Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Yesterday Hungarians held a referendum on the resettlement of Middle Eastern refugees in Europe, which of course has been a subject of great and often ugly controversy.
History may not repeat itself exactly, but it rhymes. The Romans dealt with a refugee crisis once, and it almost destroyed the empire. In fact, in a way it did, indirectly leading to the final downfall of the Western Empire in 476.
The real beginning of the story, according to Edward Gibbon, happened on the borders of China. At the end of the First Century A.D., after many years of war, the Chinese finally defeated the Huns. This was the event that led the subject of my book, Gan Ying, a veteran of the Hunnic wars, to depart on a mission to Rome. But the same event also caused many of the Huns to begin migrating westward.
Eventually one group of Huns, “a race savage beyond all parallel” according to Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, marched into the territory of the Goths in what is now southern Russia and Eastern Europe and defeated them. The Goths fled their homeland and, in 376, amassed on the banks of the Danube River, the border of the Roman Empire. Here,
With outstretched arms and pathetic lamentations they loudly deplored their past misfortunes and their present danger; acknowledged that their only hope of safety was in the clemency of the Roman government; and most solemnly protested that, if the gracious liberality of the emperor would permit them to cultivate the waste lands of Thrace, they should ever hold themselves bound, by the strongest obligations of duty and gratitude, to obey the laws and to guard the limits of the republic.
A speedy decision was necessary, as is always the case when delay can cause a destitute people irreparable harm. But as they had never been presented with a similar situation before, “[w]hen that important proposition, so essentially connected with the public safety, was referred to the ministers of [Emperor] Valens, they were perplexed and divided,” much as today’s European leaders are.
As Valens dithered, “the impatient Goths made some rash attempts to pass the Danube without the permission of the government whose protection they had implored.” Roman soldiers beat them back “with considerable slaughter.” Ultimately Valens agreed to the Gothic proposition, but he required the Goths not only to give up their arms but the children of the nobles as hostages. And when the edict finally came down, the Danube “had been swelled by incessant rains, and in this tumultuous passage many were swept away and drowned by the rapid violence of the current.” Still, Gibbon estimated, nearly a million refugees ultimately made the passage.
By the late fourth century, corruption had long set in the Roman body politic. The venal governors of Thrace proceeded to exploit their new subjects to the point of starvation and slavery. “They beheld around them the wealth and plenty of a fertile province, in the midst of which they suffered the intolerable hardships of artificial famine.”
Equally corrupt Roman officials had, for a bribe, allowed the Goths to keep their swords. So now the mistreated refugees rose up in revolt. What followed was one of the great catastrophes of the late Roman Empire. At the Battle of Adrianople in 378, Valens himself, along with most of his soldiers, was slain in battle. His successor Theodosius ultimately agreed to very unfavorable terms to end the war.
The lessons of history are in the eyes of the beholder. But to me, at a minimum, the dangers of mistreating refugees seems clear. Oppression and insults all too quickly turn gratitude into resentment.
For more, read articles in Quartz and The Guardian, and of course Gibbon himself in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
(Note: Scholars have never reached consensus that the people whom the Chinese fought, called “Xiongnu” in Chinese historiography, are the same as the Huns who came within view of Roman historians more than two centuries later. In his narrative, Gibbon followed and popularized the theory of French historian Joseph de Guignes, who also, much more controversially, suggested that the Chinese were descended from Egyptians. But that will have to form the subject of a later post.)
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."