We’ve done a recent tour of France and we visited some Roman ruins.   There was the Amphitheatre at Arles; the Pont du Gard at Nimes; the Theatre at Orange and its Amphitheatre; the House of the Dolphin at Vaison la Romaine; and somewhere or other a Temple of Diana.

When we first wandered through France all those decades ago, you would just sort of stumble into some of these wonders as you bumbled along and be entranced by their beauty (le Pont du Gard), or impressed by their design and efficiency (the Amphitheatres.) But now, they’re all Grands Sites de France, ‘visitorised’, explained, tamed, made profitable. Of course the artefacts should be protected, but the magic is gone.

There is a ridiculous statue of the Emperor Hadrian (he who had to build a wall to keep out marauding Scots) in a museum in Vaison la Romaine. As it was inside the museum, I had to resist the temptation to spit at his feet. But with his naked god-like body (which you can bet your Caligula boots he had not had in reality), he looks – well, rather silly.   Then a statue of Augustus at Orange which remains more or less extant largely because it was placed too high on the wall to be easily defaced.

The accompanying French explanation to these monuments enthuses about the civilising cleverness of the Romans, and praises their engineering and architectural skills- and indeed these must be acknowledged – the buildings still stand. But I can never forget that the lovely amphitheatre which so impresses us was designed and constructed in order to carry out atrocities for the entertainment of the masses.

Rome never absorbed Scotland (or Ireland) into it’s obliterating empire so perhaps we’re less tainted by their blood and less sympathetic to their values . I watched some Time Team (or similar) programme some time ago and was fascinated for all the wrong reasons. They had clear documentary evidence (I think including a street plan) that a settlement of some size and prosperity had existed on a site north of the Thames of which not a trace remained. They brought all their sophisticated equipment to bear and were perplexed and confused to find no evidence of a settlement – not a tile, not a coin: just a thin layer of charcoal which was roughly of the same period as when the armies were recalled to Rome and abandoned Britain. While they puzzled over this – they couldn’t understand why the natives left behind did not choose to continue to occupy the ‘superior’ Roman buildings, the matter looked simple enough to us. The Britons who occupied these buildings with the Romans had been, in the eyes of other tribes, traitors and collaborators who had sold their freedom (or been unable to defend it) for a more comfortable lifestyle. When Rome withdrew, these peoples, who had been biding their time, had fallen upon that settlement and razed it to the ground. They had not left one stone standing on another. Who knows what happened to the people who had lived there? But certainly all traces of the existence of that town of Roman overlords and their supporters was expunged from the landscape. The archeologists were regretful. I had sympathy with the native people.

I think perhaps I’ve had enough of Roman ruin for the time being!

So I think the French – and we ourselves and any nation with Roman remains – should temper our admiration for them, and be sceptical as to whether they brought civilisation and culture to the world. There can never be civilisation where there is slavery. Perhaps the statement on any Roman monument should end:

Remember as you gaze on these wonders, that Rome was a corrupt, greedy and war-mongering nation, who profited from the misery of the nations they enslaved.