is an old saying that "the only thing new in the world is the
history that you don't know."
those sage words in mind, I watched the controversy erupt last week
regarding President Bush's proposal to drastically change America's
immigration laws. Included in that contentious plan were suggestions
to "legalize" the status of upwards of 13 million immigrants
currently in the USA illegally and to increase the annual legal
was away on my annual winter spa excursion when these events transpired,
and serendipitously was enjoying a book by historian Arther Ferrill
Fall of the Roman Empire as my vacation reading.
leafed through his book while enjoying an Arturo Fuente Churchill
in Nemacolin Spa's superb cigar bar…an event which is usually proof
against melancholy. But my mood turned grim as his analysis unfolded.
It became apparent that I had stumbled upon an uncanny paradigm
to utilize in an evaluation of our current immigration dilemma…and
it wasn't pretty.
describes the situation in which Rome found itself in AD 376:
fearsome Huns from the Asiatic steppes of South Russia, riding on
their fat-headed, peculiar-looking plains horses, swept down on
the Ostrogoths living north and east of the Black Sea. In one of
the few genuine examples of u2018billiard-ball history' this set in
motion a chain reaction as the Ostrogoths fled in panic westward
against the Visigoths who were driven hard against Rome's Danubian
the better part of three centuries, the Western Roman Empire's geopolitics
had been dominated by its relations with the various Germanic tribes
north of the Rhine and Danubian frontiers. Economic and demographic
pressures from these fecund and warlike peoples kept the situation
constantly at a boil. Through that time, the power of Rome had generally
sufficed in keeping the barbarian hordes out of Roman territory
despite innumerable sallies into the borderlands.
Visigoths in 376 had the extra motivation of the Hunnish advance
to prompt them to violate Roman territory. Valens, the senior Emperor,
had at first attempted to make concessions, but the disruptions
caused by this mass migration quickly resulted in turmoil in the
region. Seeing potential weakness, other tribes also elected to
cross the boundary.
the meantime some Ostrogoths, who did not have permission to cross
the river, did so anyway, and to add to the confusion the Roman
Field Marshal of Thrace, Lupicinus, killed some of the followers
of Fritigern and Alavivus [the Visigothic chiefs] during a truce.
This was more than the barbarians could bear, and they began to
ravage the area…"
decided that enough was enough and determined to solve the problem
with military force. Unfortunately for Rome, his tactical blunders
and blinding desire for glory resulted in the annihilation of his
Roman Legions at the famous battle of Adrianople in 378.
the dust settled, Rome found itself with a fallen Emperor and multitudes
of Germanic tribesmen inside their borders who were dispersing and
settling throughout central Europe and the Balkans.
remaining living Emperor (Gratian) raised a Spanish-born general
to the purple amid the panic. Theodosius the Great (a moniker which,
Ferrill assures us, was more in response to his religious piety
than to any actual achievements as Emperor) was thus thrust into
power at one of the most crucial moments in the history of Rome.
several half-hearted attempts to resolve the situation militarily,
Theodosius made a fateful decision.
in the autumn of 382, the emperor agreed to terms with the Visigoths
that set the standard for barbarian settlement in the Empire for
the next hundred years, until the fall of Rome in the West. In the
words of historian A. H.M. Jones, u2018The settlement was, in fact,
a grave breach with precedent'. Essentially, Theodosius the Great
and Gratian agreed to allow the Visigoths to settle in Moesia in
the northern Thracian diocese along the Danube, and the native inhabitants
of the region, insofar as it was still inhabited, were probably
required to provide food, clothing, and housing for them."
agreement to legalize the massive demographic change in the Empire
by foreigners who had illegally breeched the borders was immensely
some argued that violence was impractical and that the German presence
would ultimately be of benefit to Rome. Ferrill quotes a speech
by the famous rhetorician Themistius thus:
mountains seemed high enough, no rivers deep enough, to prevent
the barbarians from swarming over them to our ruin. Then…Theodosius
dared to note this fact, that the strength of the Romans now lies
not in iron, not in breastplates and shields, not in countless masses
of men, but in reason…Still, I say, which of the two is better,
that Thrace should be filled with corpses or with cultivators of
the fields; that we should walk through ghastly desolation or through
some time thereafter, the situation stabilized as Theodosius' attention
was diverted elsewhere. In 395, he became ill and died in Milan.
just beneath the surface, trouble was brewing.
the time no one knew that Theodosius would be the last emperor to
rule over the entire Empire. At his death it was still an empire
that Augustus and Diocletian would have recognized. It was bigger,
in fact than the Augustan Empire, and only slightly smaller than
Diocletian's. From a glance at the map one could hardly see the
signs of imperial demise. But there was a cancer in the Empire –
the u2018federate' Visigoths under their new king, Alaric, who had fought
for Theodosius at the Battle of Frigidus but bitterly resented the
unwillingness of the great emperor to use him in an official military
command…Before the year was out Alaric was on the warpath."
was this same Alaric who, in AD 410, sacked Rome. For the first
time in 800 years, enemy troops laid waste to the Eternal City.
It was a disaster from which Rome was never able to fully recover.
the proponents of Theodosius' policy made three arguments. First,
was that the expulsion of the Germans was simply impractical. There
were too many of them already within the borders, and their deportation
would involve potentially explosive conflict. Second, was the belief
that the intruders would eventually succumb to the overwhelming
power of Roman culture and assimilate…becoming productive Roman
citizens. Third, was the belief that the importation of this new
population would economically benefit an Empire which was suffering
from a declining population.
no two situations are perfectly analogous, the parallels with our
current situation are fairly obvious. America is faced with somewhere
between 8 and 13 million immigrants who are currently inside our
borders illegally (comprising up to 4–5% of our total population).
President Bush's plans for legalization of their status are loosely
similar to the policies of Emperor Theodosius. Each of the three
arguments for legalization made then is being heard again today
in roughly the same form. For Rome, they all proved wrong. Theodosius'
policy set in motion a chain of events that led to the ultimate
demise of the Western Roman Empire.
hopes that history does not repeat itself, because the stakes may
be nothing short of the long-term viability of our nation. And President
Bush would do well to brush up on the lessons of the past.
LaTulippe [send him mail]
is a physician currently practicing in Ohio. He was an officer in
the United States Air Force for 13 years.