November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
September 20, 2018
In the early decades of the fourth century CE, as rival Roman emperors Constantine I and Licinius vied with one another for control of the empire, one iconographical theme grew increasingly common on the coinage of both men: a wall. Or, properly speaking, a campgate—a strongly fortified multilayered stone edifice topped with turrets, with a narrow opening at the bottom.1
Opinions vary about what this building signified. The campgate may have represented a small milecastle or fort along a border, such as those seen along Hadrian’s Wall, that helped Roman Britannia monitor the activities of the unruly Picts to the north. Or perhaps the building signified a military camp defense or winter headquarters for the legions. Others see part of a city fortification such as the Aurelian walls that still mark the ancient city limits of Rome or the Porta Nigra in Trier, and still others suggest that the campgate was a freestanding structure designed to relay signal fires from one remote garrison to another.2 Regardless of the campgate’s precise identification, all of these explanations involve a strong sense of liminality, an interest in defining borders and demarcating geographical and cultural space.
Numismatic reverse types (i.e., images depicted on the tails sides of coins, such as these campgate images) offer valuable insights into the anxieties of an age. For the Roman of the fourth century, the campgate seems to have stood between the blessings of Romanitas and the barbarous world beyond it. Constantine and Licinius employed the campgate on their coins in propagandistic fashion to stress the theme of security during a period when Franks, Goths, Vandals, Alamanni, and a host of other non-Roman peoples exerted pressure upon the borders of the empire. These coins would be struck in fifteen of the sixteen operating mints, from London in the west to Constantinople in the east, from Lyon to Alexandria. No matter where they lived, Romans would be assured that someone was paying attention to who’s in and who’s out.
This palpable anxiety about the non-Roman other was not always a characteristic of the Roman Empire. It is difficult to summarize one single Roman attitude toward cultural difference, or to even understand what difference might have meant for the Roman, but Rome’s early traditions are redolent with narratives of incorporating the other, whether peacefully or through violence. During the late Republican period in the early centuries BCE, after the village of Rome had extended its influence over the Italian peninsula and become a Mediterranean power, being non-Roman might have generally correlated to being non-Italian.
Even so, Rome tended to tolerate, if not celebrate, aspects of cultural difference, beginning with its foundation narratives. Unlike many Greek peoples who considered themselves to be autochthonous or native to the soil they inhabited, the Romans believed that their origins lay in being a refugee people. The Aeneid, their national epic, did not center on a battle to sack a city or reclaim a homeland, as in the Homeric epics; rather, the Roman epic was an epic of ethnogenesis, of Aeneas fleeing a burning Troy while carrying his father and hearth gods in order to establish a great and glorious new empire. So important was this image to early Romans that Julius Caesar struck coins depicting this flight from Troy, and it would become central to Augustan imperial art and iconography. Aeneas’s legendary descendant, Romulus, would give his name to the city of Rome itself and populate it by incorporating defeated peoples. The Romans were also said to have supplied their early civilization with fertile women by abducting them from surrounding areas. This rape of the Sabine women may have been a violently stylized representation of the way in which Rome defeated and then incorporated many different peoples into its burgeoning domain.
The Roman historian Tacitus records a first-century debate over whether to allow prominent men from the relatively recently subdued province of Gaul to join the Senate. The Emperor Claudius advocated on their behalf, reminding the senators that many of them had descended from Italian peoples who were once hostile to Rome. Claudius added, “Our founder Romulus . . . was so wise that he fought as enemies and then hailed as fellow-citizens several nations on the very same day.”3 This speech was so highly valued in Gaul that it was engraved upon bronze plaques that can still be seen in Lyon.
Roman religion was similarly syncretistic, with Rome accepting a host of Syrian and Egyptian deities into its pantheon. The worshiper of the Olympian gods or a later devotee of mystery cult figures, such as Mithras or Cybele or Isis, could be included in Roman culture as long as the worshipper agreed to sacrifice to the genius of the Roman emperor—something, of course, that monotheistic Jews and Christians increasingly would not do, setting up an inevitable clash.
