If we’re going to get through the next few years, we need a change of narrative so profound that our entire culture changes direction.  We need not just new stories, but a whole new shape to what a story is. And it will start with our writing.

Breaking the Legacy of Rome

The papers are having a field day with Sky Atlantic’s new series, Britannia: TV hacks have rolled out their favourite punch lines from High Claudius to ‘Turn on, tune in and drop out’ – which says rather more, I think, about TV critics and the astonishingly narrow boundaries of their worlds, than it does about the series.

Because actually, as long as we’re not trying to pretend that Britannia is historically accurate, it’s brilliant.

Let’s get the anachronisms out of the way: riders mount horses with stirrups.  Ouch.  That was the killer years ago with Gladiator: stirrups didn’t come until the Normans, which may be one of the several reasons why Romans left most of the cavalry action to tribal peoples – like the Celts – who were good at leaping up onto a stationary (or moving) horse.  The ‘citadel’ of the Regnae feels to me like a mediaeval castle, and there’s no way that the late pre Roman iron age tribes of southern England were living in anything that had rooms and courtyards. In Britannia, even the peasant huts have separate indoor loos. And then there’s the mediaeval pentangles the ‘woman-gone-to-the-bad’ chalks on the floor to call a demon…

So this isn’t history, this is high fantasy without the elves, dwarves or dragons (yet).  But nobody is pretending anything different and the point is that we can relate to these people in ways that might be a lot harder if they were living all in a roundhouse with no slaves, and no wall torches and no horses more than 13 hands high, mounted by a leap up, rather than a stirrup.

We are the inheritors of Rome

Because we, their descendants, are the inheritors of four hundred years of Roman occupation and, sad to say, we haven’t shed the impact yet.  We drink alcohol, often to excess, despite the statistics of how much damage it does to individuals and society. At the same time, we lock people up if they take hallucinogens that might brighten their lives, but make them less likely to live in the ridiculous wage-slavery that the current system imposes. 

Because the system is king.  ‘Do you know what the Roman Empire runs on?’ asks David Morrisey in his role as Aulus Plautius, the Roman general?  ‘Taxes.’  And he’s right.  Not gold, or slaves or legions, though all three are involved, but taxation of conquered peoples who send back a proportion of their value to Rome, so that the one percent of the one percent can have households of five hundred slaves to do all the work without having to lift a finger.  And if that sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is. 

The Romans left in the middle of the fifth century, but we never really recovered.  We live (or pretend to) in nuclear families where, even today, your mother’s name is not on your wedding certificate, only that of your father, and your husband, and if you don’t know your father’s name, it’s left blank, and let’s not go into the gory details of gender imbalance: just leave it as said that inequality has been part of the fabric since the Romans stamped their great fat sandaled feet all over what was, by all accounts, a far more equal society.  We live in an economic system where money is everything and the size of the tax take limits the government’s range of actions.  When Britain was blithely conquering half the world, that was fine. Today, it’s unworkable, we just haven’t got around to reminding people of this fact.  We’re sexually, economically and culturally hidebound and we think this is normal.

But maybe now is the time to let go.  Perhaps Jez Butterworth’s rampage through the mythology of our past will be the catalyst to create the new mythology we need for our future.  Perhaps, at last, we’re ready to turn on, tune in and… at least allow ourselves to think more deeply about the nature of consciousness, and how rigid ours has become. 

Some people are already doing this

If you listen to the Waking Up podcasts of philosopher, neurophysiologist and provocateur Sam Harris (one of his early books is ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’, explaining why atheism was the only moral way forward in America), he spends  a lot of time delving deep into the nature of consciousness.  In a recent podcast, Harris interviewed Anil K Seth of the University of Sussex ( ) who claims that we hallucinate our conscious realities – and so our ‘objective’ reality is little more than a massed agreement on the structure of our fantasies.   More than that, Seth says several times that ‘Change of perception is not the perception of change’.  Apparently if you put people in a lab and ask them to view a landscape, and slowly change the background from green to red (or vice versa), they don’t notice – as long as the change is slow enough. 

Think about this for a moment: reality is what we choose it to be.  If that doesn’t scramble your day, nothing will.  But imagine now that we lived as our ancestors did, that had no jobs, but full employment; that we had no mortgages, but lifelong, comfortable homes; that we had no social media contacts, but a tribe in which we grew to adulthood in safety; that the sexual constraints of gender and sexual preference did not exist; that monogamy was not the norm; that children were raised by the village, not the biological parents.

And yes, it’s not impossible that drugs other than alcohol were a part of the picture: one of the few relics of the Boudican era is from the ‘Doctor’s Grave’ in Colchester where a skeleton was found with a set of weird instruments whose purpose we haven’t yet figured out… and a tea pot, in the strainer of which, was caught fragments of the herb Mugwort, which certainly changes our perceptions of reality if taken in ceremony.

We look back and think our ancestors were older versions of ourselves, living in harsher conditions, but what Britannia does wonderfully well, is to remind us that tribe is everything. And reality is what we choose it to be.

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