Thursday, November 19, 2015

Who Was More Complacent: The Leaders of Ancient Rome or Niall Ferguson?

In the wake of the Paris shootings, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson compared France's "complacency" in allowing ISIS operatives into the country with the "complacency" of the Roman Empire in allowing the so-called "barbarians" to pass through its borders in the fifth century.  The final two sentences in his recent op-ed in The Australian sums it up best: "Poor, poor Paris.  Killed by complacency."

Mark Humphries, who teaches ancient history at Swansea University, is having none of it.  I don't know much about the 5th century or ancient Rome, and we don't spend a lot of time there at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I did find his response to Ferguson worth bringing to your attention.

Humphries writes at the blog of the History Department of Durham University:


In his op-ed, he argues that modern Europe, like the Roman empire in the 5th century AD, stands on the brink of collapse before insuperable external forces – but the 21st Europeans are too complacent to spot the obvious analogy. Where Rome faced barbarians, modern Europe faces Daesh. He quotes from Edward Gibbon’s lurid description of the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410, offering it as an obvious parallel to Friday’s massacre in Paris. Ferguson wants to push the parallel further: fifth century Rome was complacent about its frontier defences; so too, he argues on the basis of the recent influx of refugees, is modern Europe...
Ferguson admits he “do[es] not know enough about the fifth century” to trace what he would see as ancient parallels to the supine responses of modern European leaders to current threats. But I do know about the fifth century: it is my historical stomping ground, and I, along with others in the field (to judge by social media), have read Ferguson’s op-ed with dismay mounting to anger. He seriously misrepresents the historical experiences of the fifth century, which matters when a Harvard history professor purports to be presenting the past to a general audience. For all his lack of knowledge, Ferguson claims to have done some cursory research. In addition to Gibbon, he cites two important studies of the end of the Roman empire, both published in 2005: Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization and Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire.
But what he does with these works amounts to eye-wateringly simplistic distortion. For instance, basing his deductions on Peter Heather’s discussion of the economic attractions of the empire to its barbarian neighbours, he remarks: “Like the Roman empire in the early 5th century, Europe has allowed its defences to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its malls and stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.” Notice the pernicious conflation there between economic migrants and refugees: it is a point Ferguson labours elsewhere in his article, when he remarks “Things in their own countries have become just good enough economically for them to afford to leave and just bad enough politically for them to risk leaving.” For Ferguson, all these people, no matter how desperate their circumstances, represent an undifferentiated external threat.


There are other conflations too, this time underscoring an “us” versus “them” mentality of fear. He writes begrudgingly: “It is doubtless true to say that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe are not violent. But it is also true the majority hold views not easily reconciled with the principles of our liberal democracies, including our novel notions about sexual equality and tolerance not merely of religious diversity but of nearly all sexual proclivities.” But this is a straw man argument, producing a caricature of “us” that fails to account for the wide variety of opinions on matters of inclusion and tolerance to be found across Europe. In equal fashion, his construction of a Muslim “other” is a caricature devoid of nuance.
Gibbon, then, saw the demise of the Roman empire in the fifth century as a peculiarly western tragedy; it was also one that risked happening again. No modern specialist of the period would accept Gibbon’s analysis as anything more than the posturing of an Enlightenment intellectual decrying the forces of “superstition” and “barbarism”. That Ferguson chooses to do so fits neatly with the primacy and ascendancy of the West in his historical vision...
Poor, poor Ferguson. Undone by complacency.
Read the entire post here.