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Opinion: Déjà Vu – Immigration Crisis in the Ancient World

By Count Nikolai Tolstoy, UK

11 April 2016

Much has appeared in the press of late concerning the intractable problem posed to Europe by the irruption of innumerable refugees and other immigrants from the East. It is curious, however, that no one appears to have remarked that this is not the first time such a crisis has arisen.

In the spring or early summer of AD 376, Roman frontier guards on the Danube were confronted by an ever-increasing mass of refugees converging on the opposite bank. Messengers were ferried over, who explained that they represented the Goths, a powerful barbarian people originating from the neighborhood of the Black Sea. They explained that their people were fleeing in terror before the inexorable advance of a terrifyingly destructive race from the East, who wrought terror and destruction wherever they passed. This was the first occasion that Europe learned of the remorseless advance of the Huns.

The Goths’ desire to settle within the bounds of the Roman Empire arose from a dual desire to achieve asylum beyond the formidable defenses of the Danube frontier, and to gain access if they could to the Empire’s wealth. To the Romans they offered the prospect of acquiring a mass source of labor: in particular the prospect of providing hardy recruits for the Roman Army. When their request reached the Emperor Valens, it gained a favorable response. Both Valens and rich Roman landowners and industrialists were privately attracted by the opportunity this afforded of maintaining the government’s armed forces, while placing the authorities in a position to divert taxes paid by the provincials into their own pockets.

A further element of corruption is said to have affected the policy of senior officers advocating unrestricted immigration. Pedophilia and sexual license had penetrated the establishment, to an extent that the terrified fugitives were seen as an inviting source of beautiful boys and attractive women. Valens himself was inexperienced in the arts of government, weak and posturing. Gothic leaders, apprised of these circumstances, foresaw inviting opportunity for extending their career of rapine to the rich provinces of the hitherto impregnable Empire. In order to obviate the resentment of the subject population, Valens gave orders that Goths were to be distributed far and wide among their unwilling hosts, whose oppressed taxpayers were compelled to provide them with food and land. Ammianus Marcellinus, a senior military officer and able contemporary observer of events, likened the swarming irruption to ash-clouds emanating from Mount Etna.

In response to government orders, the Roman fleet on the flooded Danube was diverted into ferrying across the clamorous refugees, whose number was believed at the time to amount to some 200,000 souls. In fact, their extent was pronounced too great to calculate. During their perilous crossing, numerous refugees were drowned. Exulting inwardly at the supine policy of the imperial authorities, many Goths secretly brought with them arms for future use against their hosts (their vast number in any case precluded any means of conducting an effective search).  Prescient Roman officers who raised objection to the heedless policy were severely punished by the government. At the same time, it is important to note that Roman policy did not preclude large-scale immigration from beyond the frontiers: what mattered was that the administration could be capable of deploying sufficient power to manage operations safely and securely.

Diversion of the Roman navy and frontier guards to supervision of this mass migration provided opportunity for a further great Gothic tribe to invade Roman territory. Crossing over on rafts, they increased Gothic strength to the extent that their leaders saw opportunity to realize their policy of occupying the wealthiest regions of the Eastern Empire. Later, it became known that the Gothic leaders had all along planned to force their admission, should it not be granted freely.

Their gathering military strength, combined with harsh treatment by officials of the ill-advised imperial government, led inexorably to a Gothic uprising. Although the Goths deluded Valens and his advisers into believing that they had espoused the Christian values of the Roman Empire, they had secretly retained their warlike pagan faith. Their aim was to expropriate the largely defenseless inhabitants, and convert territories east of the Adriatic into a Gothic kingdom. In strongholds established in the marshes of Macedonia, the Goths conducted military preparations to which the authorities were only belatedly alerted. When the Emperor eventually attempted to suppress their revolt by force of arms, he suffered a terrible defeat (in which he himself was killed) at the battle of Adrianople in 378. This disaster led inexorably to continuing Gothic triumphs, which saw their armies overwhelming the Western Empire. In AD 410 they sacked Rome itself, and in ensuing years conquered much of what are today France and Spain.

