Letter to the Emperor of Rome — from AD 2012

The nineteenth-century Anglophone novelist Joseph Conrad set the scene of the opening of one of his most widely-read novels down-river from London, at dusk.

The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly.  Lights of ships moved in the fairway [not a golf term, but the safe ground for marine vessels to pass over] — a great stir of lights going up and going down.  And further west on the upper reaches [of the River Thames] the place of the monstrous town [that’s London] was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.

“And this also,” said [Conrad’s narrator] Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places on the earth.”

The following paragraph is devoted to Marlow’s sterling qualities.  Marlow continues

I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago — the other day.  .  .  .   Light came out of this river since — you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds.  We live in the flicker

— a flicker which, be it noted 110 years after the date of the composition of the above work, is now fading

— may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling!

We observe embodied in the last clause a classic appearance of Doublethink, the ability to hold two contradictory ideas as valid, simultaneously.  A phenomenon described as “like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds” cannot possibly “last as long as this old earth keeps rolling.”

But darkness was here yesterday.  Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine — whad’ye call ’em? — trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft the legionaries — a wonderful lot of handy men they must have been, too — used to build, apparently by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read.

— which we most certainly can not, starting with this very account.

Imagine him here [at the Mouth of the Thames] — the very end of the world, a sea the colour  [Conrad uses the British spelling] of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina — and going up this river [Thames] with stores, or orders, or what you like.  Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, — precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink.  No Falerian wine here, no going ashore.

Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay — cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death — death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush.

They must have been dying like flies here.

The Polish novelist grew up an exile from an occupying army, not in a provincial capital of the perhaps what one might call the North American Free Trade Empire.  He therefore has a take diametrically opposed to that of the recently-published “Letter to Hadrian Caesar” by John Dominic Meo, who is a native and lifelong resident of just such a capital.

“Dear Hadrian Caesar,” begins the twelve-year-old, writing pretty damn well for his age.

I am amazed at all the work you have done.  You are an amazing emperor and I wish I could [have met] you in person, for I think you are an even greater ruler of Rome than Julius Caesar.  I am deeply impressed by your masterpiece, the wall up in Britain.  Keep those “jolly old barbarians out,” eh?

When I first heard that the wall was (and is; it still stands today) 75 miles long, I didn’t believe I heard it correctly.  I thought I had heard 37 miles,

Yes, dear reader, this is the authentic “voice” of John Dominic Meo: anxious to tell you in detail what he thought he heard, a nod in the direction of the virtual during which reality can wait its turn, and a habit which drives his poor father to distraction.

and even then, my jaw dropped straight down to the floor!  I cannot imagine how proud you were when it was completed!  That reminds me, it only took you five years, I hear!  That’s absolutely amazing!

Also (I did the math) I hear at one time you had six thousand men watching or waiting right at their spot on the wall.  That doesn’t include people near, ready for battle if the alarm is sounded!  Neither does in [sic“it” is intended] include all the people in the super fort you built cooking for the men on duty!  The wall is more than just the wall!

Never forget that we all of us have abused the exclamation point for emphasis when we first began to paddle within the Ocean of Letters.

It’s the sheer manpower it takes to make it useful, too!  How did you get the people to agree on such a mind-boggling idea?  How did you march all those troops to the most remote part of your (grand) empire?  Fantastic!

Another reason I respect you so highly is because I’m still in shock about the super fort.  The logistics must have been a true nightmare!  You had to, one, get trade to Britain, two convince civilians to stay in such an unwelcoming place, far, far away from Rome, and three, get order and government in a place with little contact with thyself.

You had to recruit or get a navy on a long, perilous journey to the North Sea

In the World of the Imagination Mr Conrad bows hello to Mr Meo.

and have them shuttle civilians and soldiers to the island 24/7 ! You also had to get thousands of workers to the site, building a perfectly engineered defense system.  You had to pay for all this, and get it smoothly working!  Many and reliable leaders needed to be spared and safely transported across the North Sea!

(*Silence*)

That’s pretty innovative isn’t it?  The little gosling wants a cesura to mark the climax of his argument, and he imports the notation for that from the blogosphere, where it is used to mimic speech.  But notice the exploratory intellect that can use a letter to explore silence.  And check out the loss of intangible personal qualities meriting a moment of silence, either in mourning for the loss to the economy of the Mediterranean area or in celebration of a reliable Roman transportation network.

Last of all, you had to get all those tons of stone to that isolated place !!!  How does that work ???  I can understand the Coliseum, the aqueducts, and the Pantheon: they’re all in the Center of the Universe!

The writer appears to be unaware that every Roman city had its aqueducts — plus careful measures for adequate sewage drainage — its amphitheater, its entertainment district with racetrack, called “hippodrome” in the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire and “coliseum” in the West.

But you had to get an amazingly big quarry (full of miners, not to mention) and get millions of blocks of stone up north!  You had to ferry them across the North Sea like everything else, little by little, because the ships can’t carry everything at once!  And after all that, you still have to build the thing!

Anyway, glad you could take the time, reading my reasons why you’re the greatest and thanks again!

John Meo (of 2012 AD)

About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
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