“…the vicissitudes of fortune, which spare neither man nor the proudest of his works, which buries empires and cities in a common grave”.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Rome, Italy. 27 October. It is eerie. The extent to which contemporary Europe appears to look much like the Roman Empire on the eve of its demise. Rome’s fall began with the loss of Britannia in 383 AD, Rome’s decline took far longer. Over many years the Empire became de-stabilised by Visigoth hordes driven from the east by horse-mounted Hunnic warriors pushing into Europe from Central Asia. For a time Rome tried to integrate the Goths, or at least work with them. Alaric, the great Goth king famously forged an alliance, and indeed a friendship, with Roman General Flavius Stilicho. However, when Stilicho was murdered in 408 AD by those close to the Emperor Honorius it was the last straw and Alaric broke completely with Rome. Alaric’s willingness to work with a perfidious Rome had been declining for some years. He tired of being promised a homeland within the Empire that never came to pass, and he grew bitter that his forces were used as front-line cannon-fodder in Rome’s seemingly interminable border wars. Finally, in 408 AD Alaric marched on Rome, and in 410 AD he sacked the Eternal City.
Rome never recovered. Between 410 AD and 455 AD the weakened Empire faced repeated attacks by the fearsome Huns, culminating in the massive Battle of the Cataulanian Plains in 451 AD, in what is today modern day France. It was an unlikely alliance of Roman General Flavius Aetius and Goth King Theodoric I that defeated Attila the Hun. However, for the Empire it was a Pyrrhic victory. Rome lost six of its best legions in the battle which effectively sealed the Empire’s fate.
However, it was not military might alone that defeated Rome. In October 439 AD the Vandal King Gaiseric, one of the most under-estimated strategists in history, captured Carthage in what is today Tunisia. Back then Carthage was the bread-basket of Rome, supplying the vast bulk of the city’s food. For years Rome had been suffering economic shocks. Without Carthage Rome simply starved.
Why did Rome decline? There were many reasons. Edward Gibbon put it down to the adoption of Christianity as the ‘state’ religion and the loss of Roman virtues. However, perhaps the most compelling reason was that by the fifth century Rome was politically decadent, led by a deeply divided and utterly self-obsessed elite totally focussed on the inner politics of Rome. It was arrogance that brought Rome down reinforced by a firmly held and misplaced belief that it was superior and thus destined to rule.
In fact, Rome’s decline had been evident for at least a century. In 286 AD Emperor Diocletian had split Rome into an Eastern and a Western Empire because it had become effectively ungovernable. The East and the West then went their own ways even fighting civil wars with each other. Rome’s day was done.
Now, scroll forward some sixteen hundred years to modern day Europe. Look at a map of Europe and even today the borders of many European states still reflect the tribal borders carved out with blood in the fifth century AD. The similarities do not end there. ‘Europe’ has been the dominant world grouping for some 500 years. Even the US was, and is, created in Europe’s image. The ‘Empire’ today is, of course, the EU. Like Rome before it the EU is about to lose ‘Britannia’. And, like Diocletian Brussels is simply unable to govern effectively the whole of a Europe that remains very different from one end to the other. Today, the ‘barbarian hordes’ (the word barbarian derives from the Latin word meaning to ‘babble’, i.e. not speak Latin) come not from the east but from the south. And, like Roman citizens before them, many Europeans see such illegal mass migration as akin to an invading horde.
Then there is the latter day Geiseric, President Putin, who seeks to control much of Europe’s power and energy supplies (look who sponsors the Champions League – Gazprom). For Putin, like Gaiseric before him, control of a vital commodity is simply a means to a strategic leverage end. Like Gaiseric, Putin seeks at the very least an inflated ‘tribute’ from ‘Europe’, or like Attila the freedom to ‘sack’ bits of it when and as he so pleases. Attila would have fully understood the Putinian concept of ‘changing facts on the ground’ because that is what he did.
The EU? Like Rome Europe’s latter day ‘senators’ seem obsessed with the inner-workings and politics of Brussels, are utterly divided over the future of the EU, ever more subject to repeated economic shocks, and unable or unwilling to see the dangers lurking beyond Europe’s borders. Chancellor Merkel as Caesar Augustus? I don’t think so.
In fact history does not repeat itself, because by definition it cannot. Europe today is very different from is fifth century predecessor, and in any case we Europeans are not organised into tribes, are we? Moreover, to condemn all migrants as being part of one almighty invading horde would not only be inaccurate, it would also be utterly unfair. But then again the Huns, Vandals, and Visigoths were themselves very different, and in the early days at least sought very different relationships with Rome. Critically, if Europe is to cope with massive immigration surely the first duty of those in power is to separate good people from bad people, irrespective of race, creed, religion etc.
What do repeat themselves are patterns of power, and it is the ‘pattern’ of Rome’s fall that is perhaps most germane to contemporary Europe. President Putin’s Weltmacht and the growing challenge of illiberal power to the Western liberal order, and the other-worldly fanaticism of IS and its ‘fighters’ both reveal one great weakness that is shared by modern Europe and pre-medieval Rome. They both refused to face up to reality. In Rome’s case by the time Aetius eventually convinced the imperial family to face the precarious reality Rome was facing it was far too late. In any case, like Stilicho before him, Aetius was murdered by the Emperor for becoming too powerful. Rome lost its last great general.
It is not yet too late for modern Europe to face reality. However ‘tempus’ does indeed ‘fugit’.