Walls and Immigration — Ancient and Modern

Walls and Immigration — Ancient and Modern, by Victor David Hanson.

In A.D. 122, the exasperated Roman emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of an 80-mile, 20-foot-high wall to protect Roman civilization in Britain from the Scottish tribes to the north.

We moderns often laugh at walls and fortified boundaries, dismissing them as hopelessly retrograde, ineffective, or unnecessary. Yet they still seem to fulfill their mission on the Israeli border, the 38th parallel in Korea, and the Saudi-Iraqi boundary: separating disparate states.

On the Roman side of Hadrian’s Wall there were codes of law, habeas corpus, aqueducts, and the literature of Cicero, Virgil, and Tacitus — and on the opposite side a violent, less sophisticated tribalism. … The exasperated Romans had built the barrier to stop the Scots from entering Roman Britain, whether to raid, trade, emigrate, or fight. …

Apparently, like their ancient counterparts, modern migrants on the poorer or less stable side of a border are ambiguous about what they want. They seek out the security and bounty of mostly Western systems — whether European or American — but not necessarily to surrender their own cultural identities and values. …

Rome worked when foreigners crossed through its borders to become Romans. It failed when newcomers fled into the empire and adhered to their own cultures, which were at odds with the Roman ones they had ostensibly chosen.

There were no walls between provinces of the Roman Empire — just as there are no walls between the individual states of America — because common language, values, and laws made them all similar. But fortifications gradually arose all over the outer ring of the Roman world, once Rome could no longer afford to homogenize societies antithetical to their own.

Historically, as Hadrian knew, walls are needed only when neighboring societies are opposites — and when large numbers of migrants cross borders without necessarily wishing to become part of what they are fleeing to.

The lesson for today’s world?

If Mexico and other Latin American countries were to adopt many of the protocols of the United States, their standard of living would be as indistinguishable from America’s as modern Scotland is from today’s Britain.

Or if immigrants from Latin America were to integrate and assimilate as rapidly as possible, there would be less of a need to contemplate walls.