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Favourite Historical Cities September 3, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

monte testaccio (one angle)

And so it begins… Three hours sleep, arguments about syllabi, a terrifying public-speaking engagement, a walk in the wood (six snakes spotted – an omen?), sleep and stress. In short, the students are back and the cycle of sow/reap/harvest (lesson/field-trip/exam) is starting up once again.

They look (as always) like nice kids. But in an attempt to escape from it all, at least temporarily, Beach has been closing his eyes and enjoying relaxing images: a tip from a therapist several years ago. Two scenes keep replaying and replaying themselves in his head. One is from the Godfather and involves a tall, wiry mobster muttering ‘tell, Michael, it was just business’, before being bundled into the back of a killing limo (why is this restful?); and the other is a walk in Rome, c. 600.

Rome, c. 600…

Just saying those words is like breathing air in a pine forest, lighting incense or writing a sonnet in Old English (it can be done). Don’t get Beachcombing wrong, it is not, God forbid, the close proximity of Gregory the Great and his Angels or any other of the cast of the Romish soap opera: a Leo, a John, a cross-dressing Joan… With max respect to his uber-catholic wife, Beach is indifferent to males in red or white dresses.

Nor is it the odd Scythian or Gael or Copt on pilgrimage, whoring and hell-bending under St Peter’s keys: do they know how silly they look? It’s not even – slightly anachronistic reference – a psychopathic Saxon guard burning another Saxon guard’s house because one’s from the south and the other is from the north of the Humber.

It is the emptiness. The desolate, Ozymandian silence, the record-high brick-to-human ratio…

You don’t believe Beachcombing? Then consider the following. Estimates for the population of Imperial Rome  range from about half a million to four or five million. It is never a good thing to take archaeologists or classicists at their word when they talk about population (many other posts, many other days). But at its height and through all the Republican and Imperial period, even when the capital moved north and east, this was an extraordinarily impressive metropolis. Rome was so big, indeed, that its bottle dump became a mountain: Monte Testaccio (pictured in part). This was a cosmopolitan city with a Syrian priestess of Osiris here, an Ethiopian eye doctor there, a tattooed Gaulish gladiator spilling his guts in the people’s sand pit… and that’s before we even get onto the sturdy, built-to-last houses and marvels.

But then came the grinding shut-up-shop of the Empire in the fifth century: the speedy now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t collapse of Roman infrastructure and with it the emptying of towns and cities from Bath to Carthage.  No more parrots from India, no more silk from China, no more ostriches from Egypt, no more bears from Scotland… Rome itself experienced ‘shrinkage’ and became, like the other Italian centres that survived, a fort, one that the barbarians and the Byzantines could fight over to their hearts’ content.

If estimates for the population of classical Rome are suspect, estimates for the population of Dark Age Rome are simply laughable: you pick a number at random and look airily around the seminar room just daring someone to add or subtract five percent.  But certainly the population was much, much lower than under the Empire: anything from three or four thousand to fifty thousand sounds ‘credible’ (whatever that means).

Let’s take the lowest sensible estimate for classical Rome – half a million – and the highest for Rome c. 600, about 50,000. That means that the population has not only been decimated, but that it had been decimated nine times over. And what is more these heirs of Rome (as fashionable ‘late antique’ historians call them) were resident in an echo box; a city that they no longer had the technology to repair, let alone recreate, where nine out of every ten residences were empty, where three and four story buildings gradually keeled over into the streets and where the Pantheon and the Coliseum looked down mockingly on the little people below, not so much dwarfs on giants’ shoulders, as blue-bottles buzzing around a cow’s backside.

Then, remember, perhaps the actual population of Imperial Rome was more like a million and the population of Rome c. 600 was more like  ten thousand, a hundredth of what it had been. The psychopathic Anglo-Saxon guard, the tourist from Scythia and the Pope and his tiny administration could shout as loud as they wanted and no one would have heard them in their ghost town. No one was listening, not even the red baked tiles made in a happier age.

So forget golden age Baghdad, a flutter with flying-carpets. Forget Renaissance Florence under the tyranny of the charcoal burners from the Mugello. Yes, forget even – though it pains Beach to say this – London when Darwin and Huxley strolled to the British museums arm-in-arm and Indian princes visited Parliament. If the afterlife is an urban centre Beach hopes he’s going to seventh-century Rome, walking through his own private classical Gotham for ever and ever.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

Any other favourite historical cities? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

19 September 2011: Liverpudlian: ‘I come from a city (Liverpool) that has been depopulated in my lifetime, and where grass grows through the tarmac in some lost boroughs. However, enough of my moaning. What about this city for general desertion: Second Life. The virtual community has collapsed in terms of numbers in the last two years. You pass through empty streets with failed businesses. I’d prefer ancient Rome too, but you can visit second life…’ Thanks Liverpudlian!