This essay is adapted from Out of the Melting Pot, Into the Fire, by Jens Heycke
(Encounter Books, 288 pages, $30.99)

How Multiculturalism Toppled Rome

Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman emperor Gaius assembled a massive invasion force and marched it across Europe to the English Channel. The elite of the greatest army in the world, along with a massive array of siege engines, drew up in battle formation along the shore, awaiting orders. Mounting a platform, Gaius commanded the trumpets to sound and then issued the orders: “Gather shells!” The soldiers frantically scrambled around the beach to fill their helmets with seashells. Gaius then erected a monument to celebrate this “victory against the sea” and transported the “booty” a thousand miles back to Rome for a triumphal march. 

Gaius, or Caligula, as he is more commonly known, was crazy. According to Roman chroniclers, this was only one example of his crazy behavior. He also nominated his horse to the consulship, capriciously threw law-abiding citizens into the arena, and depleted the treasury with lavish spending on orgies.

Unfortunately for Rome, Caligula was just the first of many lunatic emperors. Nero, Commodus, and many others would rival him in both lunacy and incompetence. Although the chroniclers probably exaggerated the malfeasance of these emperors, the record of the imperial succession by itself evinces the instability of Rome’s leadership.

Of the 50 emperors preceding Diocletian, only a handful died naturally, and several lasted only a few weeks. A gladiator had better odds of avoiding violent death than an emperor.

For all the attention devoted to the “fall” of Rome, the real wonder is not that Rome fell, but that it lasted as long as it did. For it lasted a very, very long time—nearly 1,000 years—or 2,000 years if we include the Eastern Empire. This was a fabulous and enigmatic success, given the challenges it confronted. History is littered with regimes destroyed by a few bad rulers. Yet Rome managed to endure dozens of them. From the time of Caligula, it not only survived but actually thrived—for another 400 years.

So, what was the secret sauce that accounted for Rome’s spectacular and enigmatic longevity? It is actually not secret at all. In fact, the Romans obligingly hammered out the recipe for us on a bronze tablet, which now resides in a Lyon museum. The tablet records a speech in which Emperor Claudius explains Rome’s ethnic policy and how it enabled Rome to succeed where others had failed:

Is it regretted that the Cornelii Balbi immigrated from Spain and other equally distinguished men from southern Gaul? Their descendants are with us; and they love Rome as much as we do. What proved fatal to Sparta and Athens for their military strength was their segregation of conquered subjects as aliens. Our founder Romulus, on the other hand, had the wisdom—more than once—to transform whole enemy peoples into Roman citizens within the course of a single day.

Claudius’ speech is not the only place we find this explanation of Rome’s success. Over the centuries, numerous other Romans were also very clear about it. For example, Cicero wrote:

without any dispute, that has been the most solid foundation of our empire, and the thing which has above all others increased the renown of the Roman name, that that first man, the creator of this city, Romulus, taught by the treaty which he made with the Sabines, that it was expedient to increase the population of this city by the adoption of even enemies as citizens.

A more detailed analysis of Roman ethnic policies comes from an outsider, the Greek orator Aelius Aristides. Aristides surveyed empires of the past and noted how each had fallen because it failed to sufficiently assimilate the different ethnic groups within its domain. Rulers of unassimilated populations had to continually scramble about to quell uprisings, whereas the Roman emperor could “stay where he is and manage the entire civilized world by letters.” Rome achieved this unique success by assimilating disparate groups, granting them both citizenship and a shared identity:

You have everywhere appointed to your citizenship, or even to kinship with you, the better part of the world’s talent, courage, and leadership . . . Neither sea nor intervening continent are bars to citizenship, nor are Asia and Europe divided in their treatment. In your empire all paths are open to all. No one worthy of trust remains an alien . . . You have caused the word Roman to be the label, not of membership in a city, but of some common nationality . . .

