"The Fall of Ancient Rome and Modern U.S. Immigration: Historical Model or Political Football?"

By Argote-Freyre, Frank; Bellitto, Christopher M. | The Historian, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

"The Fall of Ancient Rome and Modern U.S. Immigration: Historical Model or Political Football?"


Argote-Freyre, Frank, Bellitto, Christopher M., The Historian


ON 20 JULY 2006, a Republican from Texas, Ted Poe, at the rime a freshman representative running for reelection, took the floor of the US House of Representatives to deliver a cautionary history lesson related to the current immigration debate in the United States:

   Let me take you back 1,642 years, Mr. Speaker, and let's talk about
   a little bit of history. Caesar Valens controlled the Roman
   Empire.... And while be is Caesar, the barbarian nation of the
   Goths to his northeast started coming toward the Roman Empire....
   They were led by a person that was supposedly a friend of Rome, his
   name was Fritigern, King of the Goths, and he asked permission to
   come into Rome with some [of] the Goths. Normally the Roman
   Government would not allow this, to have a state within a state;
   but, you see, Valens needed more people to be in his army and be
   needed more workers in the Empire of Rome. So he granted permission
   for some of the Goths to come in legally. But when the crossing
   started, the Roman Government didn't have enough border guards to
   control entry, and so massive waves of Goths came into the Roman
   Empire.

   What started out as a controlled entry mushroomed into a massive
   influx. Several hundreds of thousands came across [to] the Roman
   Empire.

   But the Goths did not take the oath to support the emperor. They
   did not assimilate. They did not become Roman. And a few years
   later, this state within a state revolted and internal war
   started....

   History speaks for itself, Mr. Speaker. Failure to control illegal
   entry into a country causes some problems, and we are not talking
   about legal entry. We are talking about illegal entry. And it
   encourages a state within a state. And when people come illegally
   to a nation and refuse to take allegiance to that country, start
   sending money to another nation and they don't even learn the
   language, is America asking for trouble? Is America becoming just
   another Rome?

   Mr. Speaker, there are many reasons for the fall of Rome, bur one
   of those reasons is simply the failure to control who came into
   their nation. I think the analogy is obvious. (1)

Is it? Congressman Poe is certainly not the first to make the rhetorical link between the fall of Rome and the current position of the United States. Scholars, pundits and politicians across the ideological spectrum use the Roman Empire as villain or hero to indict or praise the American position in the global community today. They assure us that the United States and its people could gain important lessons from studying the fall of Rome. Some look at US military and economic power or cultural influence as a sure sign that modern America merits comparison with imperial Rome, a comparison that has long been a part of American political discourse. Likewise, there are efforts to predict the decline, imminent or long-term, of the United States by looking to the ancient past. Immigration is often a key component in any debate about the future fall of the United States. In the following we examine if this comparison is a useful, substantive, and accurate application of the past to the present, especially keeping in mind its potential utility for the classroom.

Our goal is not, however, to debate why Rome fell and if America might follow. Rather, we wish to take a case-study approach and focus on one aspect of the story, that of immigration and borders, to ask whether the linkage between the migrations of so-called barbarians in the third to fifth centuries CE can properly be applied to what is being called the immigration crisis in the United States today. (2) We entertain no Nostradamus-like insights into the future of the United States, but instead seek to explore the contemporary use of the terms language, borders, and citizenship within the context of ancient Rome and to explore how these terms have been linked to modern America. This essay is also about the use and abuse of history by those involved in current debates. …

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