I recently came across a saying that "Rome fell essentially because China built the Great Wall" (to protect itself against the Xiongnu people, if I remember correctly) in a lecture series on peoples from the steppes. There are claims that this was once a popular theory.

A once-popular theory of history held that Rome fell because China built a wall. In other words, the construction of the Great Wall of China forced nomadic peoples outside the wall to turn their attention westward, eventually destroying the Roman Empire.

Bradsher, Keith. "The Nation: Flame Throwers and Radio Transmitters; For Car Thieves, a Technological Arms Race." The New York Times 28 Mar. 1999

How much truth is there in this? If there is, what are the series of events that lead to the fall of Rome which were triggered by building of the Great Wall of China?

  • The lecturer said it's a well known saying. The lecture series is thegreatcourses.com/courses/history/…
    – taninamdar
    Dec 25, 2014 at 14:44
  • 3
    All three Google results for me are this exact question. I'm not convinced this is a "well known saying".
    – Semaphore
    Dec 25, 2014 at 15:23
  • 1
    Since its a paid video, would you also add some context? What is the connection between the wall and the Roman Empire? Even if independent conjecture/theory, it does sound interesting
    – Rajib
    Dec 25, 2014 at 15:52
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    Speculating and offering opinions about offbeat historical theories is off-topic. This is not a discussion forum. Dec 25, 2014 at 16:05
  • I can find this on Googling.
    – taninamdar
    Dec 25, 2014 at 16:23

2 Answers 2


There is very little truth to this claim, if at all.

The fall of Rome is conventionally dated to A.D. 476. By then China had long been overran by steppe nomads. Since 439, the North China plains - heartland of Chinese civilisation - have been united under the Northern Wei Dynasty. This was a nomad empire, founded by a Mongolic tribe known as the Xianbei, and followed over a century of fragmented barbarian rule in the north known as the Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarian Peoples.

In fact, as early as 304, China experienced it's own Crossing of the Rhine moment. Nomadic tribes, exploiting the Jin Dynasty's weakness, established kingdoms on Jin territories in quick succession. This even is known as wǔhú luànhuá (五胡亂華), literally, the Five Barbarians Throwing China into Turmoil. Subsequently hundreds of thousands of nomad tribesmen flooded into China, triggering massive waves of native refugees to the south of the Yangtze . By 316, the Jin Dynasty had disintegrated.

enter image description here Barbarian presence in the Jin Empire, early fourth century. Blue denotes the various Xianbei tribes; orange is the Five Xiongnu Tribes; pink represent the Di people; green is the Qiang people and yellow is the Jie people. Smaller groups include ancient Koreans (purple), native Shichuanese (red), and other nomadic groups that were driven out of the steppes earlier (dark green, brown).

A native Chinese state reconstituted itself in 317 as the Eastern Jin, but never mustered the strength to retake the north.North China did not return to Han Chinese rule until an (ostensibly Xianbei-assimilated) general usurped the throne of the last Northern Dynasty, Xianbei Zhou.

In conclusion, the idea that the Great Wall forced the nomads west does not make much sense. They were in fact extremely active and relatively successful in China throughout this period.

Most of the Great Wall of China as we know them today were built during the Ming Dynasty, circa European Late Middle Ages. However, they were by no means the earliest. The first walls were built during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, 771 to 221 BC. Originally these were largely piecemeal fortifications erected by the fragmented ancient states of China for their own defences.

Later the Qin Dynasty unified China. It initiated an ambitious building program that linked the ancient walls into one cohesive defence line. This became known as the Great Wall of Qin, and marks the first appearance of a genuine "Great Wall". These efforts were continued by its successor Han Dynasty. However, it went into decline around the start of the Common Era.

Thus, Rome became Mistress of the World after most of these first generation (so to speak) Great Walls were built. Roman territorial extent reached its height a century after Chinese expansion into the Steppes began to be reversed. This stands in opposition to the claim that building the wall caused Rome's fall.

This doesn't really have anything to do with walls, but some nomadic tribes were forced westward during the Han Dynasty. Under the jingoistic Emperor Wu in particular, Han armies launched several expeditions deep into the steppes between 133 to 119 BC. A period of peace followed as the overexerted Han Empire found itself teetering on the brinks of collapse, but open warfare resumed after 103 BC. By 71 BC, the Han empire had clearly prevailed.

