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A Cartoon's Black Star Prompts A Fight: What Did Roman Britain Look Like?

In a brief BBC cartoon posted to YouTube late last December, a high-ranking Roman soldier and his family tackle the challenges of daily life in ancient Britain. The dad is off helping build the famed Hadrian's wall at the province's far northern edge; the son tries to make right for losing his father's scarf. Everyone ends up happy ever after.

Yet benign as its plot may seem, this little film — which, sadly is only available for British viewers — has stirred up a big fight on social media. And it all revolves around the color of the leading characters' skin.

Paul Joseph Watson, editor at Alex Jones' far-right Infowars website, fired the first volley late last month, casting the educational video as an anachronistic attempt "to re-write history to pretend Britain always had mass immigration."

"Thank God the BBC is portraying Roman Britain as ethnically diverse," Watson tweeted. "I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?"

Historians — i.e., people who make their living caring about historical accuracy — promptly replied to the tweet. Several, including teacher Mike Stuchbery, offered some colorfully worded rebuttals, among other things saying, "Roman Britain was ethnically diverse, almost by design."

But no one's response drew more attention — or more backlash — than that of Mary Beard, a Cambridge classics professor who "has spent her career working through the texts and source materials of ancient Rome," according to Fresh Air in 2015.

The cartoon "is indeed pretty accurate," Beard tweeted in response to Watson, "there's plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain."

The argument, as Beard and several other historians laid it out, was that for an empire that extended from Britain to North Africa — and from Spain to Syria — it was "unsurprising" to see nonwhite faces so far north. Soldiers were drawn from around the empire, and the University of Reading's Matthew Nicholls noted several instances of Africans serving on Hadrian's Wall specifically.

"I think, for example, that the BBC character was loosely based (with a bit of a chronological shift) on Quintus Lollius Urbicus, a man from what is now Algeria, who became governor of Britain," Beard elaborated in the Times Supplement of London last week. "You can still visit his grand tomb at Tiddis."

What followed her original response, though, was "a torrent of aggressive insults, on everything from my historical competence and elitist ivory tower viewpoint to my age, shape and gender (batty old broad, obese, etc etc)," she wrote in the Supplement.

Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb — who has also been featured on NPR, by the way — also waded into the fray, turning to genetic statistics to argue against Beard's point and calling her argument "BS" (and terms more colorful). And that string included this taunt: "I get more academic citations per year than you got all your life!"

Still, many historians did have their say — in favor of Beard's dissent. (Another statistician supported Beard, as well.)

On Monday, Beard's employer, the University of Cambridge, supplied a defense of its own, noting "the evidence is in fact overwhelming that Roman Britain was indeed a multi-ethnic society.

"This was not, of course, evenly spread through the province," the Cambridge faculty of classics continued, "and it would have been infinitely more noticeable — it can be assumed — in an urban or military context than in a rural one."

Still, the university expressed optimism on one point: "We do hope participants in the public discussion and others will want to learn more about this subject."

Then they offered a reading list — for all the disinterested onlookers who would like to decide for themselves.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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