Spoiler alert, walls and nationalism have never worked. How’s that for an opening?
The short story on the history of walls is the story of their relative uselessness. Our Lord Commander Marmalade should read a few history books and watch less television. Whether we’re talking about the Great Wall of China, the Athenian Long Walls, Hadrian’s Wall, or the great walls of Troy, these things are only of limited use by themselves.
Many cities had perimeter defensive walls—one notable exception being Sparta. From Mycenae and Troy in pre-historic Greece to the Long Walls of Athens, to Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain, the ancients were not opposed to wall building. All Roman forts had defensive walls as well. Caesar and Pompey, two of the greatest military leaders of all time, were masters of fortifications, and walls were no exception in their strategies.
But walls have their limit, and are only useful in a narrow sense. The great walled city of Troy was famously beaten by a wooden horse. And Mexico has been paying attention.
The Long Walls of Athens stretched from the city to the port of Piraeus. Defending the port and their navy were crucial for the Athenian Empire to survive so a wall makes sense. The Spartans never sacked Athens or Piraeus during the Peloponnesian War. They didn’t have to. Sparta ravaged the farmland of Attica, and refugees hiding within Athens’ walls caused a plague which killed nearly 1/3 of the population, including Pericles. Sparta attacked Athenian allies, and Athens made several strategic blunders throughout the conflict. The Long Walls proved inconsequential for the war.
If we head to the Roman side we see a similar story. In the early 2nd century AD, the Emperor Hadrian built a wall across northern Britain, separating Roman Britain from the Scottish lowlands. It was over 100 miles long, and was built with forts every 5 miles. Parts of the wall still exist, and it was a marvel of Roman invention. Many movies have featured crossing the wall. Scholars today still debate the point.
See, the damn thing just didn’t serve any reasonable purpose. The wall did not do a particularly good job of keeping out migrants or invaders—and it’s debatable whether there was any danger of invasion. About the only real purpose it served was as a show of Roman power—Hadrian built it just because he could. In the end, the Romans simply abandoned the wall, along with the rest of Britain.
So we have examples of walls being big, expensive wastes of time and resources, which ultimately serve little purpose. Well, what does work? Immigration reform. Yep. It’s just that simple. The best way to defend your country from immigrants and invaders is to turn them into friends and fellow countrymen. The Romans perfected this. Every place conquered was not simply ruled or enslaved. Many were put on a path to citizenship.
The greatest defensive tool in the roman arsenal was the ability to turn a potential invading force into citizens and friends. The history of Roman citizenship and “Romanization” shows an expanding use. First, citizenship was just for Romans. Then all Italians were granted citizenship. Eventually, in 212 AD, the Edict of Caracalla made all free men in the empire Roman citizens, and all free women equal to Roman women. Doing this meant Rome always had resources and manpower to continue expansion and defense. The Empire began to suffer and shrink after it began dividing itself into different sects and statuses—by the Late Empire, Christianity being the primary divider. Theological divisions and accusations of heresy fractured the power and unity of the populace, with the greatest and most destructive being the divide between West and East, Rome and Constantinople. This is how the empire declined and fell—internal division.
So let’s recap. Walls are crap for national defense. There are four ways to defeat walls; over, around, through, and under. Whether we talk about the Greek side or the Roman side of history, walls were only a small part of defense, and were not particularly effective on their own. Rather than keeping enemies out, walls keep good guys inside. They stunt growth. Walls can be breached, and always have been. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Sad!