As Claudius and Cicero noted, Rome faced the challenge of incorporating diverse ethnic groups into its realm from the very beginning. Even in the early days of the republic, Rome comprised a mixed population of Latins, Sabines, Volscians, Etruscans, and others. Later, it embraced numerous other groups: Gauls, Spaniards, Britons, Africans, and so on. The Roman policy for handling this challenge was remarkably consistent for nearly 1,000 years: progressively extend citizenship to the people under its control and assimilate them. From early on, Romans were very clear about this policy and its rationale.

Even if we dismiss Cicero’s claim that it goes back to the legendary Romulus, it was established at least by the fourth century B.C., when the consul Camillus reminded the senate that the only way to manage their fractious Latin neighbors was to “follow the example of your ancestors and extend the State of Rome by admitting your defeated enemies as citizens.” 

Roman Asabiyah

The medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun hypothesized that societies rise and fall with the ebb and flow of a social bond that he called asabiyah. Scholars have translated asabiyah in a variety of ways—“group consciousness,” “esprit de corps,” “social cohesion,” and “group feeling.”  Ibn Khaldun describes it as the unifying feeling that binds a group together and makes collective action possible. Like an extended sense of kinship, asabiyah inspires individuals to subordinate their own interests to those of a larger community. In its strongest form, it is the “irrational bond” that can give people the “mutual affection and willingness to fight and die for each other.”

While asabiyah naturally occurs in small groups with actual kinship, like clans and tribes, it is fluid; it can be fostered and cultivated to embrace much larger groups that aren’t even distantly related. For example, Ibn Khaldun describes how Persians shared asabiyah with Arabs in the early Islamic period.

Contemplating the ruins of past civilizations that surrounded his hometown in North Africa, Ibn Khaldun speculated about how some civilizations had outlasted others. He asserted that asabiyah is the key: it is the glue and the engine that holds a society together and makes it work. A society’s success and longevity ultimately depend on its ability to forge and maintain a unifying asabiyah that embraces its entire population. History is a repeating cycle of societies rising on the initial strength of their asabiyah and collapsing when they fail to maintain it.

Although they lived 1,000 years before Ibn Khaldun’s time, the Romans had a good sense of asabiyah and strove to spread it wherever they went so that diverse peoples who originated thousands of miles from Rome were assimilated and came to identify themselves as Roman. When Rome annexed a region, it typically granted citizenship to the local leaders quickly, appointing them as magistrates answerable directly to Rome. Other residents often qualified for Latin rights (that is, citizenship without voting privileges).

After the region had firmed its bond with Rome over time, all the free residents might qualify for full citizenship. Until then, it would provide auxiliaries to serve alongside the Roman legions. The auxiliaries normally earned full citizenship on retirement. But an individual who demonstrated exemplary valor might receive it before then and might even be promoted to a command or to the privileged equestrian class.

The genius of this system was that it configured incentives around building an affiliation with Rome. The rewards for serving Rome were themselves progressive degrees of Roman “team membership”: first Latin rights, then full citizenship, and then elevation to the equestrian class. So an individual’s and a province’s aspirations and ambitions were channeled into joining the Roman team. 

This system enabled the Roman Republic to effectively consolidate most of the Italian Peninsula under its control. The peoples of Italy were not subjugated but rather assimilated and allowed to improve their status so that they ultimately accounted for many of Rome’s most prestigious and powerful families. The Julii and Servilii were Alban; the Aurelii and Claudii were Sabine; and Cicero’s family and the Marii were Volscian. 

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Two-Way Assimilation

From the very beginning, Roman assimilation of diverse ethnic groups was not a one-way process; many elements from these societies were adopted into a common culture.

For example, the toga and the fasces—now viewed as quintessentially Roman symbols—were originally Etruscan; and Rome’s legal structure and many of its popular deities came from the Sabines. Prominent Romans appreciated the importance of this heritage: Emperor Claudius wrote a 20-volume Etruscan history, and Varro wrote extensively on the Sabines. Today, Rome’s culture is often viewed as monolithic. However, at the dawn of the empire, it was widely recognized that Romanitas was a fusion of Latin, Sabine, Etruscan, and many other cultures.