But even contemptible monotheists who faced persecution were entitled to some consideration as Romans. Anyone who has studied the New Testament understands how Rome completely redefined what was meant by citizenship. In the first century and a half of the empire, Roman citizenship was highly valued, and even people at its far-flung borders who could never hope to see the Eternal City still considered themselves, in some ways, Roman. Inherited Roman citizenship saves Paul of Tarsus from being flogged in Acts 22:22–29. From a traditional Roman perspective, Paul might have been a detestable—even seditious—Jew from a distant desert province, but he was still a Roman citizen entitled to certain rights and privileges.
So with this tradition of extending Romanitas to the foreigner, what happens in the third and fourth centuries to explain the rise of the campgate image and its exclusionary implications?
The answers are complicated. Although the campgate featured prominently in coinage of Constantine and Licinius, neither man invented the image. In the ancient world, city walls were a necessary aspect of self-defense, and much of the period warfare was devoted to the laying and lifting of sieges. It is not surprising, then, that gates and walls appear on coins as early as the fifth century BCE, and plenty of bronze and silver goddesses stoically gaze out from Greek and provincial coins while sporting mural crowns—that is, crowns with stylized representations of city walls signaling divine civic protection.
However, the campgate began to become more prominent in the late third century CE, when relentless pressure upon Rome’s borders nearly resulted in their collapse. The empire’s fall seemed imminent during much of this century, until the administrative reforms of Diocletian halted a half-century of decline. To simplify the defense of the empire, in 284 CE Diocletian divided it into eastern and western halves. In Diocletian’s evolving scheme, each half would have an augustus and a caesar, and together these four tetrarchs would rule a vast realm stretching from Syria to Britannia. To celebrate their power and (short-lived) unity, the tetrarchs struck a silver coin, an argenteus, depicting themselves sacrificing to the gods while standing in front of a ringed, turreted enclosure commonly identified as a campgate. If the presence of the campgate wasn’t enough to convey a strong message of security, one common reverse legend, virtus militum, or the “power of the army,” would leave no room for doubt. With this coin, Diocletian and his cohorts were asserting that their new organizational scheme, along with the power of the army, the blessing of the gods, and strong fortifications, would provide Rome with a way out of the chaotic military anarchy that saw as many as twenty-six barracks emperors wear the purple between 235 and 284.
After the issue of these argentei, the campgate would become a favorite design of later emperors in more plentiful base metals. Indeed, once Constantine had defeated and executed his rival Licinius, he would make the campgate one of the most consistent numismatic motifs of his reign. The campgate dominates the Constantinian coinage of the 320s, although providentiae augg (the foresight of the Augusti) would replace virtus militum as the reverse legend of choice. The precise meaning of this legend is debatable, but some classical numismatists believe that the turrets that appear at the top of these campgates are actually signal fires that would quite literally give emperors the foresight they needed to protect Roman citizens from increasingly larger groups of barbarians on the move.
Such an emphasis upon security against the barbarous other correlates well to Constantine’s additional measures demonstrating that he was tough on the barbarian issue. Constantine had barbarian kings publicly executed, and in 315 CE, well after his purported Christian conversion at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine celebrated his decennalia (i.e., ten years of imperial power) by serving up captured barbarians to wild beasts in the arena. Historian Peter Heather reminds us that “a whole host of means were used to create, reinforce and fulfil the expectation, among the Roman population at large, that the imperial ship of state would cut a triumphant and bloody swathe through the waves of barbarians which broke against it.”4 Although apparently a sincere Christian in some ways, Constantine well knew that violent propaganda and spectacle would help him keep power. In twenty-first-century political terms, violent propaganda against the barbarous other resonated well with his base.
