Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

8. A few more thoughts on the curriculum and then... the Romans

The return of the cross-curricular topics to the primary school curriculum is a consequence both of pressure on time and upon a recognition – chiefly expressed in the document ‘Excellence and Enjoyment’ – that primary schools are not the happy and creative places they once were. Most primary school teachers are cross-curricular by instinct. Having to teach the majority of subjects it is natural to them to see where boundaries overlap; when the UK National Curriculum was introduced many experienced teachers found it very difficult to force subjects apart. Even in secondary schools the 1970s had brought considerable subject integration, in part for ‘political’ reasons. Combined into faculties subjects occupied bigger territories within the curriculum and hence more influence and prestige. Moreover curriculum development was easier to bring about within large faculties where the influence of traditionalists was reduced whilst headship of a large faculty provided a natural stepping stone towards senior management. The disadvantages of integration at both primary and secondary level were a certain subjectivity in the choice of content (enthusiasts tended to ‘do their own thing’) and a resulting loss of comparability in terms of assessment. It became much harder to know what pupils were expected to have achieved, especially as integration at secondary level coincided with the widespread adoption of teacher-marked coursework, a development accelerated by the introduction of a common exam at 16+ to replace the old ‘O’ level and CSE. Even before the Education Reform Act of 1988 there were a significant number of voices calling for a tighter control over what was taught. After several well-publicised examples of the failure of so called ‘permissive methods’ the Labour prime-minister James Callaghan initiated a ‘great educational debate’1977.

I doubt whether Callaghan or his education secretary Shirley Williams envisaged a system in which the UK school curriculum could be altered by ministers at will, though this has now been the case for the last twenty years. They simply wanted a discussion which they doubtless hoped would lead to a better dialogue between educationalists and society in general, especially those, like employers, who were the ‘consumers’ of what the school system produced. As we saw earlier, the attitude of the Conservatives was very different. Mrs Thatcher, with her crusading mentality, sensed that there was a socialist dragon lurking in staffrooms and classrooms – and especially in LEA advisory services – that needed to be slain. Surely education was a structured process by which knowledge was acquired, not a vaguer programme of ‘experiences’? In Mrs Thatcher’s view schools needed the discipline of competition to ensure that they concentrated on results and the public needed league tables so that parents could tell which schools were succeeding and which were not. The basis of all this had to be a curriculum susceptible to testing: the topic, with its flexible boundaries and even more flexible learning objectives, appeared to be doomed.

Fortunately most politicians have a short attention span where detail is concerned. Over the years much has been done within individual subjects to mitigate the prescriptive nature of the original national curriculum orders and many primary schools persevered with topics under one guise or another as they regarded the topic approach as the natural way to teach. For their part OFSTED inspectors have always stressed the need to avoid a narrowly subject-based approach, stressing time and again that it leads to very dull teaching. ‘Excellence and Enjoyment’ is really old wine in new bottles but it does represent a genuine attempt to reconcile freedom with accountability. Its underlying message is simple: teachers must possess sufficient understanding of the subjects they are teaching to devise activities which are both creative and incremental in terms of skills and knowledge – and they must keep good enough records to prove it. This is why there has been an emphasis so far on the ‘Greek-ness’ of the Ancient Greeks or the Egyptian-ness of Ancient Egypt. Before a teacher can take his or her learners on an expedition in search of ‘Greek-land’ and so explore all its potential for work across the curriculum he or she must themselves have been there!

The Greek achievement was enormous but it was the Romans, with their gift for organisation, who took the Greek achievement and passed it on to the rest of the world. The Greek city-state or polis, with its few thousand voting citizens, could never have provided a model for the huge nations of today without the added inheritance of an empire based upon allegiance to the state and regulated by systems of impartially administered laws. An Athenian was an Athenian because he was born in Athens but being a Roman meant much more than simply coming from Rome: it meant thinking like a Roman and acting as one. As a unifying idea Rome was, and remains, extraordinarily powerful. Its image still dominates the architecture of capital cities around the globe, and wherever power resides today its external expression is almost always modelled on the empire of the Caesars.

It is with the Romans that Britain emerges into the pages of recorded history. Our first description of the island and its people comes from the pen of Julius Caesar whose two expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC were quickly withdrawn. It is he who gives us the stereotypical picture of the chariot-driving British warrior dressed in little more than ‘woad’ – a blue dye used for body painting. In 43 AD the emperor Claudius – great nephew of Caesar’s adopted heir, Augustus – took advantage of divisions amongst the British tribes to begin a more lasting occupation. Over the next fifty years the Romans fought their way northwards, ending with a great victory over the Caledonian tribes at ‘Mons Graupius’, somewhere in the highlands of Scotland.

According to the historian Tacitus British leader Calgacus made a speech to his troops before the battle. He accused the Romans of being slaves themselves and making slaves of others: ‘the Romans make a wilderness and they call it peace.’ For all its ‘civilising effects’ the Roman empire was first and foremost a military machine, whose benefits were limited to those who gained from the taxes it imposed – in the first instance the population of Rome and secondly the former rulers of the conquered territories who largely escaped the burden. Within two or three generations from the conquest, they are living in palatial villas and building towns like Cirencester, Exeter and Dorchester, complete with temples, baths and grand halls (called basilicas) for the administration of justice. Like all rich people they create a market for luxury goods and specialised skills so that a middle class of traders and craftsmen comes into being to supply their needs.