It is often suggested that some (but not all!) of the defeated Xiongnu tribes fled westward. One popular theory is that this created the Huns. Whether true or not, any move west would have had almost nothing to do with the Great Wall, except that it was extended to help safeguard conquests. Furthermore, this occurred during a period of great Roman strength. It is quite dubious to say that the Xiongnu being driven west caused the fall of Rome on the other end of Eurasia, some 400 years later.

At any rate, many Xiongu groups simply surrendered to the Han. They took an early and active role in the subsequent uprising in AD 304 mentioned earlier.

  • The Northern Xiongnu started to fade from Chinese history when the Xianbei, Southern Xiognu and other groups allied to defeat them in 85AD. In 87AD the Xianbei captured their khan and then in 89AD Dou Xian defeated the Northern Xiognu in the battle of the Altai. By 91AD the Northern Xiongnu had already moved west of the Ili river, moving towards Transoxiana. Tacitus mentions the Hunnoi near the Caspian Sea in 91AD, though it's not clear these were the actual Huns.
    – Firebug
    Dec 26, 2014 at 12:25
  • Huns had aldready crossed the Volga and subjulgated the Alans around 370AD, whom would flee and join the invasion of Roman Gaul. So the timespan between the disappearance of Northern Xiongnu and the appearance of actual Huns is actually, at most, of only around 280 years. Of course, the Great Walls plays no part in any of this.
    – Firebug
    Dec 26, 2014 at 12:25
  • @BrunoHeblingVieira Right, but as stated my answer, that figure was for the fall of Rome in 476, which does come out to ~400 years. Basically my point was that so much time and space separates the two, you can't really say one caused the other (assuming those Huns really were Xiongnu).
    – Semaphore
    Dec 26, 2014 at 12:34

There is absolutely no evidence linking the collapse of the Roman Empire with the construction of The Great Wall of China.

If one is trying to suggest that because the Mongol-Huns were unable to successfully penetrate The Great Wall around 400 AD/CE and in turn, redirected their campaigning pursuits Westward towards Rome-(via the Silk Route); there is virtually no historical evidence which would prove such a claim. Remember, the Mongol-Huns did not destroy the Roman Empire. Ultimately, the destruction of the Western Roman Empire was due to a series of successful Visigoth invasions from Central and Northern Europe, combined with the increasingly weakened and divided structure of the Empire. The Mongol-Huns certainly helped to weaken the Western Roman Empire, though they did not destroy the western Roman Empire.

  • 3
    The argument is not that "Mongol-Huns" caused the Roman Empire to fall, but that they created a kind of domino effect on the Central Asian-European steppes. That caused westward migrations of various steppe peoples, gradually increasing the pressure in the Roman Empire. Goths and 4th century Huns were the final straws that broke the camel's back.
    – taninamdar
    Oct 20, 2017 at 19:59
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    Okay, your statement regarding the Huns and Goths-(or Visigoths) helping to destroy the (Western) Roman Empire is historically valid, however, the initial question was regarding a causal connection between the construction of the Great Wall of China and Rome's downfall, whereby the Mongol-Huns-(and as you said, other "various steppe peoples") helped to accelerate its demise. What I was essentially saying is that I am unconvinced that there was a causal connection between the Great Wall and the Fall of Rome-(with or without the Mongol-Huns and related steppe peoples).
    – user26763
    Oct 21, 2017 at 2:31
  • There is an old historical saying, "Rome wasn't built in a day"......and neither was The Great Wall of China. In other words, The Great Wall took centuries to construct, beginning around the 200's BC/BCE, until The Middle Ages. And the construction of The Great Wall was not chronologically consecutive, due to various internal and external interruptions and disruptions over the centuries. I don't have the exact year as to when The Great Wall was completed, though if my historical memory is correct, The Great Wall was a fraction of its current size during the age of Attila The Hun.
    – user26763
    Oct 21, 2017 at 2:37
  • In other words, I don't think even a smaller Great Wall during Attila's age, would have been so consequential a presence that it would have caused or help cause a major "domino effect" of Mongol invaders traveling across The Silk Road en route to the distant Italian peninsula.
    – user26763
    Oct 21, 2017 at 2:40

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