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Boris Johnson’s Roman Fantasies

Blaming the fall of Rome on immigration is an old, wrong, and dangerous idea.

By , a historian of late antiquity and the Middle Ages.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Colosseum during the G-20 summit in Rome on Oct. 30. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

It was in Rome ahead of this year’s G-20 summit that aspiring classicist Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, decided to lay down another of his misguided visions of history. “When the Roman Empire fell,” he said while traveling to the Italian capital last week, “it was largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration. 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.”

Ostensibly, this was meant as a warning against the pitfalls of inaction in face of the climate crisis. In fact, this is a well-established far-right trope, rooted in a weaponized narrative of the “fall of Rome” that has little to do with what historians know about it. Johnson is reproducing a xenophobic and dangerous vision of history.

There are many legitimate historical theories that try to explain how the Roman Empire transformed, over the course of a few centuries, into a group of successor polities ranging from the kingdom of the Franks to the Byzantine Empire that saw themselves as heirs of Rome. Others, from the Ottomans to the Romanovs, would envision themselves as such in the future. Historians assign different weight to societal or economic factors and argue over the degree of continuity or decline. The so-called fall of Rome was a complicated, multicausal affair.

It was in Rome ahead of this year’s G-20 summit that aspiring classicist Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, decided to lay down another of his misguided visions of history. “When the Roman Empire fell,” he said while traveling to the Italian capital last week, “it was largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration. 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.”

Ostensibly, this was meant as a warning against the pitfalls of inaction in face of the climate crisis. In fact, this is a well-established far-right trope, rooted in a weaponized narrative of the “fall of Rome” that has little to do with what historians know about it. Johnson is reproducing a xenophobic and dangerous vision of history.

There are many legitimate historical theories that try to explain how the Roman Empire transformed, over the course of a few centuries, into a group of successor polities ranging from the kingdom of the Franks to the Byzantine Empire that saw themselves as heirs of Rome. Others, from the Ottomans to the Romanovs, would envision themselves as such in the future. Historians assign different weight to societal or economic factors and argue over the degree of continuity or decline. The so-called fall of Rome was a complicated, multicausal affair.

In political rhetoric, though, Rome’s fall is a simple affair. Johnson is not the first to try and, sadly, definitely not the last. Historians have had to refute those narratives over and over again. The notion that decadence—of whatever stripe suits the argument being made—and “barbarian” incursions caused the fall is so powerful it was a rhetorical trope even before the Roman Empire in the West disappeared. By the beginning of the 5th century, Christian authors such as Jerome used the real and purported crises of their time for their own means.

The narrative pushed by the political right for a very long time is actually rather simple: A time of transformation is seen as a series of calamities, caused by the weakening of the morals of a dying empire that was run to the ground by hordes of invading barbarians. Most recently, during the civil war in Syria, this became a crucial pillar of the narrative that Syrian migrants were coming to destroy Western Civilization. Europe will fall just like the Roman Empire did, right-wing writers argued.

A historian would tell Johnson that, first of all, there was never a “fall” of the Roman Empire. In the West, over the course of over a century, the Christian empire fragmented into a series of successor states that continued many elements of Roman bureaucracy and societal order. In the east, the Roman Empire continued up until 1453, over which time it adapted into a very different form of state, known to us as the Byzantine Empire, whose inhabitants kept calling themselves “Romans.”

At the same time, from the middle of the 7th century a different successor, the Islamic Caliphate, conquered large parts of Roman territory, named themselves as Roman emperors on their coins, and continued many if not the majority of the Roman Empire’s features, including taxation, urban life, and bureaucracy.

In fact, the upheavals of the 5th century, the most popular of the supposed falls of Rome, were mostly civil war. High-ranking aristocrats wrestled power from each other, leading armies consisting of soldiers labeled either “Roman” or “barbarian.” Modern research shows it was often difficult, if not outright impossible, to distinguish between the two. When it did come to invasions—like the Hunnic incursion in 451—things were far from clean-cut. When the Roman general Aetius forced Attila to retreat, he led a force of Visigoths, Franks, and Burgundians. Attila led Huns but also other Goths, Franks, and Burgundians. If anything, the integration of various groups from beyond the military borders kept the Roman army going at all.

