Thursday, September 14, 2006

When in Britain, do as the Romans do

Americans often say they love Britain for its “sense of history.” I think that I am more fascinated with the history ignored.

Much our official introduction to London over the past two weeks has been the history of this island. We have been to the Museum of London, the Tate Britain gallery and heard professors tell us of British culture and art.

You quickly realize that Americans have only a nominal grasp of “history.” And event that happened 200 years ago is more like old news to the British than it is historical.

Even so, I’m astounded by how easily we forget our past. Everywhere we turn we hear of lessons unheeded or that simply faded away.

On my last trip, I was surprised to learn that Great Britain was a thriving part of the Roman
Empire for more than 300 years. If the fact that England was Latin for longer than we have been a country was in my history books, I completely missed it.

But the bigger surprise was how civilized and comfortable that Roman life was. The Museum of London has several typical Roman living rooms based on UK excavations. As one might expect, the room where the governor or similar leaders lived was palatial – far nicer than any house I have lived in. But I don’t think most Americans would feel the middle class home was “primitive.” And even the working class home was as nice as most summer cabins.

My students were rather amazed to find that the Roman culture was very extensive in Britain and enjoy mostly by native Britons rather than Italians.

So what happened here? Britain went from flush toilets and central heating to open sewers and pigsties and smoking fire pits. It took more than 1,400 years to regain the general level of comfort and sanitation that the Roman Britons enjoyed. The lesson for me was not to take technology for granted – it can be (and has been) erased from our society in a historical eye blink.

We often talk of our lapse into mediocrity as "Dark Ages." I can't help but think "Dumb Ages" is a better description.

No comments: