Sunday, November 11, 2012

Charlemagne's Daughters

This is an exerpt from a book I was working on between drafts of Germania. Though they don't show up in this fragment, the book was about Charlemagne's daughters, as observed by the Roman priest sent up to tutor them. History doesn't actually tell much about them, except that they were possibly the only women in western Europe able to read and write. But they were also well-versed in the sciences, particularly astronomy and more than once, convinced their father to call off battles because of what they'd seen in the stars.

Excerpt from Year Zero, or Charlemagne's Daughters 
Father Marcellus got sent from the still largely civilized Rome to the boonies in Aachen. Twenty years later on a visit back home, Marcellus is shocked to see the state his city is in and when the main aqueduct breaks and Rome is suddenly without water, Marcellus is called upon to use the engineering skills he picked up at Charlemagne’s court to fix it.

View of the Aqua Virgo Aqueduct in Rome
“Father Marcellus, there will be no water for bathing today.” For me, this was how it started. I’d been eating breakfast when my servant Rufus shuffled in with the news. I remember looking up at him and thinking this was scarcely anything to get excited about. A month never went by without the system shutting down at least once; a pipe would crack and lose pressure or a cistern got clogged with sediment. But the water workers were a clever bunch, for all their grubby appearance, and usually fixed things within a day or two. I told Rufus not to worry about it.

But Rufus stood his ground. “Oh no, Father Marcellus,” he moaned. “It’s worse than that, much worse! Part of the aqueduct collapsed north of the city and they say no one knows who’s going to fix it. It’s the end, Father Marcellus, the end of everything!”

Naturally I knew it couldn’t possibly be true. The Aqua Virgo had stood for a thousand years. Why would it choose this moment to stop working? I dismissed him, telling him he shouldn’t believe everything he heard on the street and then calmly went back to my food.

After breakfast, I put on my teacher’s cloak and hat and embarked on my daily journey down the Caelian hill into the city. But no sooner had I left the monastery gates, than passersby began shouting the news to me; an entire span of the aqueduct had indeed collapsed during the night and now the city was completely out of water. Not even the great baths at Carcalla were working. It seemed unthinkable. Certainly, life here was a far cry from the old glory days, when the city had a million inhabitants and eleven different aqueducts bringing us water. Now we were down to one, the Aqua Virgo, which was all that our greatly reduced population needed to hold on to the modicum of civilization we still required. Unless it was quickly repaired, that small modicum would become a thing of the past and Rome would become a truly dead city. I decided to go survey the damage for myself.

I distinctly remember how loudly the birds were singing that morning as I walked down the hill toward the aqueduct. It had rained the night before, the ground was soft and damp under my feet and there was a fresh sea breeze blowing herds of small grey clouds from the west. People were going about their business, pushing hand carts and wheelbarrows, and carrying baskets of food or bundled dry goods back from the marketplace.

At this point, I’d been back from Aachen for two months and this was my first springtime in Rome in twenty years. I’d been put up in fairly pleasant diggings at the Monastery of Saint Erasmus. I had wangled a cush teaching post at one of the lesser colleges in the city. I’d spent twenty years away from Rome, but I fell back into it almost immediately. Everyone I’d known was still there and they were glad to have me back. Looking back on it now, I couldn’t say if I was happy, but I certainly wasn’t miserable.

Pausing on the hillside overlook, I stared down at the city and saw the different lines of aqueducts running high above the cover of trees and picked out the Aqua Virgo. It stood just north of the Saepta arena, its elevated arcades running only a short distance from where it emerged from under the hillside at the Horti Lucullam to its terminus at the Pincan. Of all the water that the aqueducts had brought to Rome, Aqua Virgo’s waters were said to have been the sweetest. Now our only remaining source of water was the polluted Tiber.

It was hard to overstate what the aqueducts represented to Romans. Technically speaking, we hadn’t invented aqueducts, but we had perfected them, and with our unmatched talent as engineers, made them into exquisite things of great physical and spiritual beauty. To any man of intelligence, the parallel between the aqueducts and the Church was inescapable. For just as the Church carried God’s sanctifying grace all the way from heaven, the aqueducts carried water over great distances; pure, sweet, health-giving, mountain spring water. And just as God’s grace elevated our souls above the brutish pagan mass, the water elevated our lives and preserved our civilization. The aqueducts were a perfect marriage of function and form; as elegant as they were practical, as spiritual as they were physical. And in the same way that a church’s apse and nave are designed to focus congregants’ attention toward God in the heavens, the aqueducts, running as they did, over and under the city in beautiful elevated archways and invisible subterranean tunnels, seemed there to remind us that as humans, our nature resided as much in the earth as in the sky. Like the Church, they were the last surviving bequests from our city’s glorious past. Or at least that was what I often heard people say after a lot of wine.

I passed the Forum, now known only as the Campus Vaccinus, since it was used exclusively for pasturing Rome’s cows. They wandered languidly among the complication of ruins, with the cowherds sitting on the steps and fallen columns. I wondered if they even suspected that this place had once been the very center of our society and government. The fact that we had an open place to publicly discuss the day’s important issues kept us from descending into the dark whispered secrecy of oriental despotism. Now it was a place for conspiracy among cows and cowherds. I surveyed the sad landscape until my eyes fell on something I hadn’t noticed before. Alone in the middle of a cow field, three slender columns stood together like sentries, as if to remind us that this place had once meant something. They were capped by a single rectangular fragment of entabulature from which small shrubs insolently pushed out.

I walked on, turning onto the Via Lata, a mostly deserted thoroughfare flanked by collapsed apartment buildings and houses where imperial bureaucrats used to have their offices. Finally I came to the aqueduct. Like a stone rainbow, it spanned the entire street in a single, overreaching arch. It had been built to honor Emperor Claudius; its facades covered with friezes illustrating his triumphal battles. By now though, the figures were largely obliterated by grime and the lush moss and ferns fed by the water leaking through its many cracks. Here and there a stone arm or horse’s head poked out fitfully from the moss as if entreating any onlookers for help. But at this place, I thought, none were likely to come.

I began following the arcade north. Walking underneath it, I felt dwarfed by its sheer immensity. Two rows of arches, one on top of the other, they seemed to take up most of the sky, dividing and sub-dividing it into windows, yet leaving all of it visible in the process. They reached so high that the massive granite pillars holding them looked as slender and insignificant as ribbons. Then from a distance, I heard the thunder of falling water hitting rock. I looked far ahead and there was the break. It was so large I felt a shock. I began running the rest of the way.

When I got there I saw that it was even worse than I’d imagined. An enormous section had fallen, reduced now to piles of shattered granite, from which protruded six sets of short stone pillars, like a line of giant soldiers cut off at the knees. A hundred yards away, the rest of the aqueduct stood, seemingly unmindful of the torrent of water pouring down from its severed conduit. As it cascaded down, sprays of water blew off, forming a veil that glistened with rainbow colors, and seemed to taunt wickedly the crowd standing below it with its spectacular beauty.

There were thirty or forty men gathered there on the rocks. Some were clearly water-workers; short, thick-bearded, plebeian men in muck-blackened leather trousers and smocks, while the rest were nobles. Everyone was engaged in heated discussion, gesticulating wildly, rubbing their chins, pounding their fists against their foreheads, the kind of thing Franks liked to caricature back in Aachen.

“Don’t you see?” I heard one noble shout. “We don’t have any choice. We have to go to the Pope.”

“Good luck with that,” another shouted back. “You know what he’s like.”

“But your grace,” interjected one of the water-workers, “if’n we gave him a detailed plan of what we was gonna do, describing all the material and expenses, wouldn’t he look at it differently than if we just asked him for money?”

“My friend, I don’t think you grasp the enormity of the Holy Father’s obtuseness.”

“And just when I shelled out for a bakery!”

“Just when I shelled out for a food shop!”

“All my money is sunk is a half-built hotel.”

“Well gentlemen, one thing is certain, if we don’t get the baths up and running soon, we’re all going to be out of a lot more money.”

Then I heard someone shout, “Ho, Marcellus! It that you? You’re a sight for sore eyes. Come on over and join us.”

It was my old schoolmate Alberic Crescenzi and next to him was my own cousin, Wido Tuscolani.

“Where have you been all these years?”

I told them.

They both looked at me like I was a madman. “At Frankish king’s court? In Aachen? I don’t believe it,” said Alberic.

“But Mother told me you were in a monastery in Sienna,” said Wido.

“I guess Aunt Carmella was wrong,” I said with a smirk.

“Well what were you doing up there?”

“Oh, a little of this and that,” I told him. “Teaching, copying books, helping build things.” It had only been two months. I was still feeling more than a little bitter about the whole thing.

“Building what kind of things?” asked Alberic.

I shrugged. “Bridges, boats, a catapult.”

“You built bridges?”


“Would you know how to fix the Aqua Virgo?”

Suddenly everyone was staring at me.

“But these were little bridges,” I explained. “A little stone, mostly wood. Nothing beautiful, not like that,” I waved my arm at the structure looming above us.

“But Marcellus, nobody has built a bridge around here in four centuries. Couldn’t you at least come up with an idea that the workmen could bring about?”

I looked up at the arcade. If we could bridge the gap with something basic, I thought. A trestle bridge made from tree trunks lashed together into stanchions, ten at the bottom layer, eight at the second, six at the third, four at the fourth, three at the fifth, cross-braced at each level. You’d need at least twenty rows, spaced about five meters apart, with more cross-braces, longitudinal and diagonal. It could support a conduit that size, at least for a few years.

“Yes, I could try something,” I told them.

We spent the next hour discussing the details. I sketched out the basic idea for the stanchions and tiers, using a stick to draw lines in a patch of dirt. Everyone agreed that it sounded like a workable idea. We talked about where we’d find tree trunks of the proper length and girth. Then one of the water-workers suggested we could quickly repair another aqueduct, the Aqua Julia. One of its inverted siphons was shattered, but still repairable. The more daunting problem was that the inside of its conduit was completely blocked by several centuries of calcite buildup. Many miles of it would have to be chipped out by hand. The good part was that it was not a particularly difficult task, just time consuming. But when the job was completed there’d be twice as much water flowing into Rome and we’d have a backup in case Aqua Virgo gave out again.

And as I listened to them talk, I kept thinking to myself how much things must have changed while I’d been gone. In my day, it had been unheard of for people of such distant classes to be standing around together, holding a discussion. But far stranger, Rome’s nobles agreeing on anything was, well, inconceivable. Cooperation simply wasn’t in their nature. They were too rapacious, too competitive, too proud. But now, listening to them here, I strained to detect some sign of the normal rancor, but found none. They weren’t trying to outdo each other or set each other up. Instead they were all acting like they cared about nothing but the common benefit. What was going on?

At the end of it, everyone agreed it sounded like a workable temporary solution. But the problem still remained how it would be paid for. There was no alternative but to try to get the Pope’s help. They asked if I would agree to be part of the delegation and I said yes.

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