Sextus Julius Severus built a wall
in Britain, Roman Empire’s wild, wild west,
then traveled eastward to the place they call
Palestine, where Jews would be suppressed
by legions he commanded, and defeated
Bar Kokhba and the martyrs of Beitar.
The wall he built in Britain’s been repeated
in Israel, where new Palestinians are.
Inspired by an article in the TLS, August 8,2008, on the British Museum’s Hadrian exhibition, by Tom Holland (“Like a Pleasure Garden”) :
Take, for example, the section which showcases what is, to a British audience, the most familiar monument from Hadrian’s reign: his Wall. To earlier generations – and it may be to the Romans themselves – this massive undertaking served as an inspiringly visible stamp of Rome’s civilizing mission. “An encamped army encloses the fairest portion of the world in a ring like a rampart”: so gushed Aelius Aristeides, enthusing over Rome’s supposed eirenic vocation. Recent scholarship, however, has given such rhapsodies predictably short shrift. The Wall now tends to be seen in a much more sinister light, less as a bulwark of civilization than as a deliberately intimidatory tool of control and repression. Even so, it can still give a jolt to turn from inspecting artefacts as familiar as the Vindolanda tablets to the adjacent display-case, where there is another letter, very different in tone, waiting to be perused. Written on the orders of the Jewish insurrectionist Simon bar Kokhba – or perhaps even in his very hand – it was found in the so-called Cave of Letters, where desperate refugees had ended up taking refuge after the failure of the third Jewish uprising against Roman rule in barely fifty years. The twin troves of letters, one found on the moors of northern England, and the other in a desert wadi beside the Dead Sea, have never before been brought together – and their close proximity serves to inspire a measure of sombre reflection. Britannia and Judaea, for all that they stood at the opposite ends of the Empire, suddenly do not seem so far apart. We know that the general entrusted by Hadrian with the ultimate suppression of the Jewish revolt throughout 135–6 was one Sextus Julius Severus, a former governor of Britain. The same man who was to show himself so proficient in the arts of counter-insurgency and extermination in Judaea would also have been intimately involved in the construction of the Wall. This, in Hadrian’s Empire, was what globalization could mean.
Not that the reflections caught in the show’s hall of mirrors necessarily all derive from Roman times. On his coins, bar Kokhba referred to himself as “Nasi Yisrael”: “Israel’s Leader”. Nineteen hundred years on, and with an independent Jewish state established in what, ever since Hadrian’s crushing of the bar Kokhba revolt, had been known as Palestine, the President of Israel rejoices in an identical title. That a war fought in the second century should have served to cast a terrible shadow over more recent times is discreetly but poignantly conveyed. “In Hebrew”, reads the caption to a tile showing the hobnailed imprint of a passing legionary, “the word ‘kalgas’ (derived from the Latin for sandals) came to denote a thuggish soldier and has been used more recently in reference to the Nazis.” Simultaneously, the fact that what was once the Roman province of Judaea remains, as it was back in the 130s, a breeding ground for terrorism and nationalist yearnings, is not without implications, perhaps, for how we will end up interpreting Hadrian’s Wall. For a while now, the modish academic comparison has been with the US–Mexico border-fence; possibly, in the near future, it will be with the Israeli security barrier.
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