: the alternative history Roman Empire That Never Fell. Think Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy, Roma Eterna by Robert Silverberg, Gunpowder Empire by Harry Turtledove et cetera et cetera. In these, the empire in its entirety keeps going, running half the world, and culturally—somehow— does not change at all from the early Imperial period of Augustus at the turn of the 1st century CE.. Everyone is called Maximus and Flavia, does crucifixions all the time and eats nothing but dormice. In some, the world never has an industrial revolution because slavery keeps everything ticking along. In others, despite the slavery thing (apparently no one wants to get rid of slavery. It’s such a good narrative device), the Romans get fancy technology and spaceships. I always enjoy these ones because the Romans couldn’t last more than two emperors before people started getting murdered and only got to four before random generals started throne grabbing. Plus the borders of the empire were pretty much never peaceful, so this is the kind of Roman wishful thinking I like a lot. The Romans probably would too.
The other kind of Rome That Never Fell is the Bit of Roman Culture That Survives. The most recent of these is probably Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series which are fun and involve a country founded by breakaway pagans in the fourth century and whose culture has remained unchanged for 1600 years apart from the fact that women gained equality (because it’s fiction so shush). The earliest is, I think, Tarzan and the Lost Empire, where Tarzan finds both a remnant of the Roman Empire and a monkey companion in the African jungle. Naturally it has a character called Maximus (which might be the law for Roman themed fiction?) and is racist as hell.
Time Travel Romans
The third type of sci-fi Roman tends to be equally as silly, but does often engage in some research, is the Time Travel Romans. Recently I read Daniel Godfrey’s New Pompeii which offers a neat twist by bringing the Romans into the present (sort of kidnapping a load of Pompeii residents and hiding them in a north African desert for reasons I won’t spoil), but most send someone back to the Roman past. One that got a lot of attention was Rome, Sweet Rome, a short story that started as a reddit comment and will apparently become a film, by James Erwin. This involves 2000 US Marines being sent back in time and having to fight some Romans. Harry Turtledove liked the Romans so much he also co-wrote a time travel novel (Household Gods) where a women who tires of modern life accidentally goes back in time to Roman Austria and finds out that the ancient world was sort of appalling.
In amongst these, of course, there are sci-fi Romans of the trashiest and most bizarre sort. Like Ranks of Bronze by David Drake where some Roman soldiers get sold into space slavery by some aliens and proceed to kick the life out of other aliens because they are so good at war that they can even do war in space better than everyone else. Or Empire of the Atom which straight up steals the plot of I, Claudius and puts it in space. And also the Space Roman Empire worships atoms. Or Warlords of Utopia, where a Roman from the Rome That Never Fell tries to stop the Nazis with a magic universe jumping bracelet.
I am always happy with a sci-fi Romans book because I know that I will pretty much be guaranteed some ridiculous violence, an orgy and and an emperor and I am, frankly, easily pleased. But I also read the sci-fi Romans because what people do with the past is interesting, the way that creators construct new versions of Rome is interesting, what people know or think they know about the Romans is interesting. But for more on that, you’ll have to talk to me at parties.
“The Romans gave us roads, viaducts and basic sanitation but ‘Bromans’ may prove to be their greatest legacy.”
There’s a possibility that I will always remember where I was the day I first heard the words of Ben Kelly, an executive producer at Electric Ray Productions, a company which is a subsidiary of Sony but, with roguish charm, describes itself as an indie. Our new friend Ben here is referring here to the new show he has developed for ITV2: Bromans.
Bromans. Romans but Bros. I know. The name alone is almost too much to take. But we can get through this together. Come with me and find out what could possibly be better than roads and sanitation.
Obviously, the only thing better than civil engineering is sexy couples living in a Roman palace with some actors for 8 weeks. The bros themselves, described merely as “having muscles,” will train as gladiators while their “loving girlfriends” will engage in traditional Roman female pastimes such as wine-making (!) and sculpting (!!). At the end of the 8 weeks the bros will battle in “a Colosseum” (!!!) in front of a mysterious emperor to win 10k.
This description alone convinced me that this had the potential to be the greatest televisual experience of the 21st century. This would make the joy I experienced watching Bone Kickers look like a weekend in a cave.
