Italians ask: 'What did the Romans ever do for us?'

Frances Kennedy
Sunday 15 November 1998 00:02
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ITALY'S separatist Northern League is rewriting history. In an attempt to shape impressionable young minds, it has published a primary school text which exalts the Celts and other prehistoric tribes (for which read the ancestors of today's northerners) as heroic and civilised, in contrast to the imperialistic and decadent Romans who followed (and who now, by implication, run the government down south).

The primer, entitled Il Po Racconta (The River Po recounts) says there were hardly any slaves or prisoners of war in Celtic society before 300BC, and most of those were freed and adopted by the tribes. Children reading the book will also learn that "women had the same rights and responsibilities as the men, while the position of Greek and Roman women was quite different", and that this prototype feminism waned only under the influence of Christianity. While young Italians have been schooled for years to believe that Roman law is the basis of most modern judicial systems, the Northern League reader exalts the swiftness and efficiency of Celtic laws.

The book, complete with illustrations, maps and exercises, also asserts the physical superiority of those who used to roam what is now Italy's industrial heartland. The Ligurians, who occupied the coastal area near France, "had an average height of 1.8 metres and a cranium that contained a brain double the size of their predecesssors".

The League book has been attacked by Roman scholars as pseudo-history, dreamt up by crusaders for an independent "Padania". "When I started reading it, I fell about laughing, but then I thought about the six- to-ten-year- olds it was targetting, and realised that it was much more serious," said Andrea Giardina, professor of ancient Roman history at La Sapienza University. "They are trying to create a national identity for something that doesn't exist. Padania is an invention, it's not like the Basque countries or Scotland."

Prof Giardina said the anti-Roman interpretation of early history was potentially damaging. "This could never be a prescribed text in school, because the curriculum is centralised, but teachers have the freedom to order or recommend books to their students".

The new spin on the remote past is quite in keeping with the efforts by the League to find historical and mythological support for their demands for an independent Northern state, which would cover most of Italy north of Tuscany. When the party celebrated the birth of the "Nation of Padania" two years ago, a phial of water was taken from the mountain spring that feeds the Po and carried for three days along the murky and industrially polluted waterway to the sea, like a sacred chalice. Following the release of the film Braveheart in Italy, Umberto Bossi, the party's rough-spoken populist leader, quoted it in his speeches for weeks on end, urging his industrious middle-class followers to rise up against the Roman overlords.

The history text is published by Editoriale Nord, which prints the League's inhouse daily, La Padania, in conjunction with the Association for Free Padanian Schools. There are plans for further history books and mini-dictionaries in local dialect.

"Before the Romans there were other peoples. We plan to dust off these chapters of our history which unfortunately are only touched on in regular Italian texts. Children in the North have to endure a centralistic education system and most of the teachers, who are chosen by public competition, are from the south, so they bring different values and culture," said a spokesman for Editoriale Nord.

Using the classroom as a political battlefield is nothing new in Italy. One of the fiercest debates at the moment is over the proposed state financing of private schools, the vast majority of which are Catholic. The Italian left has always vehemently opposed this, but the composition of the new government, formed after the fall of Romano Prodi, favours the initiative.

While convent schools are not state funded, religious teaching is obligatory in state schools. The teachers are nominated by the local bishop's office, and have to conform to certain moral criteria; recently a teacher in Turin was sacked because she was separated from her husband and living with another man.

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