Stratfor: Is the West Being Overrun by Migrants?

Summary: People often compare today’s waves of immigration with those that played a large role in the destruction of the Roman Empire. Here Stanford Professor Ian Morris describes, the similarities, the differences, and the lessons this history holds for us. Morris focuses on the danger of migrants as organized military forces; he gives little attention to their disruptive domestic effects. For another perspective see America isn’t falling like the Roman Empire. It’s falling like Rome’s Republic.

Stratfor

Is the West Being Overrun by Migrants?
By Ian Morris at Stratfor on 7 September 2016.

Are the barbarians at the gates? Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party, has no doubt that they are. “Without any action,” she told a rally at Amiens last year, “the migratory influx will be like the barbarian invasion of the fourth century, and the consequences will be the same.” That would be bad. According to St. Orientus of Auch, who lived through the original event, “Throughout villages and farms, throughout the countryside and crossroads, and through all districts, on all highways leading from this place or that, there was death, sorrow, ruin, fires, mourning.”

The Parisian political establishment turned up its collective nose at Le Pen’s analogy (being France, the newspapers concentrated on correcting her chronology: The invasions came mostly in the fifth century, not the fourth). And despite all his talk of building a wall to keep invaders out, Donald Trump has so far resisted likening himself to Emperor Hadrian. Not since Pat Buchanan, in fact, has an American presidential hopeful called Mexicans barbarians.

The internet, however, is full of comparisons between the end of ancient Rome and current events in the United States and European Union, and I find that when I give public lectures I regularly get asked how much the two periods have in common and how much we should worry about it. (Being both an immigrant and an ancient historian, I probably get this more than most people.)

The answer to both questions seems to be “not much.” But that said, they remain worth asking, because the details behind the answer are rather revealing. Just what was it about the Germanic migrations into the Roman Empire that made them so different from the contemporary Arab migration into Europe and Mexican migration into the United States?

What was it about the Germanic migrations to the Roman Empire that make them so different from today’s Arab and Mexican migrations to Europe and the United States?

Immigrants into Europe
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

Comparing Orders of Magnitude

I will start with scale. Were there simply more Germans on the move in the fifth century (relative to the size of the host countries’ populations) than Arabs or Mexicans in the 21st? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is probably no. Despite all those Hollywood sword-and-sandal epics in which hordes of hirsute barbarians overwhelmed thin lines of legionaries on the imperial frontiers, most ancient population movements were in reality very small.

Between 376 and 476, the last century of the Western Roman Empire, some 2 million to 5 million immigrants or invaders crossed its frontiers. The empire’s population was around 35 million, so immigrants made up no more than 5% of the people in the empire during that century. The movements, however, were not evenly distributed. In 376, a huge group of up to 100,000 Goths, or 0.25% of the empire’s population, crossed the Danube in one go (with the Roman authorities’ permission). In 406 and 407, tens of thousands more Germans crossed the Rhine, and in the 440s, comparable numbers of Huns entered the Balkans (on these occasions, without the authorities’ permission).

The most detailed studies have been of fifth-century England. Angles, Saxons and Jutes began migrating across the North Sea after 408. Our best (if still highly unreliable) literary source, a monk named Gildas who lived a century later, made it sound as if the newcomers annihilated the Britons, and archaeology confirms that the invasion had devastating results. Recent DNA studies, however, suggest that Angles, Saxons and Jutes replaced at most about 10% of Britain’s population.

Modern migrations have been in the same order of magnitude. Since 2010, more than 3 million Middle Eastern refugees have entered the European Union. This represents 0.6% of the bloc’s population of 500 million, roughly twice the proportion of the Gothic incursion in 378. In all, some 33 million EU residents were born outside its borders (6.6% of the total).

In Britain, anti-immigrant rhetoric has concentrated on arrivals from within the European Union, particularly Poland and Bulgaria. Currently, some 3.2 million EU immigrants live in Britain, or 5% of the population of 64 million, nearly all of them having arrived since the early 1990s. But if we count immigrants of all origins, Britain has almost 8 million, or 12.7% of the total population.

In the United States, meanwhile, concerns have focused on Mexicans, of whom roughly 11.7 million (3.7% of the total of 320 million) now live north of the border. The United States’ total foreign-born population is 42.4 million, or 13.3%.