The Roman Republic’s policy of integrating rather than subjugating its neighbors provided it with cohesive support both to defend itself and to expand its domain. This was well demonstrated in the Second Punic War, in which the Carthaginian general Hannibal led 100,000 men and 37 elephants across the Alps to attack Rome. 

Hannibal was one of the greatest generals of all time; his canny stratagems are still studied in military colleges. The Roman leadership, by contrast, was weak, with two concurrent commanders pursuing misguided and incompatible strategies. The leadership failure cost Rome several key battles, and Rome itself might have perished, but for one thing: Hannibal had counted on winning the cities of Italy to his side. The cohesion Rome had forged with the rest of Italy, and particularly Latium, made that impossible. 

Hannibal averred that he came to fight “on behalf of the Italians against Rome,” and he offered the Italian cities great advantages to join him. But their affiliation with Rome was so strong that most decided to fight and die for Rome, even though it appeared that Hannibal would prevail. Without Italian support, Hannibal’s manpower and provisions were inadequate. Supply lines across the mountains to Spain and across the sea to Carthage were untenable. Rome eventually crushed Hannibal’s army and Carthage. The Greek historian Polybius credited Hannibal’s ultimate defeat to the cohesion and commitment of the Roman forces: they were loyal and spoke with “one voice.”

As Rome transitioned from Republic to Empire, it continued its successful policy of liberal enfranchisement and integration outside Italy. By 49 B.C., the republic had granted full citizenship to Cisalpine Gaul and Latin rights to Transalpine Gaul. The emperors quickly extended this, with Julius Caesar bestowing full citizenship on Transalpine Gaul, Vespasian giving Latin rights to Spain, and Caracalla enfranchising free-born residents of all the provinces. In the Roman world, a province or a country could greatly improve its lot by demonstrating its loyalty to Rome and by Romanizing. The prospect of integrating as a Roman province was so appealing that the rulers of Bithynia, Pergamum, and Mauritania all voluntarily bequeathed their countries to Rome. 

The incentives for individuals to integrate themselves as Romans were also clear. A Gaul or a Spaniard did not get ahead by being a Gaul or a Spaniard but by becoming Roman. When Emperor Claudius elevated a number of Gauls to the Senate, he emphasized that this was part of Rome’s tradition of rewarding outsiders who integrated and Romanized. Although new citizens typically kept their religions, they were expected to adopt some of the shared culture, particularly the language. When a Lycian appearing before the senate failed to answer questions in Latin, Claudius summarily revoked his citizenship, saying it was “not proper for a man to be a Roman who had no knowledge of the Romans’ language.” 

Ambitious and capable provincials who did assimilate and attain citizenship enjoyed tremendous possibilities. Neither ethnic origin nor race precluded an individual’s ascent in the imperial administration. Over 2,000 years before the United States elected its first minority president, Rome had already elevated minorities to the consulship. Even the imperial throne was an equal-opportunity possibility. Emperor Trajan was from Spain, and several of his successors also had Spanish roots. Septimius Severus, Geta, and Caracalla were part African, and Marcus Philippus’s ancestry was probably Arab. Other emperors hailed from areas now in Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia, Syria, and Turkey.

This equal-opportunity environment extended beyond the political realm to the rest of society. While many of Rome’s most prominent writers and artists had Greek origins, many came from other regions. For example, the playwright Terence and the historian Suetonius came from Africa.

Assimilation in the Military

Rome’s greatest tool for integration was its military. The military was a compelling opportunity for a provincial who wanted to get ahead. If he served in an auxiliary unit, he could become a full citizen by the end of his tour of duty. If he managed to join a legion, his citizenship was confirmed immediately. Although citizenship was theoretically required before one joined a legion, inscriptions and Roman historians recount numerous instances of noncitizens being admitted as and thereby being made citizens. Whether a provincial joined an auxiliary unit or a legion, he would enjoy privileges unavailable to his compatriots, such as Roman legal rights and exemption from various taxes. His descendants would be recognized as full citizens, giving them a tremendous advantage over other provincials.

