A comment that has been made to me a couple of times since the Brexit referendum was announced, is that the European Union is like the Ancient Roman Empire, and we are living through its last days. It’s an interesting idea and one that deserves some scrutiny. For the sake of disclosure, I am in the remain camp - but only just.
Why did Rome fall? It is a question that has troubled historians for a millennia and more. Until the Fifth Century AD, Rome had endured a multitude of crisis, civil wars, crushing defeats, disputed territories, violent revolutions, during both the Empire and the Republic, but the city had always survived, and in the long run prospered.
The Hollywood blockbusters, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, blamed Commodus (161 -192AD) - a Second Century megalomaniac whose reign ended over a century of stability. In reality, the empire would survive for another two hundred and fifty years, but I forgive both films that (not least for Sophia Loren) because they do raise one central cause. Civil Wars caused the fall of Rome.
After Commodus’ assassination, The Year of the Five Emperors (193AD) saw a vicious struggle for control of the Empire, but out of it, Septimus Severus emerged as a strong and stable emperor - just as Vespasian had emerged from the Year of the Four Emperors (69AD) with the same effect. They liked their civil wars did the Romans. The last century of the Republic had also been riddled with civil wars until Augustus had emerged victorious as the first Emperor in 27BC. So, Rome did not fall simply because of civil wars. Civil Wars had been a recurring factor in the history of the city back as far as Tarquin the Proud (circa 560 BC - 495 BC).
Edward Gibbon (1737 -1794) in his six volume masterpiece boiled it down to a few factors - barbarians at the gates, a decadent population, and the Christian Church. I am sure the Brexit fans can find some parallels with today’s European problems, but I am not sure that is completly correct. Gibbon’s thesis is that the population had become lazy and lost their civic virtue, whist also being indoctrinated by Christian pacifism, and when faced with battle hardened barbarians rolled over. At first, they outsourced their defence to mercenaries, before finally succumbing to the successive waves of immigrants.
It is an argument that has been used in the past to justify some of the worst crimes in history. It was after all a central plank of Hitler’s social Darwinism wrapped up in Teutonic myth. Hitler was, unashamedly, on the side of the barbarians of course.
“The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.”(Edward Gibbon)
I’m also not sure the Christian church can take all the blame either. After the victory of Constantine the Great (272 - 337AD) the emperor’s wars were effectively Bellum Sanctum, and war was still a part of the Roman way of life. Not only that, the Eastern Byzantine Empire lasted another thousand years and was far more Christian than the West. Gibbon’s Enlightenment scorn for the church obscured his judgement in that factor. Although, there is perhaps an argument, that wealth became increasingly concentrated in church endowments instead of flowing freely in the economy, causing social imbalances to be exacerbated, and eventually a financial crisis. Now that does sound familiar.
Economic stagnation in the late Empire was certainly a debilitating factor . The Austrian School economists blamed currency debasement combined with price controls and excessive red tape, curtailing a successful free market economy, leading to ultimate collapse. It’s almost a Reaganomic wet dream. How many times have you heard red tape from Europe cited as a cause for Brexit? Of course, they were economists working with barely any financial records, looking at a complex historical event spread over three centuries, whilst also pushing their own political agenda. Never a great recipe for historiographical success.
What is clear is that there simply wasn’t enough coinage to pay for the state once the empire stopped expanding in the second century. A factor in this was the declining productivity of the population. The technologically complex society could not produce enough primary resources relative to its population - not enough food, wood, metal, coal, fish, fabrics to go around. Again it all sounds depressingly familiar.
However, rather than too many people in Roman society that could be afforded, the American anthropologist Joseph Tainter argued for societal collapse caused by diminishing economic concerns. There were not enough people involved in primary resource generation, because of their roles within the techonologically advanced society. Builders, architects, doctors, teachers, soldiers, all the professional classes and trades, and all those urban service occupations that support them, do not spend their time digging in mines or lumberjacking, or farming - just like our service dependant professions today.
Roman society needed more people to support its advanced society, and generate the resources to sustain it, but was top heavy and fell over. That almost sounds like an argument for immigration into the society to do the jobs the Romans didn’t want to do. Similar to our economy today? The Romans weren't stupid, they knew they needed more and more manpower to keep the state functioning. The Notitia Dignatatum - a 4th Century list of military officals - gives evidence of perhaps half a million men in the legions and auxillieries. On top of the upkeep of garrisons and the field army, was the civil service which increased dramatically in size in the late Roman period, despite a far more modest increase in population and no real expansion of territory.
