October 5, 2000
THE PROBLEM with the past is that it just won't stay put: it's always shifting to accommodate our needs, our assumptions about the sorts of people we are. Not long ago, I re-read Rosemary Sutcliff's children's story, The Silver Branch, which is set in Britain towards the end of Roman rule. When I first read it, 25 years ago, I took it as a fairly faithful recreation of the period; second time around, what was striking was how obviously it was the product of the time it was written, the 1950s. The story has two young Romano- British patriots on a spying mission in Saxon-occupied Britain - sleeping in haylofts, evading the brutal Germanic invaders with the help of friendly locals: it's basically a Second World War resistance yarn transposed to the fourth century.By contrast, Sunday's opening episode of A History of Britain by Simon Schama (BBC2) presented a much gentler picture of the same period. Schama disdained talk of "apocalypse" in favour of gentle change - Roman Britannia "morphed" into the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; the process was "an adaptation, not an annihilation".
Partly, no doubt, the differences between Sutcliff's picture and Schama's reflect advances in understanding. But Schama's version also said something about the way we live now: this was history for a multicultural society, one that embraces difference and defines its relationships with the outside world in terms of trade and economics, not wars and empires. Schama depicted the Roman occupation of Britain in similarly benign terms - the odd violent episode aside, it was a matter of seduction rather than conquest. Hadrian's Wall was depicted as a conduit for trade, not a military frontier.
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