Posts Tagged ‘Hadrian’s Wall’

On visiting ruins

October 13, 2018

I visited my favourite place in Yorkshire, possibly my favourite place in the country, the other day: the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey near Helmsley. Yorkshire has many ruined abbeys and castles, but I have always particularly loved the way Rievaulx is nestled in a valley, surrounded by hills and woodland, off tiny minor roads where two cars can barely pass each other. I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to be a monk there five or six hundred years ago, isolated from the cares of the world…

And I found myself wondering, what is it that attracts me to ruins? For this year I have spent a week wandering the Roman remains of Hadrian’s Wall, as well as various places in Roman Provence. But then, I suppose, it’s not only ruins, but also ancient places in general: I love cathedrals and churches and castles, though I’m not quite so attracted to stately homes.

Ancient places remind me of my insignificance: I’m on the earth for three score years and ten, by the traditional reckoning, a century if I’m very lucky (or unlucky?), and the places I’m writing about have either survived as remains, or intact, for many centuries, in some cases thousands of years. They remind me of the different kinds of existences which I have read about, which went on there long ago. And they have endured, which I won’t in the same way, and which I can’t see many of our contemporary constructions doing, either: we don’t build to last any more. You might imagine we would have access to better and more durable materials: maybe we do, but don’t use them. How long before the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool – for example – crumbles away or is demolished? It was only consecrated in 1967…

Many years ago I used to live in east London and often travelled on the train to Broad Street Station (it no longer exists); there was a plaque somewhere on an outside wall that said that the station had been built on the site of the original Bethlehem(=Bedlam) Hospital, around about 1850, and the hospital had been there for about five or six centuries previous to that. Reading that used to give me a headache: something being there for so long, serving the same purpose all those years.

There is something romantic about ruins, of course, as the Victorians discovered, and they excavated and tidied everywhere up, as well as wandering the world stealing bits of others’ ruins. And it wasn’t only the Brits, as you will realise if you visit various museums on the Museum Island in Berlin. Ruins are often seen in peaceful and rural settings, tidily manicured for the discerning visitor. They fit in with certain aesthetics of beauty, and arouse what may be termed spiritual responses in the spectator. Certainly this is part of my response to such places; often their isolation is conducive to reflection and meditation on all manner of things.

And yet… ruins are in many ways the detritus of past ages. In countries where there is plenty of space, old buildings that have served their purpose are abandoned, left to decay, and new ones constructed; it’s easier and cheaper to leave the old behind rather than to demolish and tidy away (in crowded Britain this is often not possible). Sometimes old materials may be re-used. Travel writers have sometimes been shocked at locals’ dismissive and cavalier attitudes to their unwanted remains. Dozens of Roman cities apparently lie buried under the sands of the Sahara, awaiting the attentions of archaeologists – or not. Does any of this matter? I enjoyed visiting the Roman city at Moulay Idriss in the Moroccan desert, but it was miles from anywhere, and forgotten, I suspect, until it was realised that crazy westerners would visit, and there was money to be made.

We are interested in the past: we explore, excavate, research, write up reports; we learn how our ancestors lived and died. Perhaps we are wiser, perhaps thereby we understand ourselves and our behaviours and impulses better – I don’t know. But something draws us back to the past, as something which can be known, after a fashion, and which is gone, too: not as fearsome or unknowable or unpredictable as the future into which we are all inevitable moving…

Advertisements

De Roma antiqua

September 17, 2018

I seem to be having a binge on Romans, Roman history and Latin at the moment; I had a week up on Hadrian’s Wall the other month visiting all the sites at the limes, the frontier of the Roman empire, and have just come back from travelling in Provence, where a lot of my focus was on the history of the Roman province and the sites that you can visit there. I’ve also been reading quite a lot about the subject.

