Border Walls in History: Why Were They Built? Did They Work?

Current events seem to happen so fast these days, and the topics change so quickly, that it’s difficult for a history show to do sufficient research on a topic before it is replaced by something else as the hot topic in our media-obsessed age that seems to have the attention span of a gnat. Thank goodness I’ve got squadrons of historians here at the Buzzkill Institute to do all the heavy-lifting, research-wise.

The issue of a border wall between the United States and Mexico not only continues to be a controversial, the popular discussion of that issue has been partly taken up with myths and misunderstandings and misstatements of fact regarding famous walls in history. “The Great Wall of China kept out the Mongols,” for instance. “Hadrian’s Wall kept the Roman Empire safe from ancient Celts and Picts,” and on and on. I could make lame jokes about the need for a Buzzkill wall to keep out historical myths and to keep abusers and mis-users of history at bay. But I won’t. And I won’t because the topic of Great Walls in History: Why Were They Built and Did They Work is not only crying out for clear answers, the historically-accurate answers to these questions are very complex, and provide excellent examples of why overly-simplistic responses like “yes, they always work, that’s why they were built,” or “no, they were built mainly for show and vainglory” hurt our public debate on the use of historical evidence to help us make decisions about contemporary affairs.

So strap yourselves in, Buzzkillers, for a world tour of some of the most famous border walls in history. Along the way, we’re going to address those questions of why they were built and whether they worked. And there are almost as many answers to these questions as there have been border walls in history.

Building walls to define and delineate the borders of territory is almost as old as human civilization. As students, we’re often told that “history begins at Sumer,” the ancient middle-eastern civilization (in what’s now Iraq). It’s frequently referred to as the earliest known civilization to have left behind historical and archaeological evidence. And, as far as is historians and archaeologists can tell, the Sumerians were the first to build a wall that wasn’t just around a city. They did it to repel invasions from the Amorites, a powerful nomadic tribe, as well as neighboring enemies. But, again, the evidence tells us only kept Sumer safe for a handful of years. And when the Amorites allied with some of Sumer’s other enemies, they were able to overwhelm the wall militarily.

A similar sort of thing happened in Ancient Greece. Built to protect the connection between in-land Athens and its closest harbors at Piraeus and Phalerum 5 kilometres away, the famous Long Walls of Athens were another military necessity. As the ancient Athenian empire became threatened by enemies in the 5th century BC, they built cross-country walls to protect their city’s supply routes to their essential ports. And they worked. At least for a while. But their utility during that period of time relied heavily on the the Athenian navy, which was very powerful and intimidating. The navy kept Athens secure and the Athenian empire powerful, both militarily and commercially. The Long Walls helped the city protect itself from land incursions, especially small-scale, quick attacks that couldn’t be countered immediately by the Athenian army.

The key to all this was that the Long Walls were a _part_ of Athenian defense, and that defense was built on a broad base, especially their famous navy. For the most part, the walls did their job, even during the wars against Sparta, Athens’ great military rival. But once the Athenian navy was defeated in the later stages of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta as the 5th century BC drew to a close, the walls weren’t enough to protect Athens itself. The walls were destroyed by the Spartans, but then rebuilt when Athens gained back much of its power (helped by Persian allies). Again, though, like almost everything else, they only worked in conjunction with other aspects of Athenian political and military power. When the Roman Empire expanded and eventually dominated the eastern Mediterranean world, the Athenian Long Walls provided almost no protection, and the Roman general Sulla breached and destroyed them easily in 86 BC.

And the Romans, of course, did their own wall building on at least one frontier of their empire. Hadrian’s Wall, built in the early decades of the 2nd century AD, ran across the 70-plus mile width of what is now the counties of Northumberland and Cumberia in northern England. The Roman Emperor, Hadrian, claimed that he had been “divinely instructed” to build a border to protect the Empire, to protect it from ancient Celtic tribes. But here again, there were other factors at play. The Romans needed some kind of structure to help regulate trade. They also used it as a justification for Roman taxation of provinces in northern Britain. “We’re protecting you from the barbarians in the north by building this wall,” they told the Britons and new Roman settlers, “so these taxes are for your protection.” You know the drill.

But even the impressive Hadrian’s Wall, built by the mighty Romans, didn’t work for very long. Within 20 years, they had to build the Antonine Wall further north, along what is now, roughly, the border between England and Scotland. And even those two walls depended entirely on other things, especially the Roman army and the larger Roman Imperial structure of trade and power, to keep the empire “intact.” The walls alone were not able to suffer the slings and arrows of political infighting in Rome and the increasing power and sophistication of her enemies in northern Europe.

If all these these types of complications and “yes, but….s” seem to be a running theme in our explanations of whether border walls worked as protection, it’s because that’s the one consistent theme in their history. And this theme only gets stronger when we get to more modern times. Walls and wall building gets more sophisticated, but so do military tactics and technology, as well as political sophistication. And we’ll explain why those things make it incorrect to point simplistically at historical walls and say they worked for the purposes of protecting populations and repelling invaders.

So far, I’ve been talking about how these ancient walls didn’t provide permanent protection, and how, at best, they only held out as long as the civilizations they protected maintained their power in other ways. “But, Professor”, I hear you saying,”what about this biggest, longest, most powerful wall in human history, the Great Wall of China? Didn’t that keep out the invading Mongol hordes and help make the China the most advanced civilization in the world in its heyday?”

Seasoned Buzzkills out there will recognize that what I’m about to say is perhaps our most frequent answer to historical questions. It’s as if we own stock in it. But, as we always say, “it’s complicated.” And the very complications in the history of and justification for the Great Wall of China are exactly the kinds of answers we keep using to show that history can rarely be understood to give only one simple answer.

Like most other ancient walls, the Great Wall of China wasn’t built all at once, but the started to take form when the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang [kin she huang], began to connect existing, older walls. For several centuries wall construction was not constant, but took place whenever there seemed to be treats from northern raiding groups. The Ming dynasty built the most extensive, militaristic, and well-guarded walls from the 1300s to the 1600s AD. For the most part, it’s the preserved Ming walls that are most-well known. They look like heavily-fortified barriers, run for a thousand miles, and, of course, have been the most visited and photographed by modern tourists. Despite seeming so formidable, they were not perfect. The Mongols overcame them in 1550 and attacked Beijing, the Imperial Chinese capital. And the walls were not strong enough to keep out the Manchu Qing, who toppled the Ming Dynasty in the mid-17th Century.

For the vast majority of its history, the Great Wall of China served to protect against small-scale raids by nomadic groups, but it couldn’t stand up to serious military attack. And, remember, even these large scale military attacks at this time didn’t use anything like modern artillery to create breaches in the walls. They were simply overcome by swarms of troops.

And it’s the invention of cannon, and innovations on their design, that proved to be the final elimination of walls as defensive bulwarks. For instance, the walls that had protected Constantinople as the capital of the Byzantine (Roman) Empire for a thousand years were huge fortifications, much taller and wider than the Chinese walls or any others before them. But when the Ottoman Turks used modern cannons to attack those very fortifications in 1453, they were broken and overcome.

All this while, I’ve been talking about walls as (mostly) military protection. And I’ve been emphasizing that they’ve never been a permanent or even very long-lasting protection against attack. But what about migration, trade, and “immigration”? For the most part, ancient, medieval, and early-modern civilizations didn’t build walls to “protect” against these kinds of things. And all the evidence indicates that there were two reasons behind this. The first was a fact well-known to political leaders — walls alone don’t keep out people out who are determined to get in. People tunneled under the walls around Sumer, or walked around them, in order to migrate, to work, and to trade. And every other walled area we’ve talked about so far has been the same. In fact, most of the extensive walls like Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China were also used to organize and regulate trade between the empires they protected and native populations, whose resources they needed. Walls may have kept armies out for a period of time, but it’s pretty clear that they weren’t even intended to keep “immigrants” out. This was not only because imperial rulers knew that it would have been impossible to stop migration, but also that they wouldn’t want to, for trade reasons and trying to keep the peace.

Finally, there are the walls built within the living memory of some of you Buzzkillers out there. The most recent one is the Israeli West Bank Wall, started in the mid-1990s, built to stop or reduce the effectiveness terrorist attacks and car bombings. This West Bank “Wall” is really a very complex and lengthy series of different types of barriers. These terrorist attacks have indeed, declined dramatically since it was built. But the wall has also divided a country against itself, cloistering Jerusalem, for instance, and enhancing tensions, by implying that Palestinian areas are inherently hostile and a dangerous threat. And even though they have indeed cut off many Palestinians from some economic opportunities, the flow of many Palestinian daily workers in and out of Jerusalem continues, even under these controlled circumstances.

And there is no better example of the impermanence and ultimate ineffectiveness of walls than the one in Berlin. In the 60s and 70s, it seemed, among other things, to symbolize the Cold War and all its complications and tensions. Unlike the walls we’ve talked about so far, the Berlin Wall was designed not to keep people out, to keep people _in_ East Berlin. The government of East Germany claimed they needed to wall off East Berlin to keep out westerners and other enemies, the real purpose was to prevent East Berliners from escaping East Berlin (and East Germany) by going into West Berlin. Not only did it fail to do that completely (hundreds of people were able to subvert the “wall,” especially in the early years), the Berlin Wall projected a terrible image of the Soviet bloc trying to keep a population captive. Western politicians (especially JFK) and western media played the comparisons with western freedom to the hilt. During his famous 1963 “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech, given within sight of the wall, JFK said, “freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.”

In addition to the President making propaganda hay out of something as stark and divisive as the Berlin Wall, newsreels celebrated escape attempts. As one example claimed, “Kruschev’s face was slapped again,” every time there’s was a successful escape.

What does all this mean? What myths am I trying to bust, correct, or contextualize? The first is that border walls in history have been been built not for migration or immigration prevention, but overwhelmingly for military and security reasons. And the second is that, for all kinds of complicated reasons — military and technological innovation of attackers, empires and powerful states eventually weakening from within, and on and on — physical, bricks-and-mortar border walls have never been a permanent, or even very long-lasting, protection against eventual invasion by determined enemies.

Anyone genuinely paying attention to immigration problems (and even drug smuggling) in the US knows that the main problem is with people overstaying their tourist visas and becoming “illegal.” And how did those “over-staying” tourists get here? They flew in ordinary jets on regularly-scheduled, perfectly legit commercial flights. They flew _over_ any walls that might have been built to keep out them out. As a country, we need to solve the problems we have, at the point where they prove to be problems. In this case, that’s not at our southern border.

And we need to call out simple-minded and ahistorical rhetoric designed to whip up nativist and anti-foreign emotions. It’s demagoguery, and, as a people, we should be better than that.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

David Frye, Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick

For over ten thousand years, much of humankind has lived inside walls behind walls behind still more walls. Walls have protected us and divided us, but have they also affected the way we think, work, and create? In a brisk and compulsively readable narrative of invasions, empires, kings, and khans, David Frye presents a bold new theory: walls haven’t just influenced the course of history; they have profoundly shaped the human psyche.

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