Bronze diploma granting citizenship to a retired soldier.

In modern movies, the Roman army is typically depicted as a homogeneous collection of white guys, all presumably originating from Rome or Italy. This could hardly be further from reality. Roman soldiers were Roman by virtue of Romanization, not birth.

Most were not from Rome or even Italy. For example, in the first century, the Legion III Augusta was only 19 percent Italian; by the third century, it had no Italians at all. Beholding a Roman army during the imperial era, you were more likely to see Spaniards, Africans, and Pannonians than Italians. Soldiers with exceptional courage and ability could quickly ascend to the highest ranks regardless of their race or ethnic origin. The writings of Roman historians, as well as various inscriptions, describe countless high-ranking leaders of barbarian stock. For example, Lusius Quietus, who came from an African tribe, joined as an auxiliary and achieved not only citizenship but privileged equestrian status for his valiant service. Quietus eventually became a senator, a consul, and a provincial governor. To this day, Quietus’s image occupies a prestigious spot on Rome’s Quirinal Hill. If you scrutinize Trajan’s column, you can identify him, sporting what appear to be short dreadlocks, leading his cavalry against the Dacians.

Lusius Quietus and his cavalry on Trajan’s column.

While some soldiers did serve in their home provinces, Rome was careful to relocate units whose local ethnic affiliation might pose a risk. For example, Britons were normally stationed on the continent, and it was typical for Gauls to serve in Africa and Syrians to serve in Egypt. This helped sever soldiers’ old ethnic ties and cement their identification with Rome.

As Aristides observed: 

You released them from their fatherland and gave them your own city, so that they became reluctant henceforth to call themselves by their original ethnics. Having made them fellow-citizens, you made them also soldiers . . . who together with their enrollment in the army had lost their own cities but from that very day had become your fellow-citizens and defenders.

Though some auxiliary units had ethnic names, they often integrated individuals from different tribes and distant regions, as well as some soldiers who were already Roman citizens. There was a clear effort to blend groups from very distant areas. For example, there were units named “Ligurians and Spanish” and “Gauls and Pannonians.”

While in the military, soldiers had to learn to speak Latin and might also be required to read and write it. They were immersed in Roman culture. The cognomina (or nicknames) they adopted were predominantly Latin, and many also gave their children names from Latin literary classics. While diverse private religious practices were permitted, Roman military tradition focused on devotion to Rome, the princeps, the unit, and its standard. Surviving inscriptions from all around the Mediterranean evince the powerful integrative influence of the Roman military. Epitaphs written by soldiers for their fallen comrades were often written in Latin verse, suggesting competence, if not fluency, in the language. These inscriptions describe men who, regardless of their race or origins, trained and fought alongside each other, often for many decades, all the while absorbing the shared culture of Rome. For example, one epitaph celebrates a centurion born in Pannonia, who served for 40 years in areas that are now Hungary, Egypt, France, Germany, Austria, Serbia, and Spain. 

On retiring from the legions, soldiers often received grants of farmland in the provinces. Emperor Augustus alone settled over 100,000 veterans outside Italy. Thus, a powerful lattice of respected citizens, steeped in Roman culture and bearing a passionate attachment to Rome, was spread across the provinces.

Assimilation in the Provinces

Supplementing the military’s influence, the provincial administration helped Romanize the provinces. While Rome incorporated many cultural practices from the provinces, it diligently spread the shared Roman culture along with its citizenship. As Pliny wrote, Rome’s mission was:

to unite the discordant and uncouth dialects of so many different nations by the powerful ties of one common language, to confer the enjoyments of discourse and of civilization upon mankind, to become, in short, the mother-country of all nations of the Earth.

