Rule Britannia?


Fourth Street Associate, Tim Ambrose, fumes politely about the historical accuracy of upcoming period drama on Sky Atlantic.

Nineteen hundred and sixty years ago, in 58 BC, Julius Caesar began Rome’s military invasion of Gaul – an area consisting of modern France, Belgium and part of Holland, stretching from the river Rhine to the Atlantic coast. He and his troops were to spend nine long and weary years on campaign there and after he left, the area was to remain a part of Roman Empire for some five hundred years. He recorded his achievements in his War Commentaries which covered his military operations in Gaul and Britain from 58-52 BC. They are recognised as one of the greatest works in Latin literature and achieve a quality of narrative that few political or military writers have matched since.

Nineteen hundred years later, an eight-year old schoolboy began to learn Latin and the War Commentaries were one of the key texts in his syllabus. Many long hours were spent with Caesar and his legionary commanders battling against the brave but doomed Gallic, Germanic and British tribes that the Roman army faced. Many hours were also spent learning about the Roman army’s later invasion of Britain in 43 AD and the trials and tribulations of progressively establishing Britannia as a new province of Rome.

Partly as a result of those early encounters with the Roman army and its role in the creation and defence of the Roman Empire, that schoolboy went on to read Latin and Archaeology at University and maintain a life-long interest with Britain and Europe in the Iron Age and Roman periods. That interest has been continuously sustained year on year by the remarkable growth in our knowledge about life in the Iron Age and Roman worlds brought about by new archaeological discoveries and research, the application of new scientific techniques to archaeological resources and new analyses of the history and heritage of the period. A huge investment of time, energy, enthusiasm and funding has gone into building up an authentic picture of those times and that picture is being represented to visitors to museums and historic sites and monuments throughout the area that was Roman Europe.

Our picture of life in the Iron Age and Roman period has and will of course continue to change as that work continues. But with all of this effort, there has been an ongoing quest for what one can best describe as the truth. All archaeological research and all historical research will ultimately result in an interpretation of the available evidence at any moment in time – but that interpretation is and arguably should be based on the robust and rigorous analysis of the available data rather than simply on make-believe.

So, in the light of this, what are we to make of Sky Atlantic’s upcoming 10-part drama series Britannia and the story of the Roman invasion of Britain? May we expect the new series to take fully into account the painstaking work of archaeologists, historians, literary scholars and scientists in building up an authentic picture of first century AD Britain over the last sixty years? Well, none of the pre-broadcast reviews hold out much hope. Indeed, Tom Holland’s insightful review in the Sunday Times Magazine (January 14th 2018) suggests the director, for reasons of his own, has chosen a different path:

‘This is history, not as contemporary archaeologists or historians understand it, but as Romantic poets, antiquarians in the reign of Charles I and medieval chroniclers all variously imagined it’.

Tom Holland goes further and suggests that the film’s approach owes much to the influence of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and the late 1960s drug scene.

‘The effect of this blurring of periods – the age of the Caesars with the Summer of Love – is hallucinatory beyond anything attempted before in the screenplay of a mainstream historical drama … The viewer is faced with two options: either to watch it in a state of fuming pedantry or to turn on, tune in and drop out!’ 

Is the search for accuracy and authenticity the enemy of entertainment? Do the three hundred or so people involved with the making of a film about a historical period have an ethical responsibility to create drama from all that we now know about the period rather than just make it up? How does a distorted representation of the past, the real ‘fake news’, affect viewers’ attitudes towards the work of those seeking to find the truth about the past? Or can all these concerns just be put down to ‘fuming pedantry’?

The series Britannia starts on Thursday 18th January. You may want to turn on, tune in and judge for yourself.