In Britain there is an added stimulus to economic development. The conquest of the island is never quite completed. After Mons Graupius the Romans withdraw to a line stretching between the River Tyne and the Solway Firth and despite further military campaigns this becomes the final frontier of the empire, with three legions permanently stationed in the province to act as a strategic reserve. Their wages – to which the whole empire contributed - must have ensured that Britain was one of the most prosperous provinces of the empire. Its population certainly seems to have surged. Recent estimates put it at around five million – a level not achieved again until the time of the Tudors. What was effectively a huge free-trade area with unprecedented levels of security encouraged people to travel, so that within a few years of his death the followers of a poor carpenter from Nazareth could be established within Rome itself.

Before starting a journey into ‘Roman-world’ however, we have to ask one question. Why did this one small town in Italy become the seat of the world’s first ‘superpower’? The first answer looks obvious from a map: Rome sits at the geographical centre of the Mediterranean at the first bridging point on the River Tiber.The second seems to lie in a winning habit of mind which the Romans developed during their early struggles with neighbouring towns, during which the city became a republic, expelling its last king around 500 BC when his sons raped the daughters of a noble Roman called Brutus. Under the republican constitution two consuls were elected every year from a senate composed of the heads of leading families. These consuls ran the government and commanded the army. Laws were made by an assembly of all citizens, the people or plebs being represented in their dealings with the senate by one or more tribunes, also elected on an annual basis and inviolable during their period of office. This constitution, complicated as it may seem, meant that many more individuals were involved in the direction of affairs than was the case under the monarchy and that consequently there was greater pool of talent available to do the work of the state. Moreover, it soon became clear that success in war could confer electoral advantage. Ambitious Romans quickly became ‘empire-builders’.

What really moved the Romans from a position of regional influence to one with a global reach was the same kind of ‘near death’ experience to the one that sparked Greece’s great period of creativity. At the end of the third century BC Rome came close to total defeat at the hands of Hannibal, a brilliant general commanding the army of its arch rival in the Western Mediterranean, the north African city of Carthage. This seems to have convinced the Romans that they needed a full-time professional army instead of relying upon the male population to leave their ordinary occupations and turn out as and when needed. From then on the backbone of the Roman army were the legions, each of which consisted of five thousand heavy infantry, carrying all their equipment with them. Wherever the legions went they built roads connecting the provinces of the growing empire together, so that natural limitations of geography were overcome.

With success however, came danger. Like their modern counterparts the Romans were often drawn into the affairs of neighbouring and distant states, frequently discovering that conquest was the only way to ensure stability. Ultimately they had to call a halt, as was the case in Scotland, and from then on they were on the defensive. A defending army develops a different psychology from an aggressive one; moreover it is more likely to become involved in politics. A succession of civil wars led to the direction of affairs being placed in the hands of one man, Augustus, but with no well understood law of succession, the empire was liable to be plunged into chaos whenever there were rival claimants. The most prolonged period of stability occurred between 99 and 180 AD when a sequence of childless emperors adopted capable heirs. It came to end, ironically, with the first emperor to have a son of his body succeed him. The emperor in question was Marcus Aurelius and the worthless son, as all fans of the movie Gladiator know, was called Commodus.

As a film, one of Gladiator’s strong points was the reality it brought to life the relationship between a successful commander and his men. The veteran soldiers of Maximus’ army are not shown as so many mannequins on parade but as individuals scarred by battle and held together by loyalty and the confidence that – as professionals in a world of amateurs – they have the skills and technology to overcome an enemy more than equal to them in physical strength and numbers. ‘Few men are born brave,’ says the Roman author Vegetius, ‘but training makes them so.’ In other words what Calgacus mistook for slavery was the discipline that can still make an army out of what Colonel Richard Holmes calls the ‘Play Station Generation’. The villains and the heroes of this process are the NCOs – corporals and sergeants – whose aggressive treatment of new recruits is designed to engender comradeship in adversity. In the Roman army this role was played by the centurions and their assistants through whom – as today – the traditions of the army as well as its expertise were passed on. When such men were killed in large numbers – as they were when legion fought legion in civil war – the empire as a whole took much longer to recover.

Young men normally joined the legions at the age of seventeen after passing tests of fitness and suitability. They could retire after twenty five years service when they were normally assigned a place in a veteran’s colony – one of the most important ways in which new provinces were ‘romanised’. The basic unit of the Roman army was the eight man squad called a contubernium from the name of the tent the legionaries shared when out on campaign. In a typical Roman barrack block ten contubernii were housed in a row, each occupying a section of the building that consisted of an outer room for keeping equipment and an inner one for sleeping. The rooms were small and the beds must have been arranged like bunks. At the end of the block their centurion enjoyed rather more spacious accommodation, reflecting his salary, which was many times larger than that of the ordinary legionary. Members of a contubernium would fight alongside each other in battle, take meals together and doubtless share off-duty pleasures also. Only death or promotion separated them.

And this is perhaps the point to deal with the thorny question of sexuality which older learners are certain to raise. As is well known the classical world recognised same sex relationships as normal and did not clearly differentiate gender orientation in the same way that we do. Nevertheless there were clear boundaries to what was thought acceptable. For a man to be a passive partner in a sexual act implied effeminacy or social inferiority. Legionaries, who addressed one another as ‘brothers’, are most unlikely to have become involved in such behaviour, though – like rugby teams today - they probably indulged in horseplay at each other’s expense. In any case they had plenty of opportunities for sexual gratification in the ‘red light’ districts that existed outside any permanent fort.

From time to time however legionaries formed longer lasting and more serious attachments to local women. They were not supposed to marry but the tombstones of men who describe themselves as born ex castris (outside the fort) suggest that unofficial liaisons existed which were made permanent when the legionary retired. Legionaries could also take leave when they may have visited girlfriends living elsewhere in the empire. Doubtless they suffered the same anxiety about the faithfulness of ‘partners’ left at home as modern troops do.