Boris Johnson is keen on using his apparent knowledge of the classics, a result of his enjoying one of the most expensive educations on the planet, to explain and comment on contemporary issues. He has been known to get it wrong.
As he said ahead of the COP26 Climate Change summit in Glasgow: “When the Roman empire fell, it was largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration. The empire could no longer control its borders, people came in from the east, all over the place, and we went into a dark ages, Europe went into a dark ages that lasted a very long time. The point of that is to say it can happen again. People should not be so conceited as to imagine that history is a one-way ratchet.”
This is simply not true, contemporary historians would suggest. There are any number of explanations why the western Roman empire collapsed in the fifth century.
The eastern empire lasted to late medieval period
Bear in mind that the eastern empire, Byzantium, survived for another millennium, until the Ottoman conquest in 1453.
The later Roman empire was remarkably good at handling the incursions of so-called barbarians. They were often allowed to settle and farm land within the empire. They were co-opted as soldiers in the Roman legions.
Recent writers, and I would suggest Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fall of The West as a good starting point, believe the collapse of the Roman empire was a consequence of a lack of any clear succession. Emperors would die, and they might have nominated their successors. But these were never dynastic, which meant anyone else, with any power base, could challenge this.
Succession of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emperors
Marcus Aurelius, seen as a “good” emperor, died in 180 AD. He was succeeded by Commodus, the one in the film Gladiator, seen as one of the “bad” ones. When he died in 192 AD, his death ushered in some decades of chaos and civil war, until Diocletian brought back a degree of stability.
This did not last for long. His death in 316 AD meant a return to the ages of civil rebellion and strife. The earlier Romans had relied on a degree of dynastic succession, as I have suggested, the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the Flavian dynasty.
Strip this away, and anyone could become emperor. You only needed a couple of legions and a regional base, somewhere in the East, Iberia, even Britannia.
Several centuries ensued in which multiple pretenders emerged and there were endless civil wars. The numbers are bewildering; some years might see several generals trying to take the purple, their legions battling each other rather than protecting the empire from outsiders.
The later empire was still quite competent at co-opting those outsiders into the cause of shoring up the status quo. Aetius, one of the great generals in later Roman history, even used the Huns, one of the empire’s enemies, against another, the Burgundians.
Why should we care? Because the collapse of the western Roman empire was not down to “uncontrolled immigration”, which the Romans handled rather well.
It was down to the emergence of uncontrollable populists, generals from the outlying provinces, who would accept the disintegration of civil society in return for their brief attempts to accede to the Imperial purple.
Does this have any contemporary relevance, Boris Johnson?