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••• The International Writers Magazine - Our 20th Year: Wall Update

Today, in the Holy Roman Empire
• kab

The Emperors of Rome loved to build stuff. They built bridges across rivers, so they could invade and conquer whoever was on the other side. They built aqueducts so they could bring fresh water into their cities. They built colosseums for entertainment and gambling. And they built walls to keep out those peoples they hadn’t conquered just yet.

Hadrian Walls sketch
Image source

What we today call Hadrian’s wall was built to keep the pesky Scots out of England. As a descendant of Scots, I hold a special affinity to Hadrian’s wall. I like to imagine that the Scots welcomed the Roman wall-wrights as they built the wall using British slave labor. The Scots and the Brits always had this sibling kind of love-hate relationship. Sometimes at war, sometimes not. While the Romans built the wall to keep the Scots out, it was also effective in helping the Scots resist further incursion from the Romans.

That’s the thing about walls. They work both ways.

Of course, during the Roman occupation of Great Britain, there was no unified country of Scotland. There were many clans that controlled different lands and for which there existed complex relationships. They didn’t have written records from that period, so not much is known, except what the Romans wrote.

From what survives of what they did write, we know they went about doing their conquest thing in what they called Caledonia, roughly what we call Scotland. But then, for no clear reason, they gave up on Caledonia, built their wall, and left the Scots alone. Maybe the weather in Scotland was too severe for their Mediterranean sensibilities.

It’s not very clear what the wall actually did, in terms of keeping the Scots from invading to the south. Likely there were clans that had land that was bisected by the wall. They would probably lead occasional attacks when they got themselves sufficiently riled up over it. Roman accounts are not very consistent, and truth be told, were written to impress constituents down in Rome, so they were embellished, if not outright pure fiction.

Certainly, in neither the historical nor the archeological record does there appear any sign of a mass exodus from Scotland to escape the torments of clan-ship life in the north. Scots didn’t travel hundreds of miles to take up servitude in the south. So the purpose of Hadrian’s wall is a curiosity. It certainly wasn’t going to keep Scotch whisky from getting to the south. Of course we don’t know if there was Scotch whisky back at that time, but it seems likely there was something very similar. And if it was exported, it would have been by water routes, not over land.

Historians say the wall was built after Emperor Hadrian visited Britain. Hadrian was known for wanting to establish the Roman Empire’s borders in visible well-defined ways. Well, we can take that as a definition of a wall. Clearly, it was meant as a show of Rome’s power.

While the Roman army successfully defeated the people of England and Wales, the Scots were troublesome. So, historians say, the wall was meant to be a defendable border. I’ve got to feel a little pride for those ancestors that kept the Roman legions awake at night.

The trouble with history is we tend to rely on written accounts. Julius Caesar wrote about his conquests of Gaul but we have no account from the Gauls. How can we know what really happened? Archeological efforts to uncover the truth offer some clarity, but often those rely on the written accounts to sort out and connect their discoveries. And, they leave more questions than offer answers. That’s the other truth. The Romans were not unique. Nobody tells the actual story. They tell the story that supports their point of view, which may be largely invented. The human imagination is very inventive.

Years ago, I read a fairly academic history of the Mediterranean. The author made the point that military conquests are not that important. A military invasion is momentary. It doesn’t last. The true invasions are gradual and arise from people migrating from near and far. Almost always it is to get away from a bad place and start a life in a, hopefully, better place. The archeological record supports this thesis, showing how archetypal motifs from various cultures can be found in various regions, which morph with local motifs and then come to define the culture of that region for some period in history. Rome is a good example. They adopted, but modified, the gods from various cultures to create their own unique set of cultural motifs.

This is logical. If we don’t want people to migrate to where we are, make where we are a really bad place. It worked for Harlem, for a short time back in the seventies and eighties.

We once spent a day underground in Barcelona, exploring the archeological excavations that spanned from the Roman occupation through to Medieval times. The layers of ruins included the original Roman city wall, street areas, and rooms in former residences. Some locations were amazingly well preserved, with intact mosaic floors, large ceramic jars for holding fish, and a winemakers shop. Later we walked through old Gothic Barcelona, with its narrow streets and old buildings and walls. We ate dinner in a beautiful old restaurant that had been in continuous operation since the American Revolution. In a single day we had walked through two thousand years of history. So many changes took place and other than the wall, there was really very little sign of war or military conquest.

