Sunday, September 27, 2015

Déjà vu ?

Goths traversant une rivière, Évariste-Vital Luminais (1822-1896). The Goths came en masse and unopposed, as immigrants. They discovered that Roman civilians would not defend themselves and had not done so for a long time.


When discussing the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe, we often ignore one thing: most of them are neither Syrians nor refugees. The majority are Iraqis, Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis, or even Bangladeshis. They live crummy lives but are in no immediate danger, their motive being simply the prospect of a better life in the West.

A Pakistani identity card in the bushes, a Bangladeshi one in a cornfield. A torn Iraqi driver's license bearing the photo of a man with a Saddam-style mustache, another one with a scarfed woman displaying a shy smile.

Documents scattered only metres from Serbia's border with Hungary provide evidence that many of the migrants flooding Europe to escape war or poverty are scrapping their true nationalities and likely assuming new ones, just as they enter the European Union. Serbian border police say that 90 percent of those arriving from Macedonia, some 3,000 a day, claim they are Syrian, although they have no documents to prove it. [...]

"You can see that something is fishy when most of those who cross into Serbia enter January first as the date of their birth," said border police officer Miroslav Jovic. "Guess that's the first date that comes to their mind." (The New Zealand Herald, 2015)

A breach has opened up in the defenses of Europe, and large numbers of people are pouring through. Meanwhile, another breach has been made in Libya.

Steve Sailer has compared this influx to the entry of the Goths into the Roman Empire (Sailer, 2015). They too came en masse and unopposed, as refugees. Is the comparison justified? There are both similarities and dissimilarities, but the latter, I will argue, are such that the current crisis may actually be the worse one.

Let's begin with the similarities:

Demographic imbalance

Contemporary observers (Augustus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Plutarch, Stobaeus) believed that birth rates had fallen considerably, largely because too many people were postponing marriage and resorting to abortion or infanticide within marriage (Harris, 1982; Rawson, 1986). This opinion is supported by archaeological evidence that Roman towns and cities lost population between the 2nd and 5th centuries, with no signs of population growth elsewhere. Using this evidence, Latouche (1947) argued that birth rates were falling throughout the Empire by the 3rd century. Nonetheless, other historians tend to be dismissive, saying that the contemporary observers in question had pro-family biases.

There is agreement on one point: infantile mortality was high, particularly in urban areas. Even a modest fertility decline would have led to a shrinking population (Frost, 2010b). Just to keep the population stable, each Roman mother would have had to bear at least five children (Parkin, 1992).

Conditions were better for growth just outside the Empire, where people enjoyed increased opportunities for trade without the cultural influences that tend to delay family formation and reduce fertility (Wells, 1999, p. 225). The result would have been an increasing pressure of population on the Empire's borders.

Controlled immigration: beginnings of the mass influx

The fall of Rome evokes horrific images of death and plunder. At first, however, the barbarians came peacefully, being recruited as soldiers and rewarded with land grants at the end of their military service (Goffart, 1980). It was with this outcome in mind that the Goths, fleeing the advance of the Huns in the 4th century, showed up along the Danube and begged to be allowed in. But this time the influx would be much greater, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands. They were nonetheless allowed in, and the Emperor's entourage saw this influx as business as usual.

Optimism among the elites

By that time, Rome's capacity to assimilate was at its height. Ethnic and regional identities were dissolving throughout the Empire and being replaced by a common identity of Roman civilization or humanitas. This broader identity seemed to be spreading even beyond the Empire:

The most profound effect of the interactions was to spread Roman goods, practices, and values beyond the provinces out to regions far removed from the territories conquered by Rome. When auxiliary soldiers returned home to regions such as Denmark or Poland, they brought with them not only their weapons and perhaps Roman bronze vessels and ornate pottery, but also personal familiarity with large-scale political organization, cities, writing, and all of the myriad other features that distinguished Roman civilization from the cultures of the peoples of northern Europe. (Wells, 1999, p. 225)

Christianity was likewise making inroads. For all these reasons, the northern barbarians didn't form a rival civilization like the Persian Empire to the east. They were merely disparate tribes being drawn economically and culturally into Rome's orbit and apparently destined to become future Romans. This should be kept in mind when we read about the optimism of the Emperor's entourage, who considered the Gothic influx to be a godsend of future soldiers and loyal subjects (Pohl, 1997, p. 4). Goffart (1980, p. 35) is not far off the mark when he states, "what we call the fall of the Western Roman Empire was an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand."

Why things went wrong

To some degree, optimism was justified. Large numbers of barbarians had become useful citizens, particularly soldiers. But past success is no guarantee against future failure. First, a demographic pressure cooker was developing beyond the Empire's borders, and many more barbarians would soon follow the example of the Goths. Second, even as longtime Roman soldiers, they often felt greater loyalty to their own people than to abstract principles of humanitas. Third, many had trouble accepting the Roman idea that only the State may use violence.

