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Frontier to Whom?

By Pedro Benedetti, PhD in Social History by the Universidade de São Paulo.

The wall on the Mexican American border has always been a much-debated issue not only among the Americans, but also in the whole world. It has been argued by some that the uncontrolled and illegal immigration is closely linked with the rise in criminality and the easiness with which the Mexican drug cartels act within American territory. They advocate for the construction of a wall between the two countries, a physical barrier that would be a gigantic and onerous endeavour, while others prefer more sophisticated solutions, like the decriminalization of drugs as a way to weaken the cartels, and social programs aiming to integrate immigrants to their new country.

The idea of a physical boundary that separates civilization from barbarism is not alien to antiquity, which had its own frontiers in their most diverse forms and uses. Britannia itself, part of nowadays United Kingdom, had the Hadrian Wall that divided the Roman province from the Picts. During Late Antiquity, the two main European rivers constituted the mainland frontier North of the Roman Empire: the Rhine and the Danube. After the many failed attempts at annexation of Germania by Augustus between 16 BCE and 9 CE, and after the evacuation of Transdanubian Dacia and Decumatian Fields, both rivers began to be perceived as the limits between the Roman Empire and the barbaricum, the land of the barbarians, in the Roman point of view.

In the course of the 4th and 5th centuries, incursions of the peoples who dwelled in the beyond those rivers became more and more common. Some of them, such as the Alamanni, contrary to what have been the norm in the 3rd century, began trying to settle permanently within the borders of the Empire.

A rather peculiar document survived from this period, written by an unknown author, bearing the title “Concerning the Things of Wars” (De rebus bellicis), maybe a latter denomination by some medieval copyist. In this treaty, the author gives a number of advices to Roman emperors, maybe Valens (r. 364 – 378) and Valentinian I (r. 364 – 375), concerning administrative, social, judicial and mostly warfare matters. To enhance the effectiveness of the Roman army, he imagines a variety of weirdly fashioned military paraphernalia, such as a huge welled and horse drawn ballista. Regarding the frontier defence, however, he suggests a not so fanciful set of measures:

“Among the measures taken by the State for its own advantage there is also the effective care of the frontier-works which surround all the borders of the Empire. Their safety will be better provided for by a continuous line of forts constructed at intervals of one mile with firm walls and very powerful towers. These fortifications should be constructed without public expenditure on the individual responsibility of the local landowners, with watches and pickets kept in them so that the peaceful provinces may be surrounded by a belt of defences, and so remain unimpaired and at peace.” (De rebus bellicis, 20.1 – 2, translated by Edward Arthur Thompson)

While making his argument, the author says he is worried with the barbarians who surround all the Empire and threatens the frontiers (6.1). Scholars dissent widely on how we must interpret such a source. For some, it’s the work of a misunderstood genius, whilst for others, due to the absurd character of some of the advices, it’s nothing more than a reverie. Yet others see this opuscule as a “joke with a hidden truth” sort of thing, an acid criticism to the political context of the times, making use of the absurd element.

In any case, a “belt of defences” that covered the almost 2,500 miles of Roman frontier in northern Europe, with a permanent vigil, would be a highly expensive project. And even if the public treasury should be spared, it would bring a heavy burden upon the provincials responsible for financing the construction. We are talking 550 miles more than the Mexican American border, but the main issue remains: who will afford such a massive undertake? It’s a frontier of a kind only conceived by those who have never experienced it, as a barrier that separates civilization and barbarism.

Certainly, no material remain was ever found as to show that the Roman authorities tried to put to work the frontier plans of our anonymous author. Indeed, there are many heavily fortified cities near the frontier that were able to garrison entire legions, such as Trier and Koln. There were also small forts along the Rhine and the Danube capable of garrisoning the limitanei, soldiers charged to patrol the borders. However, none of that was even close to what was described in De rebus bellicis.

On the other hand, the Archaeology unravels a much more porous frontiers that we are used to imagine. We must bear in mind that, in the absence of modern roads, rivers and seas were the most efficient means of transportation. The Rhine was used to carry ceramic, glass, wine, olive oil, olives and garum, a kind of salty sauce made of gutted fish. Those products, found in amphorae both sides of the frontier, originated from the Mediterranean and were sold by negotiatores or importatores. They left offerings and vows to the goddess Nehalennia, of unknown origin, but most certainly no Latin. Her cult flourished between the 2nd and 3rd centuries specially in the Rhine regions. This deity was associated with commerce and navigation, as shown by the reliefs of the Colijnsplaat temple, in Nederland.

Fragment of an altar to Nehalennia found in Colijnsplaat, Nederland, picturing a boat loaded with barrels, circa AD 200. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. Picture by C. Witschel.

All those elements allow us to imagine a much more nuanced picture of the Rhine frontier, nothing like the edge of the civilized world as we see depicted in the aristocratic sources. To many of those who lived the frontier, it was an endless source of opportunity and subsistence. They rather use the stones to build altars honouring the goddess who provided them safe trips and good business than to erect costly walls.

In order to understand the frontier experience, maybe we should change our point of view away from those who want to make them elements of segregation and redirect it to those who perhaps don’t even see them as limits, like Ronald Rael did when he installed seesaws on the fence between El Passo, USA and Juarez, Mexico. This is a critical reflection in such times because, as well put by Frédéric Bastiat more than a hundred years ago, when people, goods and services don’t cross the frontiers, the armies will.

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