Glanum? Ambrussum? Vaison-la-Romaine? Somewhere in Provence, in any case. RT has a distant but distinct memory of seeing an ancient Greek city while on vacation back in the mid-1970s. The site was small and gorgeous, oval-shaped ruins of marble sited among pine trees, not far from the sea. What made the experience especially memorable was the guide’s report of the city’s population, as high as one or two thousand people, if RT recalls correctly. And all of them sheltered in a space about half the size of a football field.
Now, RT, car-less as he often has been in his life, is doing a great deal of walking these days. It takes him about 45 minutes to walk into town by the legal but indirect route. He is actually fairly lucky, since a bike path constitutes part of the trek. At least on this section, he doesn’t have to worry about getting hit by a car. Still, there is something distinctly humbling about walking along the path, which lacks shade trees, park benches, and water fountains, while cars zoom past on the other side of the grass border. His almost daily excursions make him wonder what life would be like if we still lived in pre-industrial communities. Or, to put it another way, could we get rid of cars?
Here are some facts: ancient Rome at its height (population 1 million) occupied about 5 and ½ sq. miles; Manhattan could hold six cities that size. Nearly all Romans lived in concrete and brick apartment buildings (called insulae), some of them nine stories high; apartments of 1,000 sq. ft. (about the size of a modern 1-bedroom apartment) housed families of five or six people. Most of these apartments offered running water. Romans went to great lengths (pardon the pun) via their aqueducts to ensure water quality—and their diet in many ways appears superior to ours. Those who survived into their teens (infant and child mortality were very high), often lived to be 60.
So far, things sound pretty good. Now back to walking: horses were expensive, and carriages for the rich. Though vehicles could be hired for transport (some featuring primitive odometers), nearly everyone walked everywhere.
RT will let readers draw their own conclusions. What remains with him is the memory of a beautiful city in Provence, built to human scale; human-powered; and healthy, communal, and intimate in a way hard to imagine in our own lives. It’s a beautiful day; let’s walk to the store.
In the midst of a serious life transition, RT takes time out for a bit of beautiful whimsy from Madagascar…
Photo: Sifakas are especially adapted to… Neal Strickland. WikiCmns. CC BY 2.0.