British archaeologist and historian Bryan Ward-Perkin’s excellent 2005 work The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization is a text that is designed to be a corrective for the type of bad academic trends that seem to entrench themselves in even the most innocuous of subjects. In this case, Ward-Perkins, along with fellow Oxfordian Peter Heather in his book The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, sets out to fix a glaring error which has come to dominate much of the scholarly study of the 4th and 5th centuries in the western Empire for the past few decades.
This error is the view that the western Empire did not actually “fall.” Instead, so say many latter-day historical revisionists, what happened between the Gothic victory at Adrianople in 378 AD and the abdication of Romulus Augustulus, the last western Emperor, in 476 was more of an accident, an unintended consequence of a few boisterous but well-meaning neighbors getting a bit out of hand. Challenged is the very notion that the Germanic tribes (who cannot be termed “barbarians” any longer) actually “invaded.” Certainly, these immigrants did not cause harm to the western Empire — for the western empire wasn’t actually “destroyed,” but merely “transitioned” seamlessly into the era we term the Middle Ages. Ward-Perkins cites one American scholar who goes so far as to term the resettlement of Germans onto land that formerly belonged to Italians, Hispanians, Britons, and Gallo-Romans as taking place “in a natural, organic, and generally eirenic manner.” Certainly, it is gauche among many modern academics in this field to maintain that violent barbarian invasions forcibly ended high civilization and reduced the living standards in these regions to those found a thousand years before during the Iron Age.
Ward-Perkins points out the “whys” of this historical revision. Much of it simply has to do with political correctness (which he names as such) — the notion that we cannot really say that one culture is “higher” or “better” than others. Hence, when the one replaces the other, we cannot speculate as to how this replacement made things worse for all involved. In a similar vein, many continental scholars appear to be uncomfortable with the implications that the story of mass barbarian migrations and subsequent destruction and decivilization has in the ongoing discussion about the European Union’s own immigration policy — a discussion in which many of these same academics fall on the left side of the aisle.
Yet, all of this revisionism is bosh and bunkum, as Ward-Perkins so thoroughly points out. He does this by bringing to the table a perspective that many other academics in this field of study don’t have — that of a field archaeologist who is used to digging in the dirt, finding artifacts, drawing logical conclusions from the empirical evidence, and then using that evidence to decide “what really happened,” rather than just literary sources and speculative theories. Indeed, as the author shows, across the period of the Germanic invasions, the standard of living all across Roman western Europe declined, in many cases quite precipitously, from what it had been in the 3rd century. The quality and number of manufactured goods declined. Evidence for the large-scale integrative trade network that bound the western Empire together and with the rest of the Roman world disappears. In its place we find that trade goods travelled much smaller distances to their buyers — evidence for the breakdown of the commercial world of the West. Indeed, the economic activity of the West disappeared to the point that the volume of trade in western Europe would not be matched again until the 17th century. Evidence for the decline of food production suggests that populations fell all across the region. Ward-Perkins’ discussion of the decline in the size of cattle is enlightening evidence that the degeneration of the region was not merely economic. Economic prosperity, the access of the common citizen to a high standard of living with a wide range of creature comforts, disappeared during this period.
The author, however, is not negligent in pointing out the literary and documentary evidence for the horrors of the barbarian invasions that so many contemporary scholars seem to ignore. Indeed, the picture painted by the sum total of these evidences is one of harrowing destruction caused by aggressive, ruthless invaders seeking to help themselves to more than just a piece of the Roman pie. Despite the recent scholarly reconsiderations, the Germans, instead of settling on the land given to them by various Emperors and becoming good Romans, ended up taking more and more until there was nothing left to take. As Ward-Perkins puts it,
“Some of the recent literature on the Germanic settlements reads like an account of a tea party at the Roman vicarage. A shy newcomer to the village, who is a useful prospect for the cricket team, is invited in. There is a brief moment of awkwardness, while the host finds an empty chair and pours a fresh cup of tea; but the conversation, and village life, soon flow on. The accommodation that was reached between invaders and invaded in the fifth- and sixth- century West was very much more difficult, and more interesting, than this. The new arrival had not been invited, and he brought with him a large family; they ignored the bread and butter, and headed straight for the cake stand. Invader and invaded did eventually settle down together, and did adjust to each other’s ways but the process of mutual accommodation was painful for the natives, was to take a very long time, and, as we shall see…left the vicarage in very poor shape.” (pp. 82-83)
One cannot help but see, even if to a much lesser extent, some parallels between the western Roman experience with mass immigration and our own. While the American experience does not involve mass acts of violence by our incomers (the European experience can boast this to a lesser extent), it nevertheless remains that America and Europe find themselves becoming the homes of increasing numbers of migrants who are coming here as entire family groups and refusing to assimilate, and are often hostile to the very concept of assimilation. Immigration can often be beneficial to a society when it involves small numbers and selective winnowing of the entrants. This is not so much the case when it involved thousands or millions at a time, regardless of personal capabilities, intelligence, or character, and who often refuse to do something as simple as follow our laws in the process of immigrating. A Stilicho (who was the son of a Vandal father) bringing over his abilities and strengths is a net plus to his adoptive society; a Fritigern bringing across tens of thousands of otherwise unremarkable and often criminally-inclined Goths is not.