But it got better.
The bros will be trained by a doctore (someone in the office obviously watched Spartacus: Blood and Sand), played by David McIntosh. David McIntosh is mostly known as Kelly Brook’s ex-boyfriend and I thank him for reminding me that Kelly Brooks exists. He sounds absolutely awful but he has many many muscles and is often shiny. He once crashed a van full of dead badgers into a bus stop. So the training sounds great.
At the palace where the couples will live, they’ll be under the constant surveillance of an emperor’s assistant (I shall refer to him as a freedman even though he will DEFINITELY be costumed in a shit toga). He’ll be played by Tom Bell, not the dead one but a comedian who seems very nice but was definitely cast because he looks a bit gaunt and like he’d be in Slytherin so I feel like we’re going for a creepy smarmy sycophant vibe here. A little bit Varys from Game of Thrones but creepier (I hope he never reads this. He really does seem lovely).
Now I know you’re thinking “Emma, please, no more.” But there’s more.
“Whilst living in ‘ancient Rome’, the couples will wear the attire of the day – sandals, leather loin cloths and gold lamé pants”
The mind boggles.
It’s taken me a full day to process this phrase, and the multiple interpretations thereof. I initially read it as gold lamé trousers, an image which made me swoon with pure wrongness. But Greg Jenner read it as gold lame subligaculum, aka a kind of loincloth. Which would effectively be a gold speedo for the bros I guess. And I really hope Greg is right but the reference to leather loin cloths as well as gold lamé pants, and the only subligaculi in the UK are leather ones. So many possibilities! All of them involving nearly nude couples!
The executives at ITV2, who all sounds like the absolute worst, are really keen to let everyone know that the couples will be good looking and nearly nude all the time and do this by saying the word sexy a lot, even though no real person has unironically described anything sexual as sexy since 1973. This is good though, as they happily let slip the real purpose of this bizarre adventure in reality tv programming.
Sexy, Sexy Sex
Yes, dear reader, the gladiatorial games are just a ruse, a cover for the aspect that has made the producers and Head of Digital Channels and Acquisitions for ITV (and god isn’t a genuine effort to stay awake for that entire job title) rub their hands together with ratings glee: the sexy, gold-lamé clad, muscle-bound couples will be living together in a palace and will, I quote, “carpe diem together”. Where carpe diem is absolutely, definitely, without a single doubt, a euphemism for shagging each other. Ideally, members of opposing couple-teams causing much drama both in and out of the “Colosseum” and hopefully getting some tits on screen. I know this to be true because, for the actual competition for the cash, there is literally no point in the women being there. They contribute nothing to actual contest. They are just there for the sex.
You can just hear the head of digital channels and acquisitions heavy breathing from here.
So what we’ve got here is a production company that makes a show that’s basically Pimp My Ride but with the format of Ground Force and would almost certainly think that Jonatton Yeah? from Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s Nathan Barleyis a brilliant man, who have seen Love Island and decided it wasn’t conceptual enough. Who saw the old ITV show Gladiators and decided it didn’t have enough sex.
Obviously, the idea is brilliant. They’ve got hot people who are somehow willing to be on this show. They’ve made them semi-nude. They’ve made them sweat all day doing physical tasks. They’ve put an actor in with them to enhance the paranoia. They’ve got the heady mix of gladiatorial fighting with the implication hanging over it of impending death, and sexy sexy ladies. It’s Freud’s Thanatos and Eros theory made into an ITV2 8×60 reality game show.
Oh and the whole thing is narrated by Martin Kemp from Spandau Ballet’s son, hired exclusively because his name is Roman.
I talked a bit about Augustus before, and I will talk about him again because the man was frankly amazing. It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that there was barely an aspect of public life where Augustus didn’t excel to an awe inspiring degree.(1) In fact, if you’re over 19 and feeling a bit bad about yourself today, maybe don’t keep reading. Now dear Augustus, nee Octavian, leads a fairly unexciting life until he is 19. He lives with his grandmother, Julia Caesaris (this is what I’m saying about the Romans not being very innovative), until she dies, pootled about for a while until he crosses some enemy territory in Gaul, blows JC’s mind in the process and gets made Caesar’s primary heir. And shortly after that, JC gets accidentally brutally stabbed to death by all his friends, Octavian inherits lots of money and a dangerous name and all is well for Octy. Now a normal 19 year would perhaps mourn their beloved great-uncle, take the cash and maybe spend some time frolicking in one of their nice new houses hoping not be the next to fall onto 23 knives, but not Octavian. Octavian sees an opportunity.
