Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

SO unionists, republicans and nationalists finally sit down to share power in Northern Ireland - or at least power over the arts, agriculture, education and other inconsequential portfolios, in the care of major educationists such as Martin McGuinness. The point is that the British government still maintains power in the areas that really count: finance, law, the Army and foreign relations. So what happens next? Events that accompanied the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West point the way.

Romans exerted power over their empire oppressively or moderately, depending on circumstances, but everyone knew where the real power lay. As newcomers such as the Germanic Goths and Franks entered and settled from the third century AD onwards, they remained under Roman authority and, when they joined the Roman army, owed their loyalty to Rome. Indeed, when the Western empire finally broke, the Roman army stationed in Italy consisted entirely of Germans. Outsiders attempting to force their way in could be handled either militarily or diplomatically - and they knew it.

By the fifth century AD, however, everything had changed. It was no longer a matter of keeping control over those outside the empire, but over those inside it. Germanic peoples had established themselves as nations in their own right all over the empire, under loose alliance with Rome. …

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