When the BBC’s online team made a cartoon video depicting the life of a family in Roman Britain nearly 2,000 years ago, it could hardly have guessed at the controversy it was about to unleash. The video, though made in 2014, has proved a lightning rod for tensions currently evident in Britain and beyond. At the heart of the controversy was its depiction of a multicultural family, with a black father (a Roman commander) seen through the eyes of a son. The video was attacked by right-wing commentator Paul Joseph Watson as an example of the “dangerous and incredibly deceptive” attempt by the Left to “rewrite history to pretend Britain always had mass immigration”.
It quickly escalated into a vicious social media battle as trolls attacked academics, including Mary Beard, a Professor of Classics at Cambridge. Prof. Beard shot down the right-wing account, explaining that the BBC video was actually reflective of Roman times and that the father depicted could have been based on Quintus Lollius Urbicus, a governor of Britain who originated from the region that is now Algeria. “There is plenty of evidence that the Roman Empire was relatively diverse as might be expected from an empire that encouraged trade and mobility across a territory that extended from Hadrian’s Wall to north Africa, the Rhine, and the Euphrates (and which also enslaved and conquered populations by force),” wrote Matthew Nicholls, a Professor of Classics at the University of Reading on his blog.
Writing in the Times Literary Supplement subsequently, Prof. Beard, who received the bulk of the abuse, noted the emptiness of the critics demanding statistics on ethnic diversity. “Apparently not realising that we really have no clue how many people lived in Britain then anyway… overall among most tweeters and commentators, there was far too great a desire for certainty in the face of diversity of the past. One thing is for sure, the Roman Empire — Britain included — was cultural and ethnically diverse,” she wrote.
Debates around ethnicity and identity politics have become more prominent and heated in Britain following last year’s referendum on Brexit, a year that has also seen a rise in hate crimes against minority communities. It has also been repeatedly manifesting itself in the cultural arena. The release of Dunkirk , the Christopher Nolan film about the 1940 evacuation of Allied troops from France, has triggered criticism for its lack of depiction of the diversity of those troops, including soldiers from Asia and Africa. However, those who made such criticisms, such as Sunny Singh, a London-based writer, who wrote in TheGuardian of the role that the “whitewashing” of Dunkirk played in reinforcing the right-wing anti-immigrant perspective currently rife in Britain, were swiftly subject to angry abuse on social media. Exacerbating the situation has been the disparaging of “experts”. “People in this country have had enough of experts,” said one senior Cabinet member during the Brexit campaign, shrugging off the warnings from senior economists about the damage that Brexit could wreak.
Late last year, in a Twitter debate, Prof. Beard took on Arron Banks, a businessman and strong supporter and funder of the Brexit campaign, over his claims that immigration had led to the demise of the Roman Empire, a discussion in which he cited various popular TV programmes he’d watched to back up his claims. “I think you all need to do a bit more reading in Roman history before telling us what caused the fall of Rome. Facts guys!” retorted Prof. Beard at the time.
Vidya Ram works for The Hindu and is based in London