I am a little over half way through the first of Stephen Baxter’s Time’s Tapestry series. So far, in a nutshell, it has been about the Roman conquest of Britain… and I have been struck by the odd thought, from reading its descriptions of Roman towns and the Roman way of life, that not a lot has changed. Not since that time. Not since the monumental upheaval of having Roman-ness, the Roman empire, imposed upon the simpler, more anarchic, more “barbarian” culture that previously existed in Britain. Society hasn’t changed all that much… but also what hasn’t really changed is our ultimate acceptance of a system which is imposed upon us.
In Roman times (if one is to accept the apparent factuality upon which Stephen Baxter’s story is based), the Romans sought not only to conquer, but to assimilate. They didn’t want to merely subjugate the populations of these conquered lands, to occupy these territories, but to transform them wholeheartedly into provinces of Rome. Not just the roads, the towns, the mountains, the rivers, but the hearts and minds of the people would become Roman – such that they would forget the violence, the death, the terror which brought about this unprecedented and swift reshaping of their land and culture. Or if not forget, they would see that it was all in a good cause – it was a means to a necessary and beneficial end.
Much has happened in subsequent centuries… Rome has “fallen.” Those countries over whom the mighty Roman empire once held sway now have other political, cultural, religious systems forming the glue of their societies… but what, in essence, is really so different? Speaking at least from the perspective of present-day Britain, we are born into a complex system of taxes, laws, social and economic structures, which we perceive as embodying the right and proper and “good” ways to live our lives. We are intrinsically bound into this system, which, even if we possessed the will to do so, it would be virtually impossible to release ourselves from. Because of this lack of will, or the lack of means, we are forced to believe that this system embodies the only sensible (and even morally appropriate) way things can be run – our society, our legal system, our educational system, our transport system, our economy and so on… barring, that is, any slight deviations, of which any desire for such can be expressed through the vote. How can we conceive of, let alone hope to bring about, any significant changes to what we have grown up with, to what our whole society has grown up with, to what has become so ingrained in our hearts and minds? It seems almost impossible to think of any viable, workable, even morally acceptable alternatives…
I am not intending here to present to you some sort of Manifesto for a Better Life… It is not even the purpose of this piece to say for definite that things could be substantially better (I happen to believe that they could, but I will speak of/have spoken of such things elsewhere!). What I want to say, however, is that we should not become like those passive subjects of Rome who, having first arrived at the realisation that the might of their conquerors is irresistible, have then, perhaps as a means of dealing with their powerlessness, accepted and even come to believe in the rightness, the moral superiority of their new masters. Whether or not we believe in the principles of the systems (social, political, cultural, religious) which are imposed upon us, we should not merely accept the inevitability of those systems. Whether or not we possess the means or the desire to affect change, or even to extract ourselves from these systems, we should always be open to the possibility of change. We should always be ready to spring forth into newness. We should always be ready to see beyond the blinding whiteness of the marble edifices of Rome.