These figures are high by ancient standards, although Canada’s (19%) and Australia’s (22%) are even higher. If sheer numbers are all that matters, Le Pen might be right that catastrophe is just around the corner.

When Cultures Collide

Another obvious issue is cultural differences. Anti-immigration activists regularly argue that migrants whose traditions differ massively from those of their adopted homes have created “Eurabia,” “Londonistan” and “Mexifornia,” threatening the West’s social cohesion.

Comparisons with ancient times are tricky. In the past 30 years, sociologists have collected massive databases of modern attitudes, but for Rome we have only the opinions of the few rich men who wrote our surviving texts, plus our own interpretations of archaeological finds. Yet insofar as we can say anything, ancient and modern culture clashes do not seem so very different. In both settings, some immigrants assimilated easily while others did not (Romans found the Huns, pastoral nomads from Central Asia, particularly uncongenial), and some host societies eagerly incorporated them while others did not — even if the Roman version of “incorporation” could include enslavement and forced resettlement.

No society has ever been free of prejudice. Archaeology, however, shows that powerful processes of cultural convergence were underway in Rome’s borderlands. Many fifth-century Germans were already quite Romanized before they migrated, while many Romans (particularly those living near the frontiers) were already quite Germanized. Villages outside the empire were often just poorer, dirtier and more violent versions of villages inside it — just as today towns south of the Rio Grande or in Tunisia often seem like poorer, dirtier and more violent versions of those north of the Rio Grande or in Sicily.

In both Rome and the United States, the army was important for assimilation. The Roman force, like the American military, attracted immigrants seeking citizenship. The U.S. Army is currently one-sixth Hispanic and has had Hispanic four-star generals since 1982. By the year 400, German soldiers were policing Rome’s frontiers against predominantly German immigrants, with both sides led by predominantly German officers (Stilicho, fifth-century Rome’s greatest general, was half-German).

Here too, there is no obvious reason to dismiss Le Pen’s analogy: Culture clashes in the late Roman Empire were not obviously worse than those in modern Europe and North America.

Settlers or Conquerors?

Another possibility is that the causes of migrations and the migrants’ intentions differed strongly in the two contexts, leading to different outcomes. But once again, the similarities between antiquity and our own times seem to outweigh the differences.

In both contexts, climate change played a part in making people move, although as one contributing factor among many. The fifth century saw global cooling rather than warming; what geologists call the “Dark Ages Cold Period” shortened growing seasons in temperate Europe and dried out the steppe oases on which nomads like the Huns relied. On the steppes, this triggered a second factor familiar from modern migrations: war. The need to move more often to find water set off a domino effect, and when the Huns started moving west in the 350s they drove the Alans before them, which in turn pushed the Goths into the Roman Empire in 376.

Then, as now, though, most migrants moved for economic reasons. The empire’s cities were vast consumers of labor, in part because they were so disease-ridden that they constantly needed fresh blood just to maintain a stable population. Young men were always drifting across Rome’s frontiers in search of fame and fortune. Although we can rarely document this, we should probably assume that while some who made good promptly went home in glory, others encouraged the friends and families they had left behind to join them in the empire.

Ancient historians normally distinguish between the movements of small bands of young men on the make and those of larger kin groups ranging in size from a few families to the whole Gothic nation. Young men came and went in a kind of demographic Brownian motion, but once parents, women and children entered the empire in wagons loaded with all their worldly possessions, they normally intended to stay and become Roman.

So far as we can tell, almost no one entering the empire did so intending to destroy it. Even the Goths in 376 just wanted to join it and get some of its good things for themselves. After the Western Roman Empire had formally ceased to exist in 476, the great men of the German kingdoms that replaced it carried on calling themselves by Roman titles and doing everything they could to appear to be Roman. The greatest of all of them, Charlemagne, even had himself crowned as Roman emperor in the city of Rome itself on Christmas Day, 800.

Here again, there are obvious similarities with contemporary patterns. Syrians fleeing war by crossing the Aegean Sea or Mexicans fleeing poverty by crossing the Sonoran Desert overwhelmingly want either to stay just for a while or to become citizens of the European Union or United States, not to overthrow them. It is all rather like what happened 1,500 years ago.

