Terror Drives Them Westward: Syrian refugees trudge the dusty roads of Serbia en route to "Angela's" country - Germany. It is impossible to view the great throngs of migrants, piling up like driftwood against the newly-erected fences of the European Union, and not recall the Great Migration of uprooted peoples into the Western Roman Empire between 300-800 AD.
IT WAS A TIME of fear. People cast worried glances to the East, where rumour reported whole peoples on the move. Travellers said they were fleeing in terror from men who laid waste to villages, towns and cities without scruple or regret. Women, children, the temples of the gods: none were spared. Military commanders looked to the strength of the Empire’s defences: to the mighty walls and high gates that had stood for so long – and they wondered.
Between 300 and 800AD successive waves of migrant peoples beat against and washed over the borders of the Western Roman Empire. During these turbulent centuries, the component peoples of the “Great Migration” laid down the ethnic foundations of modern Europe. Some of its most powerful nations still bear the titles of these “Dark Age” migrants. The Frankish tribes settled in what is now France. The Angles gave their name to England. Rome’s empire, however, did not endure. The West fell.
It is impossible to view the great throngs of migrants piling up like driftwood against the newly-erected fences of the European Union and not recall the Great Migration. Impossible, too, not to imagine the panicky communications between all those provincial governors and the Emperor’s servants back in Rome. “What are we supposed to do with all these people! Should we feed them – or slay them?”
Rome’s answer, then, was the same as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s, now: “Let them in.” Like the ranks of Rome’s fourth century legions, the ranks of Germany’s industrial workers have been thinning of late. Dangerously low birth-rates dictate that the Empire of Porsche and Mercedes Benz admit as many auxiliaries as it can lay its hands on.
No doubt the bureaucrats in Rome, fervent believers in the Empire’s ability to make loyal Roman citizens out of the most unprepossessing of barbarian material, reassured their provincial governors that all would be well. These Goths were doughty warriors, they said. Properly trained they would ensure that the Emperor’s legions remained invincible.
Chancellor Merkel is equally upbeat. The upwards of a million refugees pouring across Germany’s borders from the civil war in Syria, and all those other great concentrations of misery along the North African coast, will soon be made into “Good Germans”. In the coming decades, the Fatherland’s complexion may grow a few shades darker, but Germany’s culture will survive unscathed.
The Romans’ optimism was misplaced. The migrant peoples admitted to the Empire may have swelled the legions depleted ranks, but they were never accepted as equals by “real” Romans. In the years ahead, ethnic rivalries would erupt into riots: blood would be spilled; hatreds flare and burn. The legions, increasingly composed of “barbarians”, would hear of these massacres, and the Emperor’s military resources would haemorrhage like an untended wound. In 410AD, the Visigoth chieftain, Alaric, sacked Rome. Saint Jerome, hearing the news in far off Bethlehem, lamented: “The city which had taken the whole world was itself taken.”
Alaric's Visigoths conquer Rome 410 AD.
Chancellor Merkel’s confidence may be equally misplaced. As the so-called “Summer of Smiles” – during which trainloads of exhausted refugees were met by Germans beaming with love and goodwill – gave way to Autumn gales and cold driving rain; and the refugees’ tent cities began springing up outside quiet German villages and towns; anti-immigrant demonstrators started appearing in the streets. The German people would appear to be much less confident of their assimilationist capacities than their increasingly unpopular Chancellor.
Forty years after the sack of Rome, Visigoth and Roman fought side-by-side on the Catalaunian Plains of Western Gaul against Attila and his Huns. It was from such fierce Asiatic tribesmen, the Huns especially, that so many of the peoples who joined the Great Migration were fleeing. By combining their strength, and defeating Attila, the Roman general, Flavius Aetius, and his Visigothic ally, Theodoric, were able to give the civilised communities of the Western Empire a few more decades of security and stability.
Modern day equivalents of Attila's Huns - Soldiers of the Islamic State.
How sad it is that the modern-day equivalents of Flavius and Theodoric – Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin – cannot emulate their predecessors’ success by putting aside their differences and combining their strengths against the modern-day equivalent of Attila the Hun – Islamic State and its army of jihadis.
What other means is there of stemming the human tide lapping at Europe’s borders? The West looks down from its crumbling walls – and it wonders.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 October 2015.