In the days since the Paris attacks, the Place de la République — the majestic square near the Bataclan Theater, and five minutes on foot from my apartment — has become a kind of free university. At its center stands a 30-foot statue of Marianne, defiant symbol of the republic, trimmed now with candles, placards, and anti-terrorist graffiti. It is a place where France teaches itself about itself.
As I passed there yesterday, I saw parents calmly answering their children, students huddled in conversation, an elderly man placing a memorial photograph, a confident lecturer pouring out her thoughts to those around. It was a strikingly French way to grieve: people of all ethnicities, gathered around an imposing monument in freewheeling exchange. Only Parisians, I thought to myself, could be at once so anarchic and impeccably mannered, so reverent and righteously obscene.
The question facing France, and all of us shaken by this unbordered terror, is how we fight for this kind of space in our cities and ourselves. One of the best ways I know, as a student and lecturer in classics, is to listen to history’s echoes in the present.
At the Sorbonne, we are taught to remettre en question, to challenge and reexamine, the received ideas of antiquity, sifting out myths from bedrock. One of those myths, as romantic and powerful as any, is the story that “barbarians at the gates” crushed the Roman empire and drove the West into darkness.
It is this hoary tale that Republican presidential candidates and right-wing commentators are breathing new life into this week, as they warn us that refugees and militants are ripples in the same unholy tide. Writing in the Boston Globe, historian Niall Ferguson claims to hear alarm bells in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, saying of Europe:
“Like the Roman Empire in the early 5th century, Europe has allowed its defences to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its malls and stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.…”
“It is doubtless true to say that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe are not violent. But it is also true the majority hold views not easily reconciled with the principles of our liberal democracies, including our novel notions about sexual equality and tolerance not merely of religious diversity but of nearly all sexual proclivities.”
As any Sorbonnard knows, Ferguson’s reading of Roman history is as false as it is contemptuous and contemptible.
In the 4th century, millions of Europe’s peoples were — as they are today — on the move. Over six centuries, Rome had kept its empire stable not with Trump-ish walls, but with an innovative style of government that brought protection, prosperity and space to live as you liked. The famous baths at Bath, England, are my favorite emblem of the empire at its best — civic leisure, peerless engineering, and whatever local gods or traditions people liked.
Why wouldn’t the world want to live this way?
One of the 4th-century peoples that did were called the Tervingi. Living just over the Danube, in modern-day Romania, hundreds of thousands of Tervingi were dislocated by the arrival of the Huns, a nomadic tribe from central Asia now pushing West.
Rome had a refugee crisis on its hands. At first, its leaders responded well: the emperor Constantine gave the Tervingi food and land, and its young men posts in the imperial army. Unfortunately, a generation later the unskilled and insecure Valens undid this good work, antagonizing the now resettled and well-trained Tervingi and losing disastrously at Adrianople in 378. The young emperor and two-thirds of his army ended up dead on the battlefield, and the Tervingi were called by a new name: the Visigoths.
Visigoths were not terrorists. As the historian James O’Donnell observes in his masterful “Ruin of the Roman Empire” (2008), the “barbarians” that get blamed for toppling Rome formed their identity “not from ancestors and time immemorial, but from the circumstances of coming into contact with Rome and the Romans’ need to name what they barely understood.”
And though shrewder emperors had formerly welcomed such peoples and drew upon their strengths, O’Donnell writes that after Adrianople “the Visigoths inside the empire now felt no particular loyalty to the hand that had first failed to feed them and then tried to smite them, only to finally prove itself both weak and vacillating.”
The Visigoths were followed by the Vandals and Franks, also tribes impelled by Rome’s prosperity, tempted by its military weakness, and considered a threat to the system they badly wanted to join. To be sure, these were bloody and nightmarish times, but it was Rome’s short-sighted politics and failures of imagination, not the ruthless nihilism of outsiders, which were ultimately to blame.
Ferguson shabbily cites Gibbon to the effect that “convinced monotheists pose[d] a grave threat to a secular empire.” Nonsense. As any 19-year-old Parisian history student knows, the Goths were Arian Christians just like Valens and much of the eastern Roman elite. The Germanic tribes were hardly on jihad against Rome. Like the Syrian refugees of 2015, they sought peace and safety in Europe, not holy war.
The proof? Long after the empire crumbled in Europe, “barbarians” like Theodoric and Charlemagne did everything they could to keep the Roman way of life alive, preserving its system of law and administration centuries after “true Romans” like Valens had disappeared.
As it turned out, Rome had all the fundamentalists it needed in its own palaces: Roman Italy was finally levelled not by the Goths or Huns, but by the forces of the emperor Justinian, who in the 530s sought to reconquer Italy and impose a single, state-backed Christianity on all the world’s peoples.
Mismanagement of a refugee crisis. Nativist, xenophobic leaders. If the fall of the Roman empire sends us any warning, it is to reject these, and protect our inclusive and open societies, at all costs.
As I left the Place de la République yesterday, tears in my eyes, I looked up at the sublime statue to see what Marianne was holding. It was an olive branch.
Lex Paulson is a lecturer in rhetoric and political theory at Sciences Po – Paris, and serves as international counselor to the Democracy 2.1 initiative. Born in Washington DC, he has worked as an attorney, professor, writer, and political strategist, including projects for UNICEF, the U.S. State Department, and the National Democratic Institute.