So far, so alarming; just as Le Pen says, ancient and modern migrations seem disturbingly similar. But now I want to look at one area where the differences are much bigger: control of the means of destruction.

Maintaining a Monopoly Over Force

In some ways, the ancient and modern cases once again look alike. Most of the time before 378 — at which point the Goths who had entered the empire two years before annihilated a Roman army and killed its emperor at Adrianople near modern Istanbul — Rome had full-spectrum military dominance. Like the U.S. Army, it preferred to take the fight to the enemy by launching pre-emptive strikes across the Rhine and Danube; and again like the U.S. Army, it did not always get its way. Germanic ambushes could be just as effective as Islamist improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers.

There were also plenty of cases in which Rome, like the United States facing the Islamic State or the Syrian civil war, preferred to let bloody proxy wars rumble on for years rather than risk putting boots on the ground. But when Rome did take off the gloves, its enemies normally stood little chance.

What changed for Rome was that the Germans learned how to defeat it on conventional battlefields. In his famous lectures “On Protracted War,” Mao Zedong argued that the way to fight empires was by carefully escalating violence. First should come terrorist outrages. When the government began to lose authority, it was time to switch to guerrilla warfare. But guerrillas, Mao knew, could not overthrow the enemy; they should merely wear its armies down to the verge of collapse. Then guerrillas should form conventional units, beat the empire in battle and replace it.

Escalation worked slightly differently in antiquity. First came disorganized crime, the result of young men entering the empire for trade or work and, when they found none, pulling out swords and stealing what they needed. Then came more organized crime, as bands of men raided across the borders with the express goal of grabbing everything they could. Only then came conventional war as thousands of families entered the empire, ready to fight for the right to stay.

It is easy to escalate to conventional war too soon, as Chinese communists in the 1930s, Vietnamese in 1968, and Germanic invaders in the 160s and 350s learned. Almost always, success comes only if the rulers of the established state turn on one another, putting their internal struggles ahead of defense of the realm. Rome’s defeat at the hands of the Goths in 378 was largely the result of its eastern and western emperors failing to support each other, and even after Adrianople, German armies rarely won unless the Romans were fighting a civil war (which, most years, they were).

Britain is a striking example: A military revolt against Rome in 350 was followed by invasions that were seen off only after heavy fighting. But when Rome pulled its troops from the province between 383 and 407 to fight in civil wars, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes promptly overran it. Although no one really intended this outcome, within 70 years the whole Western Roman Empire had gone the same way.

If we can generalize from the Roman case, Le Pen is wrong. Not even the biggest migrations pose national security threats unless they establish conventional military dominance, which is currently unimaginable. As late as the 360s, however, it was unimaginable in Rome, too.

The decisive factor in Rome was state breakdown. So long as the ruling elite pulled together and the army kept order along and within the borders, migrations could not threaten the empire. But when the ruling elite broke apart and the army stopped doing its job, that changed very quickly. We can only hope that the centrifugal forces currently pulling the European Union apart are not the first chapter in a similar story. Le Pen should bear that in mind when she cheers on Britain’s departure and promises to take France the same way.

Is the West Being Overrun by Migrants?
is republished with permission of Stratfor.

————————————————-

Ian Morris

About the author

Ian Morris is a historian and archaeologist. He received his doctorate from Cambridge University. He is currently a Professor of Classics at Stanford, has published twelve books, and has directed excavations in Greece and Italy.

Dr. Morris’ bestsellers include Why the West Rules – for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future (2010) and War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (2014, see Martin van Creveld’s review). His most recent book is Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve (2015).

Stratfor logo

About Stratfor

Founded in 1996, Stratfor provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world. By placing global events in a geopolitical framework, we help customers anticipate opportunities and better understand international developments. They believe that transformative world events are not random and are, indeed, predictable. See their About Page for more information.

For More Information

For another perspective see America isn’t falling like the Roman Empire. It’s falling like Rome’s Republic.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about immigration, and especially these…

15 thoughts on “Stratfor: Is the West Being Overrun by Migrants?

