It was in Rome ahead of this year’s G-20 summit that aspiring classicist Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, decided to lay down another of his misguided visions of history. “When the Roman Empire fell,” he said while traveling to the Italian capital last week, “it was largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration. The empire could no longer control its borders, people came in from the east, all over the place, and we went into a Dark Ages.”
Ostensibly, this was meant as a warning against the pitfalls of inaction in face of the climate crisis. In fact, this is a well-established far-right trope, rooted in a weaponized narrative of the “fall of Rome” that has little to do with what historians know about it. Johnson is reproducing a xenophobic and dangerous vision of history.
There are many legitimate historical theories that try to explain how the Roman Empire transformed, over the course of a few centuries, into a group of successor polities ranging from the kingdom of the Franks to the Byzantine Empire that saw themselves as heirs of Rome. Others, from the Ottomans to the Romanovs, would envision themselves as such in the future. Historians assign different weight to societal or economic factors and argue over the degree of continuity or decline. The so-called fall of Rome was a complicated, multicausal affair.
In political rhetoric, though, Rome’s fall is a simple affair. Johnson is not the first to try and, sadly, definitely not the last. Historians have had to refute those narratives over and over again. The notion that decadence—of whatever stripe suits the argument being made—and “barbarian” incursions caused the fall is so powerful it was a rhetorical trope even before the Roman Empire in the West disappeared. By the beginning of the 5th century, Christian authors such as Jerome used the real and purported crises of their time for their own means.
The narrative pushed by the political right for a very long time is actually rather simple: A time of transformation is seen as a series of calamities, caused by the weakening of the morals of a dying empire that was run to the ground by hordes of invading barbarians. Most recently, during the civil war in Syria, this became a crucial pillar of the narrative that Syrian migrants were coming to destroy Western Civilization. Europe will fall just like the Roman Empire did, right-wing writers argued.
A historian would tell Johnson that, first of all, there was never a “fall” of the Roman Empire. In the West, over the course of over a century, the Christian empire fragmented into a series of successor states that continued many elements of Roman bureaucracy and societal order. In the east, the Roman Empire continued up until 1453, over which time it adapted into a very different form of state, known to us as the Byzantine Empire, whose inhabitants kept calling themselves “Romans.”