Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

After the Pax Romana

My fellow author and twin-brudda-from-anudda-mudda Andrew Butters is one of several people who are always the lookout for cool developments in science and history to throw my way, and this time he's found one that is right square in my wheelhouse.

I've always had a near-obsession with the western European "Dark Ages" -- between the collapse of Roman rule at the end of the fourth century C. E. and the consolidation of Frankish rule under Charlemagne in the middle of the eighth.  Part of the reason for my fascination is that so little is known for certain about it.  When people are fighting like hell just to stay alive, not too many of them are going to prioritize writing books about the experience, or (honestly) even bothering to learn how to read and write.  Add to that the fact that during the turmoil, a great many of the books that had been written beforehand were destroyed, and it all adds up to a great big question mark.

The people who lived on the fringes of the once-great Roman Empire -- the Celts in the west, the Germanic tribes and Scandinavians in the north, the Slavs in the east -- took advantage of the chaos to reestablish some degree of autonomy, although they left little in the way of written records either, so what we know of their customs, politics, and beliefs is only from what's left of their buildings, monuments, and other durable artifacts.

But that doesn't mean there isn't more out there to find.  The link Andrew sent me, from the site LiveScience, describes a site from the province of Galicia in northern Spain, an area that even today owes much of its culture and music to its Celtic heritage.  Castro Valente, originally thought to be from the Iron Age and therefore pre-Roman, has turned out to be from that awkward blank spot in history I'm so fascinated with -- the fifth century C.E., shortly after the Romans wrote finis on the Pax Romana and hightailed it back to Italy to defend the home country against the Visigoths and Vandals.

Using lidar (light detection and ranging -- a relatively new technique using lasers to map out underground archaeological sites), researchers from University College London and the University of Santiago de Compostela found that the site is the remains of a fortress that had been built on the remains of an Iron Age settlement, but the main structure is of early fifth century construction.  It's huge, covering an area of twenty-five acres, comprised of thirty towers and a defensive wall a little over a kilometer long.

Part of the wall at Castro Valente

The people of the region had never been "pacified" (using that term from the Roman perspective) for long.  The northwestern part of the Iberian peninsula was inhabited by three Celtic groups, the Callaeci in the far northwest, the Lusitani in what is now northern Portugal, and the Astures a little to the east (you might surmise, correctly, that the last-mentioned gave their name to Asturia, the modern name for the north-central province of Spain).  All three were perpetual thorns in the side to the would-be rulers of the region.  The northwestern part of the Iberian Peninsula was only under nominal Roman control even at the height of the Empire, and when a long spate of unfortunately-timed inept rulers kept the central government of Rome in continuous upheaval, followed by repeated invasions from the east by Germanic and Slavic armies, the subjugated people in the west thought that'd be a fine time for them to assert their own independence.  (In fact, right around the same time that Castro Valente was being built, Rome itself was sacked by the Visigoths under Alaric -- a blow from which the Roman Empire never really recovered.)

The hilltop fort could only do so much, though.  Most of that region eventually fell to the Suebi, a Germanic people originally from the Elbe River valley.  The Kingdom of the Suebi lasted for 170 years, at which point they, too, were conquered by the Visigoths, which lasted until 720 C.E. when the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate pretty much overran the entire Iberian Peninsula.

When you think of the history of Spain, chances are you don't think of the Celts and the Germans -- but they had a major role in shaping the language and culture of the region.  This influence is strongest in the northern and western parts of the region; in fact, in modern Galicia there's a significant link still to the Celtic nations.  They even share a musical tradition -- I own a set of Galician bagpipes (a beautiful instrument called a gaita).  Check out this incredible performance by Susana Seivane -- whose father designed my pipes!

It's fascinating to see ancient history still present around us -- not only in the artifacts and archaeological sites, but in the culture we enjoy in the modern world.  These traditions have their roots in the distant past -- in this case, stretching back to a tumultuous period when it looked like the entire established order was collapsing permanently.  That it didn't is a tribute to human resilience and perseverance through a time where day-to-day life was fraught with danger, something we can read in the remnants of stone walls and foundations still standing in the now-peaceful Spanish woodlands.


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