  1. A thought. The eu as a loose conglomeration of national governments trying to be a nation state, that can’t even agree trade agreements because of their individual demands is the last thing we need when coordinating strategy and a strong national government to protect law and order, as you describe above.

    1. Chris,

      “The eu as a loose conglomeration of national governments trying to be a nation state, that can’t even agree trade agreements because of their individual demands is the last thing we need when coordinating strategy and a strong national government to protect law and order, as you describe above.”

      (1) This is by Prof Morris at Stratfor. Not by me or anyone here.

      (2) I think your sentence didn’t come out right. What “is the last thing we need”?

  2. Personally, I think conditions in America are much closer to the fall of the Roman Republic than the fall of the Roman Empire. It may be that external factors like environmental crisis will cause us to lose our empire, but we aren’t there yet.

    1. Camilla,

      I agree! The Professor Morris makes a useful comparison between a specific factor (immigration) in late Roman history with our time. But more broadly there are few — very few — similarities between the Roman Empire and modern America. Doomsters like to make the comparison between it sounds exciting, no matter how bogus.

      As you note, there are many similarities between late Republican Rome and modern America. Both have the sudden and destabilizing effect of vast power from geographic expansion (the post-WWII era for the US), rising inequality, and most especially — a citizenry that has lost the will to bear the burden of self-government.

      For more about this see …

  3. i think that there is another similarities between Rome and USA: both start in the contact zone between “civilization” and “barbarism”. Rome have La Tene Celts in place of indians., and both was from mixed ethnic origins: the 3 starting tribes Ramnes (latins) Tities (sabine) Luceres (Etruscan). the III sec same years before the crisis (235-284) is another comparable point together with the late repubblic.
    Géza Alföldy The Social History of Rome (Ancient Society and History) or more specifical for III sec, same men The Crisis of the Third Century as Seen by Contemporaries.

    about the article the only point i have same doubt is the last: is confidence on state and elite that count, even more than army per se: URSS and Spain and a lot of other falls with an army still in place, in same cases without losing a single battle. . the core survive, but as a very different state. the empire is gone: and in a very short timeframe.

    And this is the worst effect of immigration in EU (not the only factor but one of) : the loss on confidence on elite and state, not only on EU: refendum on Scotland, Catalogna, request of referndum on Veneto (north italy) and strike on bretagne .as example

    1. Thank you for the interesting comment! A few notes in reply.

      (1) “another similarities between Rome and USA: both start in the contact zone between “civilization” and “barbarism”.”

      I know little knowledge of the tribes in Italy in the 2nd and 1st centuries, but were the tribes of the La Tène culture “barbarians” vs Romans?

      On the other hand, I’m uncertain that the North American natives were barbarians vs. the European colonists in anything but a technological sense. The Iroquois League was as or more civilized in many senses than the Europeans, and their ideas of government had some influence on the Founders. Also, the Founders admired the “Five Civilized Tribes” — the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole tribes.

      (2) “the loss on confidence on elite and state, not only on EU”

      I wonder if that’s true. Europe’s borders have been in flux since 1914. The rise of the EU’s powers as a proto-state — and the current attempts to roll it back — are just parts of that. As for confidence in elites, I’d like to see some data showing that current level of confidence in EU elites is less than that during other difficult periods (e.g, the 1970’s, with the inflation, slow growth, and terrorism).

  4. 1)the Celts (or Gauls for romans) enter northern italy between the sixth and fifth century. the etruscan cities in the po valley soccumbed and in the five century the frontier is on the apennine hills. in 390bc Rome was sacked from Sennones, crossing apennines in 391: the etruscan south cities ask to Rome for protection, Polubius descrive an almost continuos war with gauls in the fourth and 3rd century. all Med experienced celts pressure: Galatia (central Anatolia)=land of celts. when Hannibal cross the Alps in 218 bc, the most of the army came from the celts of Po Valley and he have an agreement with chieftans before the start. in 201 bc Rome, even if exausted for the long war, immediately conduct a 11 years long campaign to control on Cisalpine Gauls: and the Po valley was ethnically clened from Gauls: the tratement was the worst on roman history, even worst than on Cartago after the 3rd punic war, where the city was razed, but the common people outside the city was left here. in the romans mind the shock was so high and survive so long that even Cicero in one speach say: “Gaul has always been the greatest treath for the empire, ever”

