The lessons of history are so poorly observed, we may as well be looking at the past through a telescope the wrong way round. In attempting to understand the motivation and context of our ancestors, the academic refers to not only archaeological evidence but the written record. Articles that reference songs and other oral traditions are disparaged if not outright ignored because they do not – in the modern tradition – refer to the works of notable persons. Of course, those ‘notable persons’ are not only predominantly white but male; the songs, poems, and stories we learn as children are from our mothers.
Look up references to the role of women in ancient Britain and you’ll see commentary attributed to Tacitus and Caesar. Tacitus, for example, provides the only written account of Cartimandua of the Brigantes, a Queen who is depicted as a wife because she has two ‘husbands’. Having first introduced Cartimandua as a wife of Venutius, Tacitus then has to explain to his (male) Roman readers that she has divorced Venutius – of her own free will – to take another partner. In effect, royalty in Britannia is being portrayed as strange and exotic to an audience that enjoys watching the spectacle of slaves killing each other for entertainment, as somehow uncivilized simply because a woman has the right to choose.
Yet many Scots – and indeed, Irish, Welsh, and Cornish – will understand their ancestors differently because those who first teach us about our history, are our mothers, our aunts, and grandmothers. We know that before Christian missionaries brought different values to our ancestors, we were a matrilineal culture because while everyone could cast doubt on the identity of your biological father, in a culture where women were usually aided by female family and friends through childbirth, there was no doubting who your real mammy was. Traces of this tradition did manage to make the written records: in England, women of the medieval era took their husbands’ names, while in Scotland, women retained their own family identity, (even if noble families in both nations had to seek permission from the pope first).
Strangely, the attempts to describe the matrilineal society of our ancestors in a format more agreeable to male scholars, are still disparaged because the myth doesn’t match the very incomplete record that comes to us from the written Roman accounts, regardless of the oral histories preserved in our families, our songs and even the place-names of our landscape. Free yourself from the prison if you will but first, you’ll need a key that’s been placed out of reach behind a door locked with rules your society doesn’t share.
History, and our understanding of it, matters because it does more than shape our collective identity as a people, nation, and culture, it shapes our attitudes. How different would Scotland – and indeed, the UK – be today if we had brushed off the influence of the Roman invader and continued to embrace our historical, British traditions? We might still, for instance, have female deities such as Mabh, rather than the mental contortions required to believe in a male ‘creator’ being.
We wouldn’t have so much Latin littering our laws and government, acting as an ever-present though near-imperceptible barrier between those who understand the in-jokes and everyone else whose parents couldn’t afford the public school education.
Those laws include such ridiculous notions as res nullis – nobody’s thing – which allows ownership claims to be made against unoccupied land without asking first, how that land came to be perceived as ‘empty’, and second, what limits should be placed on emptying that land of people already there. But third, in the context of building a global empire, asking whether a person who speaks a different language, worships a different god – or gods – and has different levels of melanin in their skin, is any less human for those differences.
The Romans did not invent the arch as a key part of their architecture – and in fact, couldn’t as Roman numerals do not include ‘zero’ – that was the Babylonians whose knowledge comes to Mediterranean Europe via the camp-followers of Alexander of Macedon’s conquest of modern Iraq.
The Romans did not create the structure of roads crisscrossing Europe but simply laid the stones from the derelict homes of the continent’s conquered people across the existing trade routes which perhaps originated with the Iron Age Proto-Celtic ‘Hallstatt’ culture.
The Romans did not create writing as other, older cultures such as the Sumerians were using clay and wax tablets first, and similarly, the Eqyptians were using papyrus to record laws and trade.
What the Romans do bring to modern culture are attitudes to women that are far from what we now consider civilised. In their own origin myths, the Romans – little more than a gang of bandits in the mid-8th century BC – abduct the Sabine women. Livy, and other historians, may try to polish the story by claiming that Romulus spoke with each abductee, in turn, to persuade them to stay but an army of men strong enough to beat rivals in battle are hardly going to negotiate for ‘life partners’ when they have taken much else.
Those ‘civilised men’ are supposed to be the guiding light for the education of the self-anointed elite in British politics? It’s perhaps no wonder that BT thinks launching the ‘888’ help number is considered one way to address anti-female violence or that police officers can testify to the ‘good nature’ of a colleague after he has been found guilty of kidnap, rape, and murder.
While it’s true that the Celts and Picts also traded in slaves, seizing people as the spoils of war, we don’t teach children at school that female slaves were called ‘cumal’ which was also the term for a common measure of wealth equivalent to ten sét (‘cows’), mostly because we don’t teach children Gaelic – or other Celtic languages – without support from parents.
But for some reason best known to tradition and misogyny, we do teach children that the Romans were the greatest culture of antiquity in our fee-paying schools. This should concern us as it’s from Eton, Westminster, Fettes, and other public schools, that senior members of the UK Government and other public institutions are drawn.
And let’s not forget it wasn’t just the Romans attempting to erase female engagement from the public realm – public schools are also given a grounding in Ancient Greek. Amazonomachy is the peculiar branch of mythology where vigorous male warriors have to be seen to overcome their savage, barbaric and uncivilised female enemy. One example is Theseus, who abducted Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and ‘claimed’ her as his wife, sparking the Attic War – more word salad in which we can see (male) academics avoiding the use of the words ‘kidnap’ and ‘rape’. If this is ‘civilisation’ and the foundational values of the UK Government, we should be asking why these cultures of dead men, formerly the leading lights of their age, should not just still be shaping our politics but our attitudes toward women.
But here’s one last thought for the men reading this article: it’s worth remembering it wasn’t just our female ancestors who suffered after the victory of the Roman armies. Roman armies practiced irrumatio, a humiliation that involved smashing out the teeth of captive enemies before using their mouths for gratification. As in Greece, where the ability to take part in public debate was a sign of someone’s citizenship, defiling the mouth was considered a means of silencing someone. The Romans didn’t consider this to be homosexual because they weren’t receiving ‘the tribute’ but that’s ‘civilisation’ for you: like capitalism, your ability to be heard when you speak is about the amount of harm you’re willing to inflict on others. If we need to know how best to deal with the ‘Romans’ now, ask that other famous Celtic queen, Boudicca.