The worst of times…: Dr. Quien’s Blog Number 6

Today’s adventure through time will take Dr. Quien back to 400 A.D. to the final decade of the Roman occupation of Spain where we will witness at first hand the decline of Rome from our local perspective. This once great Municipality, which centered on the location of modern Fuengirola, is now in dark days that are about to get much darker.

My boat is parked as usual opposite the Yaramar and still no one suspects that it hides a time travelling machine with 2 floors of luxury living. The coordinates are set and the same boat will soon appear suitably disguised as a local craft on the same beach in late Roman Suel, 400 A.D.

My last visit here was 375 years before, at the height of Roman wealth and decadence, which continued before a long slow decline about a hundred before my visit. All empires end, normally as the battles become long drawn out wars. As I emerged onto the beach, the sea was flat, the day was windless and the first thing I noticed was the smell. The indistinguishable smell of a fish salting factory hung in the air like death.

There were fishing boats with battered dirty sails around the river by the Finca de Secretario and from a distance I could see more around the river by the Castle. It was the height of Summer,and the rivers had silted up because they had not been maintained, this meant that boats were pulled up the beach after losing their natural harbour. From a distance, I could see the Finca del Secretario had plumes of smoke and steam belching out of the land in front, so I decided to go there first. As I got closer, the smell got worse, you will only know how bad it is if you visit a fish salting factory.

Previously the finca had an adequate supply of water with tanks and reservoirs to supply the luxury life to the Finca and its now famous baths. But now, most of the Finca was in ruins and the water for the baths was used in the water-intensive fish salting process. The fireplaces that once heated the water were now being used to heat kilns in which clay pots are created. Amid the heat and smells about 20 people are working industriously.

I move through the new factory, past the dried up baths and up the steps (crossing the current n340) to the site where a magnificent finca now stood in ruins. In the one corner of the finca that was still standing, there were some offices and living accommodation which I went to investigate. As I approached the building a large man approached me and introduced himself with a long Italian name and the title of ‘El Secretario’. At last, after all the mystery of who this person was, I was now standing in one of the last holders of this great office; this would make an amazing story. He was a kind man, with a look of melancholy about him and when I asked him for an interview for a journalistic piece I was working on, he sighed and said, ‘why not’.

My first question got him talking straight away, when I asked him about the historical role of his office. He explained that he is the head of Roman tax collection for the area, he got the job 20 years ago due to ‘family’ connections in Rome and lived under a threat to his family if he did not collect the right taxes for Rome. A huge war was being fought against the invaders from the North of Europe and Rome needed every dinar to fight them off. But it was never enough, every couple of years a delegation would arrive from Rome, check the books and urge the local Ibero/Romans to keep the local tribes in order and create more wealth. He points to the finca that has crumbled to the ground and tells me what happened.

“Five years ago the delegation came here and demanded that we quarry more marble from the hills, I told them how we had no workers, the marble was high in the hills and the river was no longer usable. It was then that they walked around the finca, counted the 365 marble columns and acquisitioned them all to help the war effort. After that, most of the Finca fell down and even more boats came to take away the fine building materials to sell to the Persians.” El Secreterio explained his own particular favorite was a statue of Venus which was carved as an image of his late wife. Rather than let the statue be taken by them, he took a large hammer to it, removed the head, arms and legs and buried it below the finca to ensure that statue will never leave this site.

He told me another story given to him by a local marble trader concerning a ready carved temple front with 4 columns. Half of the money had been paid and it had been agreed the other half would be paid by the boat that arrived to collect it. While they were waiting a long time for the boat, for security reasons they decided to bury the columns under cover of darkness. The workers have since moved on, the owner of the columns died and no one had a clue where they were buried. Perhaps one day someone will discover them and erect them to look out across the sea…..

He mentioned that he had to go to the Castle for a ‘crisis meeting’ with the local council and offered to walk with me and explain what would become of this jewel of the Roman empire. The first problem, he explains as we walk along the battered pathway, is that nobody wants to live and work here anymore. Under the Roman system, if you lived in a Municipum such as Suel, you paid taxes, were protected by Roman troops, represented by elected councilors and could perhaps one day be considered to apply for Roman citizenship. However in a century or more of sharp decline, this status had become less attractive to new generations. Many had left to join the local tribes living inland and only taxed on trade with the Romans.

The Secretario goes on to explain how living in a town under Rome was good when the economy was good, but now, it does not really pay. The people who really make it work are the class of Ibero / Romans, an elite class who intermarried with the locals to make a class of rulers who could manage affairs on behalf of Rome. They collect the local taxes and represent the local people to the rulers in Malaga, can read and speak Latin and even visit Rome. This class has also suffered, they used to have a privileged lifestyle but now their lives were becoming more desperate with the demands from Rome to keep collecting and paying more taxes. Life expectancy had risen to 40 years and beyond in the good times, now life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, perhaps 30 years for a worker.

He then explains the next problem, the seabourne invaders. The North Africans and other pirates have been invading these shores for the last 50 years. The Castle was just a tower until 50 years ago, since then walls were built all around it so that the community could shelter when an attack takes place. He explains how most of the financial matters are now administered from the Castle because of the extra security it provides; hence the decline of the Finca. The Secretario explains how security was not a problem under the old Roman empire, if anyone invaded Spain the world’s fiercest army would find them, kill them and take over their country. “Now the Roman army is being driven back home through the bottom half of Europe, chased by the angry Visigoths and Vandals, the last thing they have time for is to hang around here and defend us.”

After a long walk along a decaying road no longer fit for chariots, past abandoned homes and ruins along the way, we arrive at the Castle. The first thing I notice is the smell; the huge villa in front of the Castle has been converted into another fish salting factory, again to produce money from exports. Rows of empty houses line hills around the Castle, a settlement that had once been home to a couple of thousand people was about half empty. With every new raid by the pirates more families would depart for the interior until eventually the ruling classes would stand alone as the Romans inevitably left.

El Secretario explains to me how almost everyone has fled for the hills, the only ones left are the Ibero Romans who were bred to be tax collectors, politicians and poets. When the soldiers leave, as they will have to in the coming years, these people will be left high born, noble and completely defenseless against the local tribes from Coin and Alhaurin, or the invaders from the sea. El Secretario bids me farewell; he knows that these crisis meetings can go on for 12 hours and that I would not enjoy attending. In thanking him I encourage him and try to explain my belief that the great role that he fill in this place will be remembered thousands of years into the future. At first he looked self satisfied, then confused and then look at me like I was mad, we exchanged further Latin greetings of the road while I went to look at the grim declining town.

It all seems so desolate, decay and industrial grime everywhere masking a sense of impending doom, of enemies arriving from every direction and Rome, the glue of civilisation for over 500 years in its final decline. Just 9 years later the Vandals would cross the Pyrenees into Hispania and the Silingi Vandals would take the South, Rome would be sacked by the Visigoths in 410.
There were 5 or 10 years between the Romans leaving and the Visigoths arriving, but it was too late for the residents of Suel, the North Africans got their first. Most of the gloomy people I saw had short lives ahead of them.

Reflecting on the gloom I had witnessed I sat on the south facing slope of the Castle, looked toward the villa that had become a factory, and remembered that would be the spot on which a stage would one day stand. On the 4th of May 2019, the creator of the following song would stand in that very position, the words seemed apt for this desolate landscape.

Stay tuned for more adventures through history with Dr Quien

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