Confession time: it has been ten years since I studied Roman history and my recollection is rusty. But I do remember a discussion at the start of a course on ruling the Roman empire where the lecturer sternly busted some of the most commonly held myths that could lead us to fail our exams if we dared to lazily repeat them.
So imagine my shock when I heard esteemed classicist Boris Johnson blithely assert over the weekend that “when the Roman empire fell, it was largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration”.
The UK Prime Minister was, in his own way, trying to make a serious point about climate change, arguing that civilisation could be swept away if world leaders don’t step up to confront the climate emergency at Cop26 this month. He outlined how rising temperatures already threaten to devastate humanity, with extreme weather events and food shortages destabilising economies and risking societal collapse.
So far, so good. But then came the classical analogy: “The empire could no longer control its borders, people came in from the east, all over the place, and we went into a dark ages, Europe went into a dark ages that lasted a very long time. The point of that is to say it can happen again.”
This is, to use an academic term, bollocks. Any classics undergrad could tell you that. But it is a particularly insidious type of bollocks: a grain of classical truth distorted to suit a political end, dog-whistling to a specific group while using false parallels from the ancient world as cover.
Let’s start with the facts: the idea that the fall of Rome can be blamed on immigration is as simplistic as saying Henry VIII switched religion because he was in love with Anne Boleyn. It sounds neat and plausible, but the real story is far more complicated. There are a host of interconnected reasons for the weakening of the Roman empire: political corruption, economic instability, rising inequality, religious tensions, sheer geography and yes, the pressures of population movement too. But the very premise of the question is a mischaracterisation. The Roman empire didn’t “fall” – it split in two, with the western part collapsing in AD 476, and the eastern part continuing as the Byzantine empire for another thousand years.
As for the focus on “immigration” and lack of control over “borders”, a Roman would have been flummoxed by these decidedly modern concepts. The Roman empire didn’t have borders so much as spheres of influence, which were fluid and porous. And the Roman approach to national identity was incredibly liberal by today’s standards: if you were a free man living under Roman rule after AD 212, you were a Roman citizen, no matter where you were originally from. One wonders where Johnson was during that particular history lecture.
The immigration-destroyed-Rome narrative may be the main argument of Edward Gibbon’s great opus The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire published in the late 18th century, but scholarship has come on a bit since then. In particular, the corruption among the governing classes and the fragmentation of Roman politics cannot be ignored (not that you see today’s politicians heeding that lesson). The indomitable Cambridge historian Mary Beard (full disclosure: she taught me all those years ago) has written a helpful primer here that I’d advise anyone tempted by the simplistic and overtly imperialistic Gibbon worldview to check out.
Can I say, I appreciate modern politicians having an historical perspective. But it’d be a woeful misunderstanding of the “fall” of Roman Empire (in the west) to suggest that it was because of uncontrolled immigration, or that the consequence was the west forgot how to draw.— mary beard (@wmarybeard) October 30, 2021
But as well as debunking Johnson’s sloppy thinking, Beard makes another point:
“The fact is that the fall of the Empire is complicated and close to inexplicable in terms of the usual off-the-peg answers. Some Tweeters seem to think it is easy. NO, it is not just, as some have claimed, caused by the corruption of the elite! But the prime minister is guilty of oversimplifying even further, and landing us with the fall of the Empire being a pro-Brexit (and climate change) moral lesson. It is hard to think that his oversimplification is not in some way ideologically driven.”
Ideologically driven – and in keeping with how right-wing movements have repeatedly misunderstood and coopted the classics for their own ends. Over the centuries, the multiculturalism of antiquity has been quite literally whitewashed – to the point where putting a notice on a plaster-cast statue to remind viewers that original classical sculptures would have been painted and that Rome was ethnically diverse is considered “unhinged”. Mention that it would have been perfectly possible to find mixed-race soldiers in Roman Britain, or point out that Rome had a black African emperor, and you are accused of imposing modern values on the ancient world. Apparently it is now “woke” to be historically rigorous.
Johnson has often taken a casual approach to accuracy when selecting classical analogies to back up his points. In 2012, he was caught out by none other than Ken Livingstone for confusing his Pericles-es – getting the great statesman of Athens whom he claims as a personal hero mixed up with the completely unrelated but similarly named ruler of Tyre featured in Shakespeare. And in 2019 when he expelled from the party 21 Tory MPs who had tried to block a no-deal Brexit, he reportedly drew comparisons with the first Roman emperor Augustus (then known as Octavian), who ruthlessly purged Rome of his political rivals before ushering in a new golden age. The years of bloody civil war waged by Octavian that had left Rome unstable and essentially lawless didn’t get a mention.
But I think there is more at play than carelessness when it comes to sounding off about the fall of Rome. Johnson is selling a version of history that doesn’t exist, a world where the West equals good and immigrants equal bad, where the lessons of the past conveniently align with his current political agenda. It’s not just disingenuous and lazy – it’s a dangerously simplistic way to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment and unsubstantiated delusions of imperialism.
Oh, and it’s insulting to any classicists who have actually done their reading.