On Tuesday afternoon, President Donald Trump skated through an easy London press conference with Theresa May, the soon-to-be-former prime minister of Britain.
Brexit was a popular subject, of course. But the topic that truly appeared to animate the president was a domestic one: His threat to level a 5% tariff on Mexican goods entering the United States, beginning next week – unless its leaders stop the flow of people crossing the U.S. border in search of asylum.
“Millions” of people from Central America are coursing through Mexico on their way to the Rio Grande, Trump claimed – offering his hosts a home-cooked sampling of his “truthful hyperbole.”
“There’s nothing more important than borders,” Trump said.
That last remark was a potent observation, given Britain’s current turmoil over how – or whether – to leave the European Union. The country faces an Oct. 31 deadline. Borders and hardened walls lie at the heart of the dispute.
“Leavers” are motivated at least in part by the EU’s free-movement policy. Erased borders have allowed an influx of legal immigration – particularly from Eastern Europe.
“Remainers” fear the return of one hard border in particular – and with it, the renewed violence of “The Troubles.” On one side would be Northern Ireland, Protestant and part of the United Kingdom. On the other would be a Republic of Ireland that is mostly Catholic and pledged to the European Union.
I’ve only just returned from Britain – and am still slightly jet-lagged as I tap this out. If I could add one item to the president’s itinerary, it would be a visit to northeast England and the work of an emperor who thought of himself as an architectural savant. Much as Trump does today.
Hadrian’s Wall, which once marked the farthest northern reach of the Roman Empire, is on the cusp of its 2,000th birthday. This is a fact that the hourly bus that travels along much of the wall’s remaining length won’t let you forget. It’s called the AD 122.
If Trump asked, I’d even direct him to Peter Carney, a former high school history teacher who has made the study of Hadrian’s Wall a focus of his retirement. Carney suffers all kinds of fools — even political columnists.
Carney might begin the tour by citing the original dimensions of the stone portion of Hadrian’s Wall – 10 feet wide and perhaps 15 feet high. Over the centuries, stones have disappeared into local houses and barns, reducing the height by two-thirds and more.
But Trump’s guide would quickly get down to the reasons that Hadrian’s Wall was built. There are several.
Historians say the primary purpose of the wall was to counter low-intensity threats. “Cattle thieves,” Carney might elaborate – in kilts rather than cowboy hats.
Any rock-climber at the local mall will tell you that a 15-foot stone edifice is no barrier to immigration. That wasn’t the point. “You could get in, but you couldn’t leave with other people’s stuff,” Carney might tell the president.
(Neither was the wall a place for defenders to make their stand against would-be invaders. Roman soldiers of the period were trained to go out to meet the enemy.)
Hadrian’s Wall stretched 80 Roman miles, from what is now Carlisle on the west coast to Newcastle on the east – the island’s narrowest portion. Gates appeared every mile, meaning that the control of movement – trade goods especially – was another reason for the wall. Coming and going, Rome got its cut.
That’s something that would make Trump smile.
Another happy reason for the wall was that it required three Roman legions – about 15,000 men – to build over several years. (Hadrian’s inspection tour came in 122 A.D. – the date now commonly given to the wall’s birth.)
Busy soldiers can’t march on Rome and topple emperors. This is something that Donald Trump need not worry about.
But it is a reminder that real border walls consist of armed personnel. When Roman legions were removed, as happened from time to time over three centuries, Hadrian’s Wall was nothing more than an ornament in a large English garden – and was breached multiple times.
Prestige could very well have been another reason for the wall. Trump has expressed his preference for a towering, “beautiful” wall along the Mexico border. There’s some evidence that Emperor Hadrian was out to impress, too. Though Carney isn’t convinced, archaeologists have uncovered hints that Hadrian’s Wall might have been finished with a gleaming coat of whitewash – the better to impress northern barbarians.
Were Trump to make this visit, Carney would be sure to take the president to Gate No. 42 along the wall. Twenty centuries ago, its north-facing door opened onto a cliff just a few feet away. It still does.
“The idea that anyone would come through this gate is preposterous,” Carney might tell the president. But why is it there? Very likely, because a Roman commander thought compliance with plans drawn up by a divine leader 1,400 miles away was more important than bowing to the realities of geography. (Washington, D.C., by the by, is 1,900 miles from El Paso, Texas.)
Lastly, I would hope that Trump’s tour guide would show him one of the many maps in a local museum packed with Roman artifacts. The president would see Hadrian’s Wall in the far northwest hinterlands of the Roman Empire.
One reason a wall might survive undisturbed for centuries is that it poses little threat. Ancestors of modern Scotland didn’t exist in enough numbers to crash against it and threaten the greatest power the world had ever known.
Rather, the Roman Empire died at the hands of tribes from the east – immigration that no wall could stop, from the Goths, Germanic tribes and finally the Huns of Asia.
Hadrian’s great work became a forgotten afterthought once Rome abandoned Britain about 400 AD. This was a problem with walls centuries ago. It has yet to be solved. They cannot move fast enough to keep up with human feet.
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