This is the talk which I gave to the sixthform Classics society last week (delayed from last half term). I hope you enjoy it! Any comments, please leave them below.
Monuments of the past: connecting ruins to their history.
… For I suppose if Sparta were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power. And yet they occupy two-fifths of Peloponnese and lead the whole, not to speak of their numerous allies without. Still, as the city is neither built in a compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public edifices, but composed of villages after the old fashion of Hellas, there would be an impression of inadequacy. Whereas, if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to have been twice as great as it is. We have therefore no right to be sceptical, nor to content ourselves with an inspection of a town to the exclusion of a consideration of its power…
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.10
The problem of connecting ruins, or what is left behind by a particular culture was recognised by Thucydides, a historian writing well over 2000 years ago. He explains that if you were to look at the ruins left by the Spartans, you would think they could not have had the power that they were reputed to have, and if you were to look at the ruins of Athens you would think they were twice as powerful as they actually were.
It is easy to see from this how you can misunderstand the past through ruins, as you cannot judge how great a city was by what was left behind. From Spartan ruins, we can’t see quite how powerful they were. Thucydides is imagining the ruins as ruins even before they have become ruins. He points to the limitations of the material evidence and the fact that you would have to supplement it with literary evidence, which can even become a ruin or monument to the past itself.
Looking at ruins and their function is an endless task, so I’m going to focus this talk on these areas:
- how can ruins evoke a sense of the past?
- ruins as monuments
- ruins in the 21st Century
How can ruins evoke a sense of the past?
There are two senses of the past that we need to look at: a direct past and a distant past.
A direct past
An existent artefact, tangible and accessible to the sense of the observer that fills a place in space and time.
A distant past
An idea of something that once was an existent artefact but has also required a complex ideological resonance…acquired pointed and particular meanings within a discourse.
John Elsner From the Pyramids to Pausanias and Piglet: monuments, travel and writing
What Elsner is trying to say is that the meaning of ruins depends on their state (ie how derelict they are, and he assumes that they deteriorate over time if untouched) and the context of the ruin in society and in the eyes of the onlooker.
He also understands how ruins can acquire new significance once taken out of their original context, which can happen once time passes.
Can the Elgin Marbles evoke a sense of the past?
If you look at this photograph of the Parthenon Galleries at the British Museum, it is clear that we are meant to think that they are important from the way that they are highlighted through lighting, but the museum itself leads us to them and you get an instinctive understanding of their importance from the path the museum has set out toward them. Nothing can detract our attention from the marbles – it’s the last stop in that section of the museum and you can lose yourself in them very easily. But the problem is that it has become impossible to see them in the context of their distant past. They have created their own history now through their transportation to England and what once was a distinctively Athenian cuture has become our own. They are inherently in the distant past, but now in the present, since the ruins have acquired new layers of meaning, a more direct past, which has attempted to distort their original meaning. how many of us look at them and imagine the processions and rituals that took place, or do we look at them and wonder whether their relocation to Athens can help us to imagine this even more?
Although I think we are lucky to have the marbles so close to us, I can’t help but think that their placement in the British Museum has prevented them from being able to evoke a sense of the time when they were built and their original function. The question is whether this is actually acceptable: can it really be okay for ruins to acquire a new history? Does moving them to Athens actually help them relate back to their distant past, or does it just create even more history, and so their time at the British museum becomes a direct past of that ruin?
There is a modern day preoccupation with restoration to get a sense of what life was like at a particular time. A good example of this is Shakespeare’s globe, as described on Wikipedia so aptly as a “best guess” of what the globe theatre looked like before it burnt down. With the addition of course of fire safety measures it can never be a true reconstruction anyway. What is so sacred about the ruins of antiquity that we don’t want to do this, or perhaps don’t think that we can? In Herculaneum you can now visit a virtual museum of the site but you are so distracted by the technology that you can never feel that you are walking through a reconstruction of the town. Perhaps the directors of this museum realise this, and want to make the experience accessible to modern visitors. How much more can you learn about Herculaneum from visiting this compared to the actual ruins of the town just down the road?
Ruins can connect us to the past – we can see building and sculpting techniques but can also see much more – their direct past as well as their distant past.
Chaos of ruins! Who shall trace the void, o’er the dim fragments cast a lunar light, and say “here was, or is,” where all is doubly night?
Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Canto IV
Through ruins we are relying on fragmented ideas to try and picture a past. This quote from Byron explores the difficulty of connecting ruins to their past and how we can never see the whole picture. There is a dreamlike quality to a ruin – we try and imagine ourselves living there as the fragmentary nature of ruins can only do half the work of recreating the past.
To express alienation, I’ve tried first of all to eliminate what is generally called history. That is to say, really, the idea that the ancient world ‘actually’ existed. Thus the atmosphere is not historical but that of a dream world. The ancient world perhaps never existed, but there’s no doubt that we have dreamt it.
Federico Fellini in conversation with Alberto Moravia
Federico Fellini, an Italian director active in the 20th century, says that he tries to eliminate historical context in his films as he acknowledges that we’re never going to be able to fully understand what we’re studying. This is basically the opposite of what we do as Classicists. The question is, what is so false about history that he feels he needs to take everything out of its context? He seems to think that it is better to say that antiquity never existed. After all, if you say that antiquity never existed, it means you can play with it, and you can try to think past the box that museums try to put the classical world into. Think about it, everything makes sense in their entity when you’re asleep and in a dream, but when you wake up you automatically look at a different angle. Fellini likes the world where the dream is possible and ruins force us to dream.
There are elements of his film ‘The Satyricon’ which are completely at odds to the Antiquity that we learn from history. However because the text of The Satyricon itself is fragmentary, it may not necessarily be so wrong to show the film in an equally fragmentary way.
