This weekend, I spent far too much time ironing. The only saving grace for this was being able to catch up on Mary Beard's Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limits on BBC iPlayer. A fantastic series and for me, a real eye opener. I was brought up on school days-style Roman history. All buildings and legions, swarthy Italian invaders and European rulers. This series has given me a far more 'grown-up' view of Roman history. And by the time I had reached episode four yesterday afternoon, my head was bursting, spurred on by receiving my DNA Family Finder results last week and finally realising what the 'Mediterranean' portion of that might refer to.
By part four, Mary Beard looks at the reasons for the collapse of the Roman empire. One of the things which she focussed on throughout was the idea of Roman citizenship being desirable. She believes Roman inclusivity of people was the key to the empire's success. They did use slave labour, they did fight the indigenous people but once in charge, they spread their ideas, incorporated local customs, used cultural events/fashion/etc to win people over. And there was also free movement of people to a large extent. Their army and administrative legions included people from all over the Roman world. Syria, Greece, Algeria, France, Spain. There are Roman Syrian skeletons here in York, for example.
Ms Beard believes the collapse began when the Romans began to 'map' the edges of their dominions. For example, the magnificent Hadrian's Wall across Northumberland in England, as pictured above. the wall did not just keep marauding tribes out, it drew a physical distinction between who was out and who was in. No longer did it seem possible to imagine getting on within the Roman world if you found yourself on the wrong side of the wall. And within the walls, the Romans guarded their resources, technology and culture.
Any of this sounding familiar? We in the West have permeated the rest of the world with our culture and technology. (Coca Cola signs in rural India anyone? Mobile phones everywhere?) Capitalism has made it seem desirable to be like us. We have maintained relative peace so it seems safe and, for the most part, the majority have enough to eat, clean water, shelter. But now there are perceived to be mass threats on our borders, we want to build walls again. Quite literally if one looks at the barriers to refugees in Europe, Trump's proposed Mexican wall in the USA, the Israeli wall in Palestine - to name a few. The Communists attempted to maintain their East European 'walls' by convincing people that the West was corrupt. All they succeeded in doing was making their citizens desperate for access to Western culture and technology, freedom to travel and self-aggrandisement opportunities. China has done a slightly better job of giving to its people whilst maintaining its walls. But only through repression and censorship. Political and cultural firewalls.
My DNA test shows that I am only 46% British Isles. There is the expected Indian percentage from my father but there are strong points in central Europe, the Mediterranean plus Afghanistan and towards Myanmar/Thailand. A tiny indication of the movements of the peoples of this Earth over thousands of years.
Walls do not improve our situation. Isolationism is not the answer. If we DNA tested every person in the West, we would be extremely hard pushed to find anyone who has not benefitted from human migration. The art, as the Romans proved for so long (but ultimately not long enough0, is to embrace diversity and work for common goals.
[Mary Beard's latest book, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, is now also available.]