The Roman Limits in Britannia: Towards an Anti-Imperial Political Ecology of the Imperial Border

By Ben Stahnke


An analogy might be drawn between the geographical limits of the imperialist state and the lifespan of a pathogen. In both cases there is, at first, a period of nascency and immediate local consolidation, followed by a period of rapid growth, consumption, and geographical expansion, a period of eventual ossification and delimitation, and then, finally, a period of withdrawal and collapse.

Imperialism, we might imagine, is a virus; and one which subsists by devouring cultures, resources, and land. In the modern era, imperialism presents itself as the highest stage of capitalism—a period in which the interests of finance capital dominate the geopolitical interests of the state. On this, Lenin wrote that:

"Imperialism is capitalism at the stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed."[1]

Yet imperialism is not simply the annexation of land, resource, and labor. Lenin warned us against clinging to this over-simplistic understanding of the phenomenon by noting that while imperialism indeed entails annexation, violence, and reaction,[2] the most important characteristic feature of the phenomenon itself is the question of finance capital—that is, the question of retained earnings and monies generated by investment from the capital of the financial (and thus social) élite. Simply put, the defining feature of imperialism is the wielding of state power in the service of finance capital for the accumulation of real capital.

The geographical borders of the imperial state must, by extension, represent this impetus; they must exist in service of this logic—to control the flow of material goods, resources, and people for the purposes of finance capital. In the modern era, national imperial borders, such as those of the United States, function as consummate and sophisticated manifestations of this logic. In the ancient world, while the technologies of border control were more simplistic, the logic of the imperial border itself remained the same. If an ancient state is said to be imperial, its border must then reflect the economic motivations of imperialism. That is, the border must be a signifier of economic control, of violence and reaction, and exist in service of finance capital for the purpose of generating real capital for the imperial state’s social and ruling élite. A political ecology of the imperial border, if it is to remain both historically sound and centered upon the real-world circulation of resources in the service of class society, must take into account not only the intersection of politics and environment more generally, but also the interplay of class, finance, and the social metabolism of the state itself.

In the north of England, near the present-day border of Scotland, the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall persist along the Tyne-Solway firth—a reminder of imperial Rome’s geographical limits on the isle. These ancient borderlands are home to the stony and earthen vestiges of an explicitly imperialist strategy of border management from a time long before ours; a once-fortified space of occupied land where the Roman state utilized a continuous, militarized wall to control the flow of goods and people across the limits of its northern-most jurisdictional region in Britannia. Often thought to act in a strictly defensive capacity, the wall—on close investigation—reveals itself as a tool of Roman economic control: an imperialistic device in service of capital.

In this paper, I work to construct an explicitly anti-imperial political ecology of the fortified Roman frontiers in Britannia as they relate, specifically, to the social metabolism of the imperial state—that is, I work to better understand the ways in which the Roman state controlled its metabolic circulation of capital, goods, and people in relationship to both geography and social class. And, further, I seek to understand what the construction of a fortified and militarized border wall means for the imperial state—that is, what the wall says about the past, the present, and the future of the state itself. To achieve this, I lean into the material dimensions of the environmental and political histories of Rome, as well as the ways in which the class society endemic to the Roman state manifested itself in imperial Roman border management. In short, I hope to uncover the ways in which the reactionary and violent Roman slavocracy, in service of Roman financial capital and class society, fed Rome’s border management strategy in Britannia. My rationale for doing so is to better understand imperial border strategies more generally—especially where the implementation of border walls is concerned.

My argument in this paper will follow along the lines that imperial border walls do not arise amidst the ascendency, growth, and expansion periods of the empire; but that they emerge during a period of imperial ossification and delimitation—at the end of what I will call a metabolic amalgamation, where all the spheres of nature, production, society, and political heterogeneity are swept up into a great and imperial homogenization—a great and uniform dominion under an imperial financial singularity—and that, by necessity, border walls not only foreshadow the eventual withdrawal, decline, and collapse of the empires in which they emerge, but that their use is also tied tightly to environmental and climatological change as well. In specific, border walls seem, by their own implication, to permanently problematize what we might imagine to be unwinnable imperial frontiers. As Wendy Brown observed:

"Rather than emanating from the sovereignty of the nation-state, then, [walls] signal the loss of nation-state sovereignty’s a priori status and easy link with legal authority, unity, and settled jurisdiction. This condition is evident in the fact that the new walls codify the conflicts to which they respond as permanent and unwinnable."[3]

The study of border walls as representations of waning imperial state sovereignties is particularly important in the modern neoliberalized and globalized era, where national and local border walls are being constructed at an increasing rate.[4] In the last 220 years 62 unique border walls have been constructed, with 28 of those instances occurring since the year 2000 alone.[5] Yet, as Wendy Brown noted, “Walls are consummately functional, and walls are potent organizers of human psychic landscapes generative of cultural and political identities. [...] A wall as such has no intrinsic or persistent meaning or signification.”[6]

Thus the meaning of fortified borders themselves must entail the features and characteristics of the societies in which they emerge. This is the ontological essence of a material conception of the border: matter itself is imbued with import by and through the social formations we inhabit.

“Borderlands,” Hastings Donnan and Thomas Wilson observed, “are sites and symbols of power. Guard towers and barbed wire may be extreme examples of the markers of sovereignty which inscribe the territorial limits of state, but they are neither uncommon nor in danger of disappearing from the world scene.”[7] Where the modes of resource extraction, production, distribution, and consumption of present-day empire find themselves in a world increasingly no longer able to sustain them, the upswing of border wall constructions at such an auspicious time in history have much to tell us about the future of modern day empire.

However, to speculate on—and better understand—the future, we must also look to the past.


As a—if not the—precursor to the modern western imperial state, the Roman state has much to tell us regarding the western imperial conception of the border, the frontier, and the limit—as well as the border walls which often grow upon them. Historian David Shotter, in The Roman Frontier in Britain noted that:

"Like so many things in Rome, the concept of frontier (limes) had its origins in a long-distant agricultural past; a limes was a bank or path, usually of stone, which separated property from property and field from field. This clearly in its turn derived from a simpler bank formed by the turning of a furrow in a manner still kept ceremonially alive in the days of empire."[8]

The Roman conception of the limit—informed by this early agricultural peculiarity—was, by extension, one which arose from the unique agricultural metabolism of the Romans on the Italic peninsula; a concrete political representation of Rome’s agricultural metabolism, later emblematized as the demarcated conceptions of the imperial state limit. As a society which had grown from the unification of scattered hill-top villages along the Tiber River in the early sixth century BCE,[9] the city of Rome itself emerged from the unification of these villages and from the resultant encircling of the nascent municipality by an earthen bank—“a precursor of the so-called Servian Walls.”[10] Rome’s early utilization of the limit fortification was threefold. It was used to:

1. demarcate Roman territory, 2. preserve territorial integrity, and 3. exercise military, political, and economic control over the traffic of the lower Tiber Valley.[11]

While the argument might be counterposed that the Roman conception of the limit is one which all civilizations and state-forms share, state borders and limits in fact reflect unique environmental geographies, minor and dominant modes of production, and the peculiar social and environmental histories endemic to the state itself. Where pre-Roman Britannia is concerned, for example, the native Briton notion of the limit was quite different. On this, Strabo, in the Geographiká, observed that, for the pre-Roman Britons:

The forests are their cities; for they fence in a spacious circular enclosure with trees which they have felled, and in that enclosure make huts for themselves and also pen up their cattle—not, however, with the purpose of staying a long time.[12]

Following Rome’s political and economic expansion—first across the Italic peninsula, and later over the larger Mediterranean region—it was the Roman conception of the border, the limit, and the frontier which defined not only Rome’s enforcement of its own jurisdictional sovereignty, but the local sovereignties of the states and peoples neighboring Rome.

The Roman state, both in the economic and the geopolitical sense, is an historical example of a rabid imperialism—that is, the Roman state existed metabolically by way of conquest, annexation, and a great gathering-up of all surrounding lands, resources, and peoples for the purposes of Roman finance capital: an existential phenomenon which seems to be shared by all imperial polities. On this, Lenin wrote that:

"If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. Such a definition would include what is most important, for, on the one hand, finance capital is the bank capital of a few very big monopolist banks, merged with the capital of the monopolist associations of industrialists; and, on the other hand, the division of the world is the transition from a colonial policy which has extended without hindrance to territories unseized by any capitalist power, to a colonial policy of monopolist possession of the territory of the world, which has been completely divided up."[13]

