Walls and Empires

Updated: Jan 22, 2019


Tom Langley




Walls and Empires, Ancient and Modern


Borders, and particularly border walls, dominate the current news cycle. The United States is, at time of writing, in the midst of government shutdown over President Trump’s proposal for a more extensive fortification of its near-2000 mile border with Mexico. (The wall is the pre-eminent item of Trump’s proposed budget that the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives refuses to fund.) Conscious perhaps of the unfavourable congressional result the Republicans received in the mid-terms, the president is doubling down on his famous promise to ‘build the wall’. But the president’s current focus on his construction projects has also been sparked by another immigration-related crisis: a caravan of migrants/asylum-seekers moving north from Guatemala who seek admission to the US. In response, the president promised to mobilise some 15,000 troops to contain them.

Yet the complications surrounding walls, migration, and internal politics have a far longer, ancient history. Most famous to British audiences are the second-century fortifications of Roman Britannia: Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall. Such constructions still leave their mark. In this writer’s home metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear, they are particularly obvious: two reconstructed Hadrian’s Wall forts (Segedunum and Arbeia), a plenitude of other items of Roman military archaeology, and a suburb called ‘Wallsend’ to boot. Elsewhere, much of the empire’s northern border was protected by an earthwork and palisade, strengthened by towers and military encampments. Yet Rome was not the only ancient state to resort to such fortifying measures. Qin Xi Huang, China’s first emperor, ordered the construction of that country’s eponymous Great Wall of China between 220 and 208 BC, fortifications which obstructed the passage from the Eurasian Steppe to the Qin heartlands in the north-east, maintained and expanded by several subsequent imperial dynasties. Less well-known are the walls of Sasanian Persia: the Great Wall of Gurgan, built during the fifth century AD, stretched some 124 miles across the plain between the Caspian and the Alburz Mountains, barring the route from the Inner Asian steppe into the important Sasanian territories of Daylam, Atropatene and Media. A series of similar walls on the other side of the Caspian Sea barred the way from the Pontic steppe through the passes of the eastern Caucasus.


So far, the story here might seem simple. Complex civilisations, threatened by barbarian raids and invasions, took enormous pains to secure peace, stability and economic sophistication from would-be attackers looking for loot and territory. Where natural borders (rivers, mountains, etc.) were unavailable, they responded by creating artificial ones (with varying degrees of success). Yet scholars have suggested problems with this way of viewing such fortifications. Firstly, border walls were expensive to build. (As the US budget stand-off implies, this remains the case.) Even once constructed they required manning and repair. Secondly, such structures hardly seem to have been impervious to penetration: raiders could circumvent them by sea, slip over them unnoticed in small groups, or concentrate attacks on a single part of the line if coming in force. Indeed, it was the Third Century Crisis, when the Roman Empire came under the greatest military pressure, that prompted the abandonment of the policy of building defensive walls in favour of defence in depth via forts. More recent scholarship has also revealed a world of cross-frontier contact in every sector of the Roman Empire, which seems to bely any notion that the construction of physical barriers automatically blocked the movement of people. (This kind of more individually-organised, non-military cross-border movement is more like the sort that Trump’s wall is intended to prevent: which seemingly differs again from the purposes of ancient border fortifications.)


Thirdly, other methods of ensuring security could be as or more effective. Networks of fortresses and fortified cities, in the Roman and Sasanian cases, seem to have been the predominant defensive policy when it came to settled foes. Such measures had the advantage of defence in depth, which a single narrow belt of wall did not. Enemy forces either had to take such forts in a series of time-consuming and attritive sieges, or risk their supply lines and retreat routes being cut by sorties of the forts’ garrison troops if they ignored them. Defence in depth could be further augmented by securing friendly powers on the borders. Qin, Rome and Persia all made use of client kings, who were supposed to control the unruliness of their subjects. Additionally, paying subventions to friendly rulers (or even to more hostile ones) could often be cheaper in lives and treasure than full-scale warfare, though provoking internal murmuring at the lining of barbarian pockets. Because of this, it has been suggested that an ancient border wall was essentially a white elephant, a visible barrier designed to symbolically alleviate anxieties about perceived cultural and economic threats posed by the admission of outsiders. Needless to say, this view speaks powerfully to our present political context.


Admittedly, walls were perhaps not as ineffective as this criticism suggests: Symonds (Protecting the Roman Empire, 2018) has argued that the Roman walls which delimited Britannia did in fact serve to provide some measure of defence against low-level, small-scale brigandage.[i] And strictly temporary walls were an important part of warfare: the most famous examples include the frenetic fortification activities of Athens and Syracuse during the Athenian Expedition, and Caesar’s construction of a line of walls during the siege of Alesia. The Persian Wars saw the construction of the walls across the Isthmus of Corinth and the pass of Thermopylae, the latter repeatedly refortified in subsequent periods against Gallic, Slavic, and Frankish incursions. Nonetheless, these walls were only continuously and intensively manned for relatively short periods of time: hardly an appropriate measure for long-term imperial security. In the Chinese and Sasanian cases, different considerations might apply: the nomadic steppe empires they were designed to contain relied primarily on their formidable cavalry forces. Mounted warriors looking for a spot of booty might therefore have found passage over such fortifications difficult when compared to raiders proceeding on foot. Yet this would hardly have slowed the progress of more concentrated forces.