Octavian travels to see JC’s troops, thieves some money from the state and starts building himself a loyal personal army, at 19. Which is obviously nuts. Especially as Romans have no respect for youth and energy. At the same time, he starts schmoozing senators and worthies at Rome, both the Caeserites and the anti-Caesars (2) because that’s how good at diplomacy Octy was – he managed to get JC acknowledged as a God AND befriend the men who had murdered JC. Except Brutus of course, who he sicked his army on. And won. And then having won, he marched into the senate, aged 20, and told them he was consul now. So, 20 years younger than the legal age, he took the highest office in the empire with an army at his back and a successful foreign campaign (*cough civil war cough*) under his belt. And if any of that had occurred to any of you as a viable option after the death of JC, I’m scared of you.
Once settled, he set up what is called the Second Triumvirate, splitting the empire in three between himself, Marc Antony and dude no-one remembers called Lepidus and to seal that deal executed up to 300 Roman senators and 2,000 equestrians (3) in a series of proscriptions against “traitors” but which also conveniently meant that the triumvirs got a huge amount of money from the proscribed’s estates. Which was quite spectacularly brutal and cold blooded way of funding your own personal bid for power. It make JC crossing the Rubicon look measured.
Having done all this, Octy sets himself up in Rome, and starts a campaign of diplomacy and propaganda against Antony, who has control of the east and is living in Egypt, so subtle and beautiful and effective that we still believe it unhesitatingly today. Octavian was such an extraordinary strategist and PR guy that he makes Don Draper look like an embarrassing rube in a stupid suit. Charles Saachi would cut off his own arm to have a thousandth of the skill that Octavian deployed to swiftly and effectively turn Antony from beloved son of Rome, general and statesman to wicked Eastern king who must be crushed in battle. Then he deploys his trusty sidekick, and genius military commander in his own right, Agrippa to squish them. And squish them he does.
Now, in just a decade or so, Octavian has raised an army at 19, insisted on ratifying an illegal adoption, taken over command of several Roman legions, led several civil wars across the empire, defied the will of the senate repeatedly, illegally taken the highest available office twenty years too early, carved up the empire openly and illegally between his allies, murdered innumerable Roman citizens for their money, broken into the temple of Vesta to undermine Antony (an appalling act of impiety), stolen the pregnant wife of a leading senator, (4) consolidated all the power of the Roman state and empire into his hands, and basically been a talented, single minded, terrifying upstart war-lord. And now he’s won, at 32 he has no-one left to fight. But this is Octavian, and he’s awe-inspiring and he;s been planning for this so he keeps promoting the idea that he is a man of peace (!) and conciliation and benevolence and sweetness and lollipops. And he succeeds. The teenage warlord becomes the elder statesmen (at 32), he’s given so many honours he can barely remember them. The senate love him so much they make up two new titles for him to emphasise how great he is: Princeps meaning first citizen, and Augustus meaning the illustrious, or most pious one. And in this way Octavian bested Julius Caesar by getting as close to being deified while still alive as it’s possible to get in Rome.
And this is how Octy stayed, as Augustus, leader of Rome and first emperor, until he died naturally in his bed in his 80s. The man who changed the world, invented the Principate, controlled the empire with an iron fist, while gently whispering to everyone that it was ok, they were in charge, he was just the kindly grandfather pottering about with his honours not doing anything. Augustus is the teenage warlord who crushed everyone using every tool he could, being brilliant at all of it, and then convinced everyone he was a teddybear. Augustus is the best Roman.
(1) He left a fair amount to be desired in his fathering though. I don’t think any of his natural or adopted children would buy him a Number 1 Dad t-shirt.
(2) They called themselves the optimates which basically means the best men, because they were the worst kind of boring bastards. Imagine calling yourself the best men.
(3) A sort of upper middle class. Today would be businessmen’s kids who go to Harrow, while the senate would the old money guys who become prime minister. Basically the senate: David Cameron; Equestrians: Alan Sugar’s kids.
(4) Livia. It is said that she went with him willingly, having fallen for each other at a party, and certainly they stayed together til he died. Because apparently Augustus was great with ladies too
Some of you may know that my PhD covers the period of the “fall” of the Roman Empire in the west. Which means that I had to spend a lot of time wrestling with racist narratives, actual Nazi narratives, pseudo-historical narratives and straight-up fictions about Western Europe during these centuries. As a result, my blood is immediately boiled when these narratives appear in modern newspapers and once again I have had my lunch ruined by a completely rubbish article about how refugees caused the collapse of the Roman empire in a mainstream news outlet. And once again the article was composed of outright misrepresentations and bizarre anachronistic terms. Like refugee.
A few years back, these articles used different words. They used immigrants and migration. Plenty of British historians who will remain nameless centralised the notion that “barbarian” immigration caused an otherwise stable, happy and racially homogeneous Roman empire that had survived for 500 years to suddenly keel over and die, writing sentences like “the connection between immigrant violence and the collapse of the western Empire could not be more direct.”
As the incomparable and brilliant Guy Halsall has written many many times, these words and these narratives are dangerous and deliberate. They seek to legitimise the idea that migrants and refugees fleeing appalling violence or merely seeking a new place to live are barbarians. They seek to tell us that these people, these human beings, destroyed an empire once with their violence, their demands for living space, and they will do it again.
Refugees did not destroy the Roman empire. Migrants did not destroy the Roman empire. The Roman empire was flawed to begin with and began wobbling a long time before any Goth or Frank looked at it. Yes there were new peoples entering the empire. Some of them entered by force. There were battles and kidnappings and the sacking of cities. But these things alone did not destroy the empire. These things were not carried out by barbarians (quick, picture a barbarian and then question how you got that image and just how uncomfortable that picture might be) because barbarians only exist in the imaginations of those who want to maintain an us vs them opposition: civilisation vs barbarism.
The article that started this was well-intentioned. We should treat refugees better than the Romans did or our empire will fall, it says. As if the maintenance of western hegemony is a better reason to protect families fleeing war than, you know, basic humanity. But it buys into and reproduces a vile narrative: these refugees are barbaric and they will destroy our way of life if we are not careful. And I won’t let that stand.
The fall of the western empire was a very long, very complex process that reached a tipping point in the 5th century. It is not a convenient historical proof for any argument you want to make about the modern world.
On 18th October 33AD, on a tiny island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, a 47 year old woman who had been imprisoned for four years quietly and finally passed away. She died of starvation, although it is unclear whether it was suicide or murder. Either way it must have been a relief. The last decade of her life had been increasingly difficult in many ways, and the four years of her imprisonment had been hell. She had protested violently and constantly to her imprisonment. At one point, she had been beaten so badly by guards, on her step-father’s orders, that she had lost an eye. Back in Rome, her death was welcomed by the emperor, who was at the same time her step-father, father-in-law and uncle. He slandered her name and made her birthday a day of official day of bad luck.
Her full name was Vipsania Agrippina, though she is remembered as Agrippina the Elder, and she was Roman royalty. She was of the first generation to be raised without any knowledge of a time before Augustus was emperor, and Augustus was her granddad. Her mother was Augustus’s only biological child, Julia, and her father was his right hand man and closest friend Agrippa. Her elder brothers, Gaius and Lucius, were lined up as Augustus’s heirs before their early deaths. After Agrippa died, Agrippina’s mother Julia married Tiberius, Augustus’s stepson. Agrippina and her brothers, however, were primarily raised by their grandmother, the empress of Rome, Livia.
