Two interesting articles appeared in mainstream publications recently carrying stories relating to current political situations on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the first article from The Wall Street Journal, Classics professor Barry Strauss argues that it was anti-trade nativism that wrecked the Ancient Greeks, citing an Athenian demagogue named Cleon who was “a shrewd operator known for violence and for getting things done.”
In the second article, Annalisa Merelli shares the story about Rome’s mismanagement of a migrant crisis cost it its empire 1,700 years ago.
Both articles prove the timely lesson that history does, indeed, repeat itself and offers sage advice to today’s leaders— and voters— if only they’re reading the Classics.
How Anti-Trade Nativism Wrecked the Ancient Greeks
By Barry Strauss
From The Wall Street Journal
Today’s presidential candidates are playing recklessly with free trade, alliances and immigration. They are pushing the misguided notion that high trade barriers will restore jobs and prosperity to the middle class, and scorning old alliances and new immigrants. These protectionist and nativist ideas aren’t new; they’re as old as the Greeks. Athens tried them but it created international disorder and the opposite of the desired result.
While nationalism will always be fodder for politicians, today’s leaders need to understand the consequences. Athens learned the hard way. Here are the lessons:
The story begins about 2,500 years ago with an alliance between Athens and the Greek city-states of the Aegean. Historians usually call it an empire, but it was more like a cross between the European Union and the Warsaw Pact. It was meant to protect Greece against Persia and it succeeded so well that it left some allies complaining it had turned into a protection racket in which they were bullied into playing along but got nothing in return. Athens didn’t allow allied exits and backed up its position with force.
At first, things worked smoothly. Athens slowly turned the alliance into a common market in which Athenian coins, weights and measures became the norm, a kind of ancient euro. Athens’s free-trade zone fostered prosperity, democracy and the soaring confidence that built the Parthenon and fired the Golden Age of Greece.
Athens also had a magnetic appeal to immigrants. They came from far and wide and represented rich and poor. Immigrants competed with natives for jobs but not for political power since they were rarely allowed to become citizens.
Then came the backlash. Three disturbing developments took place.
Nativism. Athens’s old landed elite disliked democracy and despised the immigrants. So, when extreme conservatives seized power in a coup d’état after Athens lost the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), they evicted immigrants from the city limits and targeted the wealthiest for murder and property confiscation.
Fortunately, the coup-makers didn’t stay in power long. An armed uprising, funded and manned partly by immigrants and slaves, defeated the usurpers and restored democracy to Athens. But the coup shows that even the most open society is vulnerable to nativist and anti-immigrant sentiment.
Demagoguery. In Athens, for the first time in history, demagogues emerged. They were popular leaders of unrestrained vulgarity and crassness. They shouted, used abusive language, and instead of keeping their hands modestly tucked inside their cloaks, they raised their garments and introduced hand gestures into oratory. Although wealthy and well educated, they spoke in populist accents and criticized the establishment.
The biggest demagogue was the Athenian general Cleon, described by fellow general and historian Thucydides as “the most violent man in Athens.” Maybe, but Cleon was also a shrewd operator with a reputation for getting things done. He attacked elites, especially intellectuals, and the crowds cheered. Although some of his initiatives fell flat—including the plan to execute everyone in Mytilene whether or not they had taken part in a rebellion against Athens—he remained popular and successful overall until he fell in battle with the Spartans (in Athens even demagogues died with their boots on).
Endless conflict. Athenian foreign policy should have built an international order that shared prosperity and encouraged allies to stay loyal. Instead, it chose Athens First.
Like Brussels in today’s EU, Athens became a supercapital. But it made the mistake of trampling on local rights. Athens mandated, for example, that major court cases be heard there rather than in the allies’ home city-states such as Lesbos, Naxos or Miletus. Athenians also threw their weight around abroad and bought up property that was supposed to be for locals only.
Allied elites burned with anger that makes today’s Brexit fever in the U.K.—in favor of Britain leaving the EU—look like a sniffle. Therefore many of those allies threw in their lot with Athens’s rival, Sparta, even though Sparta was an economic backwater.
Athens had given people an impossible choice: prosperity or freedom. In the end, all they got was the more than quarter-century-long Peloponnesian War, the ancient Greek equivalent of our world wars. The long struggle weakened all of Greece but especially Athens, which by 404 B.C. lost its alliances, its ships and its prosperity.
Fast forward to today’s world. As in the past, Americans face a choice. We can erect trade barriers and build walls—and stoke bad will among nations. Or we can continue on the road to peace and prosperity by maximizing free trade in goods, ideas and people (vetted for national security) while offering a plan to bring back prosperity for those in need without re-erecting trade barriers.
Our leaders need to make the case for the second path, clearly and fearlessly. In short, we need smart, tough and responsible leadership. Otherwise, make way for Cleon—demagogues, nativists and protectionists who risk stoking a new conflict. That could make the Peloponnesian War look tame by comparison.
