Small Wars Journal

Immigration, Diversity, Inclusion: Strategic National Security Assets From Antiquity Through Today

Sun, 04/15/2018 - 5:06pm

Immigration, Diversity, Inclusion: Strategic National Security Assets From Antiquity Through Today

Brian E. Frydenborg


The ancient Roman Republic’s embrace of diversity, inclusion, and immigrants was the essential x-factor in its incredible rise to world superpower.


Image via BBC

AMMAN—Last summer, the great dame of modern classical studies, Mary Beard, was subjected to vicious online abuse for simply defending the reality of Roman Britain as a diverse place, as depicted in a BBC cartoon that had provoked the initial outrage from conservative British nativists. 

Battles of diversity and inclusion, and how we acknowledge the reality of diversity and inclusion, seem to sadly be timeless, then.

President Donald Trump and his fans seemed to be pretty happy at the outset of this year to be referring to Africa in excremental terms, mentioning Haiti and El Salvador in the same context.  Such behavior adds fuel to allegations of racist intent behind some of the Trump Administration’s policies; at the very least, Trump and senior Republicans seems to believe that severely limiting immigration from these places and others will make America stronger and safer. 

History shows us otherwise.

The Unites States is the second most successful republic in world history and was once looked upon by its English, then British colonial masters as a backwater.  For most of its history, America took in a wide range of immigrants and many slaves: people with diverse religious beliefs, skin color, and backgrounds.  If anti-immigrant crusaders had their way, America would not the great nation it is today, but one (or several) much diminished ones, possibly having self-destructed, because throughout its history, it has been America’s inclusive diversity—created by people coming from all over the world buying into a shared dream—that has made America the most powerful, dynamic, and innovative nation on earth over the past hundred or so years.

The most successful republic in world history had a similar story.

This, of course, was ancient Rome, mythical founded in 753 BCE and a republic from 509 BCE after it overthrew a king in the name of freedom, founding a system based on checks and balances, divided power, and democratic elections.  Contrary to some interpretations, for most of the Roman Republic’s history, the people were sovereign and played a major role in policy.

Rome’s early history was wracked by warfare with neighboring Italians, Greeks, and “barbarian” Gauls, the latter even sacking Rome in 390 BCE.  Rome was hardly always the aggressor and suffered its fair share of defeats. 

But it would eventually best all its neighbors and then some.

Why this happened became a question asked by many who experienced it, not least among these the Greek historian Polybius, whose analysis from over 2,100 years ago is still quite useful for understanding Rome.  For Polybius, the Roman Republic’s constitution of checks, division of power, and consensus-building and stability in high quantities relative to all its neighbors and rivals is a main reason for its success.

In hindsight, we can identify the other major reason as Romans themselves: what it meant to be Roman and how you came to be Roman.

Rome’s mythical founder Aeneas was a refugee from the Trojan War, and the community he set up would, legend has it, embrace all manner flotsam and jetsam who would come to be part of something greater than themselves; from myths (even the legend of the rape of the Sabine women was a story of integration, as Beard, points out) or social practice, Rome’s story was often relative-to-its-peers one of integration, and from its earliest days, Rome was more diverse (and soon verifiably larger as a result of immigration) than its neighbors. 

Just like Rome’s constitution, this, too, was an extraordinarily singular trait of Rome’s.  As scholar Nathan Rosenstein notes, while for Greeks  “citizenship in a poleis [city-state] stemmed from ethnic identity and membership in an age cohort that had gone through a ritualized process of initiation, a status that was nearly impossible to confer on anyone outside the restricted circle of its members,” for Romans, citizenship came to be “a collection of specific rights and responsibilities that could be conferred entirely or in part on others.”  Fellow scholar Arthur Eckstein wrote how this gradually increasing inclusiveness and expansion (think green card status often lasting a generation or several) of what it meant to be Roman was the key reason behind Rome’s success, and “that hegemony emerged” from the “exceptional” advantages generated by this “Roman development of an idea of citizenship divorced from ethnicity and/or geographic location.”  This meant that Rome as a political entity “went beyond the nation state” and could muster a “scale of resources” and “control over those resources” that was unmatched by any rival, enabling them to lose battles but still win wars and recovering from losses that would have doomed others.  In the words of Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua, while other ancient empires were “essentially just…war machine[s], Rome was also an idea.  Inhabitants from the farthest reaches of the empire wanted to be-and became-“Roman.”