Agrippina grew up at the absolute centre power, wealth and privilege in the Roman empire. She grew up a princess and absolutely secure in her position. Unlike most of the others at the centre—like her stepfather Tiberius—she had Julian blood in her veins. She was a biological descendant of the already semi-divine Augustus, the divine Julius Caesar and all the way back to Venus herself. The rest were just Claudians: distinguished by not divine. Without Julian blood or Julian approval, no Claudian could yet hold true power. Like her mother, Agrippina knew after the death of her brothers that her hand in marriage was the key to becoming emperor. Her husband would be emperor, her sons would be emperors. She would be the next Livia.
Of course, that’s not what happened for her mother Julia. Her mother’s first two husbands pre-deceased her, and she was exiled for immoral behaviour before her father’s death. She never saw her last husband Tiberius take the throne. Julia seemed to lose patience with her role as the Great Augustus’s daughter, wife and mother, and pawn in her father’s power games. She took to drinking, affairs, and allegedly plotting against her father with a descendant of the Gracchi and Mark Antony’s second son. She died in exile, from starvation, after Tiberius became emperor.
Agrippina, on the other hand, never achieved her destiny through no fault of her own. She did everything right, but the hands of others meant that no matter how hard she fought and how perfect her morality and her bloodline and her birthright, she was denied. And the first sign that her destiny might slip away was the death of her husband.
Agrippina was married somewhere between the age of 14 and 18 to her second cousin Germanicus. Germanicus was the son of Antonia and Nero Claudius Drusus. Antonia was the daughter of Augustus’s sister and Mark Antony, Drusus was Livia’s son from her first marriage. After Tiberius had been marked as Augustus’s heir, Germanicus was marked as his. His marriage to Agrippina lay alongside his adoption by Tiberius as a clear public sign that he would be the next Roman emperor. And that Agrippina would be the next empress.
Agrippina was a spectacularly good wife to Germanicus, and it seemed that they really loved each other in a way that is both adorable and impressive. People loved them too. They were absolutely the Will and Kate of their time, but fightier. The Roman people would line the streets to see them and fling flowers at them. During their marriage they had nine children in 14 years, of whom six survived infancy. Agrippina’s fertility during a time when birth rates were very low among the Roman aristocracy was staggering and made her the queen of everyone’s heart. It’s also terrifyingly impressive, mainly because she didn’t have these children comfortably in a Roman palace. She had several of them in camps among soldiers, while accompanying her husband on campaign on the German frontier.
But Agrippina didn’t just sit around and have babies. She was also active and proactive in public life and in Germany started to show just how well she had inherited her grandfather’s flair for propaganda and showmanship. She began by dressing her youngest son Gaius up as a tiny toddler soldier and encouraging the troops to call him Caligula—little boots. She understood that the love of the army was more important than just about anything when one became emperor and she encouraged them to love her children.
She used this to best effect to put down a mutiny that her husband could not quite control. Germanicus cried, threatened suicide and made weak attempts at grand gestures to calm angry, neglected and overworked legions and still faced violence. So Agrippina, while heavily pregnant (with a child she seems to have lost), made a stand herself. Having initially refused to leave because she was “a descendant of the deified Augustus, and danger would not find her degenerate” She packed her bags and, with maximum fuss, weeping and attention drawing, left the camps with wee Caligula. The troops were appalled that the granddaughter of Augustus and the daughter of Agrippa was being forced to seek sanctuary with non-Romans and the stunt calmed the mutiny.
Germanicus went on to have a glorious career with the German troops, avenging the tragedy of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest and being enormously popular with Agrippina at his side. Agrippina was the good and faithful wife, but when needed she had astonishing mental and physical strength. One of her most staggering deeds occurred in the middle of Germanicus’s time in Germany while she was heavily pregnant yet again (she was basically always pregnant until Germanicus died to be honest. Just assume she’s always pregnant), during a battle a panic set in among the troops who began to plan to destroy the Rhine bridge, cutting off fighting troops on the German side. Agrippina stepped into a general’s role, calming the panic, directing the men, preventing the destructing, tending those who were wounded and encouraging those who were afraid. She sat on a horse and oversaw the return of her husband’s troops, safely over the Rhine bridge, offering congratulations and thanks,
If that image, of Agrippina, princess of Rome, mother of (at this time, 7) and pregnant, general of the Roman army, doesn’t stir your feminist heart, then I don’t know what to do with you.