Constantine would generally keep a firm hand on empire until his death in 337. His sons, however, were another story. After Constantine was laid to rest, Constantius II raced to Constantinople to supervise his father’s funeral and then conduct a bloody purge of non-immediate family rivals.5 The three sons of Constantine then divvied up the empire for themselves. The later decades of the fourth century would witness the Roman Empire descend into a slow twilight, and as it did so, one might say that the campgate played an increasingly symbolic role. It still represented an actual edifice, as strong city walls had been a necessity for all Roman towns since the reign of Aurelian (270–75 CE). But the numismatic campgate was not a means of demarcating and protecting actual civic space; it functioned to demarcate cultural space and reassure an increasingly nervous citizenry that Rome was still in charge—a campgate of the mind, if you will. Likewise, according to historian Michael McCormick, after the Romans suffered a shocking defeat at the hands of the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, the frequency of Roman victory celebrations increased significantly, even for minor skirmishes. The explanation for this phenomenon is quite simple: the Roman people needed more frequent assurances that their empire was not really crumbling and that Rome’s status as “eternal victor” was still intact.6 Although it is not always possible to know the motivations behind the striking of specific coins, one might reasonably speculate that reverse types featuring campgates, as well as coins depicting humiliated barbarians, were persistently struck because they offered similar exaggerated assurances of Rome’s security and unassailable greatness.
Rome in the west endured for a thousand years, but the campgate as a numismatic image did not really become widespread until the last 150 years. There’s a certain kind of instructive irony here. Just as Rome was on the brink of disintegration, or at least momentous transformation, the numismatic campgate, with its formidable bricks, gates, and walls in bronze relief, suggested that Rome could not be safer or more stable. After the Constantinian dynasty essentially died on the battlefield with Julian, the succeeding imperial house of Valentinian would continue to strike campgates throughout its reign, well into the fifth century.
The last Roman issue featuring a campgate was that of Valentinian III, struck circa 450. It’s a pitiful little coin, about ten to twelve millimeters in diameter, sometimes featuring a bungled legend attempting to spell out castra (a fortified Roman camp), often with limited success. It is a coin that suitably reflects the impending collapse of the western Roman Empire. Only twenty-five years later, Odoacer—one of those barbarians the campgate was once designed to keep out—would become the first king of Italy.
A Third-Century Solution to a Twenty-First-Century Problem
In 2007, Cullen Murphy, the former managing editor of the Atlantic, asked Americans “Are we Rome?” in a book of the same name. His final chapter, “The Borders,” makes explicit connections between Hadrian’s Wall and the US border with Mexico. Had Murphy delayed his book until the 2016 presidential campaign, that chapter might have been twice as long. In recent months, the comparison between the Roman Empire and America—specifically Donald Trump’s America—has become a cliché, as Mr. Trump seems more interested in imperial autocracy than democracy.7 The June 12, 2017, cabinet meeting that saw one administration official after another lavish praise upon the president seemed like something from the sycophantic court of Nero.
Of course, parallels between the United States and ancient Rome should not be stretched to the breaking point. Some 1,600 years separate the times, and each culture is shaped by a different episteme. Yet the late Roman fixation upon the campgate offers lessons for the present hour, with our increasingly shrill debates over travel bans, “extreme vetting,” and, of course, the “big, fat, beautiful” border wall between the United States and Mexico.8
By now it is clear that Mr. Trump likes extravagant expressions of power. Witness, for example, his request that the Pentagon arrange a rare peacetime military parade modeled on one he had witnessed in France, complete with tanks, assault vehicles, howitzers, and rocket launchers. Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana characterized the parade as a manifestation of national self-doubt, not strength: “Confidence is silent, and insecurity is loud. America is the most powerful country in all of human history. Everybody knows it, and we don’t need to show it off. We’re not North Korea; we’re not Russia; we’re not China. And I don’t want to be.”9 As with late fourth-century Romans who needed more and more military celebrations to reassure themselves that everything in a waning empire was just fine, a national obsession with parades and walls might even point to a culture in decline, with the Build That Wall slogan sounding like a dying canary in a coal mine.