The Late Roman policy of absorbinig and employing barbarians in the military and later adminstration, was part of a process of Romanisation designed to provide the Empire with the fresh blood in needed. However the numbers were not enough to sustain the economy initally, and far too many to be absorbed peacefully at the end.
Hopefully one day we can build limitless intelligent robots that can serve everybody - before they break their programming, rebel, and bring down humanity, of course! In the bigger picture, we do live on a planet with diminishing resources, and a population that consumes far too much, but I will leave that rant for another day.
So, on to Gibbon’s last factor - barbarians at the gates. Europe today faces the greatest wave of immigration since the fall of the Roman Empire. That sounds like a brexiters rhetoric, but let me justify it. Certainly after World War Two there was massive migration, but that was generally internal displacement of Europeans (I’m not ignoring the rest of the world, notably India during partition, and in China and the far East, but focussing on Europe for the sake of this article).
ss windrush pic
The European Empires all saw some movement of peoples throughout their territories, but hardly mass migration to Europe. The SS Windrush brought a generation of Afro-Caribbean workers to the UK in the fifties, and there were the Asians fleeing from Uganda in the 1970s, but whatever the National Front said, it wasn’t the end of our society. Compare a menu in a restaurant today with the 1960s, and be thankful for immigration.
My first visit to a Mosque was as a callow fifteen year old, meeting a Bangladeshi schoolmate after Friday prayers, whose family had fled flooding and military coups for a better life. I was reminded at the time how similar the religion was to my own family’s Cavinistic Methodism, but, a confirmed atheist even then, I didn’t press the point. Anyway, I digress.
There was a wave of mass emigration from Europe to the Americas from the Seventeenth Century onwards, accelerating in the nineteenth century to, ahem, ‘a flood’ - thank you David Cameron. The Native American opinion of that ‘swarm’ of migrants? Well they gave them the first thanksgiving and then saw their society collapse. And of course there was the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but that was - the key is in the name - across the Atlantic not into Europe generally.
There was a Black British Population, of course, there has been ever since the Roman Empire, but prior to the Seventeenth Century, migration into and from Europe was almost non-existant. Some contacts with Africa; the Mongols made it to Hungary; the Moors to Spain; the Turks to the gates of Vienna, but not mass migration until you go back to the fall of the Western Empire.
From 376AD onwards, tribe after tribe of ‘barbarians’ appeared from the Eastern steppe and swept into the Empire - the economically weakened empire; the civil war addicted empire - culminating in the arrival of the Huns in the Fifth Century. The Goths, Visigoths, Alans, Suebi, Franks and others, as well as Saxons, Friesans, Jutes and Angles a generation later, all poured into the Western Empire. Why did they come? They were fleeing war and climate change. Oh dear.
In the face of this, the Roman Emperor from 395AD was ruled by the incompetent, petulant, and spoiled Honorius. At many of the great turning points in history, the great disasters, you find the incompetent leaders - the ones simply not up to the job of dealing with the problems their society faces. The Honorius; the Montezuma; the Charles I; the Louis XVI; the Nicholas II. On the flip side you often get an Alaric, Cortez, Cromwell or Lenin. I will leave you to judge where our current political leaders stand on that scale, and which is more preferable.
Instead of a united empire, Honorius rule was compromised by pretenders, civil wars, and maladministration, with Romans using the barbarians as a weapon against other Romans. The empire fractured and split, as central authority diminished, and the separate parts turned on each other in vain attempts to reunite. All whilst the migrants took swathes of land for themselves. In 410, Alaric sacked Rome itself. Whilst this was a shock to the elites prestige, it meant little in practical terms, the city was no longer important administratively or militarily.
Britannia exited the empire first - well it was abandoned. Honorius told the Romano British to look after themselves. What little military force there was left in the province was not withdrawn, it simply withered on the tree. Without the coin that kept the professional military machine functioning, troops became part timers, and garrisons became the retinues of great lords rather than officials of a wider state. As globalisation collapsed localism asserted itself.