These were the best days of Agrippina and Germanicus’s careers and lives. They were the beloved, semi-divine children of Augustus, heirs to the Empire and glorious conquering generals. They had five living children and three were sons. They were the golden couple.
In this light, Tiberius sent Germanicus to Syria to begin his political career with some complex negotiations surrounding who would be the next client-king of Armenia. Agrippina, of course, followed him and gave birth to her last child in Athens on the way. Having completed his mission successfully, Germanicus took a solo sightseeing tour to Egypt and returned to Syria to discover that the governor of the province, Piso, had begun interfering with his affairs. A quarrel began which ended only when Germanicus fell suddenly and drastically ill.
The primary sources are pretty clear that Piso was an agent of Tiberius and his mother Livia, that Tiberius loathed and was painfully jealous of Germanicus, and that Piso murdered Germanicus on Tiberius’s orders. However, the sources are also very clear that Piso used magic to kill Germanicus, which is why we take primary sources with a tiny pinch of salt. Indeed, sober sensible Tacitus says it was “the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, leaden tablets engraved with the name Germanicus,charred and blood-smeared ashes, and others of the implements of witchcraft by which it is believed the living soul can be devoted to the powers of the grave” that killed him. Which is gross, but probably not deadly.
However, both Germanicus and Agrippina believed that he had been killed and that Tiberius was to blame. And Agrippina’s anger and sense of injustice at her husband’s death never seemed to subside. She immediately, and outside the normal sailing months, embarked for Rome with her children and her husband’s ashes clutched to her chest. She arrived in Italy to widespread Princess Diana levels of mourning. People lined the streets as she proceeded to Rome on foot, still holding the urn. And adored her: “they called her the honour of the country, the only blood-relative of Augustus, the one surviving model of the old values; as they turned to the sky and the gods, they prayed that her children might be unharmed and survive their enemies.”
At the point that Agrippina arrived in Rome, she immediately began advocating for her sons. It had been her birthright as Augustus’s blood to grant the throne of the Empire to her husband or son. Tiberius had loathed her mother and probably killed her, held her grandfather’s throng, had taken away her husband and she was determined that he would not rob her sons of their right to rule. She agitated constantly against Tiberius, made allies to the extent that there are references to the “Agrippina party” in Rome and did everything she could to fight Tiberius.
At one point she stormed into see Tiberius as he was sacrificing privately to his adoptive father Augustus (which is quite a sweet image I think), to object to his agents falsely prosecuting her friends. In the ensuing argument she demanded of him how he could dare to sacrifice to the inanimate statue of Augustus while abusing his true descendants. “His divine blood does not flow in statues” she spat “but in me.” Showing that she also had an incredible flair for good lines and an ego to match.
The constant clashes did little to endear Tiberius to her, he treated her as a nuisance and a threat, and Tiberius did not warm to her sons. This was compounded by the rise of Sejanus, Tiberius’s right hand man, who plotted to take the throne for himself after Tiberius’s self exile to Capri and accordingly did his absolute best to destroy Agrippina and her sons’ claim to the throne.
Attacks from all sides, the bearing of nine children, her husband’s death, all the travelling and the constant failures to advance her sons took their toll, and at 40 Agrippina began to weaken. She finally caved and asked Tiberius to allow her to marry again, to restart her life. She asked from a sickbed, ill and exhausted. She wanted a companion. Tiberius refused. Her hand in marriage was too powerful to give away. She would die a widow.
It is at this point that the sources go dark. Several years of Tacitus’s Annals of this period are missing, and during that time, something dramatic happened. Sejanus fell, and Agrippina did too. Not just her, her eldest sons Drusus and Nero were also arrested and imprisoned for treason. Agrippina’s destiny was shattered: her sons would never take their rightful place on Augustus’s throne. She and they would die horribly in exile after years of suffering. Tiberius had won.
What Agrippina would never know as she was dying on that island was that her youngest son, tiny Caligula, would fulfil his mother’s dreams and become emperor. Or that her eldest daughter, Agrippina the Younger, would embody her mother’s self-belief, strength and brains and shape the world around her to become the first active Roman empress, and that her grandson Nero would be the last Julio-Claudian. Or that both her son and daughter would rehabilitate her, would rebury her in the Mausoleum of Augustus and commemorate her as a glorious woman and a paragon of Roman virtue. Or that 1,983 years later we would remember her as a wronged woman, and a brilliant one.
