Is the West Being Overrun by Migrants?


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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?

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.

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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 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent of the total population.

In the United States, meanwhile, concerns have focused on Mexicans, of whom roughly 11.7 million (3.7 percent 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 percent.

These figures are high by ancient standards, although Canada's (19 percent) and Australia's (22 percent) 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?" was originally published by, a geopolitical intelligence platform. Reprinted with permission.

About The Author

Ian Morris is a historian and archaeologist. He is currently Stanford University's Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and serves on the faculty of the Stanford Archaeology Center. He has published twelve books and has directed excavations in Greece and Italy. Dr. Morris' bestsellers include Why the West Rules -- for Now (2010) and War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (2014). His most recent book is Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, released in 2015 by Princeton University Press. He received his doctorate from Cambridge University.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.