Not the typical Roman holiday …

Torcello

To compensate for this unprecedented and rather depressing run of two ‘parish news’ posts in a row — and also, admittedly, because while everyone else of any consequence is clearly now on holiday, I’m still here in London — let’s turn our attention, however briefly, to far horizons, judged either geographically or chronologically — specifically, to some nondescript and dessicated fields just north of Venice’s Marco Polo airport.

Most ‘news stories’ precipitated by press releases, seeded into the apparently endless news-drought that is August, deserve the torrent of indifference they generally receive. This, however, is something else entirely. Scholars have, I suppose, always known that a (pre) Roman settlement called Altinium, located on the Venetian terrafirma but also very near the island of Torcello, was more than just a tactful myth designed to confer upon a great Renaissance city some semblance of a respectably ancient Roman lineage. The site of Altinium, near the present-day hamlet of Altino, was well known. Excavations had already taken place, uncovering part of Altinium’s necropolis.

A dry spell in July 2007, however, revealed much more. Based on aerial photos taken in several wavelengths of visible light and in near-infrared, with a resolution of half a meter, it has been possible to reconstruct the street-plan of Altinium, complete with basilica, forum and theatre, as well as a canal. This latter feature is fascinating, suggesting as it does that long before the Lombard invasions of the seventh century, the inhabitants of Altinium were already learning the arts of embanking, draining and canal-building — all of which would later prove so central to history of the world’s most beautiful city.

Some might pause to wonder why a Soho-based Tory blog remains so preoccupied with Romans and barbarians, their various conflicts and eventual partial synthesis. Good question! Much of the fascination, I guess, lies in the gloomy romance of Torcello’s foundation-story. No matter how much archaeology, science or all-purpose rationalist daylight is beamed upon it, there’s still something in that tale of a tiny embattled enclave, encircled with lapping brackish water and odd-smelling muddy reed-beds — a glimmering reliquary of older rituals and manners, so improbable in its bare survival and yet so magnificent in its later Venetian successes — that stirs my reactionary heart.

And the rest of the fascination lies precisely in the pleasantly distant nature of these stories and predicaments, capable of functioning not only as metaphor, but as a sort of escapism, too. Holidays, after all, can take many forms. Enjoy yours, if you’re having one — and I’ll get back to poring over my maps of dried-out, distant, anciently depopulated fields.

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1 Comment

Filed under archaeology, history, war & peace

One response to “Not the typical Roman holiday …

  1. All the best people are stuck in town this summer. Those who are prudent are stockpiling.

    I saw this proto-Venice story and thought it was impressive. Two thoughts immediately came to mind.

    The first is how successful Roman cities have been. I believe I’m right in saying that most Roman towns around Europe have actually developed into modern communities (which makes archeology a bit more tricky: one would have to demolish virtually all the old churches to excavate the great pagan temples, a point you’ve raised before about Rome itself).

    I’ve been to Sakkara and the Egyptian Thebes. Admittedly the Persians are said to have devastated the former about 2,400 years ago, but one can travel in countries which were part of other empires of Antiquity and find destroyed cities that never recovered. This, I believe is true of many of the Pre-Columbine civilizations in the Americas too.

    Perhaps I have this completely wrong, but I’m guessing that Roman settlements were more likely to be on trade and communications routes than a good place to look at the sky.

    The second thought was that a drought is useful for archaeology. I look forward to at least one element of the academic community taking the logical conclusion and vigorously opposing any measures aimed at preventing global warming. Shame I don’t believe in it, or I’d be in favour.