Seneca joked about trying to dress the “whole world in the toga”—the toga being one of the most powerful symbols of Roman-ness. Even if Seneca did not take this mission seriously, the provincial governors did. For example, Agricola reconfigured Britain’s cities in the Roman style, taught Latin to the locals, and encouraged them to adopt Roman dress. Charters from cities around the empire also manifest the effort to create miniature replicas of the Roman municipality. Still extant Roman amphitheaters from Britain to Jordan and Romance languages from Portugal to Romania attest to the tremendous success of Rome’s Romanization efforts. As one contemporary poet wrote: “Thou hast made of alien realms one fatherland . . . Thou hast made one city of the once wide world.”

Like republican Rome, imperial Rome did not eradicate the cultures it embraced but integrated many of their elements into the shared sense of Romanitas. It was a true melting pot, incorporating not only the highly esteemed contributions of Greek civilization but also of Near Eastern and North African cultures. This was particularly evident when it came to religion. Near Eastern deities were widely worshiped, alongside the traditional pantheon, which was already stocked with Greek Olympians and Etruscan lares and penates. In the well-preserved ruins of Ostia Antica, we can still get a feel for Rome’s integration of diverse faiths. The small port city features not only temples to Roman gods and borrowed Greek deities like Heracles but also shrines to the Egyptian Isis and the Phrygian Attis, no less than 17 mithraea devoted to the Persian Mithras, and a vast Jewish synagogue.

Rome’s melting pot ethnic policy, combined with its liberal enfranchisement, helped make it incredibly resilient to both internal and external threats. From Britain to the Middle East, Rome enjoyed support from vast numbers of people who identified with it and had a stake in its success, even though their ancestors were not originally Roman or even Italian. As the poet Claudian wrote, Rome “protected the human race with a common name . . . drawing together distant races with bonds of affection.”

Even as Rome’s ancient families faded, there arose a set of Gauls, Pannonians, and others said to be “more Roman than Romans themselves,” who invigorated Rome with fresh energy and resolutely defended it. As late as the fourth century, Rome still fostered individuals like the great general Flavius Stilicho, who, despite his Vandal pedigree, steadfastly identified himself as Roman, devoting his life to defending Rome against barbarian invaders.

With so many people in the provinces identifying with Rome, there was little incentive to rebel, even when there was discord or anarchy at the top. Outsiders were likewise reluctant to attack a polity that was so unified and powerful. The result was an unprecedented, long era of peace—capped by the two-century period known as the Pax Romana. This peace fostered widespread prosperity that would remain unrivaled for more than a thousand years after Rome’s fall. With the entire Mediterranean basin living peaceably under a single regime, beneficial commerce and trade flourished. 

Beyond fostering peace, Rome’s asabiyah increased prosperity in another way: it bolstered the provision of public goods like infrastructure. Modern economic research has shown that less fractionalized societies—those with a sense of shared, common identity—tend to provide far more public goods than more fractionalized societies. A society is much more inclined to build roads and bridges for the benefit of “its own kind” rather than for the benefit of outsiders. The Greek city-states, for example, cooperated in maintaining Delphi and a few other sites but otherwise did little to provide public goods outside their city walls.

By contrast, Rome, which had “made one city of the once wide world,” built a staggering number of aqueducts, roads, baths, and other infrastructure all the way from Britain to the Red Sea. The Roman road network, for example, was more extensive than the current U.S. interstate highway system. It is unlikely that Rome would have built so vastly without the sense that all this area and its inhabitants were Roman.

