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.