Friday, January 28, 2011

Thessaloniki I

            Thessaloniki.  Don't worry that you don't recognize that spelling, apparently there is very little agreement on what to call this city, let alone how to spell it.  That is what happens, I suppose, when your town dates back to the time of Alexander the Great--the city is named for his half sister, the wife of one of his generals, who founded the city.  Ambrose, as far as I know, never visited here or anywhere in the Greek speaking empire, for that matter.  So why am I here?

           Theodosius, in a word.  Of all the emperors that Ambrose dealt with (5, in all, presuming that he dealt exclusively with Valentinian II and never with his ill fated brother Valens) Ambrose was closest to Theodosius.  At the oration he delivered for the emperor's funeral he spontaneously revealed that, despite their famous conflicts, "I loved this man."  I do believe that the two had grown an astonishing bond, not despite, but because of what happened here one awful day, at the hippodrome.

            I came here myself on the same day that our group of Ambrose Alumni headed back to the states.  They had had a vigorous 10 day experience of Ambrose's Italy--one participant who had a pedometer clocked us in at an average of 11 miles a day, including 2 half-marathons.  But heck, there was a lot to see in 10 days!  I confess that I simultaneously miss them and the students who preceded them--at 10 miles a day for almost 3 weeks themselves--while at the same time I have enjoyed a bit of a rest myself.  Thessaloniki, as it turns out, is a fairly small Roman city.  My hotel sits a few blocks from the Western walls build by Theodosius, and the imperial palace that he occupied for the first 3 years of his reign leans into the Eastern walls.  It is a 20 minute walk from one to the other, esp. on a day blown by winds coming off the not particularly wine-dark sea of the Aegean.

            Though it was an important city in Greek speaking Thessaly, Thessaloniki came to one of its many high points (which, note, implies as many low points!) under the late Roman Empire.  Diocletian had constructed a system of government that included two emperors, each with a 'caesar' as an assistant.  Though this did NOT mean a geographical division between east and west, it did mean that there was imperial presence in both the east and the west at the same time, if that makes sense.  Galerius was selected first as caesar and then as emperor with residence in the East and he claimed this city as his base.  So he built an imperial residence, a circus/hippodrome (race track), a triumphal arch for himself, and a mausoleum that he never had the chance to use (he had the good sense to die just before having to take on the inexorable Constantine).  All three used to line up in a row, and all are still evident--the mausoleum, indeed, is intact and looks a great deal like that of Constantia, the daughter of Constantine, in Rome, though larger.  It survived, as most   pagans Rome did, by being converted into a church (and later, a mosque).  It was, of course, closed up tight when I went to visit it.

            But the agora (Latin would call it a forum) was open and free.  So was the Imperial palace.  The arch is mostly gone, but there are a few great marble bas reliefs that show elephants and camels as part of the scene of Persia's humiliation at the hands of Galerius.  Though hard to see in the remnants, the arch was deep and had "sides" that were themselves of these is all that remains, inadvertently changing the important-to-understand axis of the original structure).

            It is a bit weird being here alone after having had a large troop with me for the past month.  It is also a good reminder of what it is like to not speak the language (my rudimentary koine Greek--that used in the New Testament--does little more than allow me to transliterate the signs: I certainly can't speak to anyone, and if I did they might look at me oddly if I offered them "Grace and Peace from our Lord Jesus Christ!" in imitation of St. Paul, who visited the place).  The city is the 2nd largest in Greece.  As part of the Ottoman Empire it was "First After the First" city--Istanbul.  But it has suffered and if I needed any evidence of the inequities exposed by Greece's debt crisis I couldn't have gotten any better than to see vast McPalaces in the country with pools and fences and well lit compounds and the city itself with uncollected garbage, wild dogs scrounging for survival, unemployed men clustered in wind-whipped public places, closed up shops, crumbling or unfinished buildings everywhere, graffiti of all sorts even across shop windows, and shacks leaning against Theodosius' walls.  In honesty, this feels more like an African failed state than a member of the European Community.

            But because of imperial patronage, the Thessaloniki of Theodosius was in boom mode, with new construction going on all around--including the walls that he had the foresight to order as soon as he'd become emperor.  Not that it took a great deal of prescience, mind you.  Theodosius' father had been a very successful general under Valentinian I, who ruled from Trier in Germany--Ambrose's father must have been an important member of that court.  He had put down a serious triple revolt in Brittania and was shipped off to do the same thing in western North Africa.  The son and future emperor seems to have been held back as a sort of hostage, though he was allowed to serve in the legions along the Danube.

            Something happened that may have made Valentinian want to kill Theodosius...there had been a surprise raid and Romans fled, Theodosius was blamed.  His father may have taken his life into his own hands by stepping up to the emperor to defend his son.  We know that Valentinian was famously and toxically hot tempered (he would die of apoplexy while yelling at German chieftains) and he may have been looking for an excuse to rid himself of a too-successful general: he had Theodosius the elder killed (it is very confusing, but the evidence seems to have been a magic spell that was cast to ask the name of the next emperor, this Ouija board instrument had begun to spell out t-h-e-o-d...).  In any case the father was killed and the son was exiled back to Spain, from which the clan had originated.

            Incidentally, we don't know what happened to Ambrose's father but it seems plausible that he too was a victim of Valentinian's temper.  He died and the family was allowed to return to their Rome.  Ambrose was just an infant.  It is a curious parallel between the two future great men, if true.

