Sea of Misery

At the beginning of the Fourth Century CE the Roman Empire was at its zenith. It had reorganized successfully into two manageable halves, stood the pressure from the Persian Empire, acquired a new state religion and reworked its finances and public administration to a stellar state. Within a dozen years after that the Empire began to suffer serious stresses which would ultimately culminate in the loss of Thrace, Spain, Gaul and North Africa, accounting for considerable revenue, and eventually the complete collapse of its Western half.

Historians blame a series of “barbarian” invasions for this calamity. In fact, the ultimate cause was far away in Asia. The pastoral Huns were suffering serious ecological disruptions and their bloody and cruel raids pushed the Germanic nations across the Roman frontiers. These Germans were no “Barbarians”, they had been Romanized for generations, somewhat uneasily. It can be said they were facing their “struggle with modernity”, and as much as they wished to emulate the Roman ways, the Empire was neither ready to accept them fully nor reject them totally. Soon the river banks of central Europe began to teem with refugees wishing to cross into the Empire ahead of the predations of the Huns. The Empire had developed a coherent “immigration policy”, but it was designed for a different time and circumstances. It never expected to admit entire nations, accounting for tens of thousands of grown men and their families, altogether numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The Empire tinkered with the policy here, adjusted there, but ultimately it failed, most spectacularly at Adrianople, where the Roman Emperor Valens lost his life battling the Goths and Alans, who originally wanted refuge, but now had their eyes on grander prizes.

The Roman Empire never became aware of the causes of the human flood, at least not in time. Had it fully understood the crisis, most likely it would have sent a punishing expedition through its wealthier Eastern half into Asia to subdue the Huns, end their raids, and thus remedy the ultimate cause of the flood of migrants. The Empire did not lack for will, it lacked for communication.

It would be inaccurate to draw exact parallels between today’s Mediterranean and the Fourth Century Danube. Still the most prudent course of action for Europe is not to tempt fate and attempt a vigorous remedy for the causes that put millions on the move, many drowning in the sea of misery.  There is Libya, which the West aimed to democratize by airpower and now is in desperate need of no more than a few battalions to disarm the militia and put in place a functioning government. There is Syria, where inaction and moralizing has caused nearly half its people to take to the roads. But at the root of it are the wild men of the so-called Islamic State, a Performance Arts troop of cruelty and bigotry, fond of destroying all traces of civilization. In matters such as these, preemptive action is always difficult to justify, while inaction is always difficult to rectify. But the empirical facts are clear and brutal.  Dead bodies in trucks on the side of European roads. Floating lifejackets with no occupants on the Aegean sea. Entire families running across frontiers and fording rivers. The last scene would be instantly recognizable to a Roman limitanei 1700 years ago.


— Maged Atiya

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