    1b) “civilization” and “barbarism” in a complexity of the sistem sense . Iroquese was a confederation, a proto-state as was the Vergingetorige league vs Cesar legions or later the german confederations outside limes: they learn that have to unite (and learn form the enemy) against a common treath as the Iroquese. but cultural influence is not a one side effect, is on both side. and the Fouders is a question, the common people is another: in the 1600, when the first wave of colonist came in north america, two very different way of life came in contact. the first war was in 1622 and the conflict last only in 1890. in the first day of the first indian war Virginian vs Powattan the casualty for virginan was around 30%:. in the second 500 on around 8000 vas killed and in the war of 1675-76 800 on 50.000 ). Ben Franklin on the Pennsilvania Gazette on 1729 write articles on indians torturing captives. and best sellers on the live of captured by reds was sold. there was more than 16.000 atrocity reported from both side in the 268 year struggle: more than one a week on average. imagine the CNN news that every single week open with one of this for the entire life: what the average 1776 citizen think of “not civilized red”? this is what united the colonist, eterogeneus for others trait (different religion, sameone dutch, english and so on). white vs others:As the divide line is race, and this cultural divide line survive for long time. only in 20th century not white was full accepted as “american”. in europe the divide line is religion but this is antother history. on the 2) point tomorrow: is yet too long the reply, i do my best to condensate……

  5. Main difference between Roman Empire and today’s Europe: there’s no empire, while there are a) democracy b) liberal individualism.
    No empire means: no imperial ruling class, no imperial ideology, no imperial hierarchy, no imperial State, no imperial army = no imperial legitimacy, no imperial loyalty.
    Democracy means: one head, one vote. Legal immigrants can vote, even if their primary loyalty is NOT given to the State, or to European culture, religion, or simply way of life, but to ethnos and religions which are NOT christianity. UE politicians try to implement “ius soli” laws (as in USA, if you were born in a State you automatically gain citizenship). Consequence: every immigrant ethnos can organize itself politically, creating a new tribal party or a tribal fraction inside existing parties. If political organization is coupled by military oganization, we have the Irish pattern, Sinn Fein + IRA.
    Individualism means: liberal culture and law protect and enforce individual rights, presuming that there is a fundamental agreement on fundamental things among said individuals, but when you have in the same constituency many and very different ethnoi, you can be sure that there is NOT. Organized immigrants try (successfully) to transform individual rights in COMMUNITY rights. Example: in Italy, an imam said that there is no logical reason to prohibit poligamy, if you accept same sex marriage (and he is perfectly right, btw his position mirrors Derrida’s).
    To make a long story short: mass immigration in Europe works, and works well, towards civil war, for the simple reason that creates many tribal or ethnic enclaves inside Europe; and in Europe there is not the slightest trace of a power legitimate enough, strong enough, respected enough to keep tribal violence at bay by establishing a clear hierarchy among communities and enforcing it by the old system of “divide et impera”. (BTW, explicit, formal hyerarchy among communities would be culturally unacceptable in modern Europe: but that’s the only way you can have a viable multicultural empire).

    1. empire in historical approach is not limited to a state with a imperator: a state that directly or indirectly influence others, is a empire. in this sense USA in a empire (of bases) , EU is a proto empire, URSS is fallen empire, even if no one have a emperor.
      i not agree with you that organized immigrant try to trasform individual rights in Community rights: : but i hope this is my mistake and they succed in this soon. .
      and thanks: your comment is a perfect exemple of what i say before about confidence on elite and state.

  6. thanks to you for a lot of interesting articles.

    to condensate my point on 1) is that both in Italy south of appenines than in America 2000 years later what united eterogeneus people and common people and elite is a common truth that everyone recognize a life or death question: for Rome and other south Italy people was Celts, for America was “red”.

    another point, but this is only a personal suspect, not coming from professional historian, is that is the contact with “barbarians” that teach to Americans elected leaders work: the political institution after Independence are very close to the UK constitutional monarchy. the big difference is that commander (president) is elected: and this is what Iroquois (or German or Celts) do: elect the war leaders.

    now we go to point 2)

