1 May 2011

On the edges of the earth: Atlantis, Celts, Ovid

Some years ago I made an unforgettable trip to Rome and its region, Lazio. One day I visited the Alban Hills, in an area nowadays called Castelli Romani. My journey there, first by underground and then by bus, was like a journey into the most archaic history of the Latins. My first stop was Albano Laziale, near lake Albano; the legendary city of Alba Longa stood by the shores of this lake, possibly near the location of today's Castel Gandolfo. The beautiful scenery is dominated by Mount Albano (nowadays called Monte Cavo in Italian), a place that was sacred for the old Latins (picture on the right); it was there that the Feriae Latinae, an annual celebration of the Latin league, took place. The next stop in my journey was the beautiful town of Genzano di Roma, famous for the Infiorata, when the main street of the town is covered with flowers (see picture below). That street leads you to the upper part of Genzano, with beautiful views of Lake Nemi, a small, round lake in the centre of what used to be a volcanic crater. Anyone who has read James Frazer's The Golden Bough will be familiar with the antiquities of the area, including the famous Temple of Diana, now disappeared, and the vicissitudes of the Rex Nemorensis.

Definitely, travelling around the Castelli Romani is like going back to the remote past of Rome and the Latins. I didn't have time to visit all the interesting places in the area, including the remains of Tusculum, the walk to Mount Albano along an old Roman path or a visit to places like Grottaferrata, Velletri or Aricia. In Aricia, for example, there's a curious Roman building. It used to be a guesthouse in classical times, and it continued to be so in later centuries. I read about it somewhere, but now I can't find the information about it, even using the whole apparatus of Internet. According to tradition, the Roman poet Ovid (43BC-17AD) stayed in this guesthouse some days on his way to exile. Maybe this story is just an invention to attract visitors, as Ovid is one of the most famous Roman poets and the story of his exile to the remote lands of Tomis, at the shores of the Black Sea, which he dramatically narrated in his books Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, soon became literary classics. In these books, Ovid complained bitterly about the conditions he had to live in and the back luck he had had to end his days in such a remote and apparently uncivilised corner of the world. Now, was it really so bad? Was he really sent so far away?

In a recent book published in Spanish (Gálatas, Getas y Atlantes, 2010), Xaverio Ballester analyses Ovid's texts in full detail and reaches the conclusion that they're full of inconsistencies. It seems that for the geographic and cultural aspects the Roman poet relied on the general erudition of the time, rather than on first hand experience. According to Ballester, the location of Ovid's exile was a lot closer to Rome. Ovid wrote about Tomis basically because he was supposed to be there!

Ballester's book is a compilation of three essays, including the one about Ovid (El geta de Ovidio). The book is really pleasurable to read, an excellent mixture of scientific rigour and the finest sense of humour.

In the third essay (La Atlántida... si creemos a Platón), Ballester tackles one of the most intriguing topics in Greco-Roman antiquity: the possible location of Atlantis, the legendary territory whose dramatic fall was narrated by the Greek philosopher Plato in two of his dialogues. Is Atlantis just a myth, or is there any truth in this story? If so, what was the location of the 'lost continent'? For centuries, all types of people, including scholars, have asked themselves these questions and come up with the most varied proposals. One of the main points to bear in mind is that Plato offered a precise location for his Atlantis: off the Columns of Hercules, i.e. the Strait of Gibraltar. According to Ballester, however, this location must not be taken at its face value. In many cases old myths are adapted and re-elaborated to the new circumstances. The original material originated at a very early time, in the context of the eastern Mediterranean. The lands further west were basically unknown, or unheard of. Later on, with the expansion into new, and therefore exotic lands, the myths were embellished with new locations further west, as happened, for example, to the Herculean cycle. Ballester puts forward an interesting hypothesis about the Atlantis myth, linking it with the Dardaneles and the Black Sea. The myth would be linked with a geological process that took place at about 5,600 BC: the rise of the sea level and the flooding of the Black Sea area (until then just a small lake) with water from the Mediterranean.

In the first essay (Más allá de gálatas o celtas), Ballester deals with the Celts, particularly with their ethnonym. The study of ethnonyms is traditionally full of absurd proposals, as Ballester funnily shows at the beginning of the chapter. They are explained in linguistic terms, with little or no connection to reality or common sense. We find an example of this in the various explanations for the word 'Celtae', 'Galli' or 'Gallaeci' that have been traditionally proposed. Ballester offers a completely new reading of the terms, which he connects to the geographic notion of 'people who live on the fringe', or 'at a remote area in the west', with the association of 'the west' with the notions of 'death' or 'the end of the world'. It is difficult to prove the validity of this proposal but at least it is coherent with the geographic and (pre)historic contexts.

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