Last month, the exhibition Roma e i Barbari, opened at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. The curator, Jacques Aillagon, a former French minister of culture, says that the aim of the exhibition is “to illustrate centuries of conflictual co-existence leading to the cultural integration of Barbarian populations into the pre-existing Roman fabric.” Aillagon says “Europe at the start of the third millennium is living through a cultural revolution not unlike that of the first.” The Economist, which reviewed the exhibition, writes that “the Romans decided that assimilation was the best form of defence.”
The underlying but clear message is that we should not worry: if Europe assimilates all newcomers, things will be OK, even if they arrive in massive waves, because the Barbarians were nowhere as bad as historically depicted in the Roman propaganda. The Economist even comes up with the example of a seemingly peace-loving Attila forbidding his troops to sack Rome. Yet, when it comes to how much or how little things changed for the better when after the fall of Rome the Barbarians were in charge, the Economist says merely “historical evidence became scarce. Unlike the Romans, the Barbarians did not build for posterity...”
So should we rehabilitate the Barbarians and review Rome’s futile attempts to control immigration?
In How the Irish saved Civilization Thomas Cahill argues that when the Roman Empire fell apart and Europe descended into chaos, it was in Irish monasteries that classical texts continued to be copied and preserved during the dark period of the 5th and 6th centuries.
This is an interesting thesis which contradicts or complements politically correct wisdom that classical Greek texts came back to Europe via the Arabs, partly through Al Andalus – Spain. But the first half of the book, in which Cahill describes the mindset of your typical Roman and your typical barbarian around the fall of the Roman Empire is more relevant for the question above.
For almost one thousand years, Roman military technology and organisation was so superior and the Roman armies so determined to win that the mere sight of their battering rams outside city walls was usually enough to cause the besieged city to surrender. Although Roman armies suppressed uprisings brutally, the benefit of Roman occupation was that inside the Roman Empire reigned Pax Romana, a rule of law which enabled commerce and culture to blossom. People’s life expectancy was higher than ever before (and higher than for a long time after the fall of the Roman Empire). In the words of Ken Dark the Roman empire was “a Europe-wide state, […] with a single currency, a centralised military and legal system, and an elite connected to a transnational culture spanning western Europe and the Mediterranean with Latin as its official language.” Rome was the first multicultural empire: as long as he spoke Latin, any man could get to the top. Some have even called the Roman empire the first multinational corporation.
The Roman empire seemed the promised land to those outside: the Vandals and other barbarians across the Rhine and the Donau. For centuries a trickle of them had managed to cross that natural barrier. Earlier immigrants, such as the Gauls, had settled and integrated into the multicultural and multi-religious melting pot which was Rome and some prospered. But the idea that one day a trickle could suddenly turn into an uncontrollable flood, pushed by population pressures on the other side and swamping the oldest and mightiest empire ever in Europe seemed inconceivable to the Romans.
Yet by the fourth century AD, the empire was falling apart, although few realised an irreversible process had started. Its territories in North Africa had been abandoned to the barbarians. The military were by now held in low esteem and most recruits were non-Romans or half-Romanised barbarian mercenaries. Cahill observes that “Rome fell gradually and that Romans for many decades scarcely noticed what was happening.” The barbarian would-be immigrants were looked upon as riffraff, but their immigration was not perceived as a threat until it was too late.
Then during the winter of 406, the Rhine froze solid, and thousands of waiting Vandals, Alans and Suebians crossed into the Roman Empire without being stopped. In 410, Rome was sacked for the first time in 800 years. Only 23 years later an army of 80,000 Vandals crossed the Strait of Gibraltar
Rome fell because of internal rather than external weakness, primarily the loss of purpose, identity and the will to stand up, if necessary militarily. Libraries have been written about the causes. Kenneth Clark in Civilisation puts it like this: “Civilisation requires a modicum of material prosperity – enough to provide a little leisure. But, far more, it requires confidence – confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws.” Another commentator summarises it as “Reviewing the sequences of Germanic infiltration into Roman military, administration, and society, it seems that rather than falling, the Roman state in the West willingly gave up, letting day to day control of its holdings slip from its fingers without so much as a spasm, delegating itself out of existence.” Note that the invading Barbarian armies were in fact small compared to the total population. They were just more motivated.
The world which followed the fall of Rome can really only be described as “chaos” or a “world of darkness.” There was hardly any trade, no currency, no learning anymore. Cities depopulated and life expectancy dropped. The population of Rome fell to some 100,000 during the 6th century, down from one million a few centuries earlier. In Britain the population fell by 50% between 400 A.D. and 700 A.D. In Egypt, Greece and the Balkans, it took 1,000 years for population numbers to again reach the levels of the Roman empire. In Britain, for 2 centuries following the fall of the Roman empire, the minting of coins and the use of money ceased and all trade became barter trade. It is probably no exaggeration to state that the fall of the Roman empire set Europe back at least 500 years in many ways.
Cahill compares the situation of the Roman empire in its final days to that which exists between Mexico and the US: a border with, on one side impoverished masses, trying to cross into what seems the promised land. He overlooks a much more striking parallel: that of Western Europe. Forced to give up its North African colonies it successfully integrated a first wave of immigrants such as Italians, Portuguese, but then, against all evidence, came to believe that the constant flow of immigrants from Eastern Europe and North Africa can somehow be assimilated limitlessly. The loss of belief in its own civilisation, the increase in crime, the delusional faith in a multi-cultural society, payments made to foreigners in the hope they will stay at home while at the same time legalizing any immigrants that have already moved in, the reliance on immigrants in the military, these are all clear parallels between the last century of the Roman empire and contemporary Europe.
If the Vandals could transport 80,000 across the Strait of Gibraltar 2000 years ago, why do we reject the possibility that what looks like a trickle today can suddenly become a flood, encouraged by repeated legalisations of illegal immigrants? Imagine a North-African dictator lending his naval fleet to African fugitives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Would European border guards dare to shoot at boats with women and children in the full glare of the international media? Probably not (anymore). So the trickle could turn into a flood sooner or later.
Will Europe end like the Roman empire? Unlikely (although not totally impossible either). But an exhibition to rehabilitate the Barbarians and the impact of immigration on the Roman Empire seems an ill-judged effort to convince us of the merits of present day immigration.