A couple of weeks ago, the discovery of Chinese skeletons in a Roman cemetery in London attracted a flurry of headlines.. More than one news outlet chose to run with the blaring headline that this discovery would “rewrite history.” “The findings promise to rewrite the history of the Romans,” claimed the Daily Mail (while simultaneously spelling Seneca wrong. Unbelievable). The Times said the same.
The tone of all the coverage of the skeletons is the same: “good grief, there were people of colour in the past! England wasn’t a snowy homogeneous festival of whiteness back then!” They even use the language of modern day immigration concerns to discuss the skeletons. Both the Mail and the Times call them foreigners, using the language of the nation state to describe them and to mark them out as unusual, out of place and other.
That the ancient world wasn’t an Aryan wet dream of pure whiteness should be obvious. Mary Beard gives a quick overview in her Times Blog of some of the various ethnicities of bodies that have been found in Roman England. And in doing so she highlights something else about the coverage of all these non-White bodies: no matter how many are found, the narrative of a white, homogeneous past will still remain.
Take, for example, the Bangle Lady found in York in 1901, and identified in 2010 as being of sub-Saharan African ethnic origin. This is a Black woman, young—18-23— and very very very rich. She is the 1% of Roman Britain in the late 300s AD. Now, try your best to fit a Black woman into your image of late Roman Britain. It’s a struggle, because you have never seen a representation of a Black person in the pre-Modern world that showed them as anything other than a slave.
We see that discomfort with the idea of a Black woman existing outside of slavery in this article about another Black Roman woman found in Beachy Head. And the same is happening with the Chinese skeletons; journalists assume they must be traders and merchants, because how else would an East Asian person end up in London? The implied image in these assumptions is that the norm is white people, while people of colour exist in the past only to serve and cater to them. People of colour are not the norm, they are a surprising exception. So surprising that their existence deserves international newspaper coverage every damn time they are identified.
But why does this matter? So the Roman cities of England were multi-ethnic. Who cares? Well, you should care. Because it is the fundamentally incorrect vision that before 1950, England was a pastoral paradise of cultural homogeneity and flavourless food that reinforces, and seeks to justify, the ideology underpinning the BNP and UKIP and Britain First and “legitimate immigration concerns” and Brexit.
At the weekend, the former director of the British Museum highlighted just this about the British (and then referred exclusively to English history, but that’s another debate). He said: “In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us…This sort of handling of history is dangerous as well as regrettable”. We pick the bits we like, he says, the bits that represent the good, strong people that we think we are. The good, strong, white people. We erase the Prussians who were instrumental in defeating Napoleon and the Gurkha troops who have fought for Britain for 200 years, and the rich Black women who lived in York in the fourth century.
This erasure means that people (some nefariously, some not so much) get to present British traditions, British “ways of life”, Britishness in and of itself as being fundamentally white. They get to present people of colour and European workers and refugees and the Irish and everyone who deviates from this vision as being new, foreign and dangerous. As threatening “traditions” and “Britishness”.
But here’s the truth, the truth that these Roman skeletons reveal over and over again: Britain has never been homogeneous. Britain has never been a racist’s white paradise. There have always been British people of colour, and Roman people of colour and medieval people of colour living normal, free, British lives before the concept of Great Britain ever emerged.
The Chinese skeletons are “rewriting history” in the sense that they force us, as the general public and as historians, to confront how artificial our visions of the past are, how much they have been constructed in the image of our own idealised selves and how powerful those artificial pasts can be in shaping the present. History is a dangerous subject when it is handled without care.
Two week things to shout about. First, I have set up a week newsletter about Roman finds, and facts and anecdotes and things that cross my path to do with the Romans. You can sign up here http://tinyletter.com/Agrippinilla
Second, for those who haven’t been badgered yet, I am crowdfunding my first book about Agrippina the younger at Unbound.co.uk/books/Agrippina. The book will be great (I think) and the more people who share and pledge, the better!