I had forgotten that I once scored on a header in the ancient amphitheater at Caerleon, Wales.
I was reminded of my stirring athletic feat – sending the ball spinning into the corner of an admittedly spectral goal – when I recently read a terrific book: “The Edge of the Empire: A Journey to Britannia; From the Heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall,” by Bronwen Riley.
I read about the book in a review in the Times by Jan Morris, which was good enough for me.
People don’t know enough about the Roman Empire. Or, rather, I don’t. I’ve encountered Roman ruins in Ephesus, Turkey, and southern France and silver mines in Wales, and I speak just enough French, Spanish and Italian to realize the debt to Mother Latin. But somehow I got through college without ever taking a course in the Roman Empire. Quid pudor est (What a shame, courtesy of Google Translate)
So, about the header. My epic goal took place while we were touring Wales, oh, a few decades ago, with our former Long Island neighbor, Alastair, who had retired to his home in Wales, with a view of the Brecon Beacons, the hills to the south.
Alastair had a Scottish surname but was a true Welsh patriot who loved driving us around to chorus recitals and old ruins and vacated railroad lines from his youth.
(Whenever Alastair crossed the Severn River bridge from England back home to Wales, he would mutter something about “them” – the country in the rear-view mirror.)
On this lovely summer day, Alastair drove south from Brecon, telling us about the great rugby teams of his youth in these old coal-valley towns. We reached flatter ground where the Usk River widened, and Alastair found the old Roman amphitheater, now just vestigial green mounds and a few outcroppings of stone, surrounding a lush green lawn. In Roman times, the outpost was known as Isca Augusta.
Riley’s book taught me that the Roman amphitheaters all over the empire conformed to style: outbuildings for entertaining Roman dignitaries on inspection tours. I did not know that the same spectacles in Rome were repeated in the colonies – animals fighting animals, gladiators fighting animals, gladiators fighting gladiators. This primal gory spectacle was the National Football League of its time.
The old arena was empty, as far as I could see, as we entered through one of the passageways. The ground underneath felt firm. Once we were inside, the grassy mounds surrounding the arena were higher than my head. I felt as if I were in Wembley or Olimpico or Bernabeu, some of the modern stadiums in outposts of the Roman Empire.
Still fit, in my 40s or 50s, I felt the urge to jog…to open it up, to let it go. Down at the other end, I imagined a rectangular goal and some pigeon of a keeper, just ripe to be juked out of position. Just like CR7 or Ibra these days, I closed in, leaped in the air and connected with a gorgeous service from my wing, and I flicked the ball into the nets, as thousands roared.
Well, not thousands. Nobody cheered. Right about then, I noticed a little knot of children with an escort, in one of the runways, against the rocky sideline, staring at this daft old bloke. I decided not to tear off my shirt to celebrate – bad form with a dozen tykes staring at me.
That was my goal. We continued our drive through Alastair’s homeland. A few years later, he inconsiderately dropped dead while shopping for food for his border collie, which put an end to our annual post-Wimbledon visits to idyllic Welsh summer – flower-festooned pubs (with good food!) alongside the Usk canal, plus his occasional glider sorties from the nearby Black Mountains.
Wales all came roaring back to me after the Times book review for Bronwen Riley’s book. She describes how Julius Severus, the newly-appointed governor of Britannia, traveled the 1486.9 miles from the bustling Rome docks in the year 130 to supervise the building of Hadrian’s Wall. (One thing I learned was that the famed Roman galleys did not, repeat not, rely on slave labor, but instead were powered by well-trained military men, many earning their citizenship through 20 years of expert labor.)
The book describes the over-land portion of the journey in Britannia, stopping briefly at the growing town of Londinium (London) and then heading west to Isca Augusta (Caerleon), and then north to Deva (Chester) and on to the growing wall.
That is right: Hadrian managed to get his wall built, thereby separating neighbors and relatives, brutally and cruelly. Omnia mutantur magis ... (The more things change… in Latin.)
Those Roman emperors could really build things, back in the day. They built an arena in Isca Augusta that I visited one green summer day, thinking not of Romans but of a dashing header, smack, into a make-believe net.
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Jan Morris’s recent review in the NYT: