A Wonk's Wall - Policy Lessons from the Reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian

Illustration by Alessandra Felloni

Timothy Lehey | SIPA Class of 2018 | March 26, 2017

When Alex Trebek or your local bar night trivia master asks a question about Hadrian, the answer inevitably has to do with his wall – that decrepit berm of stones in Northern Britain preserved as a UNESCO heritage site. But as observer Mike Duncan notes, this legacy would likely surprise and perplex the wonkish sovereign. Hadrian was a calculated policy practitioner and vigorous executor of his vision of Rome. He was a consummate micro-manager who traveled the empire and left every town he visited improved – administratively, architecturally, or otherwise. A border wall in the backwater province of Britannia probably did not figure in his short-list of lifetime accomplishments.

Nonetheless, Hadrian’s wall was an Imperial project implemented with desired foreign policy outcomes that we would recognize today: immigration control, national security, and projection of prestige. These intermestic policy issues are at the fore of President Trump’s rhetoric and agenda. But is his proposal soundly based in expected policy outcomes?

Immigration & Security

A primary function of Hadrian’s Wall (and indeed his lesser-known wall in North Africa) was to interrupt the migration patterns of a hostile, semi-nomadic barbarian tribe called the Brigantes. In fact, immigration posed a truly existential threat to the Roman Empire to an extent that the US simply cannot claim. The security crisis caused by Hunnic migrations, for example, precipitated the Battle of Adrianople – a defeat worthy of inclusion in world history textbooks.  Hadrian’s walls were meant to interdict migration patterns of hostile actors and collect demographic information to properly allocate defensive resources, namely, the imperial legions. If not quite divide and conquer, Hadrian’s walls achieved the military strategy of divide and pacify.

Trump’s proposed border wall will not divide the US’s enemies or achieve its intended effect on immigration. In fact, the opposite has been achieved by politically unifying the perennially fractious states in South and Central America. As Sabatini observes, “his administration may succeed where… former Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, failed—by uniting Latin America and the Caribbean against the United States.” Leading Mexican Presidential pretender, Andres Manuel Obrador, has suggested that Mexico file a lawsuit in the UN for violation of human rights and racial discrimination. Incumbent Peña Nieto has said “Far from uniting [Mexico and the US] it divides us.” More liberally, former Mexican President Fox tweeted “Mexico is not going to pay for that fucking wall”. Hadrian’s walls separated Rome’s enemies from each other, denying them strength of unity. Trump’s wall divides the US from its own hemisphere, enervating US foreign policy options and creating animosity in our own back yard.

Power Projection, National Prestige & Symbolism

“The single most striking feature of the wall was its visual appearance. It seems to have been finished with plaster, grooved to represent smooth courses of cut stone, and then whitewashed. A ribbon tracing the rise and fall of the rugged green moorland, it could be seen for miles as it shone in the sunlight, an almost magical metaphor for Roman imperium.”  – Anthony Everitt, from Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome

When conveying his signature policy issue, Trump dreamily describes the border wall as “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful”. You needn’t be a Freudian analyst to ponder the symbolic significance of Trump’s pet project. Hiscampaign to Make America Great Again was run on the notion that we have lost our prestige abroad, our security at home, and physical proof of our national greatness.

Everrett, whose book I quoted above, discusses the impact of the wall on Rome’s foreign relations. Their wall, literally “beautiful”, embodied a credible manifestation of Roman greatness. It was a perfect synecdoche of the accomplishmentsof civilization: collective effort, physical endurance, and indomitable military might. Its physical security incubated new towns and commerce routes on the imperial frontier. It evangelized the benefits of civilization and testified that Rome was the way of the future.

Rumors are increasing that Trump’s wall will be downgraded to an intermittent border fence. Rather than a physical representation of our national spirit or a testament to our civilizational ascendancy, the fences will be ugly, ineffective, and rust with time. Furthermore, Hadrian’s wall was constructed by the legions. In effect, it was a national service project, much like Rome’s famous highways. Our longtime ally and third largest trading partner “has called on its national companies to ‘examine their conscience’ and refuse to tender bids to build” the wall. And of course there is ample opportunity for crony capitalism or straight-up corruption.

Final Thoughts

“[We will] unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism”, declared Trump in his first inaugural address to the Congress. In the wall, as with all of his policies, he sees a line of demarcation between civilization and barbarism (terrorists, refugees, “rapists”, “drug dealers”, job-stealing “illegals”). But Trump’s Manichean dichotomy is false. As the Times reports: “Analyses of census data from 1980 through 2010 show that among men ages 18 to 49, immigrants were one-half to one-fifth as likely to be incarcerated as those born in the United States.” Where Hadrian credibly divided prosperity from anarchy, Trump creates false narrative.

Hadrian and Trump are not perfect foils. Indeed they have some dispositional similarities. The Roman emperor was what we might translate as politically incorrect – he grew a fulsome beard, insulting the sensibilities of Roman nobility. He was defiantly homosexual. Politically, he isolated and emasculated the Senate and implemented much of his policy through what we could understand as executive orders today. Hadrian was deeply popular with the military and increased military spending enormously under his tenure. However, Hadrian believed in unifying the cultural plurality of a Roman Empire that was at its greatest territorial extent. He was a credible policy wonk who walled-off threats and augmented Roman foreign policy capabilities.

When foreign adversaries and allies beheld Hadrian’s walls they saw strength, order, and the promise of greatness delivered from the Roman Civilization. If and when Trump’s razor wire fence is erected, the effect on our own foreign policy will prove quite the opposite. It already has.