When the Barbarous Brits First Quit Europe

“Whatever their limitations,” he wrote, “the men of the Empire wrought for the betterment and happiness of the world.”

Such a perspective, even in this postcolonial era, has not disappeared. A decade ago, Boris Johnson, a leading Conservative member of Parliament and, until this month, the mayor of London, published a book titled “The Dream of Rome.” In it, he argued that, like the United States, the Roman Empire had served as a great melting pot in which peoples of every conceivable background came to share a common citizenship. When Mr. Johnson wrote that “the European Union can be seen as the inheritor of the Roman Empire,” he meant it.

How things have changed. Now, against the backdrop of a referendum campaign, Mr. Johnson has emerged as the most high-profile enthusiast for Brexit. No longer does he propose that a more Roman-style union would be better for Europe. Instead, he recently denounced the attempt to unite the nations of Europe within a single superstate as a formula for disaster, and predicted that it would doom the Eurocrats of Brussels and Strasbourg as surely as such imperial ambitions had doomed Napoleon and Hitler.

The contradictions in Mr. Johnson’s attitude to the Roman Empire are bred, perhaps, as much by geography as by his own willful and mercurial character. Just as Charles de Gaulle once warned against admitting Britain into the European Union’s predecessor, the Common Market, on the grounds that, as an island nation, Britain would always look to the sea, so Roman ethnographers regarded the Britons as a people apart. The catalog of their barbarisms, from their florid body painting to their taste for milk, even made Rome’s imperial strategists doubt the value of conquering them at all.

Even when, in A.D. 43, they finally decided on an invasion, the advance of the Roman legions was ultimately blunted by the increasingly inhospitable landscape and the savagery of the natives. As a result, the northern outposts were always heavily — and no doubt oppressively — militarized. Historians have aptly described the occupation of the north as Rome’s equivalent of Afghanistan, resistant to all attempts at subjugation. Hadrian’s Wall still stands as a memorial to the failure of the Caesars to subdue the rebellious Picts.

Farther south, however, classical civilization gained a greater hold. From their Continental masters, the native aristocracy acquired a taste for baths, mosaics and central heating; the villas they built during the third and fourth centuries were tributes to Roman taste.

AND yet, even these acculturated Britons remained to some degree outsiders. Unlike their counterparts in Spain and Gaul, they did not enter the highest echelons of imperial society. As late as the mid-fourth century, by which point Britain had been a Roman province for 300 years, the very notion of a cultured Briton could generate snorts of derision. “There’s no such thing as a good Briton,” one Roman author declared, after a British poet had dared to give him a bad review.

Britain would soon become notorious for something far removed from literary criticism: armed insurrection. “Fertile in rebels,” the early Christian theologian St. Jerome wrote of the island. By the time he did so, in 415, Britain’s status as the troublemaker of the Roman world was firmly established. As early as the third century, one insurgent leader declared himself the emperor of Britain and northern Gaul; and in 383, another British warlord crossed the Channel and ruled as emperor in Gaul for five years.

By the early fifth century, it was evident that the imperial authorities, struggling to cope with mass immigration and economic upheaval in their own heartlands, had lost control of Britain. It is possible that they opted deliberately to cut the province loose; but the evidence points to a more startling conclusion. The Britons, so we are told by a near-contemporary historian, “threw off Roman rule, and lived independently, no longer subject to Roman laws.” So, Britain, uniquely among the provinces of the Roman Empire, seems to have chosen exit.

The immediate consequences of this decision verged on the apocalyptic: The British economy imploded, villas and cities were abandoned to weeds, and the province was carved up among warlike tribal invaders. On the other side of the ledger, the upheaval proved, in the long run, to be the making of the English language, the common law and cricket.

That the stakes in June’s referendum are less high can be reckoned, no doubt, a positive. For all that, though, it is not wholly implausible to see in Britain’s status as a reluctant, rebellious, only partly tamed member of the Roman Empire a mirror for our present choice. As it might have been expressed in Latin, “Brexit quondam, Brexitque futurus” — our once and future Brexit.

Tom Holland is a historian and the author, most recently, of Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar.

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