How climate change will drive new barbarian hordes into Europe

The Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire which followed it, was one of the most successful multi ethnic, multi cultural, multi linguistic and multi theistic societies in history.  This ability to absorb foreigners and to assimilate them into the Roman way of life was, as Amy Chua, a historian at Yale University, the reason why it was one of only five hyperpowers that have existed in history.   What does this teach us about modern societies today and what will it teach us about our future?

If multi ethinc societies are so successful and resilient…

Chua argues that societies that are open and tolerant of other people’s belief systems and customs are more successful than those that do not, simply because they have access to more people and more ideas.  More people can translate into more soldiers and more ideas into better ways of defeating one’s enemies. Putting this into a more modern context, if Imperial Japan had actively co-opted Koreans and Chinese into its empire, or had Nazi Germany embraced Jewish scientists, Ukrainian freedom fighters and White Russians they may have had a better chance of defeating the Americans and the British during the Second World War.

The Roman Empire did not just pay lip service to immigrants, with ethnic Romans running the empire politically and economically.  Vespasian, the Roman Emperor from 69-79AD marked the beginning of the end of ethnic Roman domination of the political sphere.  He came from the Sabine region of Italy, one of the first parts of Italy to be absorbed into the Roman Republic. Trajan, the Emperor from 98-117AD, came from Hispania as did his successors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD).  During the third century a group of Emperors, including Aurelian, Diocletian and Constantine, came from Illyria, a major recruiting ground for the Roman legions, in what is now the western Balkans.  It is partially due to this lack of personal attachment to Rome, coupled with its poor strategic location away from troubled frontiers, that the city of Rome declined in importance in the Empire and was not the political capital of the Roman Empire for a long time before the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.

…why did the Roman Empire collapse?

In many respects, it is amazing that the Roman Empire lasted as long as it did.  It was frequently hit by almost insurmountable problems and it was its non ethnically Roman citizens who frequently kept it going.  But while foreigners may have kept Rome alive, it was also foreigners that helped to destroy it.  In a previous article on Chinese colonisation of Africa we referred to the concept of “inverse Roman colonisation” and that:

From the 300s onwards the Roman Empire stopped expanding and consolidated its borders.  Border tribes became increasingly Romanised and wanted to move into the Empire.  This desire to move into a highly prosperous region was enhanced as waves of new tribes – such as the Huns – pushed whole nations against the borders of the Roman Empire.

The Romans had good systems to deal with large numbers of immigrants.  The young and able were frequently mustered into joining the army, rather like the Union States does today with its own immigrants.  Family groups were sometimes separated and the population dispersed throughout the empire.  In 376AD this system abruptly broke down when what should have been a regular border crossing turned into a riot.  The Romans had abused their position, sold many of immigrants into slavery and stripped them of their wealth.  Rising up in arms, a wave of Visigoths rolled into the Empire, unchecked.

Over time, this became the norm, with successive Germanic nation groups settling in France (Franks), Spain (Visigoths), Italy (Ostrogoths) and North Africa (Vandals).  These nations eventually stopped paying taxes to the Roman central government and the Roman Empire in the west withered away, finally ending when the Germanic ruler of Italy usurped the young Emperor Romulus Augustus in 474AD and sent the imperial regalia to the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople.  Unlike Greek and Roman colonies, this form of colonisation was unplanned and large numbers of people simply overwhelmed the local Roman populations.

What triggered this huge wave of German immigrants, this barbarian horde, was an external force  pushing them into the Roman Empire- the Hunnic Empire that was eventually led by Atilla – and the pull of great wealth in the Roman Empire.

Germanic tribes carve up the Western Roman Empire

What are the parallels with our societies today?

So what might happen in our societies today?  The United States and the European Union are, like the Roman Empire, highly successful multi ethnic, multi cultural, multi linguistic and multi theistic political entities.  Amy Chua refers to the United States as one of history’s five hyperpowers.  Both entities are bordered to the south by highly populous poor nations that see the great wealth of their neighbour to the north.

Even prior to the recent unrest in North Africa, North Africans and sub Saharan Africans were fleeing north every week in small boats across to Spain and Italy.  These numbers are starting to add up and  countries further north have started to reimpose passport requirements from people moving from Spain, Italy, Greece and France.  However, the numbers are still relatively small and the European Union appears to be able to manage the settling in process, in a way that is not too dissimilar to the Romans prior to 376AD.

The United States also has an illegal immigration issue.  It has created long border fences to keep Hispanics from Central and Southern America out and many states have introduced legislation that makes it easier to spot immigrants once they have entered the country.  As with the European Union, whilst these numbers are large and increasing, they are manageable.

What overwhelmed the Roman Empire was entire nations crossing into the Empire at the same time, forced into the Empire by external forces.  Once they were in they established de facto nation states within the Roman Empire which, over time, became the de jure nation states that would evolve into France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Is there a trigger that might force whole nations into the European Union and the United States?

What might trigger entire nations to move into the European Union and United States today?  There is no major military threat from the south that is driving North Africans into Europe or Hispanics into the United States.  So there is no Hunnic Empire equivalent.  We are safe.

However, as the Huns pushed against Germanic tribes north of the Danube River what they were effectively doing was reducing the amount of land available for the Germans to live off: the Germans were beginning to starve as the land available could not support their population.

Here, we have a parallel and thus a potential problem. The population of North Africa and the Middle East is exploding and has jumped by over 100 million people over the past 20 years, and is expected to jump by another 100 million by 2030.  Climate change is going to reduce their ability to grow their own crops.  More people are living off a smaller agricultural food base.  Already 50% of the region’s food is imported.  If their economies don’t grow sufficiently to keep up with population growth they will no longer be able to feed themselves from purchased imported food, and as their populations increase their ability to feed themselves from domestically grown food will also decline.

Population growth in Middle East and North Africa over the past 18 years


At some point, this divergence between population growth and food availability will result in the prospect of widespread starvation in North Africa.  As with Germanic tribes 1,650 years ago, North African family groups and political leaders will have to ask themselves a tough question: are we more likely to die by staying here and starving or crossing the Mediterranean Sea into the European Union en masse and confronting a military response by the European Union?

Given the fact that the European Union is politically divided, militarily weak and culturally pacifist is is highly unlikely that any useful military response would be forthcoming.  If I were a Libyan, I would stake my life on crossing into Europe rather than staying behind to starve.

What about the United States?  Whilst the population to the south is increasing rapidly, there appears to be no expectation for the region not to to be able to feed itself in the near to medium term.  Unlike North Africans, who face the expanse of the Sahara to the south, inter regional migration is also available to Central and Southern Americans.

For the citizens of the European Union the unwelcome arrival of a whole nation’s worth of people will not be a comfortable process.  As with the Western Roman Empire, it is unlikely that our political structures would be able to survive.  For European Union citizens, it will feel as though the barbarian hordes have returned.

History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

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