Barbarians considered violence to be legitimate. In their eyes, every adult male had the right to use violent means when and if appropriate, even to the point of committing murder. In barbarian society, a victim of violence could go to a court of law, but the court's decision had to be enforced by the victim and his kinsmen. In short, no one had an inherent right to life and property. That right had to be continually earned through one's ability to defend oneself and rally support from friends and family (Frost, 2010a). 

Things were very different within the Empire, as summed up by the term Pax Romana. Only the State had the right to use violence, and people who usurped that right were branded as bandits and treated as such. It was this pacification of social relations that made possible the creation of a large complex society where people could live, trade, and come and go in relative peace.

The barbarian influx would destroy the Pax Romana. If we take the case of the Goths, so many were allowed to enter that the Empire lacked the means to feed them. The resulting famine pushed them to plunder towns and villages for food. At that point, they saw with their own eyes the defenselessness of the average Roman, who in any altercation would not defend himself and would typically flee.

The Romans did have a system of collective defense. By the 4th century, there was an extensive network of walls, forts, and watchtowers along the border, as well as defense in depth—legions stationed farther behind to contain any incursions. But this system failed to allow for a situation where large numbers of barbarians would be invited to cross the militarized border zone with no opposition whatsoever. At that point, they entered the so-called 'civil zone,' where defenses were much weaker.

The resulting crisis tended to feed on itself. When large numbers of barbarians were invited in, even more decided to invite themselves. The border ceased to exist. There was no longer any barrier between the barbaric outer world and the pacified Roman world, which was home to millions of people who didn't know how to defend themselves and who had not done so for generations.

And so the inevitable happened. The barbarians didn't wish to destroy Roman society—they just wanted to help themselves to its wealth—-but their very presence made the survival of Roman society impossible. No, they didn't completely destroy the heritage of Rome. They came to plunder, not to destroy; moreover, they were already semi-Roman and semi-Christian, and in time the kingdoms they founded would preserve some of that heritage. But the Empire did collapse, as a French historian has wryly pointed out:

For the decisive point is that Rome had shown its weakness by admitting peoples onto its territory whom it had been unable to subordinate and whose presence it had regularized without having vanquished them in the field. Contrary to what is commonly said today, the invasions really did happen. The Barbarians were in no way "invited" to settle in the empire. They entered in large numbers by immigration and also, at least in equal numbers, by violent invasion, by piercing the defense lines, plundering the cities, and massacring people as much in Italy and Greece as in Gaul, Spain, and Africa. (Voisin, 2014)

And now the differences

While the fall of Rome resembles the current crisis, there are differences. First, the demographic imbalance between Romans and barbarians was hardly comparable to the one that now exists between Europeans, on the one hand, and Muslims and Africans, on the other. When the Roman Empire collapsed, barbarians replaced the native population in only a few areas: England, Flanders, southern Germany, parts of Switzerland, and Austria (furthermore, the case of England is disputed by some historians). Elsewhere, they were no more than 5 to 10% of the local population. The population replacement now under way—which is merely in its initial stages—promises to be much greater.

Second, the peoples of Africa and the Muslim world may covet Europe's higher standard of living, but they don't see themselves as future Europeans. They see themselves as Africans and Muslims, and that's not going to change. The difference is crucial. Whereas Europe was still European when the Dark Ages ended, it may be something else when this is all over.

The outcome will depend on what you do or fail to do. When people look on and say nothing, they hand over the keys of history to those who have no such inhibitions.


Frost, P. (2010a). The Roman State and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 376-389.

Frost, P. (2010b). Are empires bad for your health? Evo and Proud, January 14

Goffart, W. (1980). Barbarians and Romans A.D. 418-584. The Techniques of Accommodation, Princeton University Press.

Harris, W.V. (1982). The theoretical possibility of extensive infanticide in the Graeco-Roman world, The Classical Quarterly, 32, 114-116.

Latouche, R. (1947). Aspect démographique de la crise des grandes invasions, Population, 2, 681-690.

Parkin, T.G. (1992). Demography and Roman Society, Ancient Society and History, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pohl, W. (1997). Kingdoms of the Empire. The Integration of Barbarians in Late Antiquity, Brill.

Rawson, B. (1986). The Roman Family, in B. Rawson (ed.) The Family in Ancient Rom, New Perspectives, Cornell University Press.

Sailer, S. (2015). Civilization capitulates to barbarism at the Danube in "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," The Unz Review, September 7

The New Zealand Herald. (2015). The big migrant passport scam, September 7 

Voisin, J.L. (2014). Ce que nous enseigne la chute de l'empire romain, Le Figaro, October 17 

Wells, P.S. (1999). The Barbarians Speak. How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe, Princeton University Press.