Historian David Potter corrects the Dutch prime minister

Historians in the News
tags: Roman Empire, David Potter, Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte



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Sir, It is deeply disturbing that Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, as he prepares to take up the EU presidency in January, should be analysing current crises on the basis of a false historical analogy (“Stem flow of migrants to EU or risk fate of the Roman empire”, November 27). His statement that “as we all know from the Roman empire, big empires go down if the borders are not well protected” does not reflect what “we all know”, and is simply wrong.

The “barbarians” who were “responsible” for the “fall” of the western Roman empire in the fifth century AD were not a wave of desperate migrants. They were a collection of disgruntled employees. The bulk of the Germans who entered the Roman empire were invited in by the Roman government. The ambition of Alaric the Visigoth, who sacked Rome in 410, was not to overthrow the Roman empire. He wanted to be a Roman general. When an emperor, who had a violent prejudice against Germans, reneged on a deal to give him the job, he burnt the city.

Could the government of the Roman empire have done a better job? Probably not. In the fifth century the typical emperor was a person who was placed on the throne as a child, and remained the puppet of factions at court. The result was that Rome was in reaction mode to crises generated by the failure of earlier one-off responses, its thinking clouded with deceptive or nearly impenetrable bureaucratic prose.

What can Europe learn from Rome? That remains to be seen. One thing that can certainly be learned is that bad rhetoric is bad policy.

David Potter

Francis W Kelsey Collegiate Professor of Greek and Roman History,

University of Michigan, US




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