Wacky Races: Roman Britain, Cartoons and Caricatures

When Paul Watson of Infowars (the news site for those who think Breitbart sit on the fence) tweeted his now famous comment about a BBC educational cartoon set in Roman Britain, much of the Twitter world went into cartoon mode. Suddenly those of us who care about Roman Britain, and antiquity in general, were pitched into a crazy world of kapows and zaps. A fair number of people ran off cliffs, and managed to suspend themselves in mid-air. My colleague and friend Mary Beard was the most cartoonised, often as some kind of Dangermouse villain secretly trying to pollute the world with an insidious Political-Correctness drug.

The cartoon was a complete distraction from the real issues. Noone in the world of Classics — I can say this with my hand on my heart — believes that children’s cartoons accurately portray reality. The characters in the cartoon spoke colloquial modern English, for a start. The ‘aww … Mom!’ nuclear family looked very post-50s. But hey, it was a children’s cartoon, and children’s cartoons are designed to appeal to children. When the BBC said it was a ‘typical’ family, they didn’t mean — I am fairly confident — that military families in Roman Britain were like this one in every single respect. They simply meant that you, kids of modern Britain, will find points of connection with this world, despite the gap of nearly two millennia. You can identify. They’re like you and your friends. This, by the way, is how children’s TV works: you educate by mixing what is familiar and easily absorbed in with what is challenging, interesting and new: and in this case, one of the facts they were trying to teach was that the Roman military was multi-ethnic.

The Twitter argument rapidly became a complete missing of minds (and an interesting ethnographic portrait of modern thought). On the one hand there were those (I was among them) who began arguing that Roman Britain was indeed ethnically diverse. Which it undeniably was, incidentally: the Roman military was drawn from across the entire Empire, north, south, east and west. When classicists speak of ‘ethnicity’ we do not mean simply ‘black’ and ‘white’: we are talking about the entire spectrum of regional ethnicities, and no doubt a range of skin colours (though these are usually hard to reconstruct with any kind of certainty). The claim was simply that there would have been a range of ethnicities on view in the Roman army, including a fair number from north Africa, and even a few from beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. No historian ever claimed that ‘black people were typical’ in Roman Britain. The assertion of diversity, let us recall, was a response to an alt-right ringleader who had intimated to his many thousands of followers that it is self-evident that the pigmentation of the Roman world was monochrome.

Dedication to the Egyptian god Ammon (note the ram’s horns!), found at a military base in Alba Julia, Romania: the Roman military was drawn from across the entire Empire.

The next stage of the discussion, however, took a completely different tack. Another group objected to the use in the BBC cartoon of the word ‘typical’, and identified the male character in the cartoon as a sub-Saharan African. His ethnicity seems to me ambiguous, and I would guess designedly so; but opinions vary on this, and many were convinced that they had identified a ‘gotcha’ moment. What is the BBC doing, they fulminated, suggesting that sub-Saharan Africans were ‘typical’ in Roman Britain? And what were respected Classicists doing defending this preposterous claim?

At this point, things went into full cartoon mode: it was all political correctness gone mad, liberal conspiracy, deep academia. Blam! Craack! Beard’s tweets were getting upwards of three million views (and the responses included the now depressingly familiar manifestations of ugly sexism and threat). Except that — here’s the thing — no one had ever said that sub-Saharan Africans were the norm in Roman Britain. Nor was anyone saying that the Roman military machine offers any kind of model for the modern, liberal diversity agenda (it doesn’t). The claim — a response, let me underline again, to an alt-right provocateur — had been simply that there was more ethnic and pigmental variation in Roman Britain than many might have expected, that the Roman Army and bureaucracy was drawn from all quarters of the Empire including Africa, and that there was robust inscriptional, skeletal and isotopic analysis to confirm this. The cartoon was accurate in that it made a point about the existence of ethnic diversity in Roman Britain, but that was it.

Then the mathematician and economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb intervened. Taleb has a view on ancient genetics, which is that there was in antiquity a single genotype stretching around the entire Mediterranean coast from east to west. His response to the discussion thus far was that it reflected a politically correct agenda on the part of liberal historians to rewrite history so as to lever black Africans into the story of classical antiquity. Mary Beard became the focus of his attack.

Taleb communicates in a style that is often idiosyncratic and aggressive. His arguments can be eccentric: examples include his assertion that if there had been Africans in Roman Britain their DNA would necessarily leave a footprint in modern Britain, or his assembling of an assortment of misattributed ancient portraits, generic imperial images and eighteenth-century etchings as evidence for what people in the ancient near East looked like. There were, however, two important points to take from his interventions.

First, genetic ‘big data’ may offer valuable new insights, and complement the historical discussion, which has often focused on the individual cases that happen to survive (this or that inscription, skeleton or passage in a text). We are just at the beginning of this journey, the data probably isn’t yet big enough or well enough understood to allow for any concrete conclusions. It will take a long time, and we may never get certainty: progress will depend on intense, patient cooperation between historians and specialist geneticists. We should be very wary of any grand cultural theories based on genetics: their history is not a glorious one. But Taleb’s model of broad genetic continuities along the coastal areas of the Mediterranean is not implausible (at least for the eastern half): ancient historians have long known that Mediterranean cultures were connected by the sea rather than the land from the late second millennium BCE onwards, and shared much culturally and commercially; it would be no great surprise to find that reflected in the genetic data. Such broad genotypic patterns, however — if confirmed—would be entirely compatible with the idea of ethnic diversity within the Roman Empire, which stretched far beyond the coastal Mediterranean. There will have been specific ethnic variations in regions, and also large-scale migration for cultural, economic and military reasons.

Second, Taleb reminds us that humanity does not divide neatly into two categories, black and white, and the use of this distinction rather than more neutral, descriptive labels can mislead modern readers. Let me reemphasise, however, that Beard and other historians were speaking of ethnic diversity in general, rather than black and white. More importantly (in the larger scheme of things): to adopt this position is not just to challenge those who want definitive answers to age-old questions like (for example) ‘was the north African emperor Septimius Severus black?’ It is also — crucially — a challenge to those who want to claim Greeks, Romans and other ancients as ‘white’, whether explicitly or implicitly. (For what it’s worth, the ancient Greeks and the Romans themselves imagined themselves as ethnically distinct from European peoples to the North.) If one is going to object to the use of ancient history to play out modern identity politics, then one has to be prepared to work through the logical consequences of that position. My sense is that Taleb himself might be happy for ‘whiteness’ to go along with ‘blackness’ (although his claim that ‘Jesus was not non-white’ could easily be misconstrued). But I doubt that all would be equally pleased. Far too often ‘getting identity politics out of history’ has simply been a coded way of saying ‘getting people of colour out of history’.

The frustrating thing is that amid all of the twitterine chaos, there is common ground and common cause to be made. There is much that established scholars can learn from suddenly chance encounters with those in different disciplines. It is good for us to engage in robust debate: it helps us to become better communicators and better citizens. But we do need to keep our eyes on the prize, which is to get closer to the truth. The biffs and boffs of cartoon violence may be fun to watch, but caricaturing these complex issues is not going to help us get closer to ancient realities.

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