            But then there was a crisis of unprecedented effect.  I strongly encourage you to read the account by Ammianus, which reads like a Hollywood script for the sequel to Gladiator.  Tribes of Goths wanted to cross the Danube, being pursued by Huns.  Valens, Emperor of the East and brother of Valentinian I, ordered them to be admitted, but corrupt local officials who demanded fees, refused to supply food or sanitary camps for the refugees, and forgot to disarm them, were finally overrun.  Local Roman troops were of Gothic blood and they understandably sided with their kin.  Valens had to abort an invasion of Persia to deal with this uprising, but he wouldn't wait for help.

            Valentinian I had died already, leaving his teen aged son Gratian as emperor of the West.  This one appealed to his uncle to wait for help, but was ignored.  The result was the 2nd worst defeat of a Roman army in its 1000 year history.  Valens was killed near the city of Hadiranopolis and the entire East was exposed to thousands of well armed (and Arian, by the way) Goths.  In desperation, Gratian recalled the son of the great general and asked him to take over the eastern part of the empire.                                                 
            Theodosius...what would have been his reaction?  He was asked to work for the son of the man that killed his father and very well might have been intending to kill him.  He was asked to take control of a vast region that was overrun by barbarian hoards who could act with near impunity (they could not, it turns out, attack walled cities, not having the experience, technology, or tools) and without a tax base: all the farms were either destroyed or controlled by the enemy.

            He accepted.  He moved to Thessaloniki.  Constantinople was just a few kilometers from the site of the defeat outside of Hadrianopolis and so unsafe.  He spent 3 years at the palace here bargaining--he had no army with which to threaten, only the impetus of 1000 years of Roman power--bribery, setting one chief against another, and finally--when he had the resources at hand--ruthlessly striking at pockets of resistance.  The results, it must be admitted, are mixed.

            On the one hand, he restored the East to Rome.  But he had to make some awful concessions.  Rome typically accepted foreigners into the legions, but their process was carefully thought out: remove them from their tribes and their language group and the lands nearest their family settlements.  The result was the Romanification of the barbarian.  But Theodosius had no such luxury.  He admitted whole tribes to the legions, under the leadership of their chieftains, near the lands granted their families as homesteads.  Did they learn to be Romans?  Did they even learn Latin?  Did they fight for Rome or for their farms?  Did they obey the emperor of their chief?  Theodosius knew what he was doing; he just didn't have any other choice.  Some say that the Battle of Hadrianopolis marks the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.

            But that is another example of the historian's sin of hindsight.  First of all, this all happened in the East, not the West.  Secondly, while flawed and the source of future troubles, Theodosius' solution was the best he could have achieved. As I walk around the walls and through the great audience hall and even through the private baths and bathrooms of the imperial palace, I feel close to this man.  He had not yet met Ambrose in person, though he would soon.  He was employing the tricks he'd learned from his clever and solution-minded father.  He had brought his family (a wife and 2 sons) to this city wedged between the forested hill country of the north (now a national forest) and the sea.  It was a beautiful place and about the size of Trier (I think: I'll let you know once I visit there) and of the other major cities of the Roman frontier.  I wonder if he spoke Greek or was as mystified as am I by the language that sounds uncannily like Italian in some ways.  He was a Spaniard who spoke Latin, but the official language of the empire--East and West--was Latin.  He could have gotten along quite well in the circles in which he worked daily without ever having to learn Greek. 

            Indeed, after finger pointing and smiling, English is a decent back up strategy today.  If anyone knows any other language, it will be English.  Latin was (somewhat ironically) the Lingua Franca of the whole ancient world.  Even after the demise of the empire in the West, Latin would remain the official language of the Eastern/Byzantine court for centuries.   Tonight I was out looking for a restaurant.  I'd gone to a place recommended by the hotel concierge last night and it was great: I’d never have known it was a restaurant if I'd not been told.  It was decorated in newspaper accounts from the great fire of 1917 that destroyed most of the ancient city center, musical instruments like bag pipes and drums that were clearly made out of animal guts, and a pelt of some feline that I am sure is endangered, while mid-eastern music was played quite loudly over the TV. news.  I was the only person in the place that didn't look like I lived in it.  The young man who was called upon to help me (it being evident that St. Paul's Greek was never used to order food) used the word "fish."  I seized on that and received a huge heap of 3" fish, fried and spiced up nicely.  Along with potatoes (the Greek is "potato") and a funky local wine it was a great meal.  It was done with English, not Greek.

            Tonight, being the first time I considered eating since then, I refused to eat at the same place--pride, I suppose, inspired by a dear friend who is my model for taking risks in foreign places--I wondered all over the city in the dark and did not feel particularly safe, I might say: lights are dim or not on at all and I didn't relish sharing dark streets with the few people who were out.  I ended up in a fast-food gyro shop (by the way, it is pronounced G, as in great, erho, not as  we are taught in America "hero" or "ghero."  Just as the Italian word Bruschetta is pronounced "brusketa" in Italian and NOT as young waitresses in America are fond of correcting me "brushetta.").  My Gyro was phenomenal and if I hadn't been the only one in the shop and worried that I was keeping the owner busy waiting for me, I'd have ordered another.  He wasn't too bothered, by the way, as he was watching with amusement what seemed to be the Greek version of the old black and white Honeymooner's show.  He was very nice and when I thanked him--in English--he said "me too."  My point?  English is the new Latin.  The US is the new Rome...we should ponder what that means, for better or worse.  All civilizations seem to experience the highs and lows of Thessaloniki, but this is not an inevitable biological cycle.  We can and ought to learn from the past.  There is more to say about Ambrose, Theodosius, and Thessaloniki, but for tonight, this seems like an important enough place to end.  Besides, the nice Greek wine I got from the local store is finished.  Some things never change.

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