Thursday, April 23, 2009

Roman Remains

“There is as much history underground as there is above ground.” So, our Avignon tourist office guide informed us. This year Avignon commemorates the event that has marked its history more than anything, the arrival, in March 1309, of the first pope. Six more were to follow. The move of the pope from Italy was not the move of a single individual. A retinue of cardinals followed. Being in proximity to the pope meant being in proximity to power, after all. For Avignon, the result was a 14th century urban renewal of sorts. The existing structures, many wooden and typical of the earlier centuries, were razed. Room had to be made for the new sumptuous homes of the new elite. Whatever vestiges of the Roman city that had thrived on the banks of the Rhone were now put to a new use: they became quarries as the stones that once marked Roman greatness became building materials for the city’s new rich and powerful.

Unlike Nimes with its intact Roman arena or cities like Orange and Lyon in which there are still recognizaable Roman legacies, Avignon is left with about a dozen random pieces gathered together on a street corner near the opera house (see picture above). Developing its power as a new (papal) Rome, Avignon lost its heritage as descendant of (imperial) Rome.

That’s too bad because one treat of visits to France is the ability to touch the Roman inheritance. A memorable moment for me involves what is essentially a trench. It is found near the Cathedral in Narbonne. Within the trench: an uncovered section of the Via Domitia, Rome’s first road in France. It stretched from Spain to Italy. Parts of today’s French highway system retraces sections of the Via Domitia. The movement of information has always been important, and, well before our wireless networks moving through the air, there was something more tangible: a system of roads.

The engineering prowess of the Romans is not just well-known. It is still widely feted. One of the towns near our village has “Roman” in its name, Vaison la Romaine. It is also home to a bridge built in the first century. Wherever one goes in this area one hears the story of the 1992 flood, a devastating one that killed over 30 people. The swollen river, loaded with mud and debris tended to take down everything in its path. Not the Roman bridge, however. Even 2 millenia after its construction, it held fast against the ravages of the flood.
When we visited the nearby Abbaye of Senanque, our guide insisted on its Roman roots. She pointed overhead to some stones in the vault that had shifted during an earthquake. The Abbey, founded in 1148, survived the earthquake with no major damage. Why? The guide explained that the people who designed it had studied, and copied, Roman building techniques. Not surprisingly, the lovely, graceful and peaceful architecture of the 11th and 12th centuries is known as “Romanesque.”
The most important Roman legacy is Europe itself, at least as a necessary, though not a sufficient condition. From England to Romania the contours of Western Europe are those of Rome. Intellectually, Europe is also the descendant of Rome, but with important intervening steps. The part of the Roman Empire that is the Europe we know was first touched by medieval Scholasticism and its emphasis on reason as correlative to religion. This opening fostered universities and eventually, two more defining moments for shaping European identity, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Some of the better distinguishing marks of European identity are the result: liberal ideals, republican governments, tolerance, economic prosperity. In those parts of the old Roman empire where the subsequent movements were lacking, counter-reformation Spain for example, or north Africa, the cultural benefits were either delayed or are only tangentially present. Ultimately, the communication network made up of roads led to the communication networks made up of books , scientific inventiveness and reforming ideas. This legacy makes the trench uncovering the Via Domitia a site worth preserving.

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