Posts Tagged ‘Provence’

Alberto Angela: Une Journée Dans La Rome Antique

July 4, 2022

     This is the third book in Alberto Angela’s astonishing trilogy about life in Ancient Rome. The previous two – Empire and Les 3 Jours de Pompeii – were really good: a journey around the Roman Empire imagined through the travels of a one sesterce coin, and an hour-by-hour account of the days leading up to and immediately following the volcanic eruption which annihilated Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79CE. This one is self-evidently about the daily life and routines of the Eternal City. Angelo chooses a Tuesday some time in 117CE, when the empire was at its greatest extent.

Angela is a well-known writer and historian in Europe, not really known here although Empire is available in English as The Reach of Rome. It’s definitely popular history in its tone, rather than an academic work, but it very definitely is not dumbed-down: every article, object or place is always given its Latin name, for instance, for those who want to know or remember…

Although I studied Roman history at school, there was very little about how Romans lived; Angelo has taught me a lot, as have various visits to Roman sites like Hadrian’s Wall, or Arles and Orange in Provence. It had never occurred to me that Romans collected antiques, for instance, but Angela points out that ancient Egyptian ‘collectibles’ were already 2000 years old at the time he is writing about. It is the wealth of details, and the explanations and connections with our own times that fascinate here: food, clothing, daily household tasks and routines, and the objects used. All this serves to humanise and bring that ancient world vividly to life.

I’d never really taken in the scale of the megalopolis that was Rome at its heyday, with over a million inhabitants, most living in the equivalent of today’s tower blocks; the place was on the scale of today’s London or New York with its buildings and crowds and problems. It’s also very hard for us to visualise what any Roman town of city would actually have looked like, since all we get to see are pillaged and stripped ruins which are, above all, denuded of their original colours. And the colossal amount of wood they needed to burn every day.

The explanations of how Roman public toilets actually worked, and the horrors of childbirth in those days, are vividly presented. Often Angela will go into such detail as to leave one thinking ‘this is docu-drama, he’s inventing to bring this to life’ and then explain that that particular person actually existed and cite the sources for his information.

In the end I found myself marvelling at how Angela manages to synthesise his portrayal, from the writings of classical writers of the time, from archaeological and historical research, and from scientific sources: when all this is put together, you end up with an accessible yet detailed and fascinating book. Full marks here, and where are the English publishers to make Angela’s work accessible to readers here?

Jean Giono: Regain

September 11, 2021

     Correction: I made a mistake in my last post about Jean Giono’s Le Grand Troupeau: being sent back to my school and university notes (no longer in a crate but scanned onto my laptop) by a reference in Regain, I discovered that it hadn’t in fact been one of my A Level French texts, but one from my first undergraduate year.

I really enjoyed coming back to Regain. The language is a challenge, just as it was in the previous book, because there’s so much particular vocabulary, from the Provence landscape and the agriculture of a century ago, as well as the idiom in which the characters speak… having a dictionary on your phone alongside you as you read isn’t always enough with a text like this: Le Petit Robert came down off the shelves a number of times.

Giono writes of the slowly emptying and abandoned villages in his region of France, as people moved away for an easier life, and the elderly died off. There’s a feeling of great sadness about it all; the villages are lovingly described in their decay, and the sense of loss, even of a very hard living, is palpable. There’s something important about people being connected to and rooted in their land, that Giono manages to convey with great power.

And the life is hard: there are no aspects or elements of 20th century civilisation in evidence in the villages; even money seems a curiosity. How to bring it all back to life? This novel is part of the Pan trilogy, and Panurge, the final inhabitant of his village, needs a woman to help him, to be a companion and co-worker. The old woman who has left, saying she will send him one, is almost a witch-like figure, or an earth-mother/goddess as we might probably say now. And the last man is finally joined by a woman, and they start to change things…

Arsule had been someone else’s woman, and he had used her as a beast of burden. We now see her coming into her own as a person, with ideas, an equal part of the enterprise. Primitive instincts or basic human urges may have drawn her and Panurge together initially, and this seems right, in the greater context. The transformation of home-making and the woman’s influence may strike one nowadays as very traditional, but the over-riding victory is of the return of life to the village of Aubignane. Their farming is eventually a success and there is a very real and simple joy in it; they are eventually joined by another family with children who move into the village, and at the end of the novel, Arsule is pregnant.

At one level simple and predictable, naive even? A nostalgic view of peasants’ mutual self-help? A romanticised vision of rural France? Possibly, but I’m not sure. There’s a harsh realism as well as a lyricism in the description of the landscape, the weather and the harsh life of the very poor peasants in the ruined villages, and there’s hope. If you add in the return to the simple life of the past as a reaction to the vile horrors of the Great War (read my previous post) then it makes a kind of sense. And Giono really knew the land, the area, and all this is reflected in his lovingly detailed and sensuous descriptions. It’s an excellent read.

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…

Back home

September 11, 2018

The blog has been quiet for the last two weeks because I have been on my travels, to the south of France. When I’m away, I usually hatch a few ideas for new posts, so the following topics are likely to appear over the coming weeks: thoughts about the Romans, and about their empire something on Latin; reflections on photography – I came back with about 600 pictures! Reading, teaching, travelling, good English, the internet, sex in literature, the joys of teaching… it’s good to get away but it’s also good to be home, and I’m looking forward to getting back to writing.

Watch this space.

 

My travels: O for Orange

March 17, 2017

I have happy memories of this small town in Provence from my hippy student days; I visited it a number of times. It’s most famous for its stunning Roman theatre built into the side of a hill: the seats are on the hillside, and then facing them, the stage and the immense main facade, in gorgeous golden stone. There is also a modest surviving Roman triumphal arch commemorating I have forgotten what and whom on one of the main roads leaving the town.

On the top of the hill was a pretty basic and very cheap campsite where I spent many happy days and nights – I seem to remember in those days a pitch was about 4 francs a night. My needs were simple in those days; I hitch-hiked with my tent and sleeping bag and few other necessities in a rucksack, and I could walk into town, have my daily ice cream, choose my different cheese-of-the-day, and get the necessary beer, bread and fruit and veg for the next twenty-four hours.

I particularly remember one evening’s adventure. Orange uses its amphitheatre for sumptuous live opera concerts in the summer; one day a Belgian traveller and I sat chatting and working through a bottle of red in the campsite and decided we’d try and sneak through the woods on the hillside into the opera for nothing (as opposed to paying 200 francs for a seat). We didn’t realise that the theatre was guarded by the Foreign Legion whose job was to prevent just what we intended to do; we spent a drunken and merry hour trying to slip past and outwit the legionnaires who were having none of it, of course, and fortunately for us were relatively good-humoured about our escapades; eventually we realised we should give up, and instead chatted about life with some of the legionnaires. Hell, neither of us like opera anyway.

Provence is lovely; I fell in love with it on my trips there. The feel of the heat, and the smells are special, the landscape beautiful. And I saw hoopoes in the campsite at Orange, the only place I’ve ever come across them in the wild. Orange is pretty central for a good number of interesting places in Provence. Avignon is not far, and I have fond memories of rambling around Mont Ventoux, and exploring the amazing place which is Vaison-la-Romaine: the mediaeval town perched on the steep hill, the vast Roman town below, and the modern-day French country town with its market alongside.

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