As a recent row makes clear, many of us don’t like to be challenged on our views of the past. I asked experts why the historical record can provoke such anger—and how they plan to dispel the mythsby Jack Hunter / August 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
As bizarre as our political discussion has become in recent times, it’s still unusual to see the history of Roman Britain on the frontline of debate. But last week, an ugly online row broke out after alt-right apparatchik Paul Joseph Watson seized upon a BBC Teach video that showed a dark-skinned man in Roman Britain, claiming it was an “historically inaccurate” attempt to force 21st century multiculturalism on Britain’s ancient past.
Acclaimed historian Mary Beard waded in, suggesting the representation of some ethnic diversity might be “pretty accurate,” and what followed was a dispiriting culture war as once-esteemed philosophers threw cheap insults at Cambridge classicists, all accompanied by a whirlpool of right-wing trolls swirling on the touch-lines. All roads were once again leading to Rome.
After the storm had calmed, I spoke to Beard to reflect on the events. Was she surprised at the backlash? “Personally yes,” she tells me. “I defended a BBC kids video from the attack of an alt-right commenter; then the heavens opened. In retrospect, I can begin to see a nerve was touched.
“I do come away, though, thinking: if an elderly lady academic gets this shit for saying that there were people of colour in Roman Britain, what on earth must be thrown at, for example, young black men every day? It is hard to avoid the conclusion of racism here!”
It is probably fair to say that the offended parties weren’t motivated by a new-found interest in policing ancient historical authenticity. It’s difficult to imagine Watson and his followers taking issue with the video had it incorrectly featured, say, anachronistic water irrigation systems, as opposed to a black man. (Of course, genetic research by the likes of Adam Rutherford suggests that people of African origin probably were present in Roman Britain—as if Beard’s claim were in any doubt). The spat is a classic expression of insecurity by people upset that the past doesn’t necessarily match their perceptions of it—albeit an extreme version, extending to two-millennia-old history. But what drives this insecurity? Why do corrections from historians provoke such anger? And is the problem getting worse?
I put the first question to Beard. “That is a huge issue and there is no single answer,” she says. “A lot of…