The Frontiers of Roam

Barring bad life rolls, I’ll be back on the Roman frontier this summer, poking around Norium and Raetia, with a brief stop in Germania Superior to change planes. By now I have traced much of that frontier, from Panonia to Norium, Raetia, along the Limes to Colonia Agripina and Gaul. I’ve been to Britania as well, but not as far as Hadrian’s Wall. I seem to spend a great deal of time, physical and mental, on the frontiers. They are fascinating places, you see.

My maternal ancestors came from the Borders. They lifted the kai, raided the English, harassed other Scots, and eventually got kicked out of Scotland, Ireland, and the Carolinas. What can I say? We like other people’s livestock. Another branch hails from Lotharingia, that strip along the Rhine that was Burgundian, French, German, French, German, and is currently French again.

“Frontier” summons up images of cowboys and Indians, of a saucer-shaped ship and a voice intoning, “Space: the final frontier.” Cultural geographers define frontiers as places where cultures meet (or collide) and exchange information and practices. The word comes from Latin “frons, frontis” meaning the beak or prow of a ship, i.e. the thing sticking out in front. Frontiers are where contact is made, where tips touch. Those of us in North America tend to think of the frontier as the Wild West. Russians would shake their heads and point to their wild East, Siberia and Mongolia, and the ‘Stans. Central Europe has been a frontier since, well, since people wandered up the Adriatic coast, or through the Carpathians into the central Danube lowland, looked around, and said, “Hey, is that smoke? I didn’t think anyone else was here.” Doric and Illyrian peoples met, the Indo-Europeans overwhelmed the earlier residents, Magyars collided with Germans and Romans and Slavs, the Turks battled Germans, Magyars, and Slavs, and so on. It was the Roman’s Wild East, ditto for the Germanic peoples.

Comparing frontiers is a pretty recent development. Part of the reason is, well, frontiers were not “history” until the 20th century. We didn’t have a cultural and academic definition because used to be, the frontier happened to be where “us” met “them.” It was a border, not a subject of anthropological interest and cultural analysis. Today, there is enough English-language material to make comparing frontiers viable.

I happen to live in an area that has been a frontier since the first humans arrived. The southern High Plains are a pass-through area where cultures met and blended or borrowed from each other. The Canadian and Dry Cimmaron rivers form natural highways for trade from the mountains east to the tall-grass plains, and vice versa. The Comanche fought off all comers, including the Apache, Spanish, French, and Anglo-Texans. Then the Spanish advanced east before Anglos marched west, colliding in the Texas Panhandle.

The Spanish brought a frontier tradition with them, drawing from 700 years of fighting the Moors out of Iberia and battling the Turks on land and sea. The term for converted Indians settled on the frontier, Genizario, comes from “janissary.” Farther east, the other branch of the Habsburg family, and the Hungarians and Poles, fought the Ottomans from 1389 until 1900. The Danube lowlands resemble the High Plains both in flatness and in the type of culture that developed, a world where raid and counter raid continued despite official truces, and sometimes to spite official truces. Similar defensive mindsets, and policies of coexistence, developed. They hardened in Europe, although if you asked the people of my Grandmother’s generation about the Comanches and Apaches, you probably wouldn’t hear many good words.

I spend a great deal of time on frontiers. Tracing the fault lines fascinates me, because it can explain a great deal of modern society and modern politics. It can also serve as justification for terrible things, as S. Milosevic’s invocation of the Battle of Kosovo in 1989 proved. The Limes, the Habsburg-Ottoman frontier, the Old West, all different but all similar in fascinating ways. This summer, I’ll be on the Alpine frontier, following the Legions as they marched up from northeastern Italy to take their places facing the Germans, Marcomani, and Goths, in lands later swept by the Avars, Magyars, Slavs, and Turks.