WSJ Historically Speaking: Why Walls Rarely Keep Enemies Out

Photo: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

News of the latest theft of sensitive American information— this time of some 4 million records from the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, allegedly by Chinese hackers—highlights the unfortunate truth about defensive walls. They may offer great psychological  comfort, whether as firewalls in the online world or stone walls and natural barriers in the real one, but they rarely work.

In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites engineered a brilliant victory by stamping their feet for seven days and blasting the walls of Jericho with their trumpets. In “The Aeneid,” Virgil described how the Trojans brought about their own downfall by bringing the famous wooden horse inside their gates. In his monumental “The Histories,” Herodotuslauded the courageous but futile last stand of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) after they were betrayed by Ephialtes of Malis, who showed the Persians a secret route through the mountains that led to the back of the Greek lines. But these striking failures didn’t deter subsequent generations from believing that walls could keep them safe.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A Night at the Theater Often Used to Be a Riot

Photo: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Photo: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Before the era of sky-­‐high ticket prices, the theater functioned much like a public park: a communal space where all social classes could come together. The drama onstage was often just a backdrop for the public theater being enacted by the audience. Political venting, social protesting and even rioting were common occurrences—especially in springtime, when the warmer weather let open-­‐air theaters resume business.

The Nika riots in 6th-century Byzantium (so dubbed because the rioters chanted “Nika,” meaning “conquer” or “win”) remain the deadliest in theater history.

In 532 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Justinian, the two political factions—the aristocratic Blues and the plebeian Greens—unexpectedly united to protest against new taxes during a public spectacle at the Hippodrome. Using the storied arena as their base, the rioters managed to burn down more than half of Constantinople before Justinian had the Hippodrome surrounded and every exit blocked. His soldiers proceeded to slaughter everyone inside. Contemporary accounts claimed that the death toll exceeded 30,000. After that, public theater of any kind was strongly discouraged by the Byzantine authorities.

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