It is 43 AD. Britain. A young girl is on the verge of an initiation ceremony that will nudge her into adulthood via chanting, dancing and something nasty with a knife. Zoë Wanamaker as Antedia, warrior queen of a British clan, is magnificent in electric-blue eyeshadow and bird’s nest hair. A mysterious outcast from the druids is receiving signs – from the badgers and the frogs, among other authorities – that something in Albion is badly amiss. Mackenzie Crook, who has clearly spent hours in makeup, is listing and swaying menacingly, face caked with clay-coloured grime, high as a kite on some nameless drug. Crook, a cadaverous vision, is the druidic leader, Veran.
Meantime, just over the Channel on the northern shore of Gaul, a Roman general is on the brink of invading Britain, surveying a bunch of foot soldiers who have expressed, let us say, reservations about crossing a (reputedly) giant-squid-filled ocean to take arms against a barbarous, terrifying land full of magic and human sacrifice. “What’s the punishment for mutiny, Lucius?” roars David Morrissey’s Aulus Plautius, as he pours himself a glass of finest Falernian (an action he repeats, with cloak-swirling dash, on multiple occasions).
This is Britannia, a hugely fun, extremely violent, new series for Sky Atlantic about the Roman invasion of Britain – the second, successful one, by the emperor Claudius, rather than the unsuccessful, probably rather shambolic attempts made by Julius Caesar. Jez Butterworth, author of the hit plays Jerusalem and The Ferryman, co-writer of the James Bond movie Spectre, is behind the series, with fellow writers Tom Butterworth (his brother) and James Richardson. It is not the first time he has visited Roman Britain: there was, in 2007, a film called The Last Legion, described by Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw as riper than “a hunk of old Brie, left all day in a glove compartment in a car” – proof that even a great writer is not immune to the occasional flop.
Butterworth has made it clear in interviews that he is not too worried about historical accuracy: and why should he be? He is a storyteller, not a professor of classics. And he has long been enchanted by the myths of Britain, by its old gods and spirits – a preoccupation of Jerusalem, with its intimations of the uncanny and the numinous, the hint that the mythical British giants Gog and Magog might one day, quite soon, wake.
And yet in one way, Britannia – marvellously preposterous as it frequently seems, with its lurid scenes of drugged up, orgiastic druidic rites – is firmly within a tradition of writing, thinking and fantasising about Roman Britain. This tradition was begun by the Romans themselves – the first people to conjure the idea of “Britain” into life through writing.
The most compelling picture we have of the Celtic, iron age tribes of Britain, for example, comes from the way the Romans wrote about them. One such author, Julius Caesar, was writing from first-hand experience, though doubtless not without spin and certainly with prejudice. Another, Tacitus, perhaps the greatest of Roman historians, offered often cynical and piquant critiques of the exercise of Roman power in works that included a biography of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a governor of Britain for several years. We have, too, the writings of ordinary Roman officers, vivid snatches of real life in the form of letters and memos preserved from the late first century AD in the mud of northern England (the famous Vindolanda tablets, discovered in the 1970s and 1980s).
So while Butterworth gives us warlike warrior queens in their chariots, it is the Romans who offered the first vivid accounts of such characters. Boudicca, according to Tacitus, ravaged and almost completely defeated the Roman forces in the 60s AD. (She wasn’t alone: the Yorkshire tribe of the Brigantes was also presided over by a queen, Cartimandua, who was friendly to the Romans.) And when Butterworth depicts the Britons as a shifty lot of argumentative, warring tribes, making alliances with the invaders when it suited them, that’s the picture we get from the Romans, too.
One pretext for invading Britain was, according to the historian Cassius Dio, that a British potentate called Berikos had been expelled from Britain and sought asylum in Rome; Claudius was thus intervening to restore order, the kind of excuse for military action by a superpower that we might recognise from later eras. More important may have been the need for a big symbolic victory to shore up his reign’s shaky start: he had been installed on the imperial throne after his nephew, Caligula, was assassinated by his own elite bodyguard.
By depicting the Britons as decidedly outlandish, if not a touch freakish, Butterworth has also developed a Roman literary trope – one rather undercut by recent archaeological evidence that suggests, at least in south-east Britain, a people strongly influenced by and connected to Roman Gaul, with elites enjoying Roman wine and Mediterranean figs. But in Roman literature, Britain is a byword for remoteness and peculiarity, both before its (partial) conquest and afterwards, when large tracts of it had become an artery in the complex system of bureaucracy, military might and trade that kept the Roman empire functioning.
Somehow it always suited Rome to consider Britain as “quite cut off from the world”, as Virgil put it. Butterworth’s joke, in his opening scene, about Roman soldiers being afraid of giant squid in the seas around Britain is not so far from what was actually said. Tacitus wrote of the country’s bizarre currents and tides that nature behaved differently at the edge of the world.
Depictions of druids form part of this exoticism. Caesar’s descriptions of this powerful people convey a picture of unimaginably superstitious creatures who sacrificed humans in strange wickerwork structures (yes, the origins of the “wicker man” are here). One can imagine scary passages giving readers, particularly those safely tucked up in Rome, a delicious frisson of distant danger. Pliny the Elder wrote: “Even today Britain practises magic in awe, with such grand ritual that it might seem that she gave it to the Persians.” The Britons and the Persians. Weirdos, the lot of them.
One of the most intriguing characteristics of Roman writing was its ability to give voice, character and point of view to the empire’s bitterest foes. There is a strong sense (as ancient historian Greg Woolf has pointed out) that Tacitus, in his biography of his father-in-law Agricola, was creating a stage on which the governor could appear both heroic and, importantly, unbesmirched by the moral corruption of Rome itself. And so Tacitus gave Agricola adversaries worthy of him, such as the Caledonian chief Calgacus who, about to be defeated at the battle of Mons Graupius, delivers a speech to his troops containing the immortal line that the Romans “create a desert and call it peace”.
There’s no evidence that Calgacus really did deliver such a speech. It seems highly unlikely and, even if he did, one can’t imagine how Tacitus would have accessed an accurate record of it. But the episode certainly scorches Calgacus into the mind: he is the first named character in the late-19th-century frieze of heroes that adorns the great hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and the aphorism attributed to him has echoed down the ages. It is characters like this who are the ancestors of Kelly Reilly’s flame-haired, bow-and-arrow-wielding Kerra in Britannia.
Butterworth is about to begin writing a second series. There is plenty of room for more. Rome’s conquest of Britain was always shaky and incomplete – the province was, Mary Beard has provocatively suggested, “Rome’s Afghanistan”, a long-term thorn in the side of its would-be masters. There are another 400 years of Romano-British history to go. Just as important for the writer, there are innumerable gaps in our knowledge – and that is the void into which the imagination of a writer may flow. Butterworth, with his psychedelic, spooky, sex-obsessed Britons, is not the first to try to fill it, nor will he be the last.