The rest of the Fifth Century in Britain is obscured. Fragments of external sources, a meagre archaeological record, myths and legends but little else. The closest British voice we have to the events after the Roman withdrawal is the monk Gildas (circa 500–570AD) and his polemic against the rulers of the Sixth Century (a rough date for his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae is about 540AD - I said rough all you sub roman historians out there!). From Gildas, and later documents like the Saints Lives, a vague narrative of Britannia post Romano Brexit can be put together. And it is speculative, with few fixed dates and only rough probabilities wrapped up in myths and legends.
At first, whilst the rest of the Empire suffered from barbarian invasions, Britannia was insulated by the channel. The villa economy began to collapse without the coin to support it, and advanced technology became progressively more scarce because of the cost, slowly the roots of agrarian feudalism set in.
Britannia’s initial problem was north of Hadrian’s Wall, not the SNP, but the Pictish tribes. In perhaps the 440s, the Romano British followed the later Roman fashion of hiring barbarian mercenaries to do their fighting. The Britons leader, perhaps named Vortigen (perhaps that was a title) must have had some success with that policy because the Picts are not really heard of again.
The barbarian soldiers were settled somewhere along the East coast of England. Again, there are any number of places that could have been the first ‘barbarian’ settlement, I will leave that to the archaeologists. For a couple of decades, it seems, things were relatively peaceful despite the declining economic situation in the cities and towns, and the collapse of the financial system - society just about held together. Some civic centres like Wroxeter retained their Romano character, others mostly fell into decline and were abandoned. London became a ghost city with the ruins of its grandeur all around.
After about a generation, the barbarian groups had increased in population dramatically, and a confrontation occurred. Supposedly, Vortigern’s son Vortimer was killed in the Treachery of the Long Knives (Brad y Cyllyll Hirion in Welsh tradition) where the ‘Saxons’ killed the British leaders at a peace conference - perhaps in the 460s or 470s (really all dates are pretty speculative whoever is quoting them and events not much better).
Britannia was then gripped by war until The Battle of Mount Badon sometime around 495-505AD, which led to a lasting peace, and the partition of the former province between the Britons, and the Invaders in the East (various tribes, Angles Friesans, Jutes and Saxons). The Fosse Way was the dividing line between the two groupings. Again usual caveats apply.
At first, the Romano British leader’s name was Aurelius Ambrosius (Emrys Wledig in Welsh tradition) that much is relatively certain. Legend would have it that by the time of Badon, Arthur was the leader of British resistance, but the victory (whatever the name of the victor) ushered in forty years of stability. By Gildas' time, plague, civil war, and from the 570s the resumption of invasion by the Saxons, divided Britain into its current constituent peoples. When Augustine arrived to bring Christianity to the English in 597AD, Romano Britain was Medieval, divided between the many petty kingdoms of the English, Welsh and Scots.
The rest of the Empire struggled on after Brexit against ever increasing problems. The threat of Attila was staved off at the Battle of Chalons (451AD) and Rome was still a viable concern, but by 476AD the last emperor Romulus Augustulus was simply deposed, not killed, but pensioned off by the Odacer the new Ostrogothic King of Italy. In fact, people barely noticed the Empire had gone. At the end it just faded away. The Last Emperor was still alive, perhaps as late as 507AD, living in a villa in Campania.
So, where does that leave us facing Brexit and a European immigration crisis today? Well the immigrants are thankfully not barbarian tribes hell bent on destroying Europe, or with the military capability to do it - really, they’re not, whatever the Daily Mail might say. They are fleeing war - one that we lit the touchpaper too in Syria and Iraq - and climate change, drought and famine. Our technologically advanced society is also to blame for that.
We are also a society that needs more and more people to service our advanced technologically driven economy, especially with our declining productivity, otherwise the whole capitalist structure might just collapse. Yeah, I think you can see where I stand on immigrants - we need them and should be grateful (esp in the NHS) for them coming here. But, like the later Roman Empire we need to make sure that we build the infrastructure - homes, schools, railways and energy that can support them; instead of concentrating resources, capital needs to flow.
Will we be insulated by the channel as Vortigern and the Romano British were for a generation from the Imperial collapse? Will it, similarly, be a slow decline cast off from the rest of Europe? Will the EU eventually collapse under the weight of its contradictions and in the face of global climate change and catastrophe anyway? Are we insulated from all that as Britannia alone?
There are some things to ponder whilst waiting for June.