Eckstein also notes Rome’s unique talent for “alliance management,” for just as they could take in diverse peoples as citizens, they sought alliances and warm relations with many others, and even more sought these from Rome in return; these junior allies of the Republic did not even pay taxes and were free to run their own domestic affairs.  Whether towards allies or enemies, Rome was certainly more generous than its competitors.

This meant that the Roman Republic’s diversity was the foundation for chief strengths. 

Romans were more often than not preferred by the other regional states of the Mediterranean as allies, friends, or even overlords, and some kings even willed their kingdoms to Roman rule.  Rome’s last major conflict with other Italians (91-87) was not borne out of hatred, but from its allies’ desire to enjoy full citizenship, which they were given in the end.  And by this time, Rome’s inclusive system had given it dominance over the entire Mediterranean.

At its best, Rome understood that destroying soft power meant needing to over-rely on hard power (i.e., more war), that picking up willing partners based on actually making friends and keeping them was far cheaper and far more beneficial than war and mistrust.  America, too, came out on top in 1991 from the Cold War in large part because the Russian-dominated Soviets maintained their empire through fear rather than friendship, and as soon as the Soviets gave their non-Russian republics and satellites the freedom to choose, all chose independence and rejected Soviet communism, and many broke abruptly with Russia and chose to be friends and allies of the United States, much like Rome was chosen by many smaller powers long ago.  Imagine if today’s Trump was president for Reagan’s tenure: it is hard to imagine Eastern Europe being as eager to join America in NATO after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union.

Rome rose staying true to these inclusive values.  As will be seen, when it betrayed them it fell.


Betrayal, exclusion, and mistreatment of refugee migrants and immigrants—a true failing of core Roman values that made Rome great in the first place—led directly to the fall of the Western Roman Empire.


Image via, edited by author

The year is 376 CE: Rome is ruled by theocratic emperors and plagued by Christian intolerance and endemic war against other Romans in civil wars and against “barbarians” on the Empire’s frontiers, no doubt considered by the Romans to be coming from backwaters. 

One of these “backwater” peoples, the disparate Germanic Goths, came under brutal assault from the Huns.

Much like Americans (and others) today tend to overgeneralize/oversimplify the “other,” Rome’s tendency in this era was to judge various “barbarian” groups based on stereotypes and limited interactions that were limited and not-necessarily-representative; the Goths were hardly an exception.

Tens of thousands, maybe well over 100,000 Goths migrated, seeking safety and the protection of the Eastern Roman Emperor Valens (the Empire was now divided), moving to Rome’s Danube River border and asking for land to settle and farm as peaceful refugees in return for providing soldiers for the Roman army, such arrangements being common at this point (this is not altogether dissimilar from legal immigration options offered to foreigners by the U.S. military).  Not all seeking settlement were admitted, but the “majority” of those groups that were, to quote Goldsworthy, “proved highly successful” (just as is the case with immigration in America today).

Valens admitted many (but not all the) Goths as noncitizens in exchange for military service and conversion to Arian/homoean Christianity.

But the Roman officials overseeing the Gothic immigration and settlement were horrible, responsible providing the Goths food but failing miserably.  Penned into a concentrated camp, things became desperate, with Goths selling their children into slavery to corrupt Roman officials for dog meat just to survive.  A horribly drunkenly mismanaged diplomatic “banquet” for Roman and Gothic leaders led to Romans executing Goths, initiating a Gothic rebellion in which Goths heavily pillaged several eastern provinces.

Emperor Valens himself arrived in 378 with front-line elite legions, and, at Adrianople, was shockingly killed and defeated with catastrophic losses in one of the worst defeats in Roman history.  As the victors kept pillaging, other uninvolved Goths in Roman territory who had done nothing wrong were slaughtered by the Romans en masse.  In 382, Alaric’s Goths were finally given land to settle under the previous terms by Valens’s successor, Theodosius, though without state-supplied food. 

Apart from being disliked because they were Goths, it should be noted that Valens had been the last Arian/homoean Christian emperor; the other (small-o) orthodox Christian emperors—Theodosius included—and their courts were very hostile to this form of Christianity adopted by the Goths, seeing it as highly heretical.  Thus, they faced both racial/ethnic and religious discrimination.

