Classically Inclined

April 8, 2013

Chesterton on Roman Britain

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:49 am
Tags: ,

I’ve just finished reading G.K. Chesterton’s Short History of England. I don’t intend to say much about it here, but I did very much like this passage on the Roman heritage that underpins our world:

Every now and then there is discovered in modern England some fragment such as a Roman pavement. Such Roman antiquities rather diminish than increase the Roman reality. They make something seem distant which is still very near, and something seem dead that is still alive. It is like writing a man’s epitaph on his front door. The epitaph would probably be a compliment, but hardly a personal introduction. The important thing about France and England is not that they have Roman remains. They are Roman remains. In truth they are not so much remains as relics; for they are still working miracles. A row of poplars is a more Roman relic than a row of pillars. Nearly all that we call the works of nature have but grown like fungoids upon this original work of man; and our woods are mosses on the bones of a giant. Under the seeds of our harvests and the roots of our trees is a foundation of which the fragments of tile and brick are but emblems; and under the colours of our wildest flowers are the colours of a Roman pavement.



  1. That is an excellent saying by GKC. It similarly annoys me when people call Latin & Greek dead languages, when Latin in particular is still being spoken in France, Spain, Italy, Romania, South America etc, but in evolved forms. Which reminds me of what a headmaster of my school said of Mediterranean-style diction : ‘If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s hearing Greek & Latin spoken as if they were foreign languages’.

    Comment by Francis FitzGibbon QC — April 8, 2013 @ 11:24 am | Reply

  2. How very surprising, that a man with a romanticised view of history – and a great many other things – finds that the facts are terribly, terribly rude to him.

    He says some things beautifully, but I have a preference for art, and for artists, that reveal what is there for us to see, rather than creating beautiful fantasies formed by denying or ignoring that which we know to be true.

    Comment by Nile — April 8, 2013 @ 5:41 pm | Reply

  3. Sorry to bring down the tone but this makes me think of the Monty Python sketch “What have the Romans ever given us?” from “The Life of Brian.”

    Comment by Max Bini — April 9, 2013 @ 12:47 am | Reply

  4. Maintaining Chesterton’s focus on the material state of the land, I am reminded of W G Hoskins, and his book The Making of the English Landscape, although Hoskins reckoned that most (not all) of the shaping of the landscape was done after the Romans had left.

    Broadening the focus to our intellectual heritage, and switching from Rome to Greece, I am reminded of Bernard Williams’s comment, “The legacy of Greece to Western philosophy is Western philosophy” (Williams, The Sense of the Past, page 3).

    Comment by Richard Baron — April 11, 2013 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

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