Walking out of Cardiff Central train station last October, I looked up and saw standing in 10ft tall, bright, white letters atop one of the buildings “All Palaces are temporary Palaces”, an installation by artist Robert Montgomery for Cardiff Contemporary art festival. This phrase has stayed with me ever since as a thoughtful reflection of the passage of time and the relativity of human nature.
Last week I was standing in the centre of what was once the grand Roman forum-basilica at Caerwent, “Venta Silurum” to the Romans. This was the administrative and market capital for the whole Silure region (the ancient tribal name for South Wales). From 75 A.D. this place was the centre of life, death, trade, taxes and records for the whole region. The seat of power, influence and dominance over countless lives.
A grand building of towering columns, rich mosaic floors and plush, colourful painted walls at the very centre of a bustling Roman town is now an empty space of crumbling bricks and half forgotten stones. Its treasures, importance and power vanished into time.
Now anyone can stand in this space not just the rulers of the region, those rich and powerful men are forgotten, the fear of their words and the power issued from this palace, nought but a wikipedia entry to most today.
However not everyone is forgotten. During its excavation graffiti was found on the council chamber walls. It read “Domitilla (sends love) to her (sweetheart) Victor”. It is thought (from their names) Domitilla was possibly a slave girl and Victor a Roman. Its clear someone didn’t approve because underneath in large letters was written “FOR SHAME!”.
We don’t know any more about Domitilla and Victor, if their love lasted or was even allowed but we can guess for the act of writing it in the assembly, the heart of her masters power, that Domitilla was a bit of a rebel. We can hope they lived happily ever after and, hopefully, in this life and the next their love continued but sadly we will never know. But we do know that they existed, that once a girl called Domitilla fancied a guy called Victor. Their names are remembered unlike the names of the council members, the ruling masters or their many decrees which were once life or death to so many in this region. We haven’t a clue at any of that but we do know Domitilla and Victors names and can imagine their lives, who they were and guess at their story.
I am fortunate enough to come from the Valleys. The means which built and made the Valleys famous, heavy industry, is all but gone what remains are the homes, chapels, buildings and the children of the people who worked those mines. Chapels which were built to look like colliery winding houses so that they would blend into the industrial landscape are now the most visible indication of what once was there. It’s intriguing to consider what is left behind when the importance of a place is gone. So often it’s not the power, the money or the law of everyday life but the people, their loves, their beliefs and their stories.
All Palaces are temporary places but the ghosts of life remains.