By modern standards, Rome was hardly a kind and gentle empire. Its tremendous legacy in law, literature, and engineering was darkened by practices of gruesome brutality: gladiatorial games, crucifixions, and slavery. Some groups, like Jews and Christians, were persecuted at times, and women had very limited rights. Nevertheless, Rome contrasted starkly with other classical civilizations in the degree of opportunity, meritocratic social mobility, and material comfort that it afforded people from very diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

In other classical civilizations, citizenship was a jealously guarded tribal entitlement, seldom granted to other ethnic groups. In Athens, for example, nearly one-third of the population were metics—foreigners who had few rights and a vastly inferior status to ethnic Athenians. Unlike provincials in the Roman Empire, metics in Athens had no hope of ever becoming Athenian citizens, even after living there for generations. We find in Demosthenes’ speeches, for example, how jealously Athens restricted its citizenship. Unless an individual’s Athenian pedigree was unassailable, his citizenship rights could be challenged in court. In Rome, by contrast, even barbarians from beyond the limes could quickly become full citizens. 

Plumbed latrines in Ostia Antica’s expansive public baths.

Those who did become citizens had a good chance of enjoying a standard of living that was unmatched for a millennium after Rome fell. Artifacts from former Roman sites from Britain to Egypt suggest that many people enjoyed a high level of comfort; it was not limited to the patrician elite. Ordinary household articles from even the lower social strata often reflect a high level of artistry and luxury. A look at the well-preserved layout of Ostia Antica is instructive. With a population of roughly 20,000, Ostia had 18 lavishly decorated public baths, with the largest covering over 34,000 square feet. The still extant public amphitheater could accommodate up to 5,000 people. The capacity of these facilities relative to Ostia’s size suggests that many of the benefits of Roman civilization were enjoyed by much of the population, not just a tiny minority.

Multiculturalism and the Fall of Rome

So why did Rome finally “fall?” In Der Fall Roms, Alexander Demandt famously provides 210 reasons. We will only consider one of the key reasons here: Rome’s shift from a “melting pot” to a “multicultural” system of managing its ethnic diversity. This shift accompanied the mass immigration of entire communities of Goths and other barbarians into Roman territory, starting in the fourth century and culminating with the massive flood of refugees fleeing the Huns in the fifth century. Unlike communities that the Romans had absorbed in the past, these refugees were neither integrated nor granted citizenship. Instead, they were allowed to settle in enclaves, maintaining their own languages, loyalties, and leadership.

Rome was abandoning its mission to spread its asabiyah and shared identity over all the people in its dominion.

For example, in just one instance, Emperor Valens agreed to allow a group of 200,000 Thervingi to cross the Danube and settle on Roman lands. One of our Roman sources cynically writes that Valens took the greatest care that “none of those destined to overthrow the Roman Empire should be left behind.” Another describes the Thervingi and other Goths as being “sown in the Roman Empire like teeth.” Both may have had a point: the Thervingi never assimilated and eventually became a big problem for Rome, ravaging Thrace and virtually destroying Rome’s army in the Battle of Adrianople.

As unintegrated immigrant enclaves proliferated, the emperors also took a more multicultural approach to Rome’s military. As we have seen, the military was the core of Rome’s melting pot, smelting barbarians into loyal Romans and defenders of the empire. But the last few emperors abandoned the melting pot approach, staffing the army with unintegrated barbarian units, known as foederati. The traditional arrangement that encouraged barbarian soldiers to Romanize and identify with Rome did not apply to the foederati. In earlier days, barbarians were integrated into auxiliary units (or legions) with Roman leadership and enough Roman recruits to provide a critical mass of Roman cultural influence.

By contrast, the foederati were not integrated at all. Their units comprised only barbarians who swore oaths of allegiance to their own tribal leaders. They were not required to learn Latin or practice the customary Roman military devotions. Unlike earlier barbarian units, who were often relocated to loosen their original ethnic ties, the foederati remained with their ethnic communities and settled in ethnic enclaves on assigned areas of land. During the fourth century, the emperors rapidly expanded the foederati, enlisting Alans, Attacotti, Franks, Vandals, Goths, Sarmatians, and others so that they ultimately constituted the majority of Rome’s military power. 

