Johnson’s analogy with the Roman Empire reveals a racist agenda, but it was the brutality and greed of its rulers which destroyed Rome, argues Dominic Alexander
Boris Johnson has been roundly mocked in the media for his schoolboy ignorance about the causes of the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire, and the absurdity of his suggestion that ‘immigration’ was the cause. Most of the rebuttals boil down to the point that ‘it was more complicated than that’, which is true enough, but falls somewhat short of skewering Johnson on the resonances he was trying to evoke.
There is an old, and discredited, narrative of history in which societies and civilisations rise and fall through the migration of ethnic-racial groups. In British history, for example, this has the original agricultural population being overrun by the so-called ‘Beaker people’ around the start of the Bronze Age, who were then replaced by ‘Celtic’ people, who inaugurated the Iron Age. They, in turn, were conquered by the Romans, who brought Britain into the realm of civilisation, before collapsing in the face of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ invaders, who drove the British into Wales, and founded England.
The eventual result of all this, in the nineteenth-century story, was the rise of the British Empire, a new and improved Rome, based, often quite explicitly, on a sense of ethnic superiority. This kind of racialised thinking was reproduced across Europe, where entirely mythical ‘Aryan’ peoples were often imagined as invaders who re-invigorated decaying civilisations in ancient history. None of this stands up to any sensible scrutiny of the evidence, but it made a scheme that worked for supporting imperialist national ideologies.
In the imperialist story, the ‘superiority’ of modern Europe had something to do with Germanic tribes injecting the decaying civilisation of Rome with new blood, and gradually climbing out of their own barbarism to reach the modern era. There was nothing particularly original about the Nazis’ use of all this for their genocidal notions of race-struggle as the motor of history.
In the aftermath of World War II, professional history rightly recoiled from nineteenth-century ‘race’ models of explanation, and became more sceptical about the extent of folk migrations in the past. The problem is that the racist narrative has never been replaced with anything else, apart from the ‘it’s-more-complicated-than-that’ fall-back position. Hence, the scheme lingers in the general public grasp of history, and Johnson can expect that his words will have traction among a wide range of people, however much expert opinion might ridicule him. He won’t care about that much.
How the 1% destroyed the Roman Empire
There is nevertheless a better way of understanding the fall of Rome, which more directly upends Johnson’s racist prattle. The problems of the empire were never about migrations, but about its internal class structure and massive levels of inequality. The rise of Rome was strongly linked to the military capacity of its legions, composed of men from the mass of small landholders. Success in war, however, enriched the senatorial aristocracy, who quicky amassed huge estates across Italy, and then the Mediterranean world.
The richer the senatorial class became, the more the central parts of the empire became swallowed up by gigantic slave estates. The small proprietors were being squeezed out, but still for a long time, joining the legions could be a way of securing some land in one of the newly conquered territories, Gaul, for example, and later Britain.
As the Empire expanded, to the benefit of the ever more wealthy senatorial elite, the whole system required still greater influxes of slaves, and so more legions to hold new territories. Greater levels of taxation were needed to pay for those legions, and for the ruling bureaucracy of the Roman state.
The system began to be hollowed out from within as it became polarised between a tiny empire-straddling senatorial aristocracy, and a mass of over-taxed peasants, and super-exploited slaves. The decline of the smallholders, who once formed the backbone of the legions, meant that the empire increasingly had to look outside its formal bounds for troops. Centuries before the collapse, the legions were increasingly composed of ‘barbarians’, who were also being settled in large groups in peripheral regions as a source of federate troops.
A few have observed that Johnson’s notion that the Roman Empire had borders in a modern sense is quite wrong, and this is true. Beyond directly controlled areas, there were large regions under its influence, in which tribal elites used trade with the empire to build power within their own societies. These nascent elites were dependent on the existence of the imperial system, and so it became quite natural for them to be incorporated within it, particularly by the third century CE.
Very many of those who ‘invaded’ the empire in its final period were actually invited to bring their manpower inside to aid the increasingly unstable state. This actually succeeded in the east, where the Roman Empire survived for many centuries longer, morphing into what’s called the Byzantine Empire, although its ruling class persisted in calling themselves Romans.
Collapse of a ruling class
The western imperial system, however, was increasingly riddled with contradictory pressures, between the interests of the senatorial class, the army, the decurion class (the wealthy sub-senatorial landowners who largely ran the provincial cities), and above all the slaves and free peasants. The system finally became unsustainable in the fifth century. Massive slave and peasant revolts broke out on both the eastern and western European sides of the Empire. The state tried to use barbarian federate troops to suppress these, in return for shares of the imperial revenue they were tasked with gathering.
This move only increased the centrifugal tendencies within the whole system. It began to make more sense to local elites, the decurions, to make deals with barbarian war leaders, than to maintain allegiance to the untrustworthy state machine. Another similar process that undermined the state was the senatorial aristocracy’s own increasing autonomy; feeling safe in their massive provincial estates, they had little personal interest in collectively maintaining the central state. The precarious state based on slavery and plunder collapsed, to be replaced with more localised rulers, and suddenly the senatorial class lost its super-regional reach.
Migration, which never occurred in particularly large numbers, was incidental to the collapse. Rather, it was the increasing weight of exploitation which hollowed out the empire and its peripheries alike. Class society collapsed altogether in places, like parts of Roman Britain, or was greatly simplified. If we are to make parallels and comparisons to the present, we can note how the rapaciousness of a billionaire class (the senatorial aristocracy), and a millionaire class (the decurions) undermines the ability of a social system even to reproduce itself.
What of Johnson’s doom scenario of the end of civilisation? Here he is, if possible, even more ill-informed, since the centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire were only the ‘Dark Ages’ from the point of view of written records, and the existence of extremes of wealth. Slavery dwindled in significance, being replaced by forms of serfdom. There was also a huge increase in the number of free peasants, who were less burdened without the heavy centralised taxation system. Early medieval kings had much more limited coercive resources. It was a freer, and also, for the most part, probably less violent time.
Continuities of the modern imperial age
Of course, the parallels run only so far. Today, the imperial economy requires large numbers of vulnerable people coming into the economic core to provide cheap labour for essential work, from harvesting, to transportation, to social care. Rather than Goths and Vandals, they have more in common with the vast numbers sucked into the Roman Empire at its height to serve as slave labour.
Today, migrant workers and refugees face the brutally racist borders and immigration systems, which are allied to structural racism in policing, housing, welfare, and employment. All of this underlines what limited distance we have travelled from the more recent era of slavery, where labour was forcibly removed from Africa to be exploited in the Americas. Imperial systems tend to resemble each other in their brutality.
Regardless of what comparisons can usefully be made across the centuries, one thing is clear from Johnson’s cynical use of the old imperial story: the racist narrative of the nineteenth century has not lost its usefulness for our ruling class. Now, as then, it is used to obscure the violence and exploitation the wealthy inflict on society in order to maintain their rule.
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Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).
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