Mary Beard has said she faced a “torrent of aggressive insults” on social media after posting messages asserting the ethnic diversity of Roman Britain.
The historian had been defending a BBC schools video that featured a high-ranking black Roman soldier as the father of a family, prompting a wave of online abuse. One person said she was “literally rewriting history”.
She said the tone of the debate left her dispirited. “It feels very sad to me that we cannot have a reasonable discussion on such a topic as the cultural, ethnic composition of Roman Britain without resorting to unnecessary insult, abuse, misogyny and language of war, not debate.”
Beard, a classicist at Cambridge University, who is well known for her robust responses to Twitter trolls, was one of those who pointed to evidence that there was at least some ethnic diversity in Britain under Roman rule.
There followed, she said in her blog in the Times Literary Supplement, days of attacks on Twitter, which she described as “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].”
The abuse got worse, she wrote, when Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a professor of risk analysis in the US and author of the best-selling book The Black Swan, joined her critics.
Beard told Taleb on Twitter that this kind of family in Roman Britain was unsurprising. He questioned her scholarship and accused her of “talking bullshit”.
Writing in her blog, Beard said: “I think I was courteous throughout, though I guess that is for others to judge. I think Prof Taleb did get annoyed when I said that I had read his ‘pop risk’ book, not the others. But I was actually trying to make clear that I had some knowledge of his work, though not a lot.”
She also pointed out that some of her critics, who acknowledged Taleb’s professorship, erased hers by calling her “Ms Beard”. “I don’t actually give a stuff about academic titles, but you see what’s going on here,” she wrote.
Beard said she would not block her opponents because “it feels to me like leaving the bullies in charge of the playground. And it’s rather too much like what women have been advised to do for centuries. Don’t answer back and just turn away”.
The BBC video that triggered the storm could have been based on Quintus Lollius Urbicus, a Berber from what is now Algeria who became governor of Roman Britain, Beard said. The online commentators wanted a certainty that may not be possible, but there was evidence of diversity, she wrote.
“One thing is for sure, the Roman empire, Britain included, was culturally and ethnically diverse, from the Syrians in Bath to Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Ethiopian who met Septimius Severus on Hadrian’s Wall, and the wonderful couple from South Shields, Barates and Queenie [Regina], he from Palmyra, she an Essex girl. There is no doubt about that,” Beard said.
Explaining that it can be difficult to be sure of ethnicity because Africans took on Roman names, she said: “Even in the case of Septimius Severus, the first Roman emperor from Africa [Libya], we don’t actually know the colour of his skin, how far he was ‘native’, how far the descendent of Italian settler. The same goes for Quintus Lollius Urbicus, often claimed to be Berber, which he may well have been, but it isn’t certain.”
Taleb asserted in their exchanges that genetic evidence of people from sub-Saharan Africa in Roman Britain was lacking. Beard said a major study carried out by the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford showed very little sub-Saharan DNA, but also very little Norman DNA, “and there is no doubt that they came here in large numbers”.
In a blog of his own, entitled Something is Broken in the UK Intellectual Sphere, Taleb says “any dissent from the statistical errors made by the politically correct police is treated as apostasy. Effectively, scholarship is dead in the UK.”
The picture in the BBC video of a black father was portrayed as representative, he says. “Some people backtracked later by saying it is was not common but not impossible, which is where I shout “BS!” he writes. He complains of “the UK political correctness mob”, writing that “today’s typical UK academic is a wuss, with a renewable 5 year contract, and, like the middle class, in a state of insecurity and constant fear of being caught breaking rules. They are very vulnerable to the slightest accusation.”