At one level it is all quite astonishing: an empire built up over two thousand years ago, which endured for far longer than the British empire or the Soviet empire did, and will surely outlast the hegemony of the United States. The level of organisation and construction was amazing, given the technology of the time; the colonisation of the Sahara and bringing it into cultivation for the grain supply of Rome was an achievement which has never been equalled since those days…

The Roman history I learned at school was all about personalities and conflicts, wars and conquests and conspiracies, with little about the life of the average Roman citizen. That has been changing over recent years, through archaeological excavations and discoveries, and through newer generations of historians taking a radically different approach: Mary Beard’s SPQR was the first book out of this new approach that I read, and it was quite an eye-opener. She was not debunking all of the things I’d learned all those years ago at school, but broadening the perspective and bringing Rome to life in a different way, showing the economic and social aspects of the society. One of the most wonderful things I saw in the museum at Arles on my recent trip was a complete Roman river barge which had been recovered from the Rhone about a dozen or so years ago and meticulously preserved: it was 30 metres long, three metres wide and had a draught of two metres; it could carry tonnes of stone, as was shown in the museum. The merchantmen would have had a cooking fire on board… once you start seeing objects like this, your perspective develops quite quickly. Similarly, I’d never known that Roman traders had traded with China, and India.

When you stand inside the colossal theatre at Orange, or the amphitheatre at Arles, or – perhaps most impressive of all – stare at the Pont du Gard, you realise the scale of achievement that is perhaps only matched by the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, at which time all was in the service of God, whereas the Romans were building an empire and a civilisation for all their citizens. And so much of what was built in the Middle Ages was pillaged from Roman remains, anyway.

In these days when the UK is about to take its most disastrous political step for I can’t think how long, leaving the European Union, I find myself considering the parallels with the Roman empire: when the Romans left Britannia in the early fifth century, things fell apart pretty quickly. But in a way the EU is a similar project, a Europe-wide construction where people travel freely and work wherever they need to, just as people moved from one end of the Roman empire to another, whether officials, managers, or common legionaries. There was a common currency, a common language and civilisation, a sharing and exchange of ideas and products, and within certain limits, freedom: you had to sign up to the Roman ‘project’ as it were, and respect the emperor, but you could live as you liked and worship your own gods…

Yes, I know that there was slavery – I didn’t know, until recently, that slaves could and did own slaves – and that the Roman army was brutal in its suppression of revolts, but all armies are brutal: Rome didn’t have a monopoly. My travels and my reading have given me a lot to think about…

My travels: H is for Hadrian’s Wall

July 20, 2018

I studied Latin and Roman history at school; I almost ended up reading Classics at university. But that was in another existence. However, I’m still fascinated by them both, and took a week’s holiday in Northumbria to visit the Hadrian’s Wall sites properly.

There are a lot of ruins, mainly of military camps used by the Romans to control and pacify the country, and one ruined camp is very similar to another, although different buildings remain in differing degrees of ruin. And there are stretches of wall: sometimes it’s almost buried under turf, sometimes it’s almost at full height and width in short stretches; occasionally you can actually walk along the top of it and imagine the legionaries…

I’ve learned that Romans didn’t recycle building materials when they rebuilt; they just levelled and started again on top. Early Christians did, however, and the crypt of Hexham Abbey is made of recycled stone from nearby Corbridge (Corostipitum) – you can see the decorative marks in the stonework randomly in the crypt walls. I learnt that the troops worshipped all sorts of different gods, and saw a wonderful little temple to Mithras in the middle of a field of sheep. I also discovered that vast areas are still awaiting the eventual attentions of archaeologists, and that so much about what went on at the ‘limes’ (frontier) is still to be revealed.

Vindolanda was particularly impressive, partly because it’s a very active site archaeologically, and the excavators will talk to you about what they’re doing. Also, it has a truly stunning museum stuffed with artifacts that have been preserved in oxygen-free conditions since the Romans threw them away or lost them: shoes and sandals, tents, wooden pots with lids, a toilet seat…

I find it astonishing that so much remains from 2000 years ago, and also that the Romans managed to conquer and rule an empire that lasted far longer than our more recent British, Soviet or American empires, and that it was common for troops and commanders to be posted from one end of the empire to another – from Syria to Britannia, for instance. People able to move all over Europe, wherever work and duty took them, often taking their families with them, and settling in a new place: now what does that remind you of, dear reader?

I have to add that the countryside around here, even forgetting the Wall for an instant, is pretty stunning, and having done quite a few different walks along and around various sections of the Wall, I’m coming to the conclusion that, although they may have been shut out from the joys of Roman civilisation, the barbarians enjoyed the best views.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I’m currently reading a history of consumption – not tuberculosis but our obsession with buying stuff; some of the objects and artifacts I’ve seen on display at various sites have got me thinking about our relationships with desirable objects, which clearly goes back a long way…

%d bloggers like this: