Book Review: Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick

Frye, David. Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick. (NY: Scribner, 2018)

Short Version: A lot of history is about the fight between peoples inside of walls and those outside of walls, between builders and warriors.

David Frye is a specialist in Classical History, especially Roman frontier life and similar. He opens the book with a story about how he was so focused on reading the Vindolanda texts up at Hadrian’s Wall that he completely missed the wall. Only later did he start thinking about walls, that wall, and walls around the world. There were a lot of them. The oldest thus-far discovered is in what is now Syria, out in the middle of no-where, and no one knows who built it. But it was to keep someone out of somewhere, and took a lot of effort. Welcome to the history of civilization as told by walls.

The book is a popular history, written well and with a fast-pace. If you are looking for an in-depth history of any one wall, you won’t find it here. What you do find are the problems, successes, and commonalities of walls, and what became of them. Frye starts with the Very Long Wall (as French archaeologists dubbed it) in Syria, then looks at the walled cities and fortifications of Mesopotamia, then China, Rome, China, Europe, China, the Americas, France and China, and Berlin. Walls as symbols and how people look back at old walls is almost as important as the structures themselves. Even more so, in the case of the Berlin Wall.

The book is laid out in chronological order, starting with the mystery wall of Syria, and then bouncing a little around the world. If you want the history of one particular wall, you’ll need to chapter jump to the next chapter on that particular wall (China being most notable). Frye’s writing is at its best when he is telling stories about individuals and the walls: Chinese peasants, Mesopotamian kings, the last Byzantine Emperor and the defense of Constantinople, and the like.

It is a world history, and Frye does not favor either wall builders or wall-attackers as good or bad. Yes, he inclines toward one group, generally, but he points out that those inside the walls are always considered weaker, less manly, and later writers (Romantics and the like) tended to glorify the warriors outside the walls, even as Rousseau and his ilk enjoyed the benefits of life inside walls. Frye points out that the Americas were anything but a peaceful world filled with eco-saints, and cites primary sources (some of which I intend to use in class).

Because it is written as a popular history, in the good sense, Frye is a little colloquial and hang loose at times, too much so for my taste. It’s not overwhelming, but mildly distracting for someone like me. The general reader with a basic sense of world history, and younger readers, will likely enjoy the book. It has decent maps, and direct quotes are cited in the bibliography. I would have liked a full endnote/bibliography format, but that’s me. Frye also manages to avoid politics, beyond the obvious “some like walls, some don’t want walls, the Berlin Wall is over-invoked as the wall-to-end-all-walls.” I was pleasantly surprised by his reticence.

If you are interested in walls as a way to look at civilization, or want a quick overview of world history’s “nomads v. farmers,” then this is a really good book. If you want a detailed history of a specific wall or civilization, this makes a decent launching point.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for personal use and received no remuneration from either the publisher or the author.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick

  1. Walls aren’t just against humans. Consider seawalls – to keep the sea out and the land dry. I’m particularly fond of the history of the Dymchurch Wall on Romney Marsh in England, which appears to have been first constructed by the Romans, and has been improved and extended ever since then. As the old saying there goes, “Serve God, honor the King – but first uphold the Wall”.

    https://theromneymarsh.net/dymchurchwall

  2. Some walls serve for offense and defense. The Antonine Wall across the neck of Scotland did both. Customs collection and presence near the transport nexus around modern Stirling, and early warning for the guardians and legion on Hadrian’s Wall. I saw the (replica) stone placed by Legio II commemorating some 40,000 paces of wall built (earth and timber, mostly).

    That was a lonely set of forward posts, supported by galley patrols, but at the literal end of the Roman Road. ‘Just, please try to keep off or at least slow down those kilted [REDACTED] this time?’

  3. Of course, is the wall intended to “keep people out” or intended to “keep something in”. 😈

  4. It’s amazing to me how willing people have historically been to put in the main effort of building a wall, but how unwilling to put in the lesser efforts of maintaining or defending them.
    .
    I’ve kind of come to the opinion that walls are largely counterproductive, in that they allow the threatened population to pretend that the problem has been solved, and can safely be forgotten.

  5. Wondering if he discusses the Maginot Line.

    It was *not* irrational to fortify the likely invasion routes on the border; but it would have been better to make the fortifications in the area where the Maginot went less elaborate and spend the savings on armored units and on providing improved fortifications in the Ardennes area.

    • Yes, it’s his second from the last chapter. Maginot Line, then Berlin Wall, and he closes with a summary and muses about walled and gated neighborhoods.

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