Christopher Smith has been back to the British Museum


This business of having a social life again is exhausting, isn’t it?  It has been good to be out and about again, and, among other things, to be back in the galleries.  I was keen to catch the Becket exhibition at the British Museum, the Becket in question being St Thomas of Canterbury.  Because the return to normal is being rationed in certain quarters, I had to stand 15 feet back from the chap in front of me as he showed his ticket to the woman behind the desk, then seconds later, he and I were standing inches away from each other looking at the first exhibit.  Work that one out.

The exhibition comprised some familiar objects from the British Museum itself, and some from further afield, including some panels of mediaeval stained glass from Canterbury Cathedral.  But there was a panel of text at the very end of the exhibition which set a train of thought running for me.  It read: ‘To this day Becket divides opinion. For some he remains a martyr and a saint, for others a traitor and a villain. Either way his is a remarkable life, the story of Thomas of London born in Cheapside, who defied a king and paid the ultimate price.’

It is, I suppose, the GSCE-style dichotomy that I find irritating.  It is the mindset which finds it necessary for someone to ‘divide opinion’.  I shouldn’t think St Thomas of Canterbury really divides opinion in twenty-first century Britain, does he?  He is undoubtedly a saint, having been declared one by the Church, which is the competent authority to make such a declaration, as the king was the competent authority to declare him Chancellor of England.  But a villain?  The worst insult that he had previously endured in recent years was being described as the ‘founder of gesture politics’.

I love the British Museum, but nowadays it tends to be given to a bit of historical revisionism.  The Nero exhibition, which is still open, purports to show that the Emperor Nero was unexpectedly cuddly.  In the words of the ‘plain English guide’, ‘Nero looked after his people.  He built houses and markets.  He provided food.  He entertained them.  Nero even performed on stage.’  Mmm.  Nero murdered his step-brother in AD 55, his mother in 59, and his wife Octavia in 62.  He kicked his second wife, Poppaea, to death in 65, killing their unborn child as well, then ‘married’ a boy called Sporus because he looked a bit like her, and had him castrated.  And in 64, Rome burned, Nero blamed the Christians, and the first state persecution of our brothers and sisters began.  It may be perfectly true that his reign started well under the guidance of Seneca, but Nero forced Seneca to commit suicide in 65.

As rebellions against his rule began to break out in various parts of the empire, Nero killed himself in 68, by which time he was already regarded as a tyrant.  I’d have thought that one of the things people visiting the exhibition might have known about him was that Nero had set the ball rolling for the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire on-and-off until Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313.  But in the labelling of the exhibits—and the texts are available on the British Museum’s website—Christianity is only mentioned once: ‘One of the defining events of Nero’s reign was the great fire of Rome in AD 64.  It raged for nine days, devastating the city. Nero led the relief effort and supervised reconstruction.  Despite fires being common in Rome, he was later accused of starting the blaze. To reconcile the gods, Nero blamed a new sect of Jewish origin. Its members later became known as Christians’.

Clearly, we are meant to see Nero as the luminary who ‘led the relief effort’, even though it was widely believed that he had started the fire himself in order to rebuild Rome in accordance with his own mighty ego.  But somehow, in the revisionist world of the B.M., the ‘new sect of Jewish origin’ was worth blaming in order to appease the gods, and thousands of Christians died on Nero’s orders.

As Newton said, ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’, and I suppose we see something of that here.  There are always academic brownie points to be earned by suggesting that the truth about a particular historical event is different from the received view.  It’s all well and good if correct, but it can be misleading and counter-productive, and prone to personal ideology.  Just to take one small but relevant example, why did Geoffrey de Ste Croix, who was an Oxford historian and a fellow of my old college (though before my time), seek to downplay the suffering, and indeed number, of martyrs under the Roman persecutions?  Because he was a Marxist atheist.  We should never assume that there is any such thing as ‘pure’ research.

Having said that, I don’t doubt that it would have been possible to have had a courteous disagreement with Geoffrey de Ste Croix, who would never have gone out of his way to offend.  (Towards the end of his life he is said to have lamented, rather endearingly, that ‘my memory has preceded me to the grave’.)  The problem in public discourse now is that the tendency is always to push outwards, and to ignore the complexities and subtleties of a situation.  And that leads to a perceived need to caricature other opinions and demonise them as extreme.  And the result of that, of course, is an ever-increasing polarisation of opinion, to the point where two people of different views can’t even have a conversation about a subject on which they differ.  Perhaps the Faith and Order Commission have a point when they advocate the art of ‘disagreeing well’!