Predictably, ever-accruing hordes of barbarians crossed the undefended Roman frontiers to participate in the destruction of Europe.  In 396 St Jerome lamented the fact that:

“For 20 years and more the blood of Romans has every day been shed between Constantinople and the Julian Alps. Scythis, Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly, Dardania, Dacia, Epirus, Dalmatia, and all the provinces of Pannonia [Hungary], have been sacked, pillaged and plundered by Goths and Sarmatian, Quadians and Alans, Huns and Vandals and Marcomanni... The Roman world is falling.”

It might be expected that the authorities would have profited from the grim lesson provided by Valens’s ill-considered acceptance of the overwhelming hosts of the Goths in 376. Regrettably, those who know no history are all too frequently doomed to repeat past disasters. Valens himself was reputedly a man of scant culture, greedy for material wealth, contemptuous of due legal process, and endlessly fearful of being superseded by one of his close colleagues. Whether such a leader exists today I leave others to decide.

Rome’s remotest province, Britain, had for centuries lain under the protection of a powerful Roman army and fleet, which for generations kept barbarian intruders at bay. However, these did not survive the confusion ensuing on the sack of Rome and barbarian conquests in Gaul. Britannia had hitherto been one of the wealthiest, as well as secure, dioceses of the Empire. It would surely have been possible for the Britons to have organized effective military and naval forces of their own. Immediately on the departure of the last legions in AD 409, they did indeed succeed in repelling an invasion of Saxon pirates from across the North Sea.

Regrettably, it seems that thereafter they came to rely on a vain hope that Roman power would revive. What followed is described by Gildas, Britain’s first historian, who wrote at a time when elderly survivors could draw on memories of the disaster which ensued. In the early 440s the Picts and Scots overran the largely undefended north as far as Hadrian’s Wall. Such local garrisons as were still maintained in the Wall forts had become run down by a government unwilling to commit itself to measures adequate to meet the perennial threat, which now became likely to spill over into the wealthy region south of the Wall.

Britain was ruled at the time by her first recorded independent leader, a king named Vortigern. It seems he had allowed the defenses of the realm to become run down to such an extent, that the country was powerless to protect itself. He and his council accordingly made the momentous decision to invite the very Saxons who had been expelled a generation earlier to settle in Britain. Regardless of the distress of local inhabitants, the pirates were granted extensive territory in the east of the country, where they were entrusted with the task of ensuring its defense against the Picts and Scots. Heavy taxes were imposed on the native Britons (annonae and epimenia), designed to provide the mercenaries with requisite sustenance. The Britons only learned later that, like the Goths in Thrace, the Saxons had crossed the sea with the intention of occupying the entire country in perpetuity. In Gildas’s words, they came ‘as men intending to fight for the country, but more truly to conquer it’.

At first, the settlers justified their employment by warring against the northern barbarians. It was not long, however, before they began complaining that the subsidies they received from British taxpayers were insufficient to their needs. In the meantime, they covertly sent for large numbers of their countrymen to cross the sea and join them in their conspiracy. It speedily became clear that their intention was to take by force what they could not extract voluntarily. So inadequate were the country’s enfeebled defenses - moral, as well as military - that what Gildas termed the fire of divine vengeance blazed from sea to sea. The land was plundered, towns and cities sacked and destroyed, and the inhabitants slaughtered without mercy.

Britain had entered what are termed the Dark Ages: dark, partly because relatively little is known of what passed during the destructive wars which followed, and partly because of the general collapse of civilization. The fundamental problem lay not with the barbarians per se, among whom deserving individuals had long been acceptable to the Roman authorities – many, indeed, rising to occupy the highest offices of state. The overwhelming problem proved to be the supine acceptance of vast numbers beyond what Britain’s economy and society were capable of absorbing peaceably.

Nothing in history repeats itself precisely. Nevertheless, there exist exemplary factors that repay study. It would be pleasing to think that our current rulers are, unlike Valens and Vortigern, far-sighted statesmen, conversant with European history and culture. Whether a Prime Minister found incapable of translating the words Magna Carta be such a man, I leave others to judge.

This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of Boisdale Life.