The “Wall of Desperation”
I remember visiting Conimbriga as a child. I was back as a young man with a bride. Back again, much later, with a wife.
Conimbriga was a place, a symbol of the reach of empire, the power of a center basking under a broad hegemon, sprawling across a continent, secure in its position, its power, its future. But for me, from my first sight of it as a young boy, it was as a symbol, striking and poignant, of that empire’s contraction, the collapse, the fall-back of end-game.
I’ve always had a profound sense of its existing at the margins, both in distance, almost as far as one could have been from Rome and seen oneself as Roman; but also in time. The ruins of Conimbriga date from up to when the city was abandoned in the fifth century. It was “frozen” in time then, the ruins of the broadest expanse of the city cut and scarred by a later defensive wall, built with great haste and immeasurable toil across the sunny outer borough, using stone taken from the wealthy villas that had flourished there in the previous centuries. This moment was captured in the silt and sedimentation of the passing millennia, a slow Pompei.
We don’t have fresh frescos, and casts of fallen bodies overcome by a fleeting disaster; but we do have mosaic floors, and the layouts of villas, houses, baths, and the Forum, along with the wall, and the aqueduct that fed water to the city. In one of the inner villas, just inside the wall of desperation, there was said to have been found a skeleton and a sword during early, pre-archeological digs there. Whether this was true or a necessary fantasy, is not so important. Standing there at the side of the villa’s courtyard, gazing down into the grave-like hole of its central pool, it is easy to imagine bloodshed there.
There is a pall over the place, no matter how sunny the day, or how luxuriant the restored plantings. This is not a monument to the grandeur of Rome, but to its dissolution. There hangs over it yet, after 1500 years, a sense of the shock, the surprise, and disbelief that must have been so prevalent as the entire construct, not only of Rome, but of the whole Mediterranean Ancient World, came tumbling down on their heads. At some point, the attitude there must have gone from “Things are bad, They’ll do something about it!” To, “Things are awful! How can we save ourselves!”
The new wall built – I can imagine everyone pitching in, broken nails, torn togas, panting, sweating patricians side-by-side with slaves and tradesmen, men and women – all working to build up the last ditch defense, the narrower perimeter. Then, a last defeat, the survivors leaving a burnt-out shell of their city, probably in bondage to the Suevians, Germanics come down from the north.
Life persisted for a time, the shattered city must have sheltered some, but relatively quickly life passed the ruined remains by. Aeminium, a smaller Roman town, became the new city, Coimbra. Life went on, and after a few hundred years Conimbriga was just a rough spot on the terrain, situated next to a gorge. Later still, a village grew up next to it, a primitive place of stone huts and farmer’s fileds. Fields and an orchard of olive trees spread over the rough ground on top of the ruins, blending them into the bucolic life of a much less grand age.
The lesson of Conimbriga is in the sacrifice of part of the city in that desperate last ditch effort to save it. Defensive walls, built to protect a place and things will fail. Within a generation the city was abandoned anyway.
Was Coimbra’s location better? It had water communication along the Mondego, a good hill-top for defense, but also it did not have the baggage, both of the old elites themselves and of their precious stuff.
Conimbriga spoke to me, fifty years ago, I heard it. The times have changed around it. The fascist dictatorship, still carrying on with a provincial, tepid version of Mussolini’s Pride in all that was Rome – somewhere between the deadly seriousness of Hitler, and the fuzzy nostalgia and lazy rationalizations of some mafia Don; has been long gone. It faded into its irrelevance as its story no longer held thrall. The ruins have been spruced up, a curious oxymoron, as EU e-currency was lavished on excavation, enlarging the museum and decorating the grounds with plantings, restored mosaics and metal roofs over the most spectacular villa carefully brought to light from its long exile outside the “new” wall.
None of the changes have quieted the old voices. Try as they might to muffle them, in ways the Salazar’s repression was unable to accomplish as well. The somber tragedies of hunger and fear in Portugal fifty years ago made a more honest backdrop for what those ruins have to say.
They are patient, the stones have sat there for so long already. They have no need for insistence, they don’t care if we heed them or not. But still, their voices are chilling, and their message has not been so relevant – what a deflated term that is, its value sucked away by decades of hyperbole – so relevant as they are today. Their mute warnings of the trajectory of a long skid from first unease, through panic and desperation to final realization and dissolution, like tire tracks ending at a torn railing, or blood turning black in the sand….