Migration and the Roman Empire: A Response to Chancellor Angela Merkel

Virtual Centre for Late Antiquity, 29 January 2018

The Virtual Centre for Late Antiquity notes with interest the Special Address given by the German Chancellor, Dr Angela Merkel, to the World Economic Forum at Davos last week.

Against the background of the refugee crisis arising from conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, Dr Merkel made reference to the Roman and Chinese empires, noting that ‘since the Roman Empire and the Great Wall of China, we know that splendid isolation does not help to protect borders’. She went on to allude to the importance of addressing relationships and problems beyond one’s borders, and at their source.

Dr Merkel’s emphasis is different from that which the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutter, appeared to offer in autumn 2015. Whereas Rutter emphasized the need to defend borders in the face of migration, Merkel’s emphasis points to the futility of such a policy without a more global view.

We can expect that modern European politicians and intellectuals will continue to try to learn lessons from the fall of the Roman Empire for a long time to come. But the study of the fall of the Roman Empire falls within the academic field now known as Late Antiquity. And it makes sense that those who study the subject, and those who want to learn lessons from it, should be able to communicate.

Above all, it’s important to draw the right lessons. The doyen of the field, Professor Peter Brown of Princeton University (author of many celebrated books and a Balzan Prize laureate) was recently interviewed in the Latvian cultural magazine, Rīgas Laiks. He remarked there that ‘a good historian is like a good translator. He brings the meaning out of the past without imposing the meaning.’ Brown went on to emphasize that this act is not neutral, just as translation is never neutral. But he observed that the historian must try to recapture the past.

Politicians who genuinely want to learn the lessons of history must be careful that they do not simply project their modern messages onto the past. It is easier to invoke history than it is to understand it.

The Virtual Centre for Late Antiquity would suggest that, in addition to Dr Merkel’s welcome emphasis on a more global view of problem-solving, it would be useful to emphasize one more lesson that we can draw from the Roman Empire about migration and refugees.

The way we treat migrants can make a big difference.

In 376 – exactly one hundred years before Romulus Augustulus was deposed in 476 – the Romans allowed a significant number of Goths to cross the Danube and enter the Roman Empire. But it did not go well. The contemporary Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, describes the cruelty of the local Roman commanders, who tormented the migrants. Years of difficulty followed as the Romans struggled to come to terms with the Gothic community. In 410, led by Alaric, the Visigoths sacked Rome. But none of this was inevitable.

Leading politicians in Europe, who must confront the challenge of migration, must ensure that we do not simply equate migration itself with the fall of a regime or a civilization. Europe has its enemies, of course. But our attitude to other people, such as migrants, can also often influence their attitude to us.