What the Paris attacks and the fall of Rome have in common: Nothing

November 20, 2015

The ruins of the Roman city of Ephesus in Turkey in 2007. COURTESY of Jason Fields

In the aftermath of the horrific attacks in Paris, politicians and commentators appear engaged in a dangerous contest to surpass each other in doomsday predictions. On Monday, eminent Harvard historian Niall Ferguson wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe that seemed designed to beat them all: the events of last Friday are equivalent to the sack of Rome and we stand on the precipice of nothing less than the collapse of Western Civilization.

Ferguson begins with a graphic passage from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire describing the sack of Rome in 410 by the Goths:

In the hour of savage license, when every passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed . . . a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans; and . . . the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies . . . Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless . . .

Ferguson then asks:

“Now, does that not describe the scenes we witnessed in Paris on Friday night?”

The answer is: No, it does not.

In fact, there are very few similarities between the two incidents. At about 9:30 PM on Friday a handful of Islamic militants unleashed a blast of murderous violence in northeast Paris. For a few nightmarish hours they controlled the Bataclan Theater and methodically murdered innocent civilians in cold blood. At about midnight French security forces raided the theatre. All the terrorists were killed. Order was restored. It was a shocking and awful crisis that lasted just over three hours, leaving 129 dead and hundreds wounded.

The sack of Rome in 410 saw an army of 40,000 Goths plunder the Eternal City totally unopposed. It had been more than a century since Rome had been the political capital of the Empire and it had no military or police force capable of resisting the intruders. The inhabitants of Rome were utterly helpless. When the Goths finished systematically looting every private home and public building, they loaded up their carts and left. Though the city itself still stood, it had been completely stripped of its moveable wealth. It was the first time Rome had been sacked in 800 years and was a watershed moment in the collapse of the Roman Empire.

I do not want to minimize the horror of the Paris attack, but what happened there does not equal the sack of Rome. The people of Paris still stand. The Louvre still stands. The shops of the Champs-Élysées did not lose a single piece of inventory. The banks still have all their money.

Beyond the specific differences between the two incidents, the analogy does not hold on wider level either. A detailed accounting of the history of Late Antiquity is unfortunately too complicated to be treated in full here, but the crucial thing to understand is that on the eve of the sack of Rome, the Romans and the Goths dealt with each other as near equals. They had been campaigning against each other off and on for 30 years and always seemed to wind up in a stalemate. The same group of Goths who sacked Rome had dealt Rome one of its greatest defeats as generation earlier: killing the Emperor Valens and two-thirds of the imperial army at the Battle of Adrianople. By the early 400s the two sides were wary of attacking each other because they were so evenly matched.

That’s vastly different from the power dynamic the West faces today. The truth is that the situation is so asymmetrical that Islamic State and their ilk are forced to attack civilians and “soft targets,” a tool always used by a very weak opponent to attack a very strong one. The wars of the late 300s and early 400s, on the other hand, were between near equal powers. The Goths did not send a few guys into Italy to set fire to Rome and murder whomever they happened to come across before inevitably succumbing to superior imperial might. They marched an entire army into Rome and looted the city at will.

As for comparing the larger breakdown of the Western Empire to contemporary geopolitics, here is a small sampling of what the Western Empire faced in the summer of 410: The central political authority was stretched thin and collapsing. A horde of Vandals had crossed the Rhine and now roamed Gaul at will — they would soon migrate across the Pyrenees and simply annex the Iberian peninsula. The imperial legions in Britannia and Gaul had revolted and were controlled by an ambitious general who no longer recognized the authority of the Western Emperor. The Eastern Empire had its own problems and could lend little support to their cousins in the West. The environment was so precarious that the Western capital had already been moved from Milan to Ravenna — protected as it was by a morass of impenetrable swamps.

When you look at the EU today — and the West generally — the Western Empire in 410 makes a lousy historical analogy. Francois Hollande hasn’t moved the French capital to a châteaux in the Alps because it is too dangerous to remain in Paris. No autonomous, well-armed Muslim army controls Provence. A completely different foreign army has not annexed Brittany. Lyon hasn’t revolted and declared independence from Paris.

It is one thing to be concerned about Western complacency, but to argue that a small and efficiently crushed attack is just like when Rome fell is dangerous. Raising the stakes to the level of civilization annihilation invites an irrationally disproportionate response that is all but guaranteed to make the situation worse.


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150,000 “syrian refugees” have declared assylum in the EU, and Obama pledged to accepted 10,000 by the end of thr fiscal year. That doesn’t sound like a potential army to you? The whole point of the Goth analogy is the Romans let the barbarians through the gate, to settle in Roman territory. Thirty years later they revolted and sacked Rome.

Posted by kuronekowa | Report as abusive

Rome fell due to the actions of immigrants and the decay of roman society and culture. Paris and the fall of Rome track very closely.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

The analogy is calculated by the propagandist Ferguson.

For the obtuse: the Goths came armed. The Syrians have phones and children.

I have never heard or read of a more cowardly representation that that of Niall and his dumb followers. Shame on you all.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

No, that doesn’t sound anything like an army. Army does not equal lot of people of varying ages and health fleeing something.

And there wasn’t a revolt. But why let facts get in the way of analogy, right?

Posted by dmagady | Report as abusive


“[tens of thousands of Syrian refugee] doesn’t sound like a potential army to you?”

No, absolutely not! If ANY of those refugees are mentally prepared for violence against countries that offer them safety, their total is almost certainly a small fraction of one percent — nothing like an “army”.

Tragically, modern history has had many, many occasions on which enormous tides of terrorized or displaced people sought refuge away from their homes. From all of these many examples, I am aware of no instance in which refugees became an “army” against their protectors.

Posted by GAntrobus | Report as abusive

It sounds more like a collective suicide by Islamists, unable to cope with modernity and trying to bring down the Ummah with them.

Posted by merabharat | Report as abusive

Well said Mr. Duncan! As a long-time listener to the History of Rome podcast, I will highlight that Syrian Refugees have NO SIMILARITY to the Goths of Fritigern’s or Alaric’s. They aren’t led by a king, they were settled in a whole province as soldiers-which most people get wrong-so get that. Please get the facts right those who make Sack-of-Rome style comments. What happened in 410 was far worse than what happened in Paris. And anyway, Niall Ferguson is best at modern history, he isn’t an ancient historian.

Posted by PriyankarK | Report as abusive

The article is correct and some of the anti-immigrant posts are seriously twisted. The article compares specific events, the twisted posts extrapolate wildly. So much for critical thinking skills.
(Disclosure: I believe that mass immigration from an alien culture with alien values is a recipe for long-term decline, if not outright cultural suicide.)

Posted by BGDavis | Report as abusive

Those self same Goths were refugees from the terrorist Huns whom they eventually helped the Romans to defeat.
Let us also not forget that many present day Europeans are descendants of the Goths and other Germanic Barbarians like them, eg, Franks, Vandals, Lombards, etc.

Posted by AhmedIqbal | Report as abusive

Sounds to me like Ferguson should have used Adrianople if his point was about refugees. It would still be a stupid point, but there might be a vestige of a comparison

Posted by timb117 | Report as abusive

Love the comment fm the guy who put refugees in quotation marks!

Posted by timb117 | Report as abusive

“Let us also not forget that many present day Europeans are descendants of the Goths and other Germanic Barbarians like them, eg, Franks, Vandals, Lombards, etc.”

And, while we’re not forgetting, let’s not forget, Niall Ferguson finds the descendants of those people to be the rightful colonial rulers of the world

Posted by timb117 | Report as abusive