Interview: Carole Cusak

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There are many points in history which people have a natural fascination with. From the Roman empire, Medieval Europe and Shogun Japan, these eras of history are well documented and inspired countless books, movies and TV shows. One period and culture in ancient lore which has yet to receive much love though is the early Celtic periods. Britannia, the Roman name given to Great Britain during their conquest in the 1st century AD. Little is known about this time in history and much of it is shrouded in mystery and mysticism.

Britannia is a new British-American historical fantasy tv show that looks to explore and open up the world of early Britain. I spoke with an expert in Religious Studies, European Mythology and Contemporary Religeous Trends, Professor Carole Cusak, To shed some light on Britannia and how the show approaches such an obscure era of history.

What aspects of British Medieval history make it so interesting and such an engaging time in the world?

 “Britannia” is an imaginative rendition of a little-known period of history (ancient rather than medieval) and speaks to an era dominated by Brexit. Is Rome Europe? Is Britannia better off without Rome? Rome wins and governs Britain until 406 AD when the legionaries leave, as the centre of the Empire, the city of Rome itself, is under threat from the Goths (Alaric the Visigoth sacks Rome in 410 AD). “Britannia” introduces Aulus Plautius, the general who leads the successful invasion of Britain, and the two British queens, Kerra of the Cantii and Antedia of the Regnii, who are locked in a conflict that pre-dates the Roman invasion. There are beautiful landscapes and imaginative reconstructions of British Celtic townships, and there is violence, sex, passion and power. I think it is a series that repays viewing, taking its audience into hallucinogenic realms that challenge mainstream ideas about history.

Exactly how powerful were the Celtic druids and what were their place in the Celtic social structure?

In “Britannia” Druids are important, as Veran (leader of what looks in twenty-first century terms to be a drug-fuelled cult) is a major character, and Divis, the renegade Druid, acts as guardian and guide to unlikely heroine Cait. In the ancient world the sources on Druids (all Greek or Roman) emphasise two types of qualities; Posidonius of Apamea and Julius Caesar emphasise their legal and intellectual power, and the ways their priestly interventions influence and sometimes direct the chieftains and kings. Other writers like Diogenes Laertius and Diodorus Siculus enmphasised the Druids as mystics and philosophers who taught reincarnation and other esoteric doctrines (like the Hindu Brahmins, for example). The Romans hated the Druidic religion, and Roman political domination of Celtic populations required the nullification of the Druids’ public

role, confining them to the more harmless “religious” activities. The Druids became leaders in the resistance against the Romans, and Tacitus’ Annals records the destruction of the sacred grove at the centre of Druidic activity on Mona, the island of Anglesey in north Wales, in 61 CE by the Roman general Suetonius Paulinus (the commander of the legions in Britain from 59-61 AD).

Much of the show, Britannia, centers on the strengths and conflicts of Celtic women. What was the significance and impact of women’s roles in Celtic culture?

There is a lot of controversy about this. Roman and Greek authors often stated that Celtic men preferred to have sex with each other than with women, and that this was not condemned. They were concerned to portray Celts as barbarians, so they commented that women were promiscuous too, that they often fought alongside men, etc etc. It’s true there were powerful women (Boudicca of the Iceni and Cartimandua of the Brigantes are the best known), but there is no evidence that all Celtic women were empowered. Here is Cassius Dio of Boudicca, a very famous text: “But the person who was chiefly instrumental in rousing the natives and persuading them to fight the Romans, the person who was thought worthy to be their leader and who directed the conduct of the entire war, was Buduica, a Briton woman of the royal family and possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women. This woman assembled her army, to the number of some 120,000, and then ascended a tribunal which had been constructed of earth in the Roman fashion. In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire. She now grasped a spear to aid her in terrifying all beholders.”

One of the most intriguing possibilities in “Britannia” is that Cait grows up to be Boudicca and to lead the revolt against the Romans (she has no name as her Solstice ritual was never completed and she’s the right age …)

The main antagonist in Britannia are the Romans lead by General Aulus Plautius. What made him such a fearsome and devious conqueror?

There’s only one text that tells us what Aulus Plautius did in 43 AD, it’s Cassius Dio’s History of Rome (Book LX, Chapter XIX). A few other texts mention him in passing (Tacitus’ Agricola and Suetonius’ biography of Vespasian). The series doesn’t mention that Emperor Claudius came over with Aulus; after Colchester was captured and made the capital of the new province of Britannia he went home (he was in Britain for 16 days). The Roman conquest was relatively easy as the British tribes weren’t unified and were picked off one at a time. Legionary forts were planted to keep the peace, and roads and frontiers established to make monitoring and stabilising easy. Aulus Plautius made ‘client’ treaties with Prasutagus of the Iceni (Boudicca’s husband), Adminius of the Cantii, Cogidubnes of the Regnii, and Cartimandua of the Brigantes. That’s two of the tribes in the series …

What are you excited to see come to life in the show Britannia? Any particular moments in history you would like to see on screen?

One reason that the British Celtic era makes for good television is that it’s not well known or well-documented. People are better acquainted with the late antique “Arthurian” era (the fifth century AD, after the Roman legions departed England, and during the period when the Anglo-Saxons were invading and settling southern England). This is a chance to explore a mysterious part of the British past, before civilisation (in the form of the Romans, with their planned cities, straight roads, massive defensive structures like Hadrian’s Wall, elegant villas in the country etc) arrived. Life is closer to nature, and the inward-looking quality of British Celtic culture means that the Cantii and the Regnii have no idea of how the presence of Rome will change their land – and themselves – forever.

How important is this period in history? How did the events in and around 43 AD shape Britain as we know it today?

The Romans left visible signs of their presence in Britain: roads, Hadrian’s Wall, legionary forts and early Christian churches. After Brittania was lost to the Germanic invaders in the fifth century and became “Angleland” Pope Gregory the Great sent a missionary, Augustine, with a retinue of 40 (including interpreters) to convert the Angles in part because he regarded the Catholic Christian church to be the inheritor of the Roman Empire (the pope’s title “Pontifex Maximus” – great bridge builder – was the title of the Ancient Roman high priest) and the mission was therefore about reclaiming the lost province for Christ

Britannia Season 1 is out now. Mythology and History buffs as well as Game of Thrones fans will certainly be pleased with what this series has to offer.

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