The “Wall of Desperation”
I remember visiting Conimbriga as a child. I returned as a young man with a bride. Then again, much later, with a spouse.
Conimbriga is a symbol of the reach of empire, the power of a center basking under a broad hegemon, extending across a continent, secure in its position, its power, its future. But for me what struck me from my first sight of it as a young boy was how it represented empire’s contraction, collapse, the fall-back of end-game.
Conimbriga existed at the margins, both in distance, almost as far from Rome as one could be and still consider oneself Roman; but also in time. Its ruins show it as it was when the city was abandoned in the fifth century. Frozen in time. Its broad expanse cut. Scarred by a defensive wall built in great haste with immeasurable toil, cutting across a sunny outer borough, Erected of stone stripped from grand villas. A moment captured in the sedimentation of passing millennia, a slow Pompeii.
We don’t have frescos or casts of fallen bodies overcome by a fleeting disaster; but we do have foundations and mosaic floors, marking the layouts of villas, baths, workshops, and the Forum. Along the wall, beyond the main gate, an aqueduct arches over a street. In a villa just inside the wall a sword and skeleton were said to have been exhumed during an early dig. Whether true or just a necessary fantasy, is not so important. Standing at the side of this villa’s courtyard, gazing down into the grave-like hole of its central pool, it is easy to imagine bloodshed took place there.
There is a pall over the place, no matter how sunny the day, or how luxuriant its restored plantings. What lies before us is not a monument to the grandeur of Rome but a memorial to its dissolution. There hangs over it, after 1500 years, a vivid sense of the shock, the utter disbelief that must have been felt there as the entire construct, not only of Rome, but of the whole Ancient Mediterranean World, came crashing down. People inexorably passing from thinking, “Things are bad. They’ll do something about it!” to, “How can we save ourselves!”
A wall was built – I can imagine everyone panting, sweating patricians side-by-side with slaves and tradesmen, men and women – all endeavoring to construct this last ditch defense, in an effort to create a more defensible perimeter. Some time later, a final defeat. Survivors streaming from a burnt-out shell of their city, most likely in bondage to marauding Germanic Suevians sweeping down from the north.
Life might have persisted there for a time. The shattered city sheltering a few, but relatively quickly life passed these ruins by for good. Aeminium, a smaller Roman town along the Mondego River, grew into the new city of Coimbra, taking its name from the same Celtiberian root as Conimbriga. The old Conimbriga, a rough spot on the terrain situated next to a gorge must have been a quarry for some time. A source for ready-dressed stone. Later a village grew up nearby. Stone huts and farmer’s fields. An olive orchard spread over top of the ruins, blending them into the bucolic life of a much less grand age.
Conimbriga provides a lesson in sacrifice. A part sacrificed in a vain effort to save the whole. Then as now, people refused to see that defensive walls, built to protect a mindset as much as a place and things, will fail. Within a generation the city was abandoned.
Was Coimbra in a better location? It had water communication along the Mondego, a good hill-top for defense, but, perhaps more significantly it did not have the baggage. Conimbriga’s old elites and all of their precious stuff were gone.
Conimbriga spoke to me fifty years ago. Times have continued to change around it. Salazar’s fascist dictatorship, through the sixties still worshiped a provincial, tepid version of Mussolini’s Pride in all things Roman. Over the last few decades these ruins have been developed, a curious oxymoron. EU e-currency lavished on excavation, enlarging the museum, and decorating the grounds with plantings, restoring the mosaics. Metal roofs cantilever over the most spectacular of the older, scavenged villas outside the “new” wall.
None of this has quieted the old voices. Try as today’s elite might to muffle them.
These stones are patient. They have sat for so long. No need to shout….
They don’t care if we listen.
Chilling whispers. A pantomime of the trajectory of collapse from the first unsettling premonitions, through a rising panic, to desperation and a final realization.
These ruins are like a set of tire tracks ending at a torn railing, a bloodstain turning black in the sand….