While we must be careful not to engage in a reductive historical analysis in which we conflate the imperialism of the Roman era to the imperialism of the modern era, similarities indeed abound where imperialism is the de facto—and driving—political theory and metabolic function of the state. A uniting theme for imperialism in all eras is the great gathering up of the varying methods and forces of production, rabid geographical expansion and conquest, and the unique relationship of capital to the state itself. Lenin wrote that imperialism—specifically in the capitalist era, but which may also be applied to the Roman era—must entail the following five points:

1. the singular concentration of production and capital, leading to a series of monopolizations which in turn impact the economic life of the state;

2. the coalescence of bank and industrial capital as finance capital, which in turn supports a powerful financial oligarchy;

3. the export of capital—as distinguished from the export of commodities—acquires, for the state, an exceptional importance;

4. “the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves,”[14] and

5. the rabid territorial division of the known world among competing powers

Lenin went on to note that, “Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.”[15] Interestingly, and for our purposes here, what we can extract from Lenin’s analysis is the unique process in which the concentration of production and resources feeds the state’s financial oligarchs, who then come to dominate the state’s geopolitical processes of expansion and continued consumption. We need not conflate the imperialism of the modern capitalist era with the peculiarities of Roman capital to come to understand that imperialism itself emblematizes a specific formation of the social metabolism, driven by the greed and rabidity of the state’s financial elite, and entailing a geopolitical—and thematic—movement of expansion, consolidation, conquest, amalgamation, and, ultimately, collapse.


“By the time Augustus came to power,” the historian Stephen Dyson observed, “the Romans had been dealing with frontier problems in Italy and the west for nearly four hundred years.”[16] These four hundred years saw the growth of the nascent Roman Republic from “a mosaic of cities organized into the provinces which made up the [eventual] Empire”[17] to a complex series of administrational jurisdictions, divided into interior and frontier provinces for—ultimately—the sake of Roman senatorial control. The first Roman provincial acquisition—Sicily (Sicilia)—came as a result of the First Punic War (264-41 BCE), and demonstrated two methods of direct Roman provincial control: “direct rule by a Roman magistrate, and indirect administration by using an existing king,”[18] where, at this stage in Roman history, Rome had demonstrated “little inclination to rule directly.”[19] As Rome’s political, social, and economic influence spread outward from the Italic peninsula and into the surrounding lands of the Mediterranean, and as new political and economic opportunities for exploitation began to open up in Spain, Macedonia, Asia Minor, Syria, Gaul, Africa, and the Balkans, Rome’s reluctance for direct rule began to wane. The Roman reliance on native home-rule by kings—kings who often held the ceremonial title of socius et amicus Romani populi—also began to wane as the use of direct, Roman-appointed administration began to rise.[20]

Yet the borderlands were, for Rome, always an overdetermined phenomenon, driven by the exigencies and necessities of imperialism itself. The limit was not simply—in the case of early Republican, later Imperial—a line, an easily-defined space, or a demarcation reducible to a single quality. Rather, the Roman limites represented both ideological and material factors: factors which were determined directly by the individuals who enacted them —and also by those who contested them. The historian Hugh Elton noted that:

"In the Roman World there were a number of overlapping frontier zones. These frontier zones might be defined by four groups of people: Roman soldiers, Roman civilians, local natives, and barbarians. Each group had their own boundaries of different types: political, social, ethnic, religious, linguistic, economic and military. These could, but did not have to, coincide with those of other groups. It was this mixture of boundaries which together made the frontier."[21]

For Rome, the British frontier was one which emerged only after Rome’s own immediate Mediterranean growth; a growth which quickly spread to western, and finally northwestern Europe. The attempt at British conquest, at a Roman Britain, was one which, for the Romans, reached toward that far, quasi-mythic, Thulean north: a region on the cusp of the known world, qua ultima Thule—a land which was, as Pliny the Elder imagined, “The farthest of all [...] in which there be no nights at all, as we have declared, about mid-summer, namely when the Sun passes through the sign Cancer; and contrariwise no days in mid- winter: and each of these times they suppose, do last six months, all day, or all night.”

