When I write about history my work is inspired by human behaviour and the people of the past, but a large part of my inspiration comes from the remains of civilizations that I have seen.
Whenever I have been fortunate enough to travel, the memories of my visits to ancient and medieval ruins have stayed with me as a sort of vivid library of information and emotion through which I can browse whenever I need to.
Often, sites will give me a particular feel or ‘vibe’ for lack of a better term. I can well imagine the voices of a crowded agora, or the cheers of a packed amphitheatre. You can’t help it. The past speaks to you in these places.
The other day I read a fragment of an 8th century old-English Saxon poem called ‘The Ruin’. This fragment, which survives from the Exeter Book, is a sort of elegy for the Roman city of Bath. It is incomplete, but very interesting to read, even a little sad. Here it is in translation:
Wondrous is this foundation – the fates have broken
and shattered this city; the work of giants crumbles.
The roofs are ruined, the towers toppled,
frost in the mortar has broken the gate,
torn and worn and shorn by the storm,
eaten through with age. The earth’s grasp
holds the builders, rotten, forgotten,
the hard grip of the ground, until a hundred
generations of men are gone. This wall, rust-stained
and moss-covered, has endured one kingdom after another,
stood in the storm, steep and tall, then tumbled.
The foundation remains, felled by the weather,
grimly ground up ….
…… a crust of mud surrounded …
….. put together a swift
and subtle system of rings; one of great wisdom
wondrously bound the braces together with wires.
Bright were the buildings, with many bath-houses,
noble gables and a great noise of armies,
many a meadhall filled with men’s joys,
until mighty fate made an end to all that.
The slain fell on all sides, plague-days came,
and death destroyed all the brave swordsmen;
the seats of their idols became empty wasteland,
the city crumbled, its re-builders collapsed
beside their shrines. So now these courts are empty,
and the rich vaults of the vermilion roofs
shed their tiles. The ruins toppled to the ground,
broken into rubble, where once many a men
glad-minded, gold-bright, bedecked in splendor,
proud, full of wine, shone in his war-gear,
gazed on treasure, on silver, on sparking gems,
on wealth, on possessions, on the precious stone,
on the bright capital of a broad kingdom.
Stone buildings stood, the wide-flowing stream
threw off its heat; a wall held it all
in its bright bosom where the baths were,
hot in its core, a great convenience.
They let them gush forth …..
the hot streams over the great stones,
until the circular pool …. hot…
…..where the baths were.
….. that is a noble thing,
how …. the city ….
(translation by R. M. Liuzza)
I’ve often wondered what people in the Middle Ages might have thought of the Roman ruins that were all around them. They probably used the Roman roads (and we still do today!), walls, foundations, and town plans, but I had never really read a primary medieval source that lamented the ruins of Rome’s past in Britain in such a way.
I have to admit that I was a little surprised to read ‘The Ruin’ and detect a hint of sadness as the poet describes what remains of the once-great town of Aqae Sulis. I feel as though he is expressing how I might have felt seeing that wondrous, crumbling city.
The poet has resuscitated Roman Bath for us at a moment in time, after the days of its glory. I can see the grass growing out of the cracks of the paving slabs, and the moss filling the spaces where mortar has crumbled from walls. I can hear ravens cawing from atop the city’s carcass as terra cotta roof tiles slither and slide from their perches to crash on the ground below.
This is yet another interesting perspective to keep in mind when visiting ancient sites – how might other people in history have viewed these places, depending on the perspective of their own age in time?
It’s something worth thinking on.
Thank you for reading!
Let us know what you think about this poem by leaving a comment below.
If you want to hear what the poem sounds like in old-English, here is a video of a young historian reading it. She speaks for about a minute before she starts reading the poem, but hang in there. It’s well worth the wait! What a beautiful language.