Moreover, modern scholarship tends to see those incursions less as a cause and more of a symptom of the fading out of this particular form of Roman state in the West. After the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain, for example, life was surprisingly peaceful, and Rome’s successors adapted many elements of Roman life and government such as titles, infrastructure, and documents. Were there wars and invasions in the 5th and 6th centuries? Yes, and the horror recorded by many who lived through them was real and painful. But it remains contentious if this was a period more violent than, for example, the crisis of the 3rd century.

The very notion of the Dark Ages that supposedly followed the fall of Rome is rooted in trying to gloss over the failings of the present. In fact, historians have challenged the very notion of decline between the 3rd and the 7th century and championed a very different view of this epoch, calling it Late Antiquity. It was a period of unique cultural production, a gilded age of Latin literature, and a time of great innovation. Some of the best-known cultural icons spur from that time. St. Augustine wrote in the 5th century. The great church of Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century, and the Corpus Juris Civilis, a foundation of many legal systems to this day, was compiled then. The Quran was put together in the 7th century.

There is a particular paradox with how the far-right looks at the concept of the Dark Ages. On the one hand, they lionize the manly barbarians held up by 19th-century European nationalists as their ancestors, and on the other they see migrants as the greatest danger to the Western way of life and compare them to the hordes who supposedly brought down Rome. Many English nationalists like to praise their “Anglo-Saxon” spirit and at the same time warn against the incoming tide of migrants. What they praise is what they fear the most.

The Roman Empire did not control its borders in a sense that Johnson wants us to imagine. The limes, Rome’s boundary, was heavily fortified at points—but it was mostly not a border wall but rather a mixture of a symbolic power projection and exchange infrastructure. People moved across the border all the time, traded, and settled on both sides. A complex system of subsidies and diplomatic maneuvering helped to preserve a lucrative equilibrium. Groups from over the border were sometimes settled inside the empire.

The size of those settlements is often widely overstated. Groups like the Visigoths numbered in tens of thousands at best, entering an already multicultural and multilingual empire with a population in the tens of millions. Those groups were not coherent ethnic clusters. A vast majority of them were settled as foederati—groups receiving tax revenue and sometimes land in exchange for defense and administrative duties, a practice that predates any fall of Rome by almost two centuries.

Johnson likes to boast of his classic education. He may have been aware of how bad this history is—but chose to play with this far-right vision because it suited him. This is “radicalizing conservatism” that uses far-right rhetoric to create its own narrative of confrontation.

There is also another implicit notion here. In Johnson’s staunchly Eurocentric vision, the Roman Empire was the force of good, the beacon of civilization and progress that brought enlightenment to the thankful peoples it conquered. The migrating barbarians destroyed this civilizing enterprise. Johnson implicitly likens the U.K. and its predecessor, the British Empire, to the Roman Empire, playing on a particularly nasty version of imperial nostalgia that tries to excuse the crimes of colonialism.

But while the Roman Empire brought extraordinary works of art, literature, and architecture, some of which we can still admire today, it was still an exploitative slave state in which vast parts of society were unfree or lived in poverty. The truth is that for many, the withdrawal or transformation of the Roman state apparatus meant relief and not a catastrophe. At the same time, the Roman Empire (as the very notion of “empire” suggests) was a multicultural, multilingual state in which immigrants were a constant feature. To see this in black-and-white terms is absurd.

Does this mean that the individual accounts from the 5th century telling us of violence and destruction are not true? No, and we should not ignore them. But they need to be read as narratives about the past and present of those who put them down, written for a particular purpose. Historians keep on discussing what caused the process of transformations that we now call the fall of the Roman Empire. Was there violence? Yes. But not uniformly.

The image of hordes of barbarians destroying the empire is a fundamentally racist trope. These are right-wing apocalypse fantasies about the foreigners who lurk beyond the (ever difficult to define) borders of the nebulous Western civilization ready to replace the true Westerners. To pander to those fantasies and to stoke the hatred that they fuel is not just irresponsible—it is outright dangerous.

Mateusz Fafinski is a historian of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, and a lecturer at Freie Universität Berlin.

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