Remembering the Past

I grew up in a very old country. By this I don’t mean only Portugal, the political entity which dates back to the 11th century,  but the land itself, the physical anchor of that political entity.

It seems like there were statues around every corner.  Some statues were so old that nothing was left of them but a vague shape of a human in weather-beaten granite.  Sometimes even the words on the pedestal were illegible.  Sometimes you could read them.

A funerary monument to Quintus Sertorius, who was not all he was cracked up to be.

When I was very little, I learned about the past of the region by going for walks in the woods with my dad.  We tripped on abandoned medieval farmsteads and Roman boundary markers.  Dad read I don’t know how many markers in Latin saying that such and such piece of land had been given to this and that legionnaire by such and such an emperor. Amazingly, some of them were old forms of local names.

When I went to school I learned about older battles and heroes.  One of the heroes I was taught to revere was Viriathus, the leader of the resistance against the Romans.  After that I was taught to revere Sertorius, a Roman who had helped the Celts resist the Romans.  Viriathus was in fact what we learned he was, as far as sketchy life details go.

Sertorius… Well, this Wikipedia entry seems rather elegiac, but I’ve read things about him, elsewhere.  He’s crossed the path of various other people whose biographies I read as a great debtor, and in the end a traitor to Rome, taking the part of rebels against his own people.  There are statues to him in Portugal, by the way.

After that, well….  After Portugal was Roman we studied the Romans.  And we studied them as “our people.”

I can’t say we ever studied the Moorish invaders as our people. Mostly the Moors got accorded the respect of the THINGS they introduced to the peninsula.  Almonds, pillows (almofadas), and other things starting with al.

We did study the crusaders who freed the peninsula as our people, among them the Earl Afonso who claimed the territory, and whose son became the first Portuguese king.

Reading about these people, usually in the biographies of more important people from other countries, is eye opening.  They too weren’t exactly as portrayed to us.

Weirdly, the Spanish kings that took over Portugal (legally by inheritance) and ruled it for six years we were taught to revile.  I remember sitting in fourth grade while the teacher solemnly instructed us to deface the pictures of the Phillips in our school book.

But other than that, perhaps because we were taught so many successive waves who then became “our people,” we were taught to accept history.  History is what it is.  You can’t change it by shouting it at it.  You certainly can’t change it by toppling statues and renaming streets.