For nearly two thousand years, both professional historians and the general public have not only believed in the existence of someone who never actually lived, but sometimes been inspired by their example and the ideas that have become associated with them. The historical evidence to prove that Boudicca actually lived is threadbare to the point of non-existence – a few references in a couple of Roman sources whose objectivity is at best highly questionable – but, persuaded by the inherited tradition that she must have been a real person, later archaeologists have desperately seized upon every scrap of material and interpreted it through these preconceptions – so, every trace of destruction in a building of roughly the right date is attributed to Boudicca, every skeleton is identified as one of her victims, and so forth. In fact, careful and critical reading of the sources reveals that not only was she a myth but she was a deliberately created myth, the invention of the Roman ideologues Suetonius and Tacitus, designed to provide a pretext for a full-scale military intervention in Britain, the destruction of indigenous social structures, the slaughter of key individuals who might have formed an alternative to Roman hegemony in the country, and the expropriation of land and other resources. The idea of a gang of rebellious savages led by a woman driven by emotional trauma was in Roman eyes about as monstrous a thing as could be imagined, and justified every action taken by the state; Boudicca was the WMD of Roman Britain.
It will, I trust, be obvious that this thesis is not intended seriously – but since I was once contacted by someone from Canada who apparently believed wholeheartedly in the reality of Roman steam engines after reading my counterfactual piece on the subject, I thought I’d better make that explicit. No, this is the Jesus thing, with the publication and associated hoopla of Joseph Atwill’s Caesar’s Messiah: the Roman conspiracy to invent Jesus (see summary here). This has already been mentioned by a student on the blog of one of the units I’m teaching this semester, and since one of the other units I’m teaching is on Late Antiquity and includes a big chunk of early Christianity, I fear I’m going to be hearing a lot more about it. The historical response scarcely needs extensive elaboration; in brief, Atwill sets an absurdly high standard of evidence for the question of Jesus’ existence, such that virtually no one in classical antiquity would be easily confirmed as real, and then sets an absurdly low standard of evidence for the existence of his Roman conspiracy – basically, arguing from probability that it’s the Romans who would have had the most to gain from inventing Jesus. The lack of actual evidence for a conspiracy – or even for the idea that the Roman state was capable of orchestrating such a conspiracy even if they’d had the idea – is, as in all such X-Files approaches to history, simply proof of the fiendish effectiveness of the conspiracy in covering up traces of its existence. Do X-Files references still carry any weight in this day and age?
The saddest moment of my academic career so far came in my second year here at Bristol, when I’d been nursing a student – who would himself admit, I think, that he wasn’t the most academic or scholarly – through the compulsory final year dissertation. We’d settled on a topic in early Christian history, on the basis that he’d covered this in one of his final year units; the debate about the nature of Jesus’ mission was settled upon, as there was a decent amount of clear secondary literature that would introduce him to the relevant issues and evidence, and so I pointed him off in the direction of Geza Vermes and the like. The completed dissertation arrived on my desk for marking. It opened with a fulsome and heartfelt preface, in which he talked about how wonderful he had found the experience of researching it; this was what studying ancient history at university was all about, developing critical skills and hence seeing what was really going on in the past, as he now realised that he’d been lied to throughout his Catholic upbringing and actually Jesus wasn’t a religious leader at all but the head of an influential group of Jewish aristocrats who were plotting to overthrow the Roman empire. And so forth. The rest of the dissertation was simply a paraphrase of the book he’d come across propounding this interpretation; the dissertation was critical, in his view, because it rejected the established account – and that’s pretty well the same mindset that sees Atwill’s as persuasive, because it stands ostentatiously against the mainstream tradition and seizes upon every doubt or uncertainty in the evidence as a clear sign that the orthodoxy must be rejected.