“This lovely country has become a horrible desert over which wolves and other wild beasts wander freely.” (From 9th Century Provencal Chronicle: quoted Turnbull: 16
Lycavettas Hill: (Athens September 2015)
We have finally reached the summit of Lycavettas Hill, the highest point in historical Athens, at over 277 metres above sea level.
Now you stand here, gazing out across the landscape of the ancient city, this cradle of DEMOCRACY, with all its glinting, thrumming sound, the everyday throb, Greece, Europe. The Acropolis, where the Parthenon a statuesque ruin centre stage; exit LEFT, a gentle ribbon of green leads the eye toward the Panathenaic stadium, this foundational arena of Modern Olympic Games. To RIGHT, out southwards, toward Piraeus and the Mediterranean. Nothing can compare with this natural bay, the Saronic Gulf, like a placid lake of turquoise surrounded by a necklace of islands. But where are the people, the Demos? This apparent calm, looking down, on all this peace and gentle Omonia in the Civil War that is Europe.
Walk 22 9 March
Part 2 – Vaison La Romaine encore and Gigondas, Gigonday!
…Let us … to enter into death with open eyes…
The lady in the entrance booth is desperate to go to the toilet but she obligingly skips back into her seat to sell us the entrance tickets for the archaeological site. She is hurriedly telling us what to do and not giving us any opportunity to ask any awkward questions, as she hovers betwixt and between the ticket booth and the promise of relief…
‘In turning the pages of a volume of Flaubert’s correspondence …I came again upon this admirable sentence: “Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.”’ (Yourcenar, Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrain: 269)
We follow somewhat haphazardly the projected tour of the site, but are easily distracted by the statues of Hadrian and his lover Antinous. My son Emile informs us all knowledgably that Antinous drowned in dubious circumstances. There is a vague trace, a memory stain of this singular event in Imperial history, which I carry, a memory of an event so significant it changed the course of ‘Roman history’. This undoubtedly comes from reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel, Memoirs of Hadrian – I am re-reading it right now – the section Saeculum Aureum.
Last summer my son studied the Romans at school and spent a week walking, with his classmates, along the length of Hadrian’s Wall. It is from this living experience that he is able to tell us with such authority about this event and to bring these dead stones to life. The fact of Antinous’ mysterious death suddenly brings Hadrian and his interior world, palpably into focus. We suddenly peer into the psyche of an Emperor long dead, forgotten, whose image once faithfully reproduced and copied into thousands of statues and busts is now reduced to a few numinous dissolving likenesses. No doubt he came to Vaison and drunk some of the sweet wines made in the locality (at least I can imagine it). It makes us think again of Hadrian’s Wall, so far away…and so cold and exposed. Apparently Roman soldiers were stationed on the top of Mont Ventoux – that surely would have been as dispiriting for a Napolitan as being posted to the northern Province of Brittania. There is a beautiful view of the mountain from the back of Vaison’s Roman theatre, which you approach via a rock carved passageway. Like entering a tomb…
‘Antinous gripping fast to my arm was trembling, not from terror, as I then supposed, but under the impact of a thought which I was to understand only later on. In his dread of degradation, that is to say, of growing old, he must have promised himself long ago to die at the first sign of decline… the lightening at Mount Cassius had revealed to him a way out: death could become a last form of service, a final gift, and the only one which seemed left for him to give. The illumination of dawn was as nothing compared with the smile which arose on that overwhelmed countenance.’ (159)
Vaison, this Ligurian shrine transformed into an Imperial city, nestling under the glorious snowy summit of Mont Ventoux – a place made good by the vine and olive, cool in summer. A gentle refuge from the punishing weight of imperial rule:
“Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again… Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes…” (Yourcenar 247: Words given to the Emperor Hadrian on his deathbed)
The worn marble, granulated with time, the effigy of a body of a Greek god, a boy of nineteen drowned in the Nile. We walk on the worn paving stones of the excavated streets, just as in Herculaneum or Pompey, polished and inscrutable. Though it is very interesting walking among the excavated vestiges of the town, one Roman villa, latrine or mosaic looks much like another, covered as they are in a light dust, weeds pushing through the exposed plaster, tesseri and cement. But this association with Hadrian has given the visit an entirely different inflection, in imagining warm flesh erupting out of the marble sculptures:
‘That body, once so responsive, refused to be warmed again or revived. We took him aboard. Everything gave way; everything seemed extinguished. The Olympian Zeus, Master of All, Saviour of the World – all toppled together, and there was only a man with graying hair sobbing on the deck of the boat.’ (169)
There is something disconcerting in how the ancient streets and the buildings stop abruptly as if sliced by a bulldozer, and yet you can both see and imagine how they carry on under the crust of buildings that lie above. How many inundations and wild sand storms did it take to cover over these grand, opulent buildings with their elaborate water systems and decorations? We walk along part of a Roman street paved with giant worn slabs just as the via Appia. On other sides we have to imagine the cool arcades of shops – how shopping and capitalism’s roots grew deep in European culture, fueled by Roman speculation and debt. Hadrain’s task to restore and consolidate the Pax Romana was truly a Herculean one.
‘…I would lightly touch that breast of stone. Such encounters served to complicate the memory’s task; I had put aside like a curtain the pallor of the marble to go back, in so far as possible, from those motionless contours to the living form, from the hard texture of Paros or Pentelikon to the flesh itself. Again I would resume my round; the statue, once interrogated, would relapse into darkness; a few steps away my lamp would reveal another image; these great white figures differed little from ghosts.’ (Hadrian’s Memoirs, Yourcener: 194)
As you leave the site you pass the sculpture of a woman, goddess or matriarch, we are not sure. Its decapitated form rippling with the folds of her tunic seems to drip and melt into the sandy soil… Europe, Europa, a ghost of Victory or defeat?