Wednesday, 30 December 2009

"How these curiosities would be quite forgott, did not such idle fellowes as I am putt them down..."

There are two periods of social history that I particularly identify with - Roman and 17th to 18th century British. It may be that, living in Bath as I do, these are the periods that I am most exposed to - even surrounded by - but I think there is more to it than that.

You have only to read a translation of ‘Satyricon and the Fragments’ by Petronius, or an account of the conquest of Gaul and Britain by Tacitus, to know how well the words and attitudes have survived in translation, and how easily colloquial Latin converts into modern English, even though we do not know how it actually sounded in speech. Also, the Romans did a pretty good job of re-writing British history, to the extent that we still accept their description of us as ‘barbarians’ to this day without question, despite the few bits of remaining evidence to the contrary. In the eighteenth century and before, most Englishmen looked upon the Scots as a race of savages too, and for similar political reasons, as they were the only European tribes that the Romans failed to conquer and govern during the 350 year occupation of the rest of the British Isles. There is an interesting story about the last British fort to be besieged and overcome by the Romans, and it was not too far from Bath - possibly around Gloucestershire, I think.

Being excellent engineers, the first thing that the Romans did to this fort was burrow into the side of the hill to locate the spring which fed water to it, then cut it off by divertion. They knew that this particular tribe held a heron god in high esteem, so before dawn on the morning of the assault, they had a circus performer on stilts and dressed as a heron, to wander through the pre-dawn mist, playing a small reed pipe. At daybreak proper, they produced a herd of elephants imported all the way from Africa, which they used to flatten the banks of defensive thorn-bushes on the lower slopes of the hill, at the same time as freaking the locals right out. Behind the elephants, they sent in a complete platoon of naked, black African warriors with spears, to great effect. Behind them came the ordinary Roman forces who quickly overtook the fort, capturing the chief. The took the chief to Rome as a prisoner of Caesar, and he spent about 4 years in prison, waiting for Caesar to decide his fate. During that time, the chief learnt to speak Latin fluently, and when he was eventually taken to Caesar, he gave such an eloquent and persuasive speech, the Emperor granted him a villa with an income and slaves, so he spent the rest of his life living in luxury as a Roman citizen. Talk about psy-ops!

The Romans who had not already assimilated themselves into British life after the fall of Rome, somehow survived for about another 50 years without funding from their defunct empire, and nobody knows when these isolated legions finally took off their armour and disappeared into the historical oblivion that was the Dark Ages.

The Dark Ages - which perfectly fit the first Roman description of Britain as ‘The Shrouded Isle’ - seem to be much earlier than the Roman occupation, with the Arthurian legends, tales of monsters haunting wild places and clandestine visits by Biblical characters to English monasteries. Probably the reason for this is that there was no recorded, formal history written down for the benefit of Caesar and the Senate back home, and the writing of anything in those times was the exclusive duty of Christian monks, who had their own reasons to keep out of the national carve-up between the little kings who suddenly found themselves custodians of their own regions, and the tithes and taxes generated by them. It wasn’t until Henry the Eighth that these monks were also severed from the protection of Rome, with all the political influence that was inherited from the Romans by the Popes after St. Peter - the ‘rock’. The first King of all England - Edgar - was crowned in Bath Abbey, about 300 yards from where I sit now. Bath Abbey was a huge and powerful institution (second to but attached to Glastonbury) then, and it is no accident that it was situated directly over the ruins of the Roman Baths.

It is also no accident that Bath - in the 18th century - became known exclusively as a spa resort, with only one late 17th century bath still in use. Bath had been a place of R & R for the homesick and freezing Roman legions almost 2000 years before, and - as Peter Ackroyd points out in his ‘biography’ of London - places never lose their original purpose, meaning or atmosphere, just so long as they are ignored by short-term property developers with bull-dozers. Having said that, 99% of medieval Bath was destroyed by property developers in the 18th century, and it seems to have survived that. The official legal language of Britain in the 18th century was Latin.

I bought a book recently - written in about 1920 - about the meaning of old English pub signs. It is full of insights and explanations: a pub called ‘Babes in the Wood’ depicted two men imprisoned in the stocks, for instance. The first recorded pub sign was the universal sign outside a Roman tavern to alert people that it was a bar selling alcoholic drink - a simple bush mounted on the wall over the door. This is where the pub name ‘The Bush’ comes from.

The build up to the eighteenth century, with all it’s public and social traits and customs that we still just practice and adhere to (apart from smoking tobacco in pubs, like we have been for about 400 years...) is best encapsulated in ‘Brief Lives, by John Aubrey, the 17th century gossip and antiquary who was the first to conduct proper surveys of ancient British monuments that pre-dated the Romans. If you think this post is rambling, then read that.

One of the reasons why there is so little 17th century writing on this build-up is explained by Aubrey himself, in one of the invaluable tangents that he spins off on in Brief Lives. He bemoans the fact that many printed books and papers were being torn up and turned into wadding for the new-fangled sport of shooting shotguns, there being a plentiful supply books and paper amongst the wealthy, but ill-read country people.....


  1. Water diversion, heron-men, elephants, naked Africans? Now that's what I call WARFARE.

    Here in France, a bush outside meant 'eating house' until quite recently, when neon sadly took over.

  2. Yep - we now know where the Americans got the idea of bombarding Noriega with bad pop-music, 24 hours a day, when he was holed up in that house, from.

    A bush for restaurants in France? That must have come from the Romans. Tacitus says that in Gaul, the locals hunted Oryx (the massive, now extinct woodland bulls with 6 foot horn-spans) by half sawing through a tree (before the days of dangerous chain-saws) then waiting for an Oryx to lean against it causing both tree and Oryx to fall over before they rushed out and speared the bull. Even he didn't believe that, and put it down to one of many pieces of disinformation given to the occupying forces by people like Asterix.

  3. Actually, I think that might be spelt 'Aurox'...