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Britain is no stranger to barriers. Today, almost all of them lie in ruins.
Visiting Roman walls amid the chaos of the Brexit debate.
By Erica X Eisen
Erica X Eisen is a freelance writer now based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
September 5, 2019 at 9:51 PM EDT
The ruins of the Roman fort at Bearsden, a small town not far from Glasgow, are difficult to find, tucked as they are inside a warren of residential streets and real-estate developments that would reveal no trace of what they conceal, save the quaint allusions of their names: Roman Gardens, Roman Road, Antonine House. The archeological site itself is wedged between a street and an unassuming cluster of boxy, brown brick housing, a space that might otherwise have been paved over and converted into a parking lot. At a modest metal gate, a sign informed me that the pile of stones lying just beyond it constituted the remains of a bathhouse constructed for the garrison of soldiers who patrolled the Antonine Wall, which until its abandonment marked the northernmost border of the Roman Empire on the Isle of Britain.
Eclipsed by its southern twin — Hadrian’s Wall, which has the luck of being both better preserved and named for an emperor of greater renown — the Antonine Wall was built during the reign of Antoninus Pius beginning in 142 A.D. to fend off the Caledonian tribes: the Damnonii, the Venicones and the Taexali (whom the Roman legions never succeeded in subduing and whose collective name, by all accounts, means “the hard-footed ones,” a testament to their endurance and resolve). Time has not been kind to these fortifications, built of turf and wood mounded up over a stone base. Centuries of erosion have worn them down to a nub, so that even in the best-preserved spots, the “wall” resembles the ridged teeth of an herbivore protruding from the jawbone of the earth. In many places, the wall is really only discernible in aerial photos, where it appears as a stretch of dead grass or a slight rise.
My visit to the wall coincided with the slow yet seemingly inexorable grinding of the gears of Brexit, which amounts to nothing so much as the construction of a great wall. That process entered a chaotic phase this past week, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson expelled Conservative Party members who defied his push for a “no-deal” Brexit, lost his parliamentary majority, and pressed for early elections in October(so far, unsuccessfully).
To many supporters of the wall that Johnson and his allies wish to build, the people it would keep out are barbarians at the gates, foreigners of unfamiliar custom and religion who amount to an existential threat to the state. At such times as these we would do well to remember the lesson that a visit to ancient walls teaches us: their folly.
The Antonine Wall cuts across Scotland from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde, and farther north the Romans never ventured. In fact, garrisons at the wall were in place only eight years before they retreated southward, their mission to hold out the north seen as an unwinnable battle, a conclusion that presaged the complete Roman withdrawal from Britain.
Britain is no stranger to boundaries. From Roman fortifications to medieval civic defenses, it is crisscrossed by layer upon layer of borders that have been erased, abandoned, forgotten as years and empires have moved on. Visiting these structures — typically worn down to knobbles of stray masonry — it is impossible to view them as anything but sad. On a long enough time scale, every defense becomes permeable, every hold can be breached, so that it becomes difficult to understand what borders the walls were consecrating in the first place. The remains of what were once London’s outer limits are today nestled amid a thicket of urban growth at the metropolis’s center. Not far from where weighty gates once regulated ingress and egress from the city, major motorways whir with the sound of unimpeded traffic at all hours while, below, the world’s oldest subway system snakes its way, ferrying millions of passengers each day. It is not the people crossing these bygone boundaries who are intruders; rather, it is the walls themselves that have become the intruders.
To visit ancient walls in today’s Britain — to observe their discontinuity and in many cases their complete obliteration — is to understand quite forcefully the silliness of these efforts at division. Many have been worn down gradually by the wind and the rain and then finally cut away entirely by excavators’ spades: The stones of Hadrian’s Wall, for instance, would over the centuries find their way into cowsheds, country churches, grain mills and manor houses. Humans have no greater reverence for delimitations that have lost their meaning than do the elements, merely more expedient means of disposing of them. These partially dismantled structures are testaments to the artificiality of national divisions, but also to the perspective that a remove of several centuries grants. At a time when the fires of nationalism are being stoked as a powerful force of separation, we would do well to remember the many boundaries that once seemed natural and absolute to their makers but that have since faded in relevance and crumbled into dust.
In Bearsden’s New Kilpatrick Cemetery, additional lengths of Antonine Wall have been preserved. With no indication as to where in the graveyard they were, I was obliged to walk along the winding path that goes up the slope upon whose side the cemetery has been built like an ancient text. The tall Celtic-cross gravestones carved with elaborate knotwork obscured my view until I was almost on top of the ruins: two sloped ditches, gravelike in their own way, that contain the remains of the ancient border, now no more than a shallow layer of foundation stones. Though the rest of the cemetery grounds are scrupulously tended, without so much as a fallen leaf out of place, the area around the wall has been left wild and shaggy: Dandelions poke their manes out from between the stones, and braces of foxgloves and snapdragons sprout from the edges of the pit. I doubt that many people visit these places, and if they do, I doubt very much that they come from afar, as I did, for that express purpose. More often, I imagine, someone passes by on their way somewhere else, pauses for a minute or two in mild curiosity, and moves on.