Thus, Rome increasingly relied on people who did not identify as Roman—who did not share in Rome’s asabiyah. Three centuries after Aristides praised Rome for effectively assimilating barbarians as Romans and turning them into stalwart defenders of the Empire, a Gothic leader would scoff at the ethnically fractionalized assemblage that defended Rome: 

The vast number of the enemy is worthy only to be despised, seeing that they present a collection of men from the greatest possible number of nations. For an alliance which is patched together from many sources gives no firm assurance of either loyalty or power, but being split up in nationality it is naturally divided likewise in purpose.

According to the sixth-century historian Jordanes, Attila similarly derided the ethnic fractionalization of Roman forces.

In earlier Roman history, as we have seen, a barbarian could greatly improve his lot by Romanizing and serving Rome. For example, a black African like Lusius Quietus could integrate, rise through the ranks, and achieve the top job of consul. For the foederati in the late imperial period, the traditional incentive structure was turned on its head. Instead of a system where individuals from different backgrounds strived together to support Rome and thereby earn rights and privileges as Romans, there were distinct ethnic groups vying against each other to advance their group status at Rome’s expense.

Under the multicultural organization, which allowed, or even sanctioned, ethnic separation in lieu of shared identity, the rewards were for serving one’s own ethnic group. The foederati did not get ahead by being faithful Romans but by cleaving to their own ethnic groups—by being faithful Goths, Franks, or Alans. There was little motivation for a barbarian to devote his life to the defense of Rome. To put it in modern terms, “identity politics” became the order of the day. 

So individuals like Lusius Quietus became increasingly rare. In their place, there arose a series of powerful foederati leaders whose affiliation with Rome was evanescent and conditional—individuals like Firmus, Gildo, and Alaric. Not identifying with Rome or seeing a promising future as Romans, these leaders might fight for Rome, but only while it remained dominant and there were no other options. By the fifth century, with Roman dominance depending on the foederati themselves, there were other options. Thus, the emperors found themselves having to quash successive foederati rebellions. They often suppressed these rebellions by enlisting even more foederati. A eulogy for one of these emperors, Julian, praised him for the strategy of “employing barbarians against barbarians.” The eulogist did not foresee the catastrophic effects it would have over the following century.

The ethnic separateness of the refugee enclaves and the foederati spurred distrust between them and the Romans, who came to see the unassimilated foreigners as a menacing fifth column. There was a backlash—one that has been echoed in modern times by anti-immigrant and “National Front” type groups in response to the flood of immigrants and refugees into Europe and the United States. Synesius, for example, suspected that the foederati might try to seize control and hoped to replace them with “true” Romans:

Before matters have come to this pass, one to which they are now tending, we should recover courage worthy of Romans, and accustom ourselves to winning our own victories, admitting no fellowship with these foreigners, but disowning their participation in any rank.

Distrust of the barbarians led to widespread anti-barbarian discrimination. Thousands of the wives and children of foederati were killed in a series of purges. Not even loyal, assimilated Romans of barbarian ancestry were spared. Most notably, Stilicho, the last great Romanized barbarian leader, was targeted. Despite his stellar record of defending Rome against barbarians, the identity politics of the day made his own barbarian ancestry fodder for court intrigues. Rumors spread that he had invited Goths to invade and that he had colluded with the rebellious leader Alaric. In response, the emperor had Stilicho apprehended. A loyal Roman to the end, Stilicho willingly submitted and was executed.

If the foederati ever had any doubts about where their ethnic loyalties belonged, the purges and Stilicho’s execution must have dispelled them. Thirty thousand of Stilicho’s former soldiers joined Alaric in rebellion.

Alaric is himself emblematic of barbarian leaders during the late imperial period. Born a Visigoth, Alaric served as a foederati leader under Emperor Theodosius. In an earlier era, his capabilities and ambition might have been channeled into achieving status as a Roman and devoting his life to Rome’s defense. He might have had a career like Lucius Balbus, a first-century barbarian who Romanized and fought valiantly for the republic, earning citizenship and the very pinnacle of Roman honors—a triumph. In the multiculturalist organization of the late empire, however, Alaric’s identity and destiny lay with his own ethnic group and not with Rome.

