I’m walking slowly.
I’m saying their names out loud.
I’m wondering, and so I ask “Do you hear me, Juanito? Is this what you wanted?”
I pause, but only a distant crow replies, and really, I think he’s talking to someone else outside. What a primeval sound it is, though. I imagine those whose names I’m reading and speaking might also have heard that “caw” as they wandered and wondered here.
|"D [?] 2 April, 1934. They visited this historic place."|
I’m on my way to the Sierra de Grazalema, but have decided to stop at the archaeological site of Italica, just outside Sevilla. Founded by the Roman Emperor Scipio Africanus in 206 B.C.E., it was conceived as a settlement for veterans of the second Punic wars. At the time of its construction, the amphitheater at Italica was the third largest in all the Roman empire, accommodating 25,000 spectators—more than three times the actual population of Italica, by some estimates. The Romans were not known for understatement. Overkill was more their thing.
It’s pretty quiet on this day in 2017. No boots on the march or clanging of swords. I have the place almost to myself, save for a few teenagers and their chaperone on a field trip.
And the ghosts of tourists past.
That’s who I’ve been calling out to; the names scratched onto the arena corridor’s walls.
I first spot them when a beam of sunlight streams through an opening onto the bricks, and a grandiose script emerges from among the shadows.
Mario wants us to know he was here, a very long time ago, as do hundreds, perhaps thousands of others.
There appear to be layers and layers of them, scratched or scrawled, then fading, and overlain with new names as the unrelenting river of decades and centuries flows by.
They are caught up in that stream of time and carried off, leaving these vain little eddies.
I’m asking myself where the line is drawn; where does the expression of human yearning cross over into vandalism. Were I to add my scrawl here, how many years would it take to be considered a statement about that yearning to be seen, to be known? Fifty years? One hundred years? A thousand?
|Tabula Gladiatoria. This one isn't graffiti.|
Still, it’s one of the the most human of traits, wanting to leave our mark. Caves all over the globe tell us this. In those other Roman ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum we find the spectrum of human experience documented, scratched and scribbled onto walls: politics, commerce, religiosity, greetings, poetry, angst, love, lust, revenge.
A sampling from those famous Roman sites:
“Here love will be wise”
“Let the bears devour me”
“Myrtis gives good fellatio”
“Lasius is a pervert” [I’m guessing Myrtis wrote that one]
“Goodbye” “Good luck”
“Biggus Dickus has a . . . “ well, you know. And if the Monty Python troupe tells me it’s so, then it is.
Ok, that last one isn’t really found at Pompeii or Herculaneum. But I have to say, I do prefer the narrative graffiti to the simple names. If our 19th century dandy had told me something on that wall about his travels, his conquests or his longings, I might readily forgive him in exchange for that moment of human connection, that window into the past. I’m a history nerd, after all.
|Bricks and names, turning to mold and dust, as we speak.|
But then, who am I kidding. Ancient ruins always call to mind the knowledge that we’re only passing through this world. They always call to mind our mortality. And in the face of that knowledge, words often fail. So instead, we call up those practiced letters that offer us and the world the simplest, weakest approximation of who we are.
I could add my name and join this throng, but I don’t. I will join them soon enough.
Just like those seemingly invincible Roman generals, I cannot overcome impermanence. I’m grateful for this reminder they’ve provided me today, even if it was unintentional.
To say their names now is a form of sadhana. I say my own, too, not worrying that the crows might hear me.
I smile, thinking that, like drops of rain that reach the surface of the sea and become indistinguishable from one another, we will meet again and quell that ache that compels us to litter monuments with names.
These phantoms and me, we are that sea. We have always been that sea.
“See these colors? Smell this fragrance?” they whisper like those phantoms in the corridor.
“You are alive. Be here now.”
|Archaeologists at work|
|Roman legion stragglers near Italica|