It is fun to think that Hadrian might have gone to Barcelona. Maybe he vacationed there and walked those expansive beaches and splashed around in the Mediterranean. He was called one of the ‘good’ emperors, born in the area now known as Seville. So it isn’t so far fetched to think he might have gone to Barcelona. Of course, a ‘good’ Roman emperor is relative. Certainly he was good relative to Nero. Hadrian was a little obsessed with the administration of the Roman Empire, focused on solidifying its boundaries and doing a lot of grand building of roads, bridges, and walls. But he wasn’t really into going on major conquests. Nero was wildly ambitious and worked hard on consolidating power. If we believe Tacitus, Nero burned down Rome because he couldn’t get the Senate to support his plan to build his Neropolis. That was the Roman Emperor way of declaring a national emergency.

When the Romans were invading their ever expanding circle of neighbors, as they attempted to conquer the world, they really didn’t have any clear idea of the purpose of those conquests. It was just a matter of expanding the influence of Rome and the Roman way of life. It is incredible to consider the mindlessness of those conquests. They weren’t looking for better oil reserves or places to frack natural gas out of the earth. The main commodity might have been slave labor and whatever riches they could steal. It is also incredible to consider the arrogance of the Romans; to think that Rome and the Roman way of life was so much better than anything else. We can just imagine how it might have gone had they tried to invade Harlem.

Anyhow, the wall. Hadrian’s wall. It may not look like so great a thing today, but when it was built it was massive. Twenty feet high massive. Ten feet wide massive. Over seventy miles long.

We don’t really know the cost of the wall back in the day it was built. By now it has probably paid for itself, mostly from tourism. It may have come in handy during the Middle Ages, when Scotland and England were at war. One imagines Scottish reivers plundering on the English side of the wall, using the wall it as a place to hide. Of course, the British used it to maintain outposts, but along the seventy miles of wall they probably didn’t have enough soldiers to watch everything. And likely, a little bribe now and then led to a blind eye.

In suburbia we know walls well. We have our houses, some with private swimming pools, and most are surrounded by a nice sturdy fence. It lets our neighbors walk around their pool or their yard in their swim suits without being spied upon. It also makes it hard for them to invite themselves over when we throw a few burgers on the grill.

Only in America can you live next to people for twenty years and never even share a glass of wine with them. That’s the American dream, when you come to think about it.

But a wall built to avoid social interactions is much different from a wall meant to hold back an army. And the entire idea of using a wall to keep people from migrating from bad places to better places is puzzling, since the wall is helping make the better place better. You decide which side I’m talking about.

You don’t see too many walls in Harlem. There are rows and rows of houses and many may have bars on the windows. But Harlem was a bad place, so it really didn’t need walls. It’s not so bad today. But, really, the place isn’t what was bad. It was a time and circumstances and a culture most of us could never understand.

Robert Frost said “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.” And while the two men walk and mend the wall, they don’t know why. The one neighbor only knows “Good fences make good neighbors.” And good fences must be mended.

The wall keeps out the darkness. It keeps out the frost giants, the white walkers, and King Kong. It keeps our world safe from all the monsters who want to destroy our world and our life. It protects us from murderers and rapists and gang members who will feed drugs to our children.

Funny how we don’t seem to mind when they are repairing our fence or mowing our lawn.

The Scots would have welcomed Hadrian’s wall. It was probably not lost on them that the monsters were the ones building the wall to keep themselves from raiding the northern clans. It’s a bit of a mind twister. Like Nero burning down Rome to build a better Rome. Today’s Nero wants to do the same. The wall is just the beginning. We get a monument that will protect us from the darkness of all the bad people on the other side. Next we have to cleanse our side, because clearly only certain kinds of people are good and belong on our side of the wall. Cold warriors are now ice warriors who weed out the internal undesirables, who, after all, are just folks who thought they had escaped a bad place and were now in a better place. If Nero does his job well, we’ll become the bad place.

But I am not worried. I know from history that you can’t stop migration. You can’t prevent, over long time periods, people from building new lives in a new places. They find their moments, when they can move in or slip under the wall. And, then the local motifs blend with the new motifs and a new culture develops. It may not be better, but it may not be worse.

Nero’s new wall will eventually pay for itself. That is the way of monuments. In future years we will see resorts, hotels, and casinos pop up all along the wall. Tourists will pour in from around the world to admire the massive work and wonder about its futility. And like the old Nero, the new Nero will be long gone. The old gods will be replaced by new gods and maybe even the American dream will change. Maybe folks will take down their fences and have a glass of wine with their neighbor.

© KAB 2.19.19
kab writes, plays, and works in New York City and Long Island.
You may contact kab at,

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