Alaric and his compatriots were never Romanized: they would remove their animal skins briefly when they entered the senate house but scoffed at the Roman toga. After Theodosius’s death in 395 A.D., Alaric had hoped to be promoted from the foederati to a high command in the regular Roman army. This must have posed a dilemma for the leadership at the time. With Alaric’s affiliation with Rome already doubtful, increasing his power probably seemed risky. So, they chose to deny him the post. This spurred him to rebel and eventually to invade Italy with his Visigoths. In 410, he besieged Rome, demanding everything the Romans owned to lift his siege—their gold, silver, and all their household goods. Responding to an envoy who asked him what he proposed to leave for the Romans, he answered, “Their souls.” When he finally sacked the city, he took most of those too. 

It would be too much to say that Rome’s abandonment of its melting pot policy and the attendant deterioration of its asabiyah was the sole cause of its decline and fall. However, it is clear that Rome’s ethnic policy of liberal enfranchisement and ethnic integration helped strengthen and sustain it against numerous internal and external challenges for a thousand years; Romans of many different generations frankly acknowledged this. It is also clear that something had changed by the fifth century: barbarians were not being integrated as they had been in earlier centuries. It was those unassimilated barbarians that ultimately sacked Rome and dismembered its empire.

The Melting Pot Made Greatness Possible

Rome’s melting pot system of assimilation and liberal enfranchisement helped foster a shared sense of identity across its domain, giving it tremendous resilience for most of its history—from monarchy to republic to empire. No matter what their race or ethnic origins were, many people had the opportunity to Romanize, become citizens, and ascend to the highest levels of the military and the government. So, millions of people with tremendous diversity—Gauls, Spaniards, Britons, Africans, Arabs—came to share in Rome’s melting pot, bringing the energy and strengths of their own cultures, but identifying themselves as members of the Roman “team,” with a stake in its success. Getting this one thing so very right helped Rome survive terrible leadership and countless other problems for over a thousand years. 

The beneficial effects of Rome’s melting pot went far beyond simply allowing it to survive. They also contributed to the quality of life. People lived relatively well under Rome because it embraced an expansive community of people who viewed themselves as sharing an identity and who enjoyed the benefits of that: long periods of peaceful coexistence; mutually beneficial commerce and trade that vastly improved living standards; support for public goods like roads and baths; and so on. 

By modern Western standards, Rome was a brutal regime: it expanded its domain by violent conquest, violated human rights, and was never fully democratic. So one might doubt that modern democracies can learn anything from it. However, when we compare Rome with other polities that took a melting pot approach and contrast it with those that took a multicultural approach, consistent patterns emerge. It is also instructive to look at Rome in its historical context, comparing its achievement with those of contemporary civilizations. When it came to providing peace, freedom, and material comfort to the most people, Rome outshone all the civilizations of its day. Indeed, many historians claim that it outshone those of the following millennium as well. The historian Edward Gibbon knew ancient Rome better than anyone living in the 18th century; he doubted that Rome had been surpassed even by his own time, writing that it had fostered the era “during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.” Rome’s adoption of the melting pot model helped make that possible.

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About Jens Kurt Heycke

JENS KURT HEYCKE was educated in economics and Near Eastern studies at the University of Chicago, the London School of Economics, and Princeton University. He worked as an early employee and executive in several successful technology startups, including one that pioneered mobile internet and produced software installed in more than a billion mobile phones. Since retiring from high tech, he has worked as a writer and independent researcher, conducting field research around the world, from Bosnia to Rwanda. He is an internationally competitive masters cyclist.

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Notable Replies

  1. A most interesting examination of the forces at work in establishing and losing the Roman Empire. Let us hope that we learn from this exposition what is necessary for America to continue to exist as a free and independent country. The way things look today, it is doubtful. Short-term power appears to win over long-term sustenance of an enviable way of life.

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