Saturday, March 13, 2010

Vallum Aelium

I've been following with a sort of mild delight and horror the postings of a Facebook friend about some sort of mass conk light installation thing planned for the ruins of Hadrian's Wall in the English March district.Apparently the idea is that tonight everybody and their cat is going to turn up - I'm exaggerating, there is some sort of organization to where everyone is going - and light up the old vallum and the castria for the first time since the old fortification went dark some time in the middle 5th Century A.D.
"A sequence of 500 "illuminations" at 250-metre intervals will roll westwards from Segundum fort, Wallsend, at 5.45pm, reaching Carlisle three quarters of an hour later and ending on the final, largely fragmentary stretch of the wall above the Solway. Timings and gas supplies are being synchronised so that the whole of the ancient frontier will be illuminated at the climax for the first time since Hadrian ordered its building in AD122."
The history geek and goof in me that likes this sort of fun and silly stuff - dressing up in garb and playing at knights, SCA-stuff and all that - loves the notion that reenactors, Roman wannabes, history buffs, birthday partiers, bicycling cheese enthusiasts, a theatrical troupe doing son et lumière at Segundum fort and "a torchlit fancy-dress procession with acrobats dangling from a heliosphere balloon in the centre of Carlisle" will converge on this ancient artifact and have a big ol' goof with gaslights for the night.The old soldier in me shakes his head and wonders what the old sweats of the Legio II Augusta have thought of the cycling cheese-lovers or the dangling acrobats as they dug the trenches and built the 2nd Century equivalent of the MacNamara Line.

What would the local garrisons, left behind when the legions sailed to the mercies of the Picts, the Norsemen and the Saxon invaders, have thought about the "display by one of her five children who is a trained fire-eater"?

What would the reivers who rode the Border for centuries have thought about all this peaceful fire in the night?

And it occurs to me that they would probably have grinned and nodded, pleased that their descendants are able to assemble in great and abiding peace to make a silly show of their grim old battlements. For the reality, when you think on it, of the story of the Wall, its abandonment, and the hard centuries between the fall of Roman Britain and today are one of great unease, of war, suffering and tragedy as the people of Roman Britain, already conquered by one invader, were left to be seized by another as the Angles and Saxons swarmed in. And after them the Vikings, and the Normans. And this was when the locals weren't fighting one another.

Like most of the rest of human history, the story of the Wall is a story of a hard-won safety briefly kept.

So while the soldier and historian in me mocks the acrobats and cyclists and cheese-eaters - gently, a little - for playing foolish games amid the ruins of a deadly and desperate fortification, the soldier, the man and the father in me revels in that all these people can be foolish and fond and silly and peaceful and happy, lighting the remains of that grim, unhappy time. In the best sense, what soldiers and fathers and mothers do is win that brief space of time and place for those they love to be safe, happy and loved.

For when the night is often long, and cold, and the moments of sunlight and peace fleeting, they are all the dearer for their brevity.


  1. Cool stuff, wish I could be there. I visited the wall a few times when I lived in the UK and got married not too far away from it in Scotland. Our tenth-year anniversary is this summer and we were thinking of going back, but then fate intervened and someone knocked the wife up. We'll get there next year hopefully.

  2. I normally feel fairly cool towards this sort of history/fakery, but the Wall itself is such a fascinating old artifact, the setting (I understand that the central portions, up in the high hills of Cumbria, are truly spectacular), and the overall happy silliness of this make it kind of delightful. I hope to update this with some pictures from the event.

  3. "the man and the father in me revels in that all these people can be foolish and fond and silly and peaceful and happy, lighting the remains of that grim, unhappy time. In the best sense, what soldiers and fathers and mothers do is win that brief space of time and place for those they love to be safe, happy and loved."

    Nice ending. The whole tapestry of human existence is an amazing thing. Portugal, and all Europe for that matter share the same sort of past that you mention.

    The people have been on these particular pieces of ground for a long time and will continue to be in the future, there is a certain stability, a certain sense of social cohesion here that I don't feel in the states. Their existence as a distinct cultural entity far predates the presence of any organized and centralized political entity.

    With us it is exactly the opposite.

  4. Ya. The lines are all in our heads. All of us were born somewhere on this planet. So far as we know, every last one of our ancestors was born somewhere on this planet. The genetic science says we all descend from a single female who lived in Africa 50,000 years ago, and the linguistics pretty much agrees with the genetics. One branch of my family goes back before Jamestown via Pocahontas. Two others go back to the the second half of the 17th century, plus some 18th century Germans and Irish. The most recent branch was started by a dairy farmer from Airolo, Ticino Canton, Switzerland @ 1870. There was quite an influx of Swiss-Italians to California, about half doing dairy farms in the Sierra Nevada, the other half growing grapes and fishing on the Coast.

    And I don't think it exactly the opposite, I think it's all starting to melt together, which is exactly what it needs to do -- except it's hard to imagine how we survive much longer with all the IDIOTS we have running around who think tyrannizing others is just good politics and / or good biz.

    Scott Horton's did a post today that was excellent, and fits right in here:

    (He does something like that almost every Sunday
    across a VERY broad spectrum of topics; always starting with a translation / quotation, followed by discussion, ending with a congruent musical selection.)

  5. Thanks Chief;

    Hows about a follow-up with one of your outstanding battle critiques. Maybe the Roman invasion of England?

    - or Queen Boudica's revolt? (did you do that one already??)

    - or the Roman retreat from the Antonine Wall in Scotland? (are there any good sources for that??)

  6. Charles-

    I don't think you understood what I meant by "the opposite". Think "Serbia" as opposed to "Yugoslavia" . . .

    Btw, I'm the one who posted Harper's as one of our watering holes, and I'm a subscriber to the same . . . it's about my favorite mag - along with the American Conservative - so I'm well aquainted with Scott Horton. Liked especially his treatment of Max Weber.

  7. or the Norman Conquest maybe?

  8. Charles: nice citation. I enjoyed the Horton piece, too.

    mike: Check over at GFT for the battle for March. Still thinking of that one. But the Conquest - at least the only battle therein - is here:

  9. Nice addition, Charly, with the Scott Horton piece. He's one of my favorites.

    That Solon was quite a dude:

    These things my spirit bids me teach the men of Athens:
    that Ill-governance brings evils a thousand-fold for the polis,
    but Noble-governance yields a city where all things are decorous and sound,
    thickly enfolding in fetters those who are unjust:
    it smoothes those things that are rough, it stops koros short, it sentences hybris to obscurity;
    it causes the burgeoning flowers of atê to whither,
    and straightens crooked judgments; calms the
    deeds of arrogance and stops the deeds of faction;
    it stops the bilious anger of harsh strife and in its control
    are all things proper and thoughtful among men.

    One wonders how he'd react at seeing how Western democracies—all descendants of his place—follow his admonition.

    How do all you polis feel these days?

    BTW, been light on the Internets recently due to other commitments. Will be even lighter through the weekend. I will be in Jacksonville for the first round of the NCAA playoffs. And a little golf, too. I'll try to get back in the swing of things next week.

  10. Publius,

    I'm so glad you're en route -- I worried about you when I read this tonight: Jogger dies as plane crash lands on him -- Hilton Head, y'know.

    I was waxing philosophic after reading FDC's post on humanity. Enjoy the links.

  11. Methinks our Publius has too much situational awareness to be struck down from above.

  12. Lisa, methinks you know me too well to believe I might be jogging (jogging!) out there in harm's way. But this was a really uncanny (and very sad) story. Seems a private plane enroute to (I think) Orlando lost power and was diverted by ATC to Hilton Head Airport. Couldn't make that, so he decided to land on the beach. Meanwhile, our unlucky jogger was running along with his Ipod headphones on. Wham! According to a couple walking on the beach that was barely missed, it was all in total silence. First thing they knew was when the powerless plane glided overhead (ocean breakers probably masked whatever noise there might have been) and the landing gear struck the jogger ahead of them in the head. Their quote: he never knew what hit him, which means the headphones probably didn't matter.

    It's a very sad story. He was a 38-year-old fellow from Georgia here on business. Left a wife and two small kids.

    Mike, based on the descriptions of this freak occurrence, one wonders if situational awareness would have mattered much. My wife quotes her late mother as saying, "when your time's up, death finds you." I'm not big on determinism, but weird things like this sometimes make you wonder. And of course anyone who's ever been to war wonders.

  13. Publius,

    I would not imagine you to jog, but I would think the plaid pants would've given the pilot something to try and avert ... It is a sad, freak story, and there may be something to your late MIL's determinism.

    I have personally escaped death many times, and not through any effort on my part. Just chance saviors popped up, enough to make me a bit in awe of serendipity and grace (?)

  14. Another great post from Scott Horton:

    And be sure to check out the Cato institute link in the post.