And negative has been the decades-long spate of third-world immigration that the United States and Europe have seen. Instead of becoming Americans and Europeans, and adapting themselves to our norms as previous waves of immigrants had done, these most recent crops have segregated themselves off into barrios and banlieus and grow increasingly averse to coexistence within their host countries. Instead of contributing to our societies, in many cases these migrants only end up depressing wage scales, taking jobs from those who are least able to find alternatives, and help themselves to our generous welfare benefits. As their alienation from our societies grows greater, so does their participation in criminal activity — one can make a good case, I believe, that today’s ethnic gang activity is simply a smaller version of the same type of behavior displayed by the Germanic invaders against their Roman victims. Both America and Europe have seen “honor” killings take place in our own backyards — something unthinkable even thirty years ago. Certainly, the breakdown of monoculturalism and the unity that comes with it is seen in the multilingualism of our lands. The United States is a nation that prints ballots in dozens of languages for people who are often using our electoral system only as a way to further filch from us; European cities resound with the alien sounds of muezzin calls to prayer in Arabic five times a day. One wonders if the Gallo-Romans of old ever sat on the porches of their villas in the evening, enjoying the cool breeze while wondering, “Doesn’t anyone around here speak Latin anymore?”
However, the peril of large numbers of inassimilable foreigners is not the only danger that we can address by studying the fall of the western Roman Empire. Even without the influx of barbarian tribes, the West had grave difficulties, not least of which was the terribly unsound fiscal policies of its leaders. Not all of the 4th century’s barbarians were Germans, after all, just as the ills and troubles of America and Europe cannot be pinned solely on the waves of immigrants coming to our shores. The fiscal insanity of our own leaders that has contributed to impending financial collapse has done as much damage as any rampaging gentlemen with spears and swords. The Romans debased their currency and increased state control over all sorts of industries. So today, we print money without any real backing, and wonder why our debt has reached unsustainable levels. Today, we continue to regulate and nationalize industry, destroying its ability and desire to prosper. The Romans spent all their ready cash buying eastern luxuries and funding bread and circuses. So today, both our governments and our people have dug themselves a trench that they cannot escape, and then complain at the slightest austerity which might be suggested. In both situations — Rome and the West today — there remained an outward veneer of prosperity until the collapse, but within was a rotten core of debt, debased currency, and declining confidence in the future.
Further, the history of the Roman Empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries was one of increasing militarism, decreasing personal freedom, and a shrinking tax base of productive citizens. Granted, much of the Roman militarism was applied internally in the near-continual civil wars that wracked the period prior to the barbarian invasions. All the same, this constant fighting drained treasuries and overtaxed what little existed in the way of credit apparatus. To ensure that the basic necessities of military power were maintained, successive emperors imposed ever-increasing duties on the curial (tax collecting) class, forcing them in turn to direct the rapacity against the common man. Laws were in effect forcing people to live where they were born, and to follow the same trade that their fathers before them did. In many cases, the tax and regulatory burden became so intolerable that Roman citizens — participants in the most advanced, civilized, and prosperous society of their time, mind you — left and went over to the Germans. Ultimately, in fact, the Romans lost the western portion of their empire not because they were defeated in a series of major battles, but simply because they ran out of money to be able to maintain a credible field force.
So it is today. Tax burdens continue to rise — most recently, the “Taxmageddon” slated to occur at the beginning of next year due to ObamaCare, in which taxes on the middle and upper classes will rise greatly. The productive classes are being regulated and taxed into submission. We see many Americans who are able fleeing the country and moving to places which are more economically free than here — something which didn’t even exist ten years ago.
Ward-Perkins’ book, while documenting and detailing the decline of the western Roman Empire as a result of Germanic barbarians in the 4th and 5th centuries, contains within it some warnings for us today. Not all barbarians are those who come in from the outside. The present administration is rife with those who, socially and fiscally, are ripping this nation apart at its seams. As I read it, I could not help but see the parallels between then and now. Obama and his crew are in our vicarage — and they don’t seem to have much interest in joining the cricket team. Now many be the last chance to turn them out and avoid furthering the mistakes made both by Rome and the West today.
All in all, an excellent work of historical writing that provokes thought about today’s crises.
The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, by Bryan Ward-Perkins. 4 ½ stars out of 5.
Oxford University Press: 239 pages: $12.69