When the BBC made a cartoon to educate schoolchildren about life in Roman Britain, it was hardly expecting controversy.
But the inclusion of a high-ranking black soldier in its depiction of a ‘typical Roman family’ has caused an almighty fall-out, with the historian Mary Beard facing a barrage of abuse for arguing that it was historically correct.
Prof Beard, a Cambridge University classicist and television presenter, said the cartoon was “indeed pretty accurate”, adding that “there’s plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain”.
She made her comments on Twitter, and the response was swift. Users of the social media site dubbed her a “batty old broad” and a “pretentious know-nothing”, despite her scholarly record.
Among her fiercest critics was a US-Lebanese economist, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who described Prof Beard as a member of the “politically correct Gestapo”. He claimed that “scholarship is dead in the UK”.
Support came from JK Rowling, who said Prof Beard had been voicing an “expert opinion”, and from Jess Phillips MP, who wrote: “Remember women, keep being clever and opinionated, that’s what decent people see and admire.”
Prof Beard temporarily withdrew from Twitter, saying she was in danger of losing her “usual courteous patience”.
Instead she wrote a blog post in which she explained that she thought the BBC character was loosely based on Quintus Lollius Urbicus, a man from what is now Algeria, who became governor of Britain around AD139.
She said: “One thing is for sure, the Roman empire – Britain included – was culturally and ethnically diverse, from the Syrians in Bath, to Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Ethiopian who met Septimius Severus on Hadrian’s Wall and the wonderful couple from South Shields, Barates and Queenie (‘Regina’), he from Palmyra, she an Essex girl.
“There is no doubt about that. The trouble is that pinning this down in specific cases to precise ethnicities is much harder than many would like and it requires an array of historical and scientific techniques.”
It is impossible to estimate what proportion of people living in Roman Britain were from ethnic minorities, she said, because “we have really no clue how many people lived in Britain then anyway” and “typicality is pretty meaningless when there would be such huge discrepancies between urban and rural communities, militarised and non-militarised zones.”