Ruins as Monuments
Visual things are important to our memory. Monuments are representations of things that we haven’t experienced, but we are being made to remember (monere: to remind, to bring to one’s recollection, to warn). Can ruins fall into this category?
The reason we want to remember is because we can forget – monuments stand for the event itself, the memory. The concept of monuments is by no means a new thing.
foedum inhumanumque inde traditur scelus, monumentoque locus est – Sceleratum vicum vocant.
Livy ab urbe condita 1.48
Livy in his history of Rome tells the story of a gruesome murder and describes the scene of the crime as a monument to the crimes going on. The word ‘vocant’ is significant – they call it the street of crime, therefore it must be true what happened there, particularly poignant in their memories as the shrine of Diana stood in that spot until recently. If society remembers it, it becomes memorialised in itself.
ab urbe condita, the Latin name of his history of Rome, literally means ‘from the foundation of the city’ – what foundation is he talking about? Historical, mythological, or the actual monuments of the city?
Our social memory requires monuments, rather than someone saying this is important, therefore we ought to remember it. But what if those monuments are already there for us to use, ones that we don’t have to construct.
By not prosecuting people who had done wrong during the rule of the 30 tyrants in Athens in the 5th Century BC, Athens wanted civil war to appear not to have really threatened Athens – to forget this any anything bad that happened in it, meant Athens could continue with democracy and be ‘united’ once again. But this denial of the civil war being a bad thing meant that they were also denying that there were some former supporters of the 30 in the restored democracy. They were getting away with it. As much as the Athenians wanted to erase civil war from memory, it was impossible. Certain monuments made sure that they couldn’t forget. For example, they used tombs of Spartan soldiers which served the purpose of being trophies over their enemy and were a proof of how great the Athenians were. It was like they wanted only to remember it when they could say how great they were for overcoming the 30. They also repaired things which were damaged by the 30 and by the Spartans such as the city walls. This use of ruins showed what the Athenians really wanted to achieve after overthrowing the oligarchy – physically repairing the walls represented their desire for the restoration of what the oligarchs had destroyed.
The Colosseum stands as a monument to both the civilised society of the Romans who built it, and the awful games that go with it. It’s ruinous state could also represent the decline of a society, where its present is now unequal to its past.
Back to Fellini – in his film ‘Roma’ a fictionalised documentary of Rome as it were, he represents Rome as a museum of Rome, and in a way has become a monument to itself. In this short clip from the film, look out for the representation of Rome as a monument to the past.
The riders are passing present and past monuments, and the everpresent hum of the motorbikes only serves to heighten this juxtaposition of past and present. The view leading up to the Colosseum with the buzzing of the motorbikes and the road markings visible on the ground make the past and present of Rome all become one landscape. The transition from the past of Rome to the present helps us to see Rome as a monument to itself.
Rome does not need to make culture. It is culture. Prehistoric, classical, Etruscan, Renaissance, Baroque, modern. Every corner of the city is a chapter in an imaginary universal history of culture…the city is one enormous museum.
Federico Fellini, Fellini on Fellini
Ruins of the 21st century
A monument can also have the effect of providing closure to an event that has clearly affected the psyche of a community.
The monuments to 9/11 are based on skyscrapers – they use functional buildings as monuments. This is the original memorial, and the recently completed memorial incorporates the towers as if they were ghosts, using their ‘footprints’ as the location for the two reflecting pools.
The memorial of the flight 93 crash site includes a wall surrounding the site which is at the same angle as that at which the plane hit the ground.
Does making such specific allusions to the event help people to commemorate an event, or does it matter, as long as the event is commemorated?
With 9/11 at the World Trade Centre there was definitely a need to fill a physical space which was the ruins of the twin towers – even some of the building scraps are included in the memorial designs. Has this perhaps happened a little too quickly?
The filling of space left by the ruins of the twin towers is not the only reason to create a physical monument: there is a larger impact in a visual monument rather than just reading or recollecting history, making it more real rather than just reading about events. It is tangible, we can interact with it, and we start to want to feel like we are part of history, wanting to be remembered in our own time. The fear of history repeating itself also provokes the need to have a physical manifestation of that fear in a memorial. This is perhaps the reason why we now seem to have monuments which regret the past, and which represent more tragic events, even if the outcome in general was victorious, such as memorials to World War 1 and World War 2.
With the consequent invasion of Iraq, one of the most poignant moments was the pulling down of the statue of Saddam Hussein.
This statue was the representation of the man, not the man himself, but the desecration of it ended up signifying the actual person being desecrated – as if Saddam himself was brought down, and it felt as though the allied troops were saying that we have utter contempt for what you, Iraq, have decided to memorialise, as if his power was immortalised in the statue, and with the marine putting the American flag over his face, America was saying that we have brought you down Saddam. Here this monument was used as a way of imposing power, and creating their own version of history, by both Iraq (as the statue was up) and American (as the statue came down.)
We choose want we turn into monuments – we cannot be told what we want to use as a memorial. Ruins are no exception.
Take Hadrian’s wall. These ruins can become a memorial to the civilised overcoming the barbaric. But we were the barbaric then, and now we want to align ourselves with the civilised. This wall is inherently in the past, but now in the present. Ruins acquire new layers of meaning throughout history which distort the original.
Classics is ruins – it has never been anything but ruins. It confers grandeur upon the subject – they’re really old, supposedly untouched, which makes them almost sacred. Why are they left as ruins? They are a reminder of what used to be there – something has let go, but they are still there in some form, a looming presence.
I do love these ancient ruins. We never tread upon them but we set Our foot upon some reverend history.
John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi