Boris Johnson and the fall of the Roman Empire

Meme by the author

On 30 October, when interviewed by Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon at the Colosseum in Rome, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson made a claim that, even by his standards of magniloquent mendacity, was absolutely extraordinary. He said:

“The Roman Empire, they weren’t expecting it, went into a reverse and we had a Dark Ages. When the Roman Empire fell, it was largely the result of uncontrolled immigration, people that the empire could no longer control its borders, people came in from the east and all over the place. And we went into a Dark Ages, or Europe went into a Dark Ages, that lasted a very long time.

“And so, the point of that is to say it can happen again. People should not be so conceited as to imagine that history is a one-way ratchet.”

Was Johnson being ironic, or bizarrely Pythonesque, telling an inappropriate ‘no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition’ joke? “No-one expects a Barbarian invasion …” doesn’t have quite the same ring. No. Beyond Johnson’s obvious ignorance, there was nothing funny about this re-writing of history through a Brexit lens.

To be fair to Johnson, he’s not into the Romans. He much prefers the ancient Greeks, and his hero is Pericles, a general, statesman and orator during the Golden Age of Athens in the 5th century BC, who is remembered as a populist, demagogue and war-monger. (The fact that Johnson keeps a bust of Pericles in his office should be warning enough not to vote for the man.)

Dame Mary Beard, Britain’s best known classicist, once won a historic victory over Johnson in a debate on Greece vs Rome, compered by Andrew Marr, and it was to Mary Beard that tweeps appealed when they couldn’t believe their ears:

Is Johnson even remotely right?

Johnson is wrong on two counts: the retrospective application of Brexit rhetoric to the situation of the Roman Empire and the so-called Dark Ages. At school I had a forthright history teacher who explained the decline of the Roman Empire was due to the compounded effect of venereal disease down the generations, leading eventually to less competent leaders.

Edward Gibbon, the famous historian whose eight-volume history of the ancient Romans was, for decades, the standard reference in Britain for all things Roman, didn’t put it quite like that. He termed it “a moral decay” – the original ideals, values, and traditions upon which Rome was founded declined and were replaced by a notion that life was cheap and depravity, gluttony, and cruelty were the norm. Sound familiar?

  • An inability to get over the fact that the British Empire is no more;
  • corruption at all levels of government;
  • overpriced public contracts bunged to mates;
  • MPs on the payroll of firms they lobby for;
  • egregious breaches of the ministerial code;
  • the PM ignoring his ethics officer’s advice to fire a minister for bullying;
  • controversial appointments to the Lords and other political sinecures;
  • Russian influence;
  • undeclared donations;
  • stripping citizens of rights;
  • robbing the poor to further enrich the wealthy;
  • underfunding public services;
  • undermining democracy;
  • curbing citizens’ rights to hold government to account via the courts or protest;
  • voter suppression tactics;
  • malign propaganda in lieu of practical solutions;
  • the PM’s divorce from truth and reality …

It does feel as if Johnson is following a dictator’s playbook.

Why did the Roman Empire fall?

Scholarship on this issue has advanced significantly, especially in the last two decades. Today, besides moral decay, the reasons typically cited for the fall of the Roman Empire are:

  • corrupt politicians;
  • division – both literally, as the Empire was split into the Western Empire and the Byzantine Empire, and figuratively, as the population became factionalised;
  • financial weakness due to inflation, indebtedness, and the eventual realisation that slavery was wrong, leading to a labour crisis;
  • increasing inequality between the rich and poor;
  • cruel treatment and non-assimilation of Visigoth refugees, leading to a festering resentment and an ‘us and them’ mentality that eventually boiled over into civil conflict;
  • a weakened military; and
  • the Barbarian (Saxon) Invasions.

When he speaks of “uncontrolled migration”, Johnson is clearly referring to the Visigoth refugees. He ignores evidence that the Romans let them in as a source of cheap labour to, in part, compensate for the loss of slave labour, and then mistreated them, making them sell their children in exchange for dog food, for example. It is rather despicable of Johnson to twist the truth in this way to support his own underhand political agenda, cheapening the suffering of thousands of families.

How dark were the Dark Ages?

Then there is Johnson’s reference to the Dark Ages. A favourite catchphrase of one of my former French professors was, “The only thing dark about the Dark Ages is your knowledge of it.” Indeed, Johnson’s knowledge of it seems to be stuck back in his school days at Eton. These days, there is a greater understanding of the early Medieval period. They are only referred to as the Dark Ages because there are almost no (surviving) written records – although the 10th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle begins with events from 449AD.

There also used to be an inference that people who lived in those times were backward, pagan, less civilised. Certainly, the people of the early Medieval period were different from the Romans. They had oral rather than written traditions. They tended not to build in stone. They used mostly biodegradable materials and almost nothing remains of their buildings as a result. In these days of climate crisis that approach seems enlightened, almost visionary. The treasures from the 7th century Sutton Hoo burials belie the notion of a backward people. Historians have re-evaluated the period based on such discoveries, and now rarely refer to the period as the Dark Ages, due to the pejorative associations with that term.

What did the Anglo-Saxons ever do for us?

The Anglo-Saxons gave us the epic legend of King Arthur which has enthralled and inspired people around the world. They welcomed Christianity, the principles of which underscore so much of our culture. They created our parishes, many of which still have the same boundaries they did in Saxon times, and the ancient administrative system of hundreds, which survived into the nineteenth century. They fashioned our legal system, under which women had rights that it would take centuries to recover after the Norman invasion. They gave us many of our evocative place-names. Not such a dark age, then.

We’ve seen over the past few years how the populist Johnson has thought himself entitled to his own facts and, over the past few days, his own versions of what other people’s languages mean in English, with the mistranslation of the French PM’s letter. Now we’re seeing an acceleration in his use of false narratives, with the faking of Roman history. Is there nothing that won’t be blighted by the corrupting touch of this dissimulator’s distortions?