Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Tesserae - or - In Democracy, You Don't Necessarily Have to Rewrite History ...

Image: Wikipedia (detail)

One of the reasons I love research is that, if you do it right, sometimes you learn a little bit more than "and then the Catholics enacted damnatio memoriae on Theodoric the Great, because he was Arian Christian."

In Ravenna, Italy, where Theodoric ruled and where most of my WIP takes place, is the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. Dedicated in 504 to Christ the Redeemer, it was his palace chapel. Theodoric subscribed to an early sect of Christianity known as Arianism, a non-trinitarian faith which was at the time of Theodoric and Clovis losing ground rapidly to a smaller, more obscure sect known as Catholicism.

After The Great King's death in 526, several political and religious (and yeah, same thing in many ways) forces combined to produce incalculable unexpected results.

Theodoric, who had spent his youth as a court hostage in Constantinople - honored, cared for, and almost undoubtedly educated by his captors, very definitely in favor with them and well liked by them - was rewritten by his own Ostrogothic nobility as an illiterate Barbarian. This picture of Theodoric the Great holds to this day in the popular imagination (so far as he's popularly remembered at all). Yet a cursory look at his career speaks to a different conclusion.

Also upon his death, the Catholic upsurge in Ravenna, Theodoric's seat as King of Italy, led to certain redecoration.

Look at the image above in another window, zoom a bit, let its details come clear. You will see a couple of disembodied hands.

The Church, taking over Christ the Redeemer when the king's palace chapel became the Catholic's basilica, made some edits to its mosaics and thematic decoration.

Theodoric's family were once framed in each arch showing in the mosaic above. His daughter, Amalasuntha, was one of the figures. Amalasuntha was one of those rare princesses who became a regnant queen - for a while. Theodoric had no sons, and she was his only legitimate offspring. Thus to her fell the responsibility for bearing a royal heir, which she did, but not to great effect. King Athalaric inherited as a child, apparently became dissolute in his youth, and died still under the regency of his mother.

Because I am a lying liar who lies ("writer"), at this point in drafting the manuscript (always note: with a WIP, anything I say and/or write is subject to change), the Catholic takeover of Redeemer, and their ascendancy, are accelerated a little. Not by multiple generations, but I pulled up the most likely time of their reconsecration of Redeemer, specifically, by roughly twenty-four years. Generally thought to have occurred in AD 560, I have it happening within about a decade of Theodoric's death.

The reason I pulled this piece of history into my historical fiction was to play parallels with the Ostrogoths' revisionist history of the Great King and the Catholics' damnatio memoriae of his dynasty, brief though that was.

The most striking thing about the latter events, in the symbol of those mosaics above, is the disembodied hands.

Imagine being the survivor of a dynasty that only survived three generations, looking up at the church your grandfather built, looking for the images of your family, your brother, your mother - and seeing only their maimed fingers or hands.

Irresistible scene, of course. I had to envision that.

But the reason those hands are most interesting is not the absence of everything else. It is their presence.

I've used the phrase damnatio memoriae - and, for the Romans and many other cultures throughout the world and through human history, destroying someone's name, removing them from the history books as it were, was a powerful tool. To be sure, we still remember those whose names have been stricken out. But that's not the point of a DM, not really.

The point of striking out a name is not to pretend "so and so never existed" ... but to point TO their existence, and to highlight the obliteration of anything so and so ever accomplished.

The disembodied hands are not an error, an incomplete obscurement of a vanquished opponent.

They are the reminder of the vanquishing.

We have erased something here, the images said. We have the power to remove—but we want to remind those we have supplanted.Damnatio memoriae was no obliteration. It was a reminder. This has been done, and we have undone.
--excerpt from the WIP

Possibly the deepest root of my patriotism lies in the pride I feel not only in voting, but in witnessing the peaceful transfer of power in the United States. I've participated for 30 years now as an active citizen, and watched this process for about forty-five. I remember Jimmy Carter's election, Reagan's - I remember Watergate, and the echoing word, "impeachment."

I remember the giddy sensation of watching the 2000 election, the fear then, the outrage. I don't expect to forget 2016 without illegal amounts of chemical intervention or outright dementia, neither of which appeals.

The new administration will do some amount of damnatio memoriae as it finds its way. ACA is on the block; many people's futures seem to be as well.

The American DM will not be a revision of history, it will be a change of what is envisioned.


french sojourn said...

Beautifully crafted. There was so much there to digest, and it worked wonderfully. I found myself almost wanting to interrupt your writing and add my own details to it. That doesn't happen often. But the imagery of the hands as a threat or worse yet as a icon of their power to erase as a threat is staggering.

The fact it was in mosaics, was so much more powerful than sticking heads on posts. A Lifetime verses time immemorial. (I think immemorial is the exact opposite of the word I'm looking for...bats!)

Cheers Hank

DLM said...

Thank you VERY much, Hank! Feel free to add any details you like, I love it when people comment.

I was stupefied when I realized the "leftovers" in the tesserae were not clumsy errors. It is so important to the WIP, which has been with me almost since the beginning of the first novel (years over a decade now). This is the way in which I believe in ghosts. WE create them, and use them for our stories.

Heads on posts makes me remember a statue of Caligula from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which I have visited all my life. The statue is contiguous - its head is permanent, a part of a full figure sculpture - and at an early age I remember the docent telling us, that was unusual. Many Roman portrait sculptures were headless bodies, on which the heads would be exchanged - with political times, perhaps, or just over generations. One luminary replacing another.

It's one of those pieces of knowledge you don't think about as a kid, but as you get older it sticks with you, it means something - maybe you grapple with what, with what it means.