In 43CE our little island was invaded by the western world’s only superpower.
Claudius, an obscure non-entity had been elevated to Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful army by fluke of history and accident of birth. Political weakness and the chance of plunder were Claudius’s main reasons for invasion, but fears of British based religious extremists plotting terrorism in occupied Gaul provided the excuse.
Roman shock and awe led to quick victory and Claudius was shipped over for a mock battle near Colchester where amongst his war elephants he declared “Mission Accomplished”. The tribes of Britain were now Britannia. Civilisation had arrived.
Then in 410CE it all came to an end.
Duel on a Dark Mountain
1600 years later I am in Wales and, yes, it is raining.
Romanisation has become Globalisation, and we are part of a new Empire that straddles the entire globe. It is seemingly as universal and unassailable as Rome at its height, but here in Wales I found people planning for what happens after it has gone.
The event I’m at is called Uncivilisation, a cultural event that describes itself as a "training camp for the unknown world ahead". Set amongst the hills of Llangollen you can tell it’s an environmentalists convention by the scent of wood smoke and curried lentils. There are tents, camper vans and a strange space age contraption that is apparently called a hexayurt.
The usual suspects seem to be lurking around, and those not reading The Guardian appear to work for the paper. All very cosy and comforting to someone like me, but there are some worrying signs stuck up: “There is no Plan B”, “Myth of Progress”, “Age of Ecocide”, “Time to Look Down” and “A Fall is Coming”. They’re an optimistic lot I see.
Uncivilisation is part of the Dark Mountain project, started a year ago by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. Kingsnorth, a writer for The Ecologist and The Guardian describes himself as a “recovering environmentalist”. What he claims to be recovering from is the delusion that our way of life is sustainable, that wind farms, solar power and tidal barrages will be enough to make a future that is cleaner, greener and more just, but otherwise identical to the present.
However Kingnorth wasn’t the only Guardian scribbler there. George Monbiot, fearless columnist, was along too. Monbiot and Kingsnorth had sparred before and Monbiot was there to make a robust defence of “Social Democracy 2.0” and to tell us why he wasn’t climbing any dark mountains yet.
Kingsnorth opted out personal combat with the mighty Monbiot and instead sent poor old Dougald up in his place. Monbiot had clearly arrived in pugilistic form, perhaps expecting he was being set up as the ritual sacrifice to the Dark Mountain faithful. Using the polemic tactics with which he has dispatched numerous Climate Change deniers he put Hine firmly on the spot for some of the things written in the Dark Mountain prospectus and book.
George has no time for a post-Apocalyptic world where all a man needs to make his way is some stubble, a mullet and a sawn off shotgun even if the women are beautiful and deadly and clad entirely in fitted leather. If he did he would spend more Saturday nights in Basingstoke.
The system we are fighting, he told the festival, is more robust than we give it credit for. Oil may peak, but it won't run out, and coal seems to be going to last almost forever. Though the biosphere may wither and the climate boil, industrial capitalism will blunder on - unless we do something to stop it, and nihilism and taking to the hills to live solitary and frugal lives in hexayurts will not do that.
So don’t give up progress, he said. Don’t expect an ecological apocalypse to do the hard work for you. We either campaign for a better world, or get a worse one.
I’m not sure they’re planning on inviting him back next year.
What the Romans Really Did For Us
If Hine felt Monbiot had been a touch ungrateful after they’d kindly invited him along, it was as nothing to how the Romans felt towards the Iceni in 60CE.
The Romans had expected to be welcomed with open arms by the tribe, after wiping out the Catuvellauni, their chief rivals. But revelations of the torture and ill treatment of a captive Queen and her daughters led to a revolt which nearly swept the Romans into the sea.
But they recovered, and eventually occupied Britain for more than three and a half centuries - a longer period of time than that which separates us from Oliver Cromwell.
It couldn’t last forever though. By the start of the fifth century the barbarians were at the gate. In 407CE the Legions departed. In 410CE the Emperor rejected a plea for help. The porticoes crumbled, the baths silted up and dinner parties came to an end.