For the Romans, however, the British Isles—more so than the Orkneys, the Shetlands, and other less accessible spaces—were far from mythical and were, in fact, quite well-known. The Romans held surprisingly sophisticated geographical information about the world in which they dwelt, and the British Isles were no exception. Yet, for the Romans, an air of mystique still hung upon the British Isles and their peoples—upon the forest and hill-dwelling peoples whom the Romans knew as the Brigantes, the Durotriges, the Catuvellauni, the Iceni, the Silures, the Atrebates, the Cantii, the Trinovantes, the Cornovii, the Parisi, and the Ordovices.[22] North of the narrow British median, in modern day Scotland, the Romans knew only those tribes whom they collectively called the Caledonians.

In his Natural History (IV), Pliny the Elder noted that the region of what would later come to be known as Britannia, “was itself called Albion, while all the islands [...] are called the British Isles.”[23] Pliny also went on to note that:

"The historian Timaeus says that six days’ sail up-Channel from Britain is the island of Mictus (Wight) in which tin is produced. Here he says the Britons sail in boats of wickerwork covered in sewn leather. There are those who record other islands: the Scandiae, Dumna, the Bergi, and Bernice, the largest of them all, from which the crossing to Thyle (Thule) is made. One day’s sail from Thyle is the frozen sea called by some the Cronian Sea."[24]

In the mid-first century BCE Gallic War (V), Julius Caesar (Gaius Iulius Caesar) wrote that the largest of the British Isles was:

"triangular in shape, with one side opposite Gaul. [...] The length of this side is about 500 miles. Another side faces Spain and the west. In this direction lies Hibernia (Ireland), half the size of Britain, so it is thought, and as distant from it as Britain is from Gaul. [...] in addition it is thought a number of smaller islands are close by, in which, according to some writers, there are thirty days of continuous darkness around midwinter. [...] Thus the whole [British] island is 2,000 miles in circumference."[25]

Thus was Britannia known to the Romans, to their cartographers and geographers, and to their historians, yet it was not until Caesar’s 55-54 BCE military excursions onto the British Isles that Roman political and economic interest in—and its exploitation of—Britannia began in earnest.


Rome’s involvement with the British Isles—Britannia specifically—spanned, following Caesar, a period of nearly five centuries.[26] Britannia, as the historian Adrian Goldsworthy noted:

"was a late addition to the Roman Empire, conquered at a time when expansion was becoming rare, but the actual conquest in AD 43 was not the first military contact between the empire and the Britons. Almost a century before, Julius Caesar, then proconsul (or governor) of Gaul, landed in the south-east [of Britain] in 55 BC and again in 54 BC. He beat down the fierce resistance of the local tribes and accepted their submission, but did not choose to stay over the winter and never returned."[27]

The historian David Breeze noted that, for the Romans, “Britain lay on the very edge of the Roman empire. It would have taken a traveller two to three months to journey from Rome to Hadrian’s Wall.”[28] Following the Octavian pacification during the Roman civil wars of the first century, and as Roman imperial administration began to move towards direct governorship—by either imperial or senatorial appointment—Octavian (Gaius Octavius Thurinus), the Emperor Augustus after 27 BCE, began a series of excursions and acquisitions to gain more territory in Europe along the Danube—acquisitions which led to the creation of new frontier provinces such as Illyricum, Pannonia, and Moesia.

Augustus, the historian Hugh Elton noted, “regarded the advance of the border with pride,”[29] and the rapid expansion of Rome’s territorial control in Europe, along the imperial nature of Roman politics, were buried deeply not only in the political psyche of the Julio- Claudian dynasty—Rome’s earliest imperial family—but in the political economic mode of Roman acquisition as well. “The Romans,” commented historian David Breeze:

"had a particular worldview: the gods had given them the right to rule the world. The continual success of Roman arms demonstrated the validity of this assertion. As the empire would continue to expand, there was no need for frontiers. This was the situation in Britain during the decades after the conquest."[30]

It was this political Weltanschauung, along with the military, political, and economic logics endemic to imperialism, that led the emperor Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) to land an army on the shores of Britannia in 43 CE to “win [himself ] a triumph”[31] and to secure such rich British resources as tin, lead, and lumber. Historian Peter Salway noted that, “When Emperor Claudius landed a Roman army on the [British] south coast in A.D. 43 a process was begun which was to transform the face of Britain and give a new direction to its history.”[32]