In 225AD a tall fair-haired woman called Julia Aurelianus lives in a pretty townhouse in Aquae Sulis (modern Bath). Julia is an independent woman of means, a cultured high-status aristocrat and a healer who works at the clinic attached to the temple of Sulis Minerva. She is an educated, sophisticated citizen of the Roman Empire, living nearly two hundred years after the Roman invasion of Britain. She believes the Roman Empire will last for ever. But at the same time, she is a proud Durotrigian, with deep roots in a British identity, and a leading role as a tribal noble.
Julia has a past, which she keeps hidden from her family and friends. It involves a fellow Roman citizen, from a faraway corner of Europe. He comes to work in Britain as a very young man, but has to go home when his family needs him. One day many years later the foreigner comes back, now a seasoned traveller with a high-profile pan-European career and secrets of his own. Julia has to make choices, and decide who she really wants and who she will be.
Julia of course has never existed beyond my imagination, in my current novel The Governor’s Man. But she could have done. Her generation was so long part of the Roman Empire they could not have conceived of life outside it. And yet she lived happily within the traditional culture of her British tribe, too. It was a time of multiple identities, and people seem to have accepted that as natural. It was not the first time the people of these islands have been part of a wider European culture, but it was the first time in British history that being part of a continental community, being a European, was recorded for posterity.
Rome wasn’t all straight roads and central heating. People moaned about taxes, complained about European bureaucrats, often demanded reform. Even so, for four hundred years after Boudicca’s rebellion very few Britons apparently wanted to give up their Continental way of life, their standard of living, their dual identity as Romano-British.
When the inconceivable happened sometime after 410AD and the union was dissolved, leaving Britain facing a hostile world alone, the British certainly had a tough time. Hundreds of years of tough times: the Dark Ages. Some Romano-Britons in the south-west of England defended their European identity for nearly three hundred years before their civilisation was swept away. Today we call their most prominent war leader Arthur.
For me, the importance of Julia’s story is that being British doesn’t mean not being European. Doesn’t have to mean rejecting a bigger, more diverse community for the sake of false national pride. It isn’t about closing down borders, turning our backs on the Continent, shutting out foreigners. We can be proud Britons and committed Europeans, working together for peace, prosperity and wider community. We should think again about remaining a key part of something significant, and not lose our way in the world.
We should reject a return to the Dark Ages.