Ancient ancestors

Identification with the inhabitants of Britain in Roman times was encouraged by the civic pageants. These began in the late 19th century but were turned into a craze after 1905, when in Sherborne, Dorset, 800 people participated in a show. It chronicled episodes in local history and was watched by 30,000. The numbers involved in pageants suggest that they ‘cannot simply be seen as “topdown” efforts by upper-middle-class instigators to impose culture on the uneducated masses’.26 Pleas for participants often needed to be made in newspapers, and roles were sought after keenly by women across the class system.27 Most pageants affirmed nationalist and imperial values, but some assumed a more challenging political hue. When advocate of agricultural workers’ rights Constance Smedley led 1,300 performers in ‘A Pageant of Progress’ in Stroud in 1911, with the intention of ‘uncovering the hideous conditions round us’, it was seen by the local wealthy to ‘teem with political propaganda’, indeed to be ‘socialistic’.28

In Wales and the West Country, the star of the opening ancient history episode was usually Caractacus (who, as we have seen in Chapter 12, was the subject of numerous indoor stage performances at this time). In East Anglia, at

‘The Forum at Aquae Sulis, with Façade of Roman Baths and Temple’, reproduced from a copy of Bath Historical Pageant

FIGURE 19.5 ‘The Forum at Aquae Sulis, with Façade of Roman Baths and Temple’, reproduced from a copy of Bath Historical Pageant: Book of Words (1909) in Hall’s personal collection.

the 1907 Pageant of Bury St. Edmund’s, Boudicca was portrayed as a terrifying warrior in a horse-drawn chariot, defiant against the tyrannical Roman governor Faustinus, played with relish by the Mayor.29 In Bath, a special sequence was devised in ‘The Forum at Aquae Sulis, with Façade of Roman Baths and Temple’; (Figure 19.5) a procession by the Twentieth Legion and elaborate rituals accompanied the dedication of the temple of Sulis in the 2nd century ce.30

Part I scene 2 of the 1911 Pageant of London was ‘Roman London: The Triumph of Carausius’. This tried to make the best of the occupation of ancient Britain by an empire centred in Italy. In Carausius, it focussed on the 3rd-cen-tury commander from Belgic Gaul who, according to Aurelius Victor, Eutropius and Orosius,31 seceded from Rome and declared himself independent Emperor of Britain and northern Gaul (Imperium Britanniarum). The London Pageant was set by the Thames and used galleys to present him as a great naval commander, a worthy forefather of the Edwardian Britons with their global maritime empire. It invites the audience to draw the parallel:

Carausius is no pageant-emperor— Nor as the symbol of past victory, But as the emblem of great things to be.32

The northern pageants focussed, rather, on the Emperor Hadrian. The Carlisle Pageant of 1928 portrayed Hadrian deciding to fix the northern boundary of the

Roman Empire, and sending off a legion to build his eponymous wall.33 Finally, a remarkable amateur film survives of the Historical Pageant of Newcastle and the North, held between 20th and 25th July 1931 on common land in Leazes Park, with 6,000 performers, a 500-strong chorus, an orchestra of 100 and a covered auditorium housing 4,000 spectators. The first episode features Queen Amelduna of the Ottadeni greeting the Sixth Legion, led by Emperor Hadrian, who this time commands the building of the Roman Newcastle-upon-Tyne.34

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