Some of you may know that my PhD covers the period of the “fall” of the Roman Empire in the west. Which means that I had to spend a lot of time wrestling with racist narratives, actual Nazi narratives, pseudo-historical narratives and straight-up fictions about Western Europe during these centuries. As a result, my blood is immediately boiled when these narratives appear in modern newspapers and once again I have had my lunch ruined by a completely rubbish article about how refugees caused the collapse of the Roman empire in a mainstream news outlet. And once again the article was composed of outright misrepresentations and bizarre anachronistic terms. Like refugee.
A few years back, these articles used different words. They used immigrants and migration. Plenty of British historians who will remain nameless centralised the notion that “barbarian” immigration caused an otherwise stable, happy and racially homogeneous Roman empire that had survived for 500 years to suddenly keel over and die, writing sentences like “the connection between immigrant violence and the collapse of the western Empire could not be more direct.”
As the incomparable and brilliant Guy Halsall has written many many times, these words and these narratives are dangerous and deliberate. They seek to legitimise the idea that migrants and refugees fleeing appalling violence or merely seeking a new place to live are barbarians. They seek to tell us that these people, these human beings, destroyed an empire once with their violence, their demands for living space, and they will do it again.
Refugees did not destroy the Roman empire. Migrants did not destroy the Roman empire. The Roman empire was flawed to begin with and began wobbling a long time before any Goth or Frank looked at it. Yes there were new peoples entering the empire. Some of them entered by force. There were battles and kidnappings and the sacking of cities. But these things alone did not destroy the empire. These things were not carried out by barbarians (quick, picture a barbarian and then question how you got that image and just how uncomfortable that picture might be) because barbarians only exist in the imaginations of those who want to maintain an us vs them opposition: civilisation vs barbarism.
The article that started this was well-intentioned. We should treat refugees better than the Romans did or our empire will fall, it says. As if the maintenance of western hegemony is a better reason to protect families fleeing war than, you know, basic humanity. But it buys into and reproduces a vile narrative: these refugees are barbaric and they will destroy our way of life if we are not careful. And I won’t let that stand.
The fall of the western empire was a very long, very complex process that reached a tipping point in the 5th century. It is not a convenient historical proof for any argument you want to make about the modern world.