14 February 2007

There He Goes Banging On About The Apocalypse Again

In 376, a large band of Gothic refugees arrived at the Empire's Danube frontier, asking for asylum. In a complete break with established Roman policy, they were allowed in, unsubdued. They revolted, and within two years had defeated and killed the emperor Valens - the one who had received them - along with two thirds of his army.

So begins the rather riveting (I think I said that about the last book I read, too, but this one is perhaps even more riveting because it's true) The Fall Of The Roman Empire by Peter Heather. I've always been a big fan of the whole Romans-and-barbarians thing, ever since I first heard the rudiments of the story at age nine. Originally a barbarian sympathiser (to the point where my ambition was to be one when I grew up), I was eventually won over to the Roman side by the assiduous civilising efforts of the nuns who taught me, which in microcosm is pretty much what was going on for upwards of half a century in Europe, the Near East and North Africa.

The nuns taught a rather simplified - and yes, it might not be unfair to say simplistic - version of how Roman decadence allowed the once-proud empire to fall under the none-too-tender ministrations of the Teutonic hordes, but while, as Heather makes clear in his exhaustive but seldom exhausting chronicle, the real story was considerably more complex, the essence of it remains: the richest, most powerful and most advanced civilisation the Western world had ever known was somehow reduced to ruin by illiterate, primitive nomads.

Or, more precisely, by people who had only recently been illiterate, primitive nomads. In Heather's view, where the Romans went wrong was, as he states in his introduction, not by allowing the asylum-seeking Goths to enter the Empire - after all, Rome had long been a land of immigrants - but by allowing them in unsubdued. By "subdued" he did not mean that they had to be humiliated or enslaved - such punishments were generally reserved for more recalcitrant enemies - so much as assimilated and/or "Romanised."

Through most of their history, the Romans - much like the British, for whom they were an imperial role model - had been brilliant at integrated conquered and colonised people into the Empire, often producing within a generation or two, citizens who could be said to be "more Roman than the Romans." But though Heather doesn't say it in so many words, it would appear that Rome eventually fell prey to an early version of multiculturalism: by the latter days of the Empire, much of Europe and North Africa had become home to large masses of immigrants who neither knew Latin nor cared to learn it, who had little interest in Rome apart from the riches and opportunities for riches that it offered, and whose first loyalty remained with their tribal groupings beyond the frontier.

Not that I'm trying to draw a heavy-handed analogy or anything, but this news from North Korea reminded of another late Roman humiliation, the practice of having to pay ever-escalating amounts of gold to various barbarian tribes, most notably the Huns, in hopes that it would persuade them not to wage war or otherwise make trouble for the Empire. Of course late Roman emperors were often the victims of circumstances beyond their control - wealth and armies squandered in ill-advised colonial adventures, alliances among tribes who controlled crucial resources or territory, things, in other words, that Georgius II would know all about - but it was still deeply dispiriting, and of course only served to encouraged other barbarian leaders to try their luck at similar scams. And then as now, imperial panegyrists, aka spin doctors, tried to cast such setbacks in as positive light as possible while still rueing the state that the Empire had come to.

In the case of North Korea, it would have been simple enough for the USA in its former role as Sole Superpower to put the little dictator Kim Jong Il back in his box, preferably one buried well underground, but America no longer has such latitude, either in military terms - its army is so depleted and disheartened by the Iraq debacle that it might be years or even decades before it can confidently wage war again - or, more importantly, in diplomatic ones. Put simply, the US is no longer free to act at its own behest, or even in its own interests in many parts of the world; the reason that we're paying tribute to North Korea rather than laying down the law is purely and simply that that's the way China (and to a lesser extent, Russia) wants it. Ironically, China may have played a role, albeit unknowing, in the destruction of ancient Rome: one theory, which I have always been partial to, is that the first century Han Empire's success in driving out its own nomadic invaders, the Hsiung-nu, set in motion a mass migration and/or a chain reaction of displacement across the Russian steppes which ultimately resulted in the Huns and other barbarian tribes descending upon Europe. And, of course, proving that some things never change, another factor hamstringing the Romans was the growing strength and militancy of Persia.

Anyway, I'm just about finished with the book, and feeling very sad and wistful for all the middle-class Roman suburbanites who are sitting there waiting for the barbarians to come pillaging, raping and impaling (oh, and gibbeting, which I've just learned about and which seems to have been rather popular in those days). I also find myself looking over my shoulder for encroaching hordes, none of which I've spotted yet, thankfully. But I do find myself once more debating the question that's periodically popped up in my mind since 2001: if you were to compare America with Rome, would we presently be in the last days of the Republic or the last days of the Empire? If it's the former, we might have a few hundred years yet to wallow in our decadence, but if the latter? Well, let's just say there are some benefits to no longer being as young as I used to be.

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