Fortunately, the obsession with parades and a wall seems limited to the president and his most ardent followers, but that is enough to focus Mr. Trump’s efforts. A little over a year into his presidency, Mr. Trump has made this wall central to his immigration policies and budget negotiations. He has requested $18 billion to build or refurbish about 700 miles of borderland. The border with Mexico spans some 1,900 miles. The final price tag of the wall is conservatively placed at $33 billion, a sum that, according to the New York Times, will necessitate cuts to proven border control measures that involve “patrol routes, lighting, cameras, sensors and personnel.”10
Mr. Trump’s general position on the wall never wavers—he wants one. But exactly what he envisions seems to shift depending on his audience or the staffers who have most recently spoken with him. John Kelly, while serving as homeland security secretary, acknowledged that a border wall should be in some fashion see-through, a wall of gates and bars rather than bricks and mortar. However, the latter seems to be what the president has persistently fostered in the minds of his supporters. When former Mexican president Vincente Fox denied that Mexico would pay for the wall, Mr. Trump quipped that “the wall just got ten feet higher”—a line that was used to good effect on the campaign trail. Such rhetoric clearly implies that the physical dimensions of the wall would be part of its success in controlling immigration. General Kelly himself has called Mr. Trump’s early discourse on the wall “uninformed”—a characterization that allegedly rankled the president. Yet even the president will periodically acknowledge the need for a wall of bars, not bricks. His reasoning? Mexicans might throw heavy bags of drugs over a solid wall, killing unsuspecting, extremely unlucky Americans: “As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them—they hit you on the head with sixty pounds of stuff? It’s over. As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall.”11
If Monty Python can imagine cows catapulted from trebuchets, perhaps we should allow the president this similar flight of fancy. It is by now axiomatic that journalists take Donald Trump literally but not seriously, whereas his base takes him seriously but not literally.12 Perhaps that base is ultimately indifferent to the formal details of a border wall. It may be enough that Mr. Trump continually speaks in disparaging terms about immigrants, employing “clash of civilizations” rhetoric, focusing on aggressive deportation measures and extreme vetting. 13 Perhaps here we see a kind of confluence of the American and Roman arts of propaganda. Has Mr. Trump’s wall, then, always been a campgate of the mind?
The call to build the wall has only partially been about immigration policy. It has only partially been about national security. It has, however, consistently been about fostering fear and fantasy regarding a specific nonwhite people. In place of rapacious Goths and Huns, Mr. Trump has spun tales of equally rapacious drug-dealing Mexicans crashing in upon John Winthrop’s shining city on a hill, taking away good-paying jobs from hardworking Americans, and generally sacking the American dream. Mr. Trump’s jibe about making his wall “ten feet higher” is telling. Would a taller wall really make the border more secure? Or is this threat more about cultural humiliation, punishing a Mexican president and his people for their objections? Cullen Murphy has suggested that one purpose of Roman border fortifications that ran “up hills and down ravines and across rivers” was to cow barbarians with a dazzling display of Roman engineering: “Think twice before you meddle with us, the Makers of Straight Lines!”14 In Mr. Trump’s ethnocentric imagination, America is no longer the “Mother of Exiles,” but the Maker of Tall Walls.15
A US policy emphasis upon a wall is deeply problematic because Roman history reminds us that the idea of a border wall has historically served as a key element in propaganda, blurring the lines between sensible policy and mere xenophobia. When Representative Will Hurd, a Texas Republican, called Mr. Trump’s wall “a third-century response to a twenty-first-century problem,” he could have just as easily been referring to the late imperial use of the wall as much as the physical wall itself—a reading borne out by Mr. Trump’s tweets echoing language found on Roman coins. In January of 2018, Mr. Trump tweeted that “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer fully understands, especially after his humiliating defeat, that if there is no Wall, there is no DACA. We must have safety and security, together with a strong Military, for our great people!”16 The final line of Trump’s tweet could have appeared as the legend on a Roman campgate reverse; it is essentially a gloss of Diocletian’s argenteus depicting the tetrarchs standing in front of a campgate with its virtus militum legend.
