So enormous was the empire that a great wall was built to contain the indifferent citizens more enamored of regular meals than loyal to the emperor, and to seal the borders against marauders covetous of the riches within. In fact, as many riches lay without, but the wall focused their desire. And because, however high, no wall without troops contains wealth forever, millions garrisoned along its length to protect and improve the fortifications—troops trained from youth for battle and consigned as infants for life, who made poor farmers far from home, the furthest of them a two-year ride from the capital—slowly starved. To deliver grain to the perimeter, the maxim went, depart with sixty wagon­loads, one for the troops, fifty-nine for the journey, and despair the horses’ return. Trading instead with bandits, they soon adopted banditry, or devolved to gate­keeping, taking tolls from the enemies of the capital who lived without but grazed their flocks within the wall. What but the wall itself distinguished the lands within from the lands without, and which did it contain, the soldiers or the bandits? the mystics ask. A joke was told: whichever side of bed the soldier wakes on is the side he defends that day. Eventually the border was so porous, the soldiers so rapacious and corrupt, that the new emperor enlisted the marauders, including millions of the bastard sons and grandsons of the soldiers his ancestors had dispatched, to protect his capital from other more ruthless invaders who, knowing nothing of the wall, came by sea. And that is how barbarians came to rule the empire generations sooner than they could have overrun it if the wall had never been built. And that is why the monument so rich as a symbol, except for short intervals, has collapsed.

Copyright ©1999-2006 David Hodges

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