Aosta is the first important town on the Italian side of the Alps, a place whose destiny, from its very inception, has been inextricably tied to that of Rome.
I retrieve my pack from beneath the bus, pull my hood up tight and get ready to dash into the pelting rain. Then I hear Sigeric’s mocking voice again. You call yourself a pilgrim? He’s right. A real pilgrim would have been walking all day through snow and rain to get here. I should feel grateful, grateful, that I’ve flown over the mountain pass and down the other side in the comfort of a bus. I yank my hood back boldly. Bring on the rain! It’s just a bit of weather, get over it!
Of course it helps that I’m only walking two blocks. Just before we reached the bus station, I spotted the two stars of a hotel twinkling by the roadway. Maybe not a pilgrim’s cheapest option, but certainly the handiest.
No it isn’t. Even before I make the hotel, I pass a pizzeria with a sign advertising rooms. The desk man takes me through the clamorous dining area and up a flight of stairs. It’s low season, so he’s going to let me have the matrimonial suite. I understand this is a privilege, though it’s not clear exactly why. The wallpaper is yellowed, the bed has done service as a trampoline. The place has something of the air of a - what’s the word in Italian? - oh yes, a bordello. But for 25 euros I should complain?
The rain is still splatting away at my window as I step out of the (hot) shower, dry myself with the (only slightly dingy) towel and stretch out on the (crisp, apparently vermin-free) sheets. Again, I hear Sigeric’s tsk tsk. I wonder where he's staying tonight. It’s an absurd question, of course. Sigeric doesn’t exist. He is a daydream, a hallucination, a musty exhalation of my subconscious.
But where is he staying tonight? Where did he stay a thousand years ago when he passed through Aosta? Some place without a radiator, that’s for sure. And without glass windows. Without a tv or a bedside lamp. Without anything like privacy. And without a pizzeria downstairs.
I wonder what Sigeric would take on his pizza.
Parents give their children grand names at their peril. It’s usually not long before Theodosius becomes little Teddy and Almudena plain old Al. The same holds for names of cities. Let Augusta Praetoria Salassorum roll around in people’s lazy mouths for a few centuries and you end up with Aosta.
Augusta. Aosta. It’s a natural progression, a sign of a name well lived-in. As for the Praetoria Salassorum part - roughly, “fortified camp of the Salassi people” - it was a bit of a misnomer from the beginning if you consider that an essential pre-condition of building Augusta etc etc. was, precisely, the extermination of the Salassi people.
The Salassi were a handful, a Celtic tribe who inhabited and controlled the high Alpine passes. Rome’s initial attempt, in 143 BC, to put these pesky mountain-dwellers in their place resulted in 10,000 deceased Roman legionaries. Plainly, the enemy had been misunderestimated. The Romans regrouped and came back for a second try in 140 BC. This time the result was reversed, and a century of relative peace ensued. But the Salassi never showed the Romans appropriate deference. The Romans wanted free passage through the mountains. The Salassi harassed them, dismantling their bridges, busting up their roads.
Of course nothing is better calculated to get under an ancient Roman’s skin than messing with his bridges and roads. New hostilities erupted in 35 BC and carried on sporadically for the next decade till the Romans were well fed up. After two years of determined warfare, of the Salassi who had not been killed in battle, some 28,000 were sold into slavery while another 8000 were pressed into the legions. Yet there is evidence that the Salassi were not entirely routed from their mountains, that a few thousand were granted Roman citizenship and permitted to settle in the new city. Perhaps their stubborn spirit of resistance was grafted into the Aostan bloodline.
The Romans, when they had done with slaughtering, enslaving and bullying the former residents into submission, set to doing what they did so well - building stuff. Kill and build, kill and build - the life of an ancient Roman! They laid out their new city on the usual grid pattern, with a central east-west road, the decumanus, bisected by a north-south street, the cardus. (In Aosta, these main streets were the roads from the Little Saint Bernard Pass to the west and the Great Saint Bernard to the north). They encircled the long rectangle of the town with a tall and sturdy wall, perforated with grand gates at the four cardinal points. They erected a handsome theatre, an amphitheatre, a forum with temple and baths and, outside the east gate, the colossal arc of Augustus we saw from the bus.
And one might wonder, why so much fuss over a military camp stranded in the farthest, snowiest, godforsaken north of Italy? But that only shows how the concept of “nation” has fractured our view of the big picture, for Italy’s extremities are Europe’s veins and arteries, the land links between the south of Europe and the north. And in times like Sigeric’s, when the sea roads were commanded by Vikings and Corsairs, land links were the only links.