A shared element of this grammar of propaganda is that Trumpian rhetoric and Roman reverse types are both designed to appeal to populations charged with a profound sense of loss—lost jobs, lost social status, lost security, and lost cultural relevance. This nostalgic discourse of former greatness maintains that such greatness can be regained only through asserting cultural exceptionalism against a foreign threat. Although not campgates, the fel temp reparatio coin series of the mid-fourth century illustrates this tendency by depicting barbarians being bound or even speared; the glossed Latin legend of fel temp reparatio, “restoration of blessed (or happy) times,” does not sound radically different from the ubiquitous Make America Great Again slogan. Both are found on common items designed to circulate widely among the people—coins and caps, respectively.
However, one difference between the Trumpian and Roman use of the wall involves race. It was not necessarily race that kept the barbarian outside the Roman wall; it was the degree to which the barbarian was or was not willing to accept certain forms of normative behavior. Indeed, after the near-collapse of the Roman Empire in the third century, the most capable rulers who pulled Rome from the brink of disintegration (Claudius II, Aurelian, Probus, Diocletian, Constantius I, and Constantine) were not Italian emperors but Illyrian ones, hailing from the area presently known as the Balkans. This is not to say that Romans were not incapable of prejudice and stereotype. Tacitus, for instance, writes with a mixture of fascination and revulsion about the barbaric Germani who were vicious in war but prone to indolence and gluttony when not on the battlefield. Roman art routinely depicts those who were outside Roman standards of beauty (such as the Aethiops and pygmies) to be figures of parody and ridicule. But Rome could nevertheless imagine some limited inclusion of the other, and acknowledged as much on its coinage. In addition to coins featuring campgates and speared barbarians, Rome also struck the so-called barbarian and hut centenionalis beginning in 348. It too bore the legend fel temp reparatio, but instead of depicting a soldier spearing a fallen barbarian, it showed a Roman soldier leading a small figure, perhaps a barbarian child, away from a hut and, presumably, into the light of Romanitas.17 This numismatic exception may prove the rule that barbarians generally did not fare well on fourth-century coinage. But this coin does hold out the possibility that non-Roman peoples could have a pathway to inclusion in the Roman world, provided that they abided by prescribed settlement restrictions. In general, non-Roman peoples were not to be excluded from shared Roman prosperity simply on the basis of race.
Race, however, seems to be at the heart of Mr. Trump’s vision of immigration. Early in his presidency, Mr. Trump stated that Christian immigrants should be given precedence over non-Christian immigrants—a move widely regarded as a means to limit Muslim immigration.18 Although this preference was expressed in religious terms, it had inescapable racial implications. The president’s more recent frustrations with accepting immigrants from Haiti and “shithole countries” in Africa, coupled with his preference for immigrants from Norway, exposes his racial vision in stark and vulgar terms. Mr. Trump’s continuing opposition to family reunification, or so-called chain migration, is widely understood to be a means to whiten US immigration policy. We should not be surprised, then, that Mr. Trump’s border wall does not simply reflect a failure to conceive of a shared prosperity; it is primarily aimed at keeping brown-skinned others out.
The echoes of history in the present time should prompt a national interrogation of the motivations behind our immigration policies, as well as a clear-eyed and historically informed assessment of what kinds of policy measures might balance security with empathy. It is especially important for persons of faith to make such considerations, since, for many onlookers, Christian witness is on the line. Christians are commanded to be gentle as doves and wise as serpents (Matt. 10:16); that balance is particularly needful as this country determines how to care for the immigrant and still maintain the security and the resources that make America a desirable destination for so many.