    1. @ scandianotransizione

      1) EU is a mock empire, not a “proto empire”. No empire ever existed, or will ever exist, with foreign military bases on its territory.
      2) Confidence in elites and State. First duty of elites and States: guarantee security. Mass immigration is a main threat to security, not because immigrants are evil, but because immigrants are too many, too different, have a much better demographic trend than Europeans, and organize themselves in communities whose loyalty does NOT go to the State. In a crisis (endogenous or exogenous) this is VERY dangerous. Example: Lebanon. Lebanon was called “the Middle-East Switzerland”, because it was a rich, peaceful, multicultural society where daily life was pleasing, even brilliant. An external political crisis (Israel’s intervention against Palestinians) came. Lebanese State was too weak to to guarantee security for all its citizens. The citizens, organized in communities, began to do it themselves, i.e. began a horrendous civil war. I was there with the Italian army (1982-1983, UNIFIL peacekeeping mission), I saw what a civil war between etnical and religious communities is. I would not like to see something like that here.

  7. Interesting post.

    A major factor in the changes in the Roman empire was that the local landowning elites were replaced by the newcomers. If there were enough families along the culture and/or language could change as in Britain from Celtic-Roman into Anglo-Saxon. The Germanic Franks on the other hand got absorbed by the local population linguistically. All there’s left is the name.

    However today there is no indication that we are seeing a replacement of elites. Rather it’s the bottom of society which is getting the influx of new peoples. But then again Christianity entered the Roman empire among the bottom of society and changed the empire over a few centuries. Also today’s democracy changes the foundation of power from land to mobilizing voters.

    And not least the question of when do you stop been a migrant? The answer is not necessarily the same in Europe and the USA.
    When I see 2nd and 3rd generations Turkish migrants (Turks & Turkish Kurds) clash in pro & anti PKK demonstrations across EU. I wonder if they see themselves as “insert European nationality” or as Turks and Kurds.

  8. point 2) loss on confidence on elite and Europe’s borders have been in flux since 1914

    Eu experiment is interesting as if it work is the first time in history that a empire growth in a not frontier zone: every other start on the frontier between “civilization” and “barbarism” the only difference is that sametimes the cultural divide line “us” vs “others” was race sametime (and in europe after fall of west Rome every time) was religion. i live in europe so i hope a success but…. a short (i hope) reply

    an exemple of religious cultural divide that stay for long time is EU itself: all middle ages Roman catholic country is welcomed from start: Czech Poland and Croatia were encouraged for enter, Romania (orthodox) was not so welcomed, the same applied to Greece (orthodox) accepted only thanks to USA pressure: Ukraine Belarus and Turkey are most empathically not welcomed. Latin Christedom, the direct predecessor of Western Civilization (Bartelett “the Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change 950-1350”), direct predecessor of EU never develop a universal empire but manage cycle of centralization-decentralization, big powers in the center fought for centuries for the control of core, and found that expansion is simple away from core. so every time the core become too powerfull the old carolingian frontier marches (Spain Italy UK as example) became even more centrifugal oriented and the cycle of decentralization start again: an exemple of core-perifery dinamic: in WW2 Italy (perifery) allied with Germany (core), but what write G.Ciano (minister of Mussolini) same days before DoW? “if Germany lose we are loser, if Germany win we are doomed” : lacking the frontier there is no common foe and the abilty of cooperation on large scale is no existent, even if we have a lot of things in common is for this that never unite excluding short time when a common internal treath arrive (Napoleon or Hitler). and the indipendence mouvements cannot be understimate: signals of the start of a new decentralization cycle, toghether with the anti-Germany sentiment in the perifery and the anti-perifery sentiment in the core (check what say populist mouvement and sometimes gouvernement in Spain,.UK, Greece Italy on Germany: and Germany on perifery) Can be avoided: as for USA reform can change the conclusion…. ..

    so the confront with 1970 that you ask have to be discarded: in 1970 we have two big difference: the distribution of welth is at the higher point, there is a common treath URSS, and neoliberism ideology have to arrive: two more interesting point are 1870 and 1920 i stop here: another time too long….. if you want i try the operation of check the trust on elite and the core-perifery dinamic with 1870-1920 but for probably you have a lot of questions before…

Leave a Reply