THE PAST AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY

 My Tuesday Talk Guest - Bill Page

 
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” the man said. Perhaps he should have added that, the further we go back into the past, the more foreign it tends to become. For a start, the natives don’t even have the decency to speak English.
My chosen fragment of the past is later 4th century Roman Britain, and I have now written three novels set in those times, the latest being One Summer in Arcadia, centred on Spoonley Wood villa, near Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. And yet I am painfully aware that, as evocations of the people and their world, the novels are essentially fraudulent. For how can I – how can anybody – really be sure of what it was like to be alive in that long-vanished world, and of what hopes and terrors, earthly and unearthly, delighted or troubled those long-dead people?


Museums are stuffed with vast piles of pottery and tiles, and with tens of thousands of coins and brooches and innumerable other artefacts. University library shelves groan beneath the weight of carefully researched and beautifully illustrated publications setting out in minute detail the results of the thousands of excavations carried out over the last century and a half. Yet where, in all this mass of information, are the people themselves?

We have some names – pathetically few, considering the millions of people who lived and died in Britain during the three centuries and more of Roman rule – some carved on stone, others scratched on everything from pottery to lead curses. But often they tell us frustratingly little about the living, breathing people to whom those names once belonged.

Even from a great villa like Chedworth, which flourished for over two centuries and reached its heyday towards the middle of the 4th century, we have only one solitary name, Censorinus, inscribed on a silver spoon (now lost). And we do not even know whether he was the owner of the villa: all we have is the name.
As to the owners of other Gloucestershire villas, such as Spoonley Wood or even the palatial Woodchester, we do not have so much as a single name for men who must, in their time, have possessed near god-like powers over those who lived on their often vast estates. They are, to borrow from Ecclesiasticus, “perished, as though they had never been.”

We have some skeletons – all, alas, anonymous – from cemeteries located outside the walls of towns like Corinium (Cirencester), and the tales they tell are grim. It seems that life for the humiliores –the underclass of Late Roman society, which formed the overwhelming bulk of the population – was generally short (most people not living past their 40s) and frequently brutally hard. Healed fractures and wear on leg and arm joints indicate hard manual labour (and violent quarrels?) from childhood, leading to arthritis and other painful conditions in later life, if they survived that long.    

4th century belt buckle with dolphins & horses’ heads,
said to have been found in the North Cotswolds
 
And we know from surviving edicts that humiliores could legally be tortured to obtain evidence of alleged crimes committed by themselves or others, and suffer savage punishments, including execution. For those same crimes, honestiores – the upper classes – would at worst usually only suffer banishment, at least for a first offence.
But was such harsh treatment an everyday reality for the underclass? My guess is that it was. Why? Because, in a curious letter written a century later in Gaul, the aristocrat Sidonius Apollinaris tells us that he had several men beaten, simply because they had inadvertently begun to dig a fresh grave on the spot where his grandfather had been buried, even though, by his own admission, the unmarked grave had been levelled by time and weather so as to be indistinguishable from the surrounding ground. And this by a man considered humane by contemporary standards, who later became a bishop and a saint. So should I make this routine ill-treatment a more prominent feature of my novels? Or would it be wiser to heed T S Eliot’s advice, that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”?

 Sidonius Apollinaris 
And how far had the struggle between Christianity and paganism progressed by the late 360s? Had the majority – honestiores and humiliores alike – converted to the new religion favoured by most emperors from Constantine the Great onwards, or did they still believe in the multitude of strange gods and goddesses, whose stone images now stare blankly out at us from museum cases? We simply do not know, although it is worth remembering that there is very little surviving evidence of Christianity from the western half of 4th century Britain. My suspicion – and it is only a suspicion – is that belief in (or fear of) the old deities was still strong, and that to a substantial part of the population they were as real as the hills themselves.  

Speaking of which, do we even know what the landscapes of the 4th century Cotswolds looked like? Certainly the contours of the hills must have been the same then as they are today, but what else was? Did great flocks of sheep and their shepherds roam across what were already open grasslands? And were the places that are woods now, also wooded then? Some probably were, but not all: a great villa like Spoonley would not have stood in the wilderness of trees and undergrowth that it does today.  

Spoonley Wood villa,
photo taken in spring 2011,
 before the wilderness returned.
So many questions, so few satisfactory answers. In the end all we can do is take the crumbs of information gleaned from the various sources and use them to create an illusion of reality. But that is all it is, an illusion, because we can never experience their world through the senses of those men and women who vanished from the earth so long ago, never know their innermost thoughts. And if we claim otherwise, then perhaps we deceive both ourselves and our readers.

LINKS:

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Chill With A Book Award
by Pauline Barclay

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Chill with a Book's decision to award a book or not is final.

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7 comments:

  1. A fascinating post from Bill - at least the Roman buildings still partially exist, which is a bonus we Anglo-Saxonists don't always have :)

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    1. Thank you, Annie, but the buildings by themselves tell us so little about the people who lived in them. At least you Anglo-Saxonists have the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede's Ecclesiastical History and numerous other surviving contemporary or near contemporary documents, whereas from Late Roman Britain almost no equivalent written material survived the Dark Ages.

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  2. Very interesting read. I found it fascinating that a belt buckle would have a dolphin. I can understand the house. I am curious as to if it represents a belief, god, or is a symbol of something else like of the sea trade. Off to Google more about cotswold. Thank you for sharing.

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    Replies
    1. Hullo Mrs Harman and thank you for commenting. I am unsure of the religious significance (if any) of the dolphins at this late (4th century) date (but I recall the legend of Dionysus transforming pirates into dolphins and commanding them to rescue shipwrecked sailors). This type of zoomorphic belt buckle (in many varieties) is apparently found quite widely in southern and eastern Britain in late 4th and early 5th century contexts. They were originally thought to have belonged exclusively to Germanic mercenaries (sea crossings - dolphins?), but the thinking now is that they were also worn by regular "Roman" soldiers and paramilitary uniformed officials and administrators of the imperial civil service. Hope this helps.

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    2. Bill I've never heard that about Dionysus turning pirates into dolphins! I'd have included it in my non-fiction pirate book had I known. BUT I do need a new supernatural thread for the 6th Sea Witch Voyage... mind is now racing, quick need to make notes...
      Thanks Ginger for dropping by (and sparking a darn good idea thread!) :-)

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  3. Thank you both for the response and this really sparked my reader imagination. I look forward to the future Sea Witch and new authors to read.

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