The amphitheatre, Caerleon, August 2014
In Wales last summer we visited the remains of Caerleon, the City of the Legions. Charlotte Higgins stopped there too in her journey round Roman Britain, Under Another Sky, and describes it in a wonderful chapter on 'Wales and the West' that she structures around the life of archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler. His illustrious career began at Wroxeter, working in the summers before the First World War on the old Roman town of Uriconium. Wilfred Owen, who wrote 'Uriconium: An Ode' in 1913, was fascinated by these ruins and probably saw Wheeler digging there. Higgins wonders if the poet might have done something related to archaeology himself if he had survived the war. Owen missed out on UCL where he would have been an undergraduate contemporary of Tessa Verney, who married Wheeler in 1912 and became a prominent archaeologist in her own right. It was she who led the excavation of the impressive amphitheatre at Caerleon. Ten years later, in 1936, the Wheelers were at Maiden Castle (which is where, years ago, I took the photograph of a line in the grass that I has served as a background for this blog). Mortimer Wheeler left temporarily for a trip to the Levant and on his way back, flicking through a paper in Paris, came upon his wife's obituary. The shock of her sudden death is described out of sequence in Wheeler's memoirs, alongside an account of his traumatic experiences at Passchendaele. Of the five student archaeologists at Uriconium, Wheeler had been the only one to make it home from the war. Back at Maiden Castle he resumed work and uncovered a collection of graves. It seemed to him that he had found an ancient war cemetery. Surely, he wrote, 'no poor relic in the soil of Britain was ever more eloquent of high tragedy.'
This chapter of Under Another Sky traces other connections between war and poetry and ruins: through A. E. Housman for example, Wheeler's classics tutor at UCL, whose book A Shropshire Lad was popular with soldiers in the trenches. In his poem 'On Wenlock Edge' the wind blows over the land, indifferent to history, while the Romans who once stood there 'are ashes under Uricon.' The Romans themselves saw that time would eventually leave nothing behind but shattered walls. Charlotte Higgins quotes Book 8 of The Aeneid in which Aeneas and his companions, survivors of the Trojan War, encounter a king who shows them the ruins of ancient buildings and the wooded hills on which Rome will one day rise. In these lines, 'Virgil is giving the topography of Augustan Rome a numinous aetiology, suffusing its everyday modernity with the mythical.' The king leads Aeneas through what will be, in Virgil's time, the centre of the city. ''Everywhere they saw herds of cattle lowing in the Roman forum and the smart Carinae'. Virgil lets time collapse here, such that for a moment his contemporary readers would have been given the head-spinning image of cattle roaming the streets of their own busy city - a kind of double exposure, past and present in the same frame. Reading these lines in the twenty-first century, there is a different frisson again: the oleander- and cypress-fringed Forum of our day is once more empty but for tourists and old stones ... Time has come full circle: from pastoral ruin to pastoral ruin.'
The Forum, Rome, April 2014