George W. Bush, an American Theodosius

There is an old saying that "the only thing new in the world is the history that you don't know."

With 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 immigration quotas.

I was away on my annual winter spa excursion when these events transpired, and serendipitously was enjoying a book by historian Arther Ferrill entitled The Fall of the Roman Empire as my vacation reading.

I 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.

Ferrill describes the situation in which Rome found itself in AD 376:

"The 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 frontier."

For 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.

The 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.

Ferrill continues:

"In 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…"

Valens 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.

As 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.

The 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.

After several half-hearted attempts to resolve the situation militarily, Theodosius made a fateful decision.

Ferrill continues:

"Finally, 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."

This agreement to legalize the massive demographic change in the Empire by foreigners who had illegally breeched the borders was immensely controversial.

But 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:

"…no 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 well-tilled grain-lands?"

For some time thereafter, the situation stabilized as Theodosius' attention was diverted elsewhere. In 395, he became ill and died in Milan.

But just beneath the surface, trouble was brewing.

"At 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."

It 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.

Essentially, 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.

While 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.

One 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.

January 14, 2004