Tag Archives: Roman Empire

America, the Roman Empire, and “Barbarian Invasions”

One of the most inapt historical analogies you will ever hear is that which compares illegal immigration to the United States to the “barbarian invasions” which were the most proximate cause of the fall of the Roman Empire. First, Mexican illegal immigrants are not barbarians: they are civilized. They come from a literate civilization. Rome had absorbed many settled, civilized people into its empire. The trouble with the Germans was that they were illiterate tribal nomads. Mexicans are not.

Second, by the time the western half of the Roman Empire succumbed, it had already been five centuries since Rome’s republican consistution had given way to a new system called the empire: Rome in its republican heyday had never had much to fear from the Germans in their northern forests. Rome had experienced many civil wars, dozens of succession crises, tyrannical and crazy emperors, multiple emperors, interregna, and so forth. America’s constitution and polity is far healthier than that.

Third, the peaceful migration of Germans as individuals and families, comparable to Mexican immigration today, had gone on for a long time without destroying the Empire. It is a rare half-truth, in an article by Timothy Birdnow that otherwise gets most of its facts wrong, that:

The Germanic invaders of Rome, who would eventually overrun the Empire and usher in the Dark Ages… did not come as warriors so much as peaceful immigrants — some legally, most not.

Concerning the legality I cannot comment: this is a subject I would like to know more about. My impression from a variety of sources is that the Roman Empire just didn’t have immigration laws in our sense: to prohibit peaceful migrants from crossing the empire’s frontiers is just not the sort of thing that it had ever occurred to anyone they might have a right to do. This particular bad idea is a modern invention. I highly doubt that the legal/illegal immigrant distinction could be applied to ancient Rome in anything but a highly anachronistic way. This may be the kind of questions historians could not answer with confidence; at any rate, I cannot. (The Romans did build Hadrian’s Wall but this is the exception that proves the rule: it was only one, particularly dangerous, border where it was built, the motives seem to have been mainly military, and Roman power often extended beyond it.)

But as to the point about warriors vs. peaceful immigrants, the Germans who came as peaceful immigrants strengthened Rome. Problems began only in 376 AD when the Romans allowed the Visigoths, as a united tribe, to settle along the Danube as refugees from the Huns, and even then only because Rome seems to have broken its promise to provide land and food for a people whom it hoped to use to defend the imperial borders. If Rome had kept its word to them, the Visigoths might well have done just that. At any rate, peaceful German migrants were never a problem. On the contrary, the last greater defender of Rome was one of them: Stilicho, son a Vandal father, whose impressive campaigns thwarted Alaric the Visigoth for many years, before Stilicho’s murder paved the way for Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 AD. Wikipedia mentions Stilicho’s “mostly barbarian troops” in his campaigns against Alaric in Illyria, and that he scraped together “a coalition of Romans, Alans, and Huns to defeat Radagasius at Ticinum in 406.” Stilicho managed to fight as far away as Britain, yet Rome fell in AD 410. What happened? Well, not only was Stilicho himself murdered– and Rome had no comparable general– but “in the disturbances which followed the downfall and execution of Stilicho, the wives and children of barbarian foederati throughout Italy were slain by the local Romans.” Naturally, then, some of those barbarian soldiers joined Alaric, and Rome could offer hardly any resistance to Alaric. I’m not sure whether much is known about this “thoroughly co-ordinated coup d’état organized by Stilicho’s political opponents,” but one wonders, especially given this ethnic cleansing aspect… might it have been planned and carried out by nasty Roman nativists, the 5th-century counterparts of Tom Tancredo and Russell Pearce. In short, it looks like Rome fell because nativist know-nothings murdered a talented immigrant general and his immigrant troops, who were doing the jobs Romans wouldn’t do, namely, defend Rome.

However, I want to focus on something different. Continue reading America, the Roman Empire, and “Barbarian Invasions”