I admit it. When it comes to politics I will always remain a dreamer. I put it down to the fact that I grew up so close to the Iron Curtain, and that 1989 was the most formative year of my life, certainly politically speaking. Everything seemed possible, borders opened, people seemed to understand each other better. Even the horrible consequences, such as the wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia, could never quite dampen my optimism (I recently wrote about this for the My EU Story Facebook page)
It may seem like a Brexiteer’s worst nightmare, but there was a time – after travelling to Syria and to Dura Europos on the Euphrates, which what was, for a time, the eastern border of the Roman Empire, and then visiting Hadrian’s Wall within just over a year (in 1994/5) – when I was wondering whether one day, we’d be able to have some kind of border-free union around the whole Mediterranean. I admit to that dream, although that might mean that you’ll never take me seriously again. I am not apologising for my 1989-inspired optimism. I’d love to have more of that still around, to be honest. Looking back at that now just shows how much the world and its outlook has changed since then, and not for the better (though perhaps for the more realistic).
My experience of seeing borders opened and travel made easier seems reflected in this passage from Aristeides’ Praise of Rome, written probably sometime after the middle of the second century AD:
Now it is indeed possible for Greek or non-Greek, with or without his belongings, to travel easily wherever he wants to go, just as if passing from fatherland to fatherland. The Kilikian Gates hold no terror, and neither does the narrow, sandy route to Egypt which runs through Arab country, nor inaccessible mountains, great stretches of river or savage barbarian tribes; but for security it suffices to be a Roman, or one of those under your [i.e. Roman] rule. Homer speaks of an ‘Earth common to all’, and you have made it come true. You have measured the whole inhabited world, you have spanned rivers with all kinds of bridges, and cut through mountains to make way for traffic. You have filled deserts with posting stations and you have made all areas accustomed to a settled and orderly way of life. Aristeides or. 26.100-1.
Of course, the similarity of sentiment is superficial, and the context is quite different. Aristides is talking about the danger of bandits, name-checking a few areas which had once been notorious. He was also a member of a very exclusive and often well-travelled provincial (and increasingly imperial) elite which was, by this point, certainly benefiting from the Empire, and this speech is written to flatter the imperial rulers (to the extreme, and to the point of tediousness, it has to be said).
These roads had been made peaceful by conquest – as Tacitus has it, Romans ‘make a desert and call it peace’. And Tacitus didn’t say this in his own voice: the famous quote is part of an (almost certainly invented) speech by Calgacus – a defiant (still) free Briton who can’t stomach the idea of being ruled by those continentals who have unified all of Europe. Here is a Roman historian painting the first Euro-Sceptic Brit, so to speak, and foreshadowing Shakespeare’s notion of a glorious island fortress against a threat from the continent , and a long tradition of island mentality, also reflected in recent Brexit rhetoric.
To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence.
(read the speech here: Tacitus Agricola 30-32).
Tacitus, a Roman senator himself, was able to think about the Roman Empire from a different perspective, reminding us that this peace was enforced and bought with a high price by many of the subjected peoples. Thus we get the exploitation of provinces and the resulting hatred of tax collectors (usually local private contractors who did the dirty work), as seen in the Gospels, arbitrary harassment from Roman troops (e.g. in Lucian’s Ass story, at ch. 44, with a provincial who, unwisely, fights back), and, very differently in each province, questions of how the culture of the conquerors fitted in with local customs and ways of life.
At the same time, it has to be said, without over-romanticising, that such a long period of peace and relative prosperity for most regions around the Mediterranean, from the late first century to the late second, is still an astonishing historical anomaly. Some time after the conquest, many people in the conquered provinces probably could name something the Romans had done for them, even those who weren’t members of the extremely privileged, well-connected elite, such as Publius Aelius Aristeides (to give him his full three Roman citizen’s names).
In that post-1989 optimism I thought we’d easily beat that long period of peace, and without the nasty side of conquest and occupation, too. But it’s looking rather less likely now.
Still – every time I cross a border and notice the abandoned check points, I feel like celebrating, and composing an extravagant lengthy eulogy (though hopefully never one quite so tedious as Aristides’ offering to Rome).
I think we don’t celebrate abandoned border posts, achieved without conquest, near enough – but if you feel as I do, here is a glorious collection of pictures which do just that…
… and here is one of mine.