Just a few years after they were settled, Theodosius called on them to fight for him in several civil wars and they were crucial to his victories but, in the last battle, as many as 10,000 Goths from just one unit died, deliberately placed to spare Romans from casualties (the Christian apologist Orosius celebrated this as a double-victory: “ten thousand Goths...were sent ahead by Theodosius and destroyed to a man…the loss of these was certainly a gain and their defeat a victory”).  A leader of that unit was a Goth named Alaric, who dreamed of being a senior general in the Roman army, thus securing a state food supply for his people.  He was denied the promotion, both he and his Goths feeling disrespected, used, and abused.

When Theodosius unexpectedly died in January 395, leaving his two young sons to rule East and West, Alaric and many of his Goths sensed Rome’s weakness, that the time was right to pressure Rome for better terms and/or for revenge and/or opportunity.

The Eastern and Western Empires were more nervous about each other than Alaric, who, over the next decade, skillfully went from pressuring the East through raiding to get the position he wanted (only to lose it when the Eastern Emperor’s advisor who sealed the deal was exiled/executed and other Gothic soldiers and their wives/children were massacred, with a bigoted anti-Gothic faction settling in at court) to doing the same with the West in invading and plundering Italy (with nearly the exact same results). 

With much of the rest of the Western Empire in chaos, in 408 Alaric marched on Rome itself.  This sparked months-long negotiations that were horribly mismanaged by the Romans, prompting another march on Rome followed by even more negotiations, which Rome again bungled, leading to Alaric’s third march on Rome in 410. This time the gates mysteriously opened: no one inside wanted to go through another siege after the famine of the first.

The Gothic (relatively restrained) three-day sack was the first foreign sack of Rome in 800 years, sending a shockwave felt around the world. 

These Goths would carve out their own kingdom in the West but, once settled, their descendants would bravely fight alongside Romans in 451 to help save the Empire from the Huns, an alliance that could and should have easily happened in 376.  In 476, with the rest of the weakened West carved up by “barbarians,” Italy fell to a different group of Goths who deposed the last Western Roman Emperor.


It is overwhelmingly clear that the tragedy and missed opportunities of 376 led directly after repeated Roman blunders to the calamities of 410 and 476.  The sneering Goths-are-an-inferior-people attitude, then, was a major factor in the fall of Rome.  The little men who sat in its halls of power then clearly lacked an appreciation of the values of their far greater ancestors. They thought they would Make Rome Great Again, but they destroyed it instead, doing far more damage than any apparently inferior “barbarians.”  Even during the far more inclusive Republic that made Rome great, there were conservatives who were less inclusive.  The moderate Cicero wrote derisively of archconservative Cato the Younger: “He addresses the Senate as though he were living in Plato’s Republic rather than the shit-hole of Romulus [Rome’s mythic first king].” 

A strong unified Rome could have easily defeated Alaric in part because the Alaric-type would have been a Roman ally.  Instead, as Chua notes, “[i]t was precisely when the empire sought to maintain the ‘purity’ of Roman blood, culture, and religion…that Rome spiraled downward into disintegration and oblivion.”

President Trump would do well to remember that before labeling in excretory terms entire countries holding potential friend and allies or even future citizens.  It has been quite common to liken Trump to a mad Roman emperor, and while the U.S. is hardly in the state of late Imperial Rome (the Late Republic is another matter entirely, which I have discussed in detail before), Donald trump’s reign in the White House should still be cause for alarm: under Trump’s presidency, we have just seen the biggest drop (18 points) in and lowest levels (to 30%) for America’s image around the world in Gallup’s latest numbers that track this since that poll’s inception, falling behind Germany and China, with Russia close behind.  Pushing people away from us into the arms of China or Putin’s Russia only harms America’s national security.

Trump and his hostile spirit echoing the bigoted, petty men who led Rome before its fall and who abused and alienated Alaric’s Goths will not Make America Great Again, they will needlessly leave it weaker and empower its enemies.

About the Author(s)

Brian Frydenborg has spent two decades studying, writing about, or working in the fields of conflict analysis, counterterrorism, international affairs, public policy, politics, history, and humanitarian aid and international development.  His work has been featured in Newsweek, Jerusalem Post, Modern War Institute at West Point, London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre, Jordan Times, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Real Clear Defense/History, among others.  You can follow him on Twitter @bfry1981 and on his website, Real Context News.