Mr. Strauss is a professor of history and classics at Cornell University.
1,700 years ago, the mismanagement of a migrant crisis cost Rome its empire
By Annalisa Merelli
On Aug. 3, 378, a battle was fought in Adrianople, in what was then Thrace and is now the province of Edirne, in Turkey. It was a battle that Saint Ambrose referred to as “the end of all humanity, the end of the world.”
The Eastern Roman emperor Flavius Julius Valens Augustus—simply known as Valens, and nicknamed Ultimus Romanorum (the last true Roman)—led his troops against the Goths, a Germanic people that Romans considered “barbarians,” commanded by Fritigern. Valens, who had not waited for the military help of his nephew, Western Roman emperor Gratian, got into the battle with 40,000 soldiers. Fritigern could count on 100,000.
It was a massacre: 30,000 Roman soldiers died and the empire was defeated. It was the first of many to come, and it’s considered as the beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476. At the time of the battle, Rome ruled a territory of nearly 600 million hectares (2.3 million square miles, nearly two-thirds the area of the present-day US), with a population of over 55 million.
The defeat of Adrianople didn’t happen because of Valens’s stubborn thirst for power or because he grossly underestimated his adversary’s belligerence. What was arguably the most important defeat in the history of the Roman empire had roots in something else: a refugee crisis.
Two years earlier the Goths had descended toward Roman territory looking for shelter. The mismanagement of Goth refugees started a chain of events that led to the collapse of one of the biggest political and military powers humankind has ever known.
It’s a story shockingly similar to what’s happening in Europe right now—and it should serve as a cautionary tale.
According to historian Ammianus Marcellinus, in 376, the Goths were forced to leave their territories, in what’s now Eastern Europe, pushed south by the Huns, in Marcellinus’s words, “a race savage beyond all parallel.” The Huns, Marcellinus writes, “descended like a whirlwind from the lofty mountains, as if they had risen from some secret recess of the earth, and were ravaging and destroying everything which came in their way.”
It resulted in terrifying bloodshed, and many of the Goths—like many Syrians and others displaced by war—decided to flee.
They decided that settling in Thrace, right across the Danube river, was the best solution; the land was fertile, and the river would provide defense to keep the Huns at bay.
That wasn’t free land—it was in the Roman empire, under the rule of Valens—and so Fritigern, who was leading the Goths, asked to “be received by him as his subjects, promising to live quietly, and to furnish a body of auxiliary troops if any necessity for such a force should arise.”
Rome had a lot to gain from this. Those lands needed cultivating, and more soldiers were always welcomed by the empire. “By combining the strength of his own people with these foreign forces,” Marcellinus writes of Valens, “he would have an army absolutely invincible.”
As a sign of gratitude to Valens, Fritigern converted to Christianity.
It all started rather peacefully. The Romans put in place a service not that different from a modern search-and-rescue program. “Not one was left behind,” Marcellinus writes, “not even of those who were stricken with mortal disease.”
The Goths “crossed the stream day and night, without ceasing, embarking in troops on board ships and rafts, and canoes made of the hollow trunks of trees.” Marcellinus recounts that “a great many were drowned, who, because they were too numerous for the vessels, tried to swim across, and in spite of all their exertions were swept away by the stream.”
It was an unexpected, unprecedented flow (some estimates say up to 200,000 people). Officials in charge of managing the Goths tried to “to calculate their numbers,” but determined it was hopeless.
Traditionally, the Roman attitude toward “barbarians,” though autocratic, had been pretty longsighted. Populations were often sent where the empire needed them the most, with little regard to where they wished to stay; however, there was a strong push toward assimilation that eventually turned foreigners into citizens.
Descendants of immigrants would routinely be seen in the high ranks of the military or the administration. The recipe that kept the empire safe from attack from other populations was simple: allow them into the empire and make them Roman.
But things eventually changed. The military officials who were in charge of provisions for the Goths—an ancient version of the support offered to migrants arriving in Greece or Italy—were corrupt and profited off of what was meant for the refugees. The starving Goths were forced to buy dog meat from the Romans.
Marcellinus has no doubt: “their treacherous covetousness was the cause of all our [the Romans’] disasters.”
The trust between the abused Goths and the Romans was broken several times before Adrianople, and the Goths went from wanting to become Roman to wanting to destroy Rome.
Less than two years later, Marcellinus writes, “with rage flashing in their eyes, the barbarians pursued our men.” And they took down the empire.
The migrants trying to get to Europe right now are not about to rise up in arms, and Europe is not—thankfully—the Roman empire. But this story shows well that migration has always and will always be a part of our world.
There are two ways to deal with refugees: one is to promote dialogue, and inclusion; the other is to be unwelcoming and uncaring. The second has led to disaster before—and in one way or another, is sure to do so again.