The benefits of empire?
One of the spin-offs of working with the BBC Roman drama-doc was a visit to the film locations in Tunisia (not a free visit, I should add, before outraged licence payers sound off to the Director General).
I had expected Tunisia to be a concrete jungle of ghastly beach hotels. And in part it was exactly that. Indeed the brand new motorways speeding down to the south of the country suggested that more similar resorts would soon be on their way. But there was a lot more to it than that.
Tunisia is a country that seems defined, for better or worse, by centuries of foreign imperialism -- most recently by the French. There are a couple of streets in the centre of the capital Tunis itself that could almost be mistaken for Paris (with exactly the same lines of trees, the characteristic lamp-posts and advertising hoardings). And everyone I met spoke French as well as Arabic – showing how language, just as in ex-British India, can somehow survive political revolution.
In fact, to judge from what I’ve read (mostly guidebook history, it must be confessed), the conduct of the French on the Tunisian/Algerian border in the mid years of the twentieth century was not much different from that of the Israelis recently in Lebanon. So the current good sense of the French government in modern geo-politics suggests either that they have learned the lesson of their colonial mistakes – or that they have a real nerve to preach at the rest of us, however worthy the message.
That said, I was more interested in the Roman empire of 2000 years ago.
Ancient empires were no nicer or less brutal than modern ones. But thousands of years do tend to take the edge off colonial oppression. The Roman empire now represents more a shared ancestry than a memory of exploitation; it is bonding more than divisive. Touring Tunisian museums and looking at the familiar Roman pottery and sculpture, bronze figurines of Roman gods and goddesses, and the mosaics of classical mythology or animal hunts, is bound to remind us of our common Roman heritage. When you look at the museum cases, it’s hard not to reflect that you would find much the same kind of stuff in Colchester or Chester – except that in Tunisia (a more up-market Roman province) the quality of the art is all just a little bit better.
To put it another way, wherever I go in what was once the Roman world, I feel somehow at home – at least to the extent of knowing that we have all shared the problem of what to do with our Roman past. From Spain to Syria, we all have a Roman story rooted deep into our cultural heritage.
That is not to say that there are not surprises in every Roman museum you enter. Visiting the exquisite museum at El Djem last week (where you can also find the most impressive amphitheatre anywhere in the world), I saw something that I never imagined I would ever see. Ever since I was an undergraduate, I have been taught to regard as a simple fantasy the old idea that Roman “realistic” portraiture somehow derived from a Roman tradition of death masks. Lifelike masks they certainly had; but there is no evidence at all that the Romans ever took moulds directly from the face of their dead. This is the story I too have passed on to the generations of undergraduates.
But there in the little museum of El Djem was an undeniable example of a Roman death mask. It may have nothing to do with Roman traditions of portraiture. Who knows? But it certainly was what I had always said didn’t exist.