For Christians, the text that is most readily cited in discussions of immigration policy is Galatians 3:28, which advocates the sublimation of cultural difference to the sovereignty of Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV). But perhaps a more narratively compelling passage is the account of the Syro-Phoenician woman as told in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Here, Jesus is ministering in the land of the Gentiles—perhaps hostile, or at least unbelieving, territory. A woman whose child was possessed by a demon comes to him to beg his help that he might cast out the demon and cure her. Matthew records Jesus’s response:
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matt. 15:24–28)
No matter how we parse it, Jesus’s initial response seems to be a harsh dismissal of the woman, employing a conventional Jewish equation of Gentiles with dogs. But perhaps Mark and Matthew include this passage to show that Jesus can be moved outside of his Jewish tribalism to extend his grace to one who is suffering. This is not the only place in which the Gospels make this point; part of the significance of the parable of the good Samaritan is that Samaritans were loathed by Jews, yet Jesus celebrates the humane Samaritan who shows mercy outside of his tribe to a man who is suffering, while the more religiously respectable priest and Levite ignore him (Luke 10:25–37).
This lesson—that the Christian is not merely to tolerate the other but to actively care for the other—is one that the New Testament relentlessly asserts, as if this concept of radical inclusivity was of vital importance for right Christian living. In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul recounts his efforts to evangelize Gentiles by insisting that the only criterion for belonging to the Way was to believe in Christ as Messiah. Over and against Paul’s efforts were the Judaizers, who argued that in order for Gentiles to truly be a part of the Jesus movement, they must become culturally Jewish, observing traditional practices such as circumcision and dietary laws. Paul explicitly rejected these cultural identifiers. When Peter ceased eating with Gentiles, fearing the censure of the Judaizers, Paul confronted Peter in a pivotal moment for early Christianity:
When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. (Gal. 2:11–13)
This confrontation between the two most influential figures of early Christianity—its most prolific writer and the rock upon which the church would be built—could not have been particularly flattering for the new religious movement. It even might have been tempting for subsequent scribes to edit it out. But two millennia later it remains, likely for two simple reasons: (1) the evidence that this confrontation occurred was very strong, and (2) this confrontation modeled a lesson that Christians would need continual reminding of. In Galatians, Paul is promoting a radically new vision of belonging, and it is this radical vision that still holds a claim upon Christians today. Mr. Trump, in addition to Making America Great Again, has vowed to make Christianity powerful again. But the gospel lessons of the Syro-Phoenician woman and the good Samaritan, along with the Letters of Paul, emphasize that the power of Christianity has never resided in the kinds of xenophobic measures Mr. Trump proposes. There are to be no passports in the new heaven and new earth.
Ultimately, the campgate on fourth- and fifth-century coinage testifies to a common cultural anxiety, a reflex of a political class intent on reassuring a fearful people that complicated problems can be solved by one simple answer: all we have to do is build the right wall. We have to build a wall with enough levels, turrets, and fire beacons. And with the foresight of the emperor, the power of the army, and the appropriate religious gestures, we will be safe. In reality, determining how to be a humane and generous nation “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” while simultaneously fostering a sense of civic unity in an increasingly diverse country will take hard work on the part of policy makers and private citizens alike.19 How do we incorporate immigrant populations in a way that enables them to work positively for the American economy, both for the good of themselves and the nation? How do we manage global trade and the allocation of resources so immigrants are not driven by desperation to leave their homeland in the first place? To what extent does climate change contribute to involuntary migration (as it did for the Huns in central Asia in the fifth century), and how serious are we in addressing such environmental factors over the long term? These are the questions Americans should be grappling with.
Mentally measuring the height of a border wall is a distraction from the difficult work at hand. History tells us that when the Trumpian cry to Build That Wall rings out at raucous campaign rallies, it is an echo of a call once made along the Rhine long ago, and in the north of Britannia, and in the deserts of Libya, by a people whom even the longest, tallest, and thickest walls could not insulate from inevitable change. Walls could not stop the force of human beings looking for better lives. Roman coins bearing the campgate—tens of thousands of which still lie buried in the dirt—testify that America’s material and spiritual resources are better invested elsewhere.20
Gavin Richardson earned his MA and PhD in medieval studies from the University of Illinois. He has taught courses in English and classical literature at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, for nearly twenty years.