Painful Truth: Pax Romana from the other side

I’ve been going through the library recently reading about Romans and barbarians. Even those terms tell us a lot about how history and our modern culture is structured. We remember the Romans – we immortalize them even without thinking about it through our architecture, art, design, and language. 

That’s why I’m thinking about revisionist history right now. We have a pretty good understanding of which Roman senators and consuls, generals and emperors were ruling, scheming, and killing at any given point in history. 

We don’t know much about the so-called barbarians, compared to what we know of Rome. So when we read history about Rome, we tend to unconsciously accept the Roman point of view, to see Rome as the good guy and everyone else as the bad guy. Start reading about a big battle and internally, you’re usually rooting for the Romans to win.

Even the English had a great tradition of this, despite the fact that one of their greatest national heroes is Queen Boudica. Her husband was a “client king” of the Romans, allied with them. When he died he left his kingdom to his daughters, but the Romans only acknowledged men as leaders. They tried to annex his kingdom, and had Boudica’s daughters raped and Boudica whipped, presumably to put those women in their place.

Boudica raised a massive army of her own and allied tribes, and burned two sizeable Roman settlements to the ground, including the first version of London. She was finally defeated only after she almost forced the Romans to abandon the British Isles.

What would our society look like if histories had been written by Boudica and her compatriots instead of by the Romans?

There probably would have been a lot more women in them. Roman woman in the time of Boudica didn’t even have names of their own. They were given feminine versions of the family name, so that women in the Julian family were all called Julia, the daughters of Claudius would all be Claudia. Sisters were given extra names for “elder” and “younger,” or simply numbered.

You don’t actually come across that fact too often in standard histories. It casts a bit of a stain on the Roman character, to know that not only did they have an economy based on slavery and conquest, not only did they hold fatal gladiatorial contests and gleefully watch wild animals devour criminals, but their attitude to women was somewhere behind that of modern Saudi Arabia.

We’d probably have a more nuanced view of the Vandals, Goths, and other people who eventually went on to sack Rome. From their point of view, they were usually either taking what was theirs, or in some cases, they were protecting Rome – because they considered themselves part of the empire, and they were taking part in one of its many civil wars.

If we only had written history from the barbarian side, how would we view Roman architecture, Roman laws, Roman conquests? What would we think of women in the armed forces if our classical history had been written from the point of view of Boudica’s daughters, not by the men of Rome? Which would we value more – empires, or the trading routes that linked Celts from Ireland to Eastern Europe?

You can turn almost any historical period upside down by looking at it from the point of view of those who didn’t get to write the ending.

Women, refugees, religious and ethnic and cultural minorities throughout history have left records, or at least traces. It’s instructive to stand back every now and again and consider how we’d see things if the world had worked out a little differently.

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