What the Romans can teach us about refugees

The disastrous battle of Adrianople shows that treating asylum seekers badly cannot end well

The Roman fortress Bukelon in Bulgaria, close to the site of the Battle of Adrianople and said to have been mentioned in reports about it. Photograph: Vassil Donev/EPA

Archaeologists working at the Roman legionary fortress at Hadrian’s Wall have reportedly uncovered what they suspect is a refugee camp established for friendly tribespeople from north of the wall who were fleeing serious unrest in the early third century AD. These new discoveries, whether they really are ancient refugee camps or not, beg the question of quite what Roman attitudes towards refugees actually were, and how far they correspond (if at all) with modern sentiments towards displaced persons.

One would expect the Romans to have been relatively sympathetic towards refugees, especially in the light of their own supposed origins. A major element of their own mythical backstory centred on the wanderings of their legendary founder, the Trojan prince Aeneas, who with a small group of companions and close family had been the only survivors of the Greeks’ apocalyptic destruction of his home city. Of course, the Romans were in good company in claiming refugee status in regards to their origins.

Many of the Greek cities which dotted the lands of the western and central Mediterranean were not the products of peaceful migration but of the bloody turmoil that regularly broke out in the political pressure cookers that were the city states of ancient Greece. Leaving town and starting afresh somewhere new was often the most palatable and safest option for those who had ended up on the losing side of these internecine conflagrations. And then there was Carthage, Rome’s greatest enemy, whose mythical founder Queen Dido was said to have fled from Tyre with a few followers after the tyrannical king of that city, her own brother, had murdered her husband.

For the Roman Empire, taking in and giving succour to high-status refugees from the kingdoms and tribal fiefdoms that bordered its frontiers had long been a central plank of its diplomatic strategy. Overthrown leaders and usurped kings could often expect a sympathetic ear and a comfortable pension from the Romans. The expected payback would be pro-Roman policies if they did manage a return to power. Aside from the elite leadership, it is difficult to track any significant movements of displaced persons, mainly because the Roman frontiers were themselves so porous, designed to aid easy access into barbarian lands for the Roman military offensives rather than defensive military lockdown.

There is, however, one very interesting example of the Romans becoming embroiled in a major refugee crisis, and it has depressing resonances with how similar humanitarian disasters have been mishandled in the modern era. In AD376 alarming reports reached the Roman emperor Valens that over 100,000 Goths had massed on the far bank of the River Danube. It soon became clear, however, that this was no barbarian invasion. For this horde was made up of women and children as well as men; their leaders sought permission to cross the Danube and settle in the Roman empire as allies.

Their own kingdoms had been overrun by another barbarian people, the fearsome Huns. For the Romans, this looked like a win-win situation: free manpower to address the chronic shortage in the imperial Roman army. What followed, however, was a total catastrophe. Clearly made nervous by the flood of humanity preparing to enter Roman space, officials unsuccessfully tried to limit the numbers crossing the river. Even more disastrously, any residual goodwill quickly evaporated as the Goths languished for month on month in squalid refugee camps where hunger and disease were rife.

In such desperate circumstances, it was hardly surprising that the increasingly desperate refugees began raiding the surrounding countryside for food. Valens responded with the calamitous decision to march his imperial army against the Goths. The result was one of the greatest military disasters that Rome would ever suffer. At the Battle of Adrianople, Valens was killed and the vast majority of his army butchered. His successor, Theodosius, was forced to sue for peace and the Goths were in a strong enough position to demand and receive very favourable terms which allowed them to pretty much live autonomously within the Roman Empire as long as they supplied troops for the imperial army. It is not difficult to see why many historians have judged Adrianople to have marked the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire in the west.

If there was one lesson that we might learn from Adrianople, it is that although it can never be guaranteed that generous treatment towards those who put themselves under our protection will ever be reciprocated, ungenerous behaviour can be absolutely guaranteed to breed bitterness, resentment and ultimately disaster. It is lesson that we would do well to heed.

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