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Niall Ferguson's Droll Parallel Between the Paris Terrorist Attack and the Fall of Rome

26/11/2015 10:51 GMT | Updated 25/11/2016 10:12 GMT

"Poor, poor Paris. Killed by complacency," opines Niall Ferguson (Sunday Times, 15 November 2015). This is Ferguson's parting shot in a piece headed, "Like the Roman Empire, Europe has let its defences crumble." Is this a joke? If so, it is highly unfunny and in poor taste. But above all, it is just plain wrong.

First of all, Paris is not dead. And not even the most sanguine -- and sanguinary -- terrorist organisation or the most jaundiced commentator could have expected a handful of dead terrorists (mostly by their own hands) to bring down or take control of Paris, let alone the whole of Europe. So, what was the terrorists' game plan in hitting Paris? It was precisely to instil fear and the sense of foreboding expressed by Niall Ferguson.

The self-proclaimed "Islamic State" (ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) already claims to have established a "caliphate" straddling Iraq and Syria, and they have announced as their long-term goal the conquest of large swathes of Europe as well. But even that is not a parallel to the fall of the western Roman Empire. Daesh excoriates the West and all it stands for. Western culture, liberal values and Christianity are all anathema to them. If they ever managed to achieve their long-term objective they would sweep away Western values and replace them with their own.

By contrast, the "barbarians" who took over the western Roman Empire admired Rome and sought to emulate it. When they took over the western empire many of them had long fought in the Roman army as allies known as foederati. Today, more than 1500 years later, most of the people of the heartland of the western empire stretching from Rome to Cadiz still speak a modern version of Latin, and their religion is still largely Roman Catholicism, the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fifth century.

So, why did the western Roman Empire fragment into a number of "barbarian" kingdoms? This was because the central government in the West (but not the East) was sapped by the rise to power of the senatorial aristocracy, whose large and increasingly self-reliant landed estates in the western provinces were a countervailing force to that of the emperor, as shown in my book, The Senatorial Aristocracy in the Later Roman Empire, and in my forthcoming book, Two Models of Government. But the successors to the Roman Empire in the West continued to hanker after a return to a united Europe. Hence Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire and, yes, the present-day European Union.

The parallel drawn by Niall Ferguson between the recent attack on Paris and the fall of the western Roman Empire will simply not stand up to scrutiny. But there is a different current parallel that can be drawn with the "barbarian invasions" of 1500 years ago: namely, a parallel not with terrorism but with the current peaceful influx of migrants into Europe. The "barbarian invasions" of the Roman Empire, called in German Völkerwanderung ("migration of peoples"), was originally a peaceful movement of Germanic tribes pushed westwards by the Huns and others. However, the current wave of migrants and refugees into Europe may well have a different effect. For, while the current flood of migrants is largely made up of people from outside Europe, the Germanic tribes of 1500 years ago shared an ancient common cultural and linguistic heritage with the Romans (the Germanic languages being of course members of the Indo-European family together with Latin and Greek).

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