Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Walled Cities and Danger - by Emma Barnes

Ancient cities needed walls for defence. The Long Walls of Athens were the inspiration of their great statesman, Themistocles, who persuaded the Athenians to build in the teeth of Spartan hostility, enclosing not only Athens itself, but the port of Piraeus and the road between the two.

When the Spartans invaded Athenian land, as they did many times during the long Peloponnesian War, they were forced to camp out at the base of these Walls. Athenian watchmen at their posts could look down upon the cooking fires of the invaders, perhaps roasting livestock stolen from Athenian farms. As the weather turned cold, the invaders would withdraw, only to return the following summer.

When the Spartans finally destroyed the Athenian navy, the Long Walls allowed the Athenians to withstand a lengthy siege. Blockaded from the sea, they were starved into submission at last, and one of the conditions imposed by the Spartans was the destruction of the Long Walls. This humiliation was carried out by the Athenians themselves, under the eyes of their conquerors.

When my heroine, Silene, arrives at the City from which she was once exiled, she is astonished by her first glimpse of the mighty Walls that reach out into the sea:

She had watched the gulls circling the summits, and felt how impossible it was that such astonishing edifices could have been built by men.

“And how else could they have got there?” – Malkin responded waspishly, when she dared voice this thought. He was wanting to settle with the captain, and fretting at the delay.

Silene asked: "How long did this take to build? And how many men? And why?"

"Many years and many men. It is a defence against their enemies. This is the City not, the Settlement, where guests are welcome and there is not even a fence to keep them out."

“But if nobody could ever breach them,” said Silene, with sudden confidence - “even the Palaestrans - ”

“Hush!” Malkin glanced quickly round to make sure none of the crew had overheard. “Do not tattle! So far they have not been breached...we can only hope they never will.”

Stone walls, however formidable they appear, are never invincible. They are a sign only of the fears of those that build them of the perils that lie beyond.


Dan Holloway said...

Walls are such a powerful metaphor. I had a friend at college whose doctoral work was on the use of the word barbarian. It's so interesting the ways we have of distancing ourselves from those we perceive as outsiders.

I held a literary exhibition last year, "Into the Desert" on a similar theme - that of the desert as a place of strangeness and fear, and - as someone who's been an outsider pretty much everywhere they've ever lived and been - it was fascinating to look at it from the other side - looking from the desert, over the walls from outside, as a barbarian. It's one of those timeless themes

Emma Barnes said...

Yes - as tourists we stroll around the remaining walled cities, admiring the view. But for the inhabitants those walls had a completely different meaning.