Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Roman Borders: Physical and Psychological

The engineering and architectural feat of constructing a straight wall thirty-one miles long, while having it deviate by only thirty-six inches over that length is remarkable under any circumstances, but completing such a project before 200 AD is even more impressive.

That’s exactly what the Romans did. The limes was a series of walls, and frontier outposts which stretched for hundred of miles across Europe along the empire’s borders. The borders in England, Africa, and Asia featured similar demarcations.

At places the border was a wall, at places a river, and at places merely a patrolled line. The border marked the maximum expanse of the empire. Beyond it lay the lands of the Scots and of the Germanic tribes, the groups against which Roman military might could not prevail.

But the borders were not places of constant conflict. There were decades of peaceful coexistence and trade. Yet the Romans kept the walls in place, so, as historian Andrew Currie asks, "If the walls weren’t under constant threat, what were they for?"

“By bringing the sheer scope of the Roman frontier into focus, the effort to create,” Currie continues, a “heritage site may help answer the question.” As archeologists and historians look at the entire border project, it becomes clear that have a well-defined, observed, and controlled border was important to the Romans even in peacetime.

The notion, held by earlier historians, that the walls were constantly under attack by Scots and by Germanic tribes can be replaced by the idea of a border fortification which played an important role in the absence of military conflict. Currie notes that

Ever since British antiquarians organized the first scientific excavations along Hadrian’s Wall in the 1890s, historians and archaeologists have assumed Rome’s walls were military fortifications, designed to fend off barbarian armies and hostile invaders.

Instead of a border designed to defend against, and repel, organized assaults by armies, the border more often may have been a place to control imports and exports, levy tariffs, and regulate immigration and emigration.

The borders also served a psychological and political purpose: to define what it meant to be Roman. A clear boundary was a statement about a separate identity.

To the extent that the Romans were defining themselves, they also created an atmosphere in which the Scots and Germanic tribes were encouraged to define, or continue defining, themselves. There was a mutual encouragement to see the other as the “other.”

Paradoxically, this self-definition as “other” took place also in those peaceful decades, when there was cooperation in import and export, and when there were regular border crossings in both directions. The fostering of this ethnic identity did not preclude good relationships along the border.

This happened too early in history to call these identities “national.” It would be an anachronism to use that word, because the concept of the modern nation-state had not yet emerged - hence, the word ‘ethnic.’

The Roman effort to identify themselves by contrast to the ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ others met with some cognitive dissonance, in light of fact that the Germanic tribes were literate at an early date: The Negau Helmet, with its Germanic inscriptions, dates to around 50 BC; the Meldorf Fibula, a broach with similar inscriptions, dates to around 50 AD; and by the time the Goths appeared as a major political power, in the 200s and 300s AD, they were composing extended textual commentaries on other books.

Another source of cognitive dissonance undermining the Roman’s claims of superiority was the military situation. The borders were where they were because the Romans had run into military units which they could not overcome. The Scots and the Germanic tribes represented the limits of Roman military capacity.

The Romans comforted their collective ego by disparaging as ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ the very military forces who’d proven themselves Rome’s betters. Historian Avner Falk writes:

Like the ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans considered the Germanic tribes north of the Danube River “barbarians”, and in 9 CE they fought a major battle against these “savage” tribes. The Teutoburg forest, now in the German states of Lower Saxony and North-Rhine-Westphalia, was the site of the that battle between the Roman Empire and an alliance of Germanic tribes. The location of the battle was given by the Roman historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (56-117 CE) as saltus Teutoburgiensis (Teutoburg forest valley), a northern extension of the central European uplands, extending eastward towards the Weser River, southward from the town of Osnabrück, and southeastwards to Padeborn, Charlemagne’s future capital. The battle was therefore called the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Recent archeological excavations suggest that the final stages of the battle took place farther north, at Kalkriese, north of Osnabrück.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest came to have powerful meaning both for the Romans and for the Germanic tribes. The Roman Empire would survive for another four-and-a-half centuries, and many of those years would be years of peace between Rome and the Germanic tribes.

Yet a precedent had been set. Rome was no longer considered invincible, and the Germanic tribes were seen by themselves and by Rome as something serious.

The self-concepts both of the Romans and of the Germanic tribes changed. The concepts which each held of the other changed, too.

The symbolic significance attributed to Hermann, whom the Romans called Armeinius, arose from the fact that he had been in Rome and received Roman military training, had later worked for the Roman military commander against whom he would lead the Germanic troops in the battle, and had united the independent tribes to fight against the Romans.

The battle is sometimes called the Hermannsschlacht (Hermann’s Battle) in German, and the clades Variana (Disaster of Varus) in Latin. Varus was the Roman commander in the battle.

Although some interpreters argue that nineteenth-century European historians overemphasized the significance of the battle, it remains the case that it caused the Romans to pull back to the Rhine and maintain it as a more modest and defensible frontier. The battle was the permanent end of serious Roman hopes for a large and permanent trans-Rhine presence; the trans-Rhine areas were acknowledged to be firmly in Germanic hands.

The battle was a major turning-point in Roman history, redefining not only the physical border, but both the interior and exterior psychological landscape of the Romans and the Germanic tribes.