Britannia had become a failed state.
The Unknown World Ahead
Compared to that our Credit Crunch has been rather mild. The instruments of our enslavement to the consumer culture are still there and most people are hopeful of a return to the good times.
But maybe also cultures don’t need to actually be destroyed to collapse. The historian Arnold Toynbee believed that Rome was doomed the moment they stopped expanding and built Hadrian’s wall. Their economy had been built on plunder and their self respect on a belief in a mission to Romanise the whole world. Once there were no more conquests, once it was apparent that there were barbarians who would never be Roman, it was the beginning of the end.
Our economy is based on the presumption of infinite growth, and even if we don’t voluntarily put the brakes on to save the biosphere, Peak Oil, the time when oil production falls and demand continues to rise, may do the job instead.
How will we feel when progress comes to an end? When each generation is little worse off than the one before? We may not have long to wait to find out.
So what actually happens when civilisations do collapse?
The cities were mostly abandoned and life moved to the countryside. Roman life evidently carried on in some places, but it was a mean and miserable existence compared with the glory of the Empire’s height. The archaeology shows decline, entrenchment and insecurity. But what where they afraid of?
Barbarians certainly, but possibly ones closer to home than many suppose. In Gaul there was a peasants revolt which was suppressed by Imperial troops. Could it be that in Britain there was a similar uprising only, with no Legions coming to help, here the peasants won?
A People’s Republic of Britannia, what would that look like? lt could have been a wild a lawless place of ruined cities and roving gang, a fifth century Bosnia or Iraq. Or it could be that country life continued as it had only freed of the Roman yoke and a parasitic elite.
A surviving Roman comedy called Querolus, tentatively dated to this time and set in Gaul, gives us a clue. In it the peasants sit in court under an oak tree dispensing “woodland law”. It is a land where, by prudish Roman standards, “anything goes”.
Might these newly free and licentious peasants perhaps also now have woodland gods along with their woodland law?
At the start of their occupation the Romans had felled the sacred groves of the druids, and by the end they had imposed a centralised form of Christianity. But with the legions gone, the Roman Church left behind didn‘t seem to be in great shape.. According to the monk Gildas “Britain has priests, but they are fools.” Was this fifth century Liberation Theology?
Into all this at some point drift the Anglo-Saxons. A vigorous and independently minded people who rejuvenated a tired land, according to the traditional view. Violent invaders who ethnically cleaned the local Celts through a system of apartheid according to a more modern take.
And amongst these shadows there rides the figure of Arthur. Defender of Christianity against the pagans? Champion of the native Celts opposing German aggressors? Or maybe first amongst equals fighting the return of tyranny and privilege?
The truth is obscure, but what we do know is the stories that were told of this time and perhaps in a way this is more important, for it is by the stories we tell that we really reveal who we are.
To The Foothills!
Faced with the collapse of civilisation as we know it, stories may seem a strange weapon to arm oneself with, but Dark Mountain believes they will ultimately prove more useful than a shotgun and cellar full of baked beans.
Dark Mountain wants stories. Stories that recapture the vitality of a movement that has grown used to compromise and disappointment. Stories that capture the excitement of a protest camp on the eve of eviction, the simplicity of life in a bender under the stars. Stories that put nature centre stage and say that there is more to ecology than technological fixes.
“Old gods are rearing their heads” it says in the Dark Mountain Manifesto, and so they are, but the Goddess was only noticeable in Llangollen by her absence (although Katherine Jenkins was booked for the following month).
So why don’t we help them out with our stories?
I share most, if not all, of Monbiot’s concerns, but I like the sound of Dark Mountain. There are stories that need to be told, and Pagans are good at telling stories.
If anyone wants to join these strange dreamers I’m sure they’d be more than welcome.
The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain (Neil Faulkner)
Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain (John Peddie)
A Study of History (Arnold Toynbee)
Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England (Mark G Thomas, Michael P.H Stumpf, and Heinrich Härke)
For more on Dark Mountain