At least in part, therefore, ancient walls were probably built for reasons other than simple defence. Foremost amongst the probable reasons was the powerful political symbolism a wall could provide. Firstly, a wall was a statement of intent: it reassured concerned elites that their rulers did indeed take their defence seriously. Connected to this was the image of power a wall projected. Instead of weakly submitting to external threats by paying subventions, choosing to visibly demarcate territory in such a manner reinforced the image of the emperor/Shahanshah as a militarily-potent ruler, capable of maintaining the integrity of his territory. Failure to protect one’s subjects was to invite revolt from subordinates, for the state’s legitimacy was in large part bound up with its ability to preserve its inhabitants from harm. Building such walls also impressed on subjects the resources the ruler commanded and that he was capable of carrying such a feat to completion, perhaps further dissuading dissent.


But perhaps more interesting is the cultural mindset to which wall-building seems to speak. In all three empires, there was a persistent attempt to differentiate between the civilised and the uncivilised, the settled and the nomadic. In Sasanian Persia, this process took on a substantial cosmological bent, as Richard Payne (in Past & Present, 2013) demonstrates.[ii] The Sasanian monarchs were, in this theology, the lords of the middle kingdom of Eransahr, appointed by Ahura Mazda as guardians of order, with supreme authority over the entire civilised world. Against them was set the chaotic steppe realm of Turan, the preserve of demons and nomads, whose unsettled and roiling chaos threatened to disturb the cosmic harmony of which Persia was the guardian. Although less strongly sacral in character, both imperial cultures in China and Rome shared a self-assured sense of their own civilizational supremacy over the nomads and barbarians at their gates, and both believed in divine protection of the Son of Heaven or the pax deorum. This tendency even has its own modern analogue, in the structure known as ‘the Wall’ in George R R Martin’s popular fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (adapted for TV as Game of Thrones), designed and built to prevent the influx of unearthly northern demons and their shambling reanimated followers.


When seen in the context of this opposition of settled and nomadic, civilised and barbaric, great walls appear all the more charged with meaning. Walls generally delimit and control access to symbolic territory by limiting movement, as deliberate attempts to carve out an ordered, controlled space safe from supposedly chaotic patterns of nomadic peregrination. Moreover, as substantial physical structures, walls demonstrated technical sophistication and an ability to marshal and organise resources, again something which ancient writers did not associate with barbarian enemies. It is no surprise that these two themes combine in the centrality of walls to the definition of cities in the ancient world. In Hebrew, the etymology of the word עִיר (ir), rendered ‘town’ or ’city’, primarily connoted ideas of protection and containment, which scholars have associated with specifically walled settlements. In the subsequent Christian tradition, the walls of the City of God described in Revelation are charged with sacral meaning: ‘the city had a great and high wall with twelve gates inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, and twelve angels at the gates… the wall of the city had twelve foundations bearing the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.’ (Revelation 21:12-14; the walls themselves are 144 cubits (twelve squared) in length.) Although not essential for a city, walls were clearly desirable for defensive reasons: hence the punishment for rebellious settlements of having their wall circuits entirely razed. Given these twin cosmological and civilizational valences, border walls appear to be as much philosophical/theological statements as they do concrete defensive policies, symbolically marking the imperial land they enclosed as ‘city’, set apart from the wasteland that lay beyond.


What relevance does any of this have for present circumstances? Firstly, it underlines that any suggested parallels between ancient barbarian threats and modern migrants are, to put it mildly, a little alarmist. Walls in antiquity were partly directed against groups who were not afraid to use violence in search of territorial gain, or financial aggrandisement via raids or through land campaigns to reduce settled empires to tributary status. To some degree, this rhetoric of dangerous outsiders still applies, when incomers are identified as potential violent criminals. But a more prominent public concern is that of immigrants’ suspected economic or cultural threat: that migrants take jobs, or degrade the cultural fabric of the nation. Moreover, even those worried about immigrant violence are less likely to see immigrants as raiders or conquerors (with some exceptions), and more as potentially low-level or subtle threats to social order. And these worries, I suggest, have something in common with the philosophical and theological demands which ancient border fortification was designed to satisfy: to symbolically secure territory against perceived external threats, and to proclaim the ordering power of state and community over chaos (internal and external). In other words, they are gestures which aim to satisfy deeper anxieties. And if this is the case, then walls are as much a symptom of malaise as they are a proposed solution to a problem: and simply critiquing their manifestations will not solve the underlying issues.


Tom Langley

[i] Matthew F. A. Symonds, Protecting the Roman Empire: Fortlets, Frontiers, and the Quest for Post-Conquest Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).


[ii] Richard Payne, ‘Cosmology and the Expansion of the Iranian Empire, 502–628 CE’, Past & Present 220 (2013), 3-33.
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