"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. …