The fall of Rome

Historians discuss and debate when the Roman Empire fell and why it fell. They rarely ask each other whether it fell. Surely it does not exist today, so at some time it must have fallen. The key is to find a date when it fell and then to offer reasons why it fell.

Diocletian divided the Empire into administrative halves in 286, governing the western half from Mediolanum (now Milan, Italy). Constantine built a new city in the eastern Empire, calling it New Rome, although it quickly became known as Constantinople. The city of Rome, then ceased to be the center of the Roman Empire well before the city was sacked by barbarians. Some historians push the decline and fall of Rome back into the 200s; others point to the collapse of the borders around the year 376 or the clear division of imperial authority in 395. Many place the end of Rome at the sack of the city by Alaric in 410 or that of Odacer in 476. Yet the continuity of Roman government in the eastern Mediterranean continued under the Byzantine emperors until Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. For that matter, a Frankish king named Charles considered the title of Roman Emperor to be worth receiving in the year 800. For that matter, a country called the Holy Roman Empire still existed on European maps a thousand years after Charles (or Charlemagne) was crowned in Rome; Napoleon might be considered the final conqueror to bring about the fall of Rome when he disbanded the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.

For those who prefer to say that Rome fell some time before the year 500, many reasons can be offered as the cause of that fall. Those reasons include climate change, immigration problems, increasing taxation, rampart immorality, loss of the “will to power” due to Christianity, and even lead poisoning from Roman plumbing. Like most historical events, the fall of Rome (if it happened at all) probably had multiple causes. From a historical perspective, though, immigration problems may have contributed more than any other factor to large-scale changes in the Roman Empire.

At the same time that Rome prospered in the west, the Han dynasties were powerful in China. Among their rivals for power in eastern Asia were central Asian residents known to the Chinese as the Xiongnu. As China grew in size and strength, the Xiongnu were displaced; rather than battling China, they sought homes elsewhere. Some traveled south into India, bringing an end to the powerful Gupta Empire. Others pushed into northwestern Asia, displacing Germanic tribes who pressed on the borders of the Roman Empire. Eventually, the descendants of the Xiongnu also arrived in Italy, where (as in India) they were called Huns. But the leader of the Huns in Italy, Attila, turned away from Rome—according to some sources, after successful negotiations of Pope Leo. Roman power was not enough, though to prevent the arrival of Vandals, Goths, and other nations that sought to migrate into Roman lands.

The Vandals and Goths and others were fleeing the Huns and other enemies. They were looking for better places to live—more favorable climates, and more opportunity to raise food for themselves and their families. They valued Roman law, Roman civilization, and Roman culture. (All of them eventually became Christians.) They did not want to conquer or destroy Rome as much as they wanted to join Rome. Yet their presence on soil once claimed by Rome constituted, for Romans at the time and for most historians today, an invasion that brought about the fall of Rome.

The Romans struggled to prevent this immigration problem. They posted troops on the borders of the Empire. They built walls. One of their better ideas was to offer Roman citizenship to the immigrants provided they remain on the border and guard against new waves of immigration. All these efforts bought time to preserve the Empire. In the end, though, the immigrants overwhelmed Roman efforts to bar their entry. They made their home in western Europe and north Africa. In the absence of Roman authority, they established their own governments and preserved their various cultures.

Yet they did not destroy all that was Roman. In many ways, they adopted or imitated Roman law and bureaucracy. As already noted, they became Christians as the Romans had become Christians. They viewed themselves, not as the destroyers of Rome, but as the heirs of Rome. Even their language blended with the Latin language, creating Spanish and Portuguese and French and Italian from the mixture.

Maybe the change was inevitable. On the other hand, maybe the Romans could have done more to welcome the immigrants and to assimilate them into the Empire rather than fighting them and resisting them. In either case, the most valuable elements of Roman civilization—its ideas, its art, its technology—survived to improve the lives of many people for countless generations, continuing until and beyond the present time. J.

Foreign policy today

I have never agreed with any United States President one hundred percent of the time, and I have never disagreed with any United States President one hundred percent of the time. Although President Biden represents some ideas and policies with which I strongly disagree, I also believe that responsible citizenship includes support in the areas where President Biden is doing the right thing.

I am glad that the Biden administration is taking a firm position regarding Russia and China. Those two nations and the United States are the three most powerful countries in the world. A balance of power based on mutual respect is needed among these countries. Russia and China are both essentially dictatorships; neither has the checks and balances of a true democracy. Moreover, both countries are historically led by small centers of power. Neither has a history of government that is of the people, for the people, and by the people. As a result, their foreign policies must be shaped by pressure from outside their borders. The United States must be ready to protect and defend its friends. Our government must work with friendly governments in other parts of the world, showing a united front against Russian and Chinese aggression. At the same time, the United States and its friends must continue to speak openly about human rights around the world, including human rights in Russia and in China. We cannot meddle directly in the internal affairs of either country. We can, however, remind those governments and the rest of the world that human rights are important. We can also use economic agreements and negotiations to support policies in Russia and in China that recognize human rights and to punish actions that work against human rights in those places. President Biden and his administration have made commendable first steps in these areas, and we can hope that the course continues to be followed.

Working with people of west Asia and north Africa, the United States must continue to oppose terrorist organizations and rogue governments that threaten peace and security and that would deny human rights wherever they seize power. President Biden passed an early test of his determination to stand by American principles last month when he ordered air strikes against militias in Syria that receive support from Iran. President Obama was unable to end American military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and President Biden should not make the mistake of promising to withdraw all American troops from those countries. (After all, the United States still has military bases in Germany and Japan.) A reduced American presence in those places is not necessarily a problem. But we do not want to appear to be abandoning our friends or to be leaving that part of the world in the hands of determined enemies to our core values of democracy, freedom, and human rights. These values are not opposed to Islam; we should never be seen as fighting against an entire religion, but we should also not surrender the battlefield to religious extremists who seek power and control at the expense of freedom and human rights.

The Biden administration has already learned that it cannot hold to the illusion of an open border with Mexico. We need (as we have always needed) control over immigration to embrace incoming people who agree with American values and will support and benefit our country while barring the entrance of criminals and others who would undermine the American way of life. Efforts to elicit the cooperation of the governments of Mexico and of Central American countries to control migration into the United States are a good step and should continue to be pursued. At the same time, the United States must continue to have border security while dealing with would-be immigrants in a way that is both just and compassionate.

A joke during the eight years that President Obama was in the White House claimed that Obama’s solution to the immigration crisis was to change the United States so it became a less desirable place to live. Some of President Biden’s policies threaten to follow the same path. As he said during the campaign last year, though, Biden’s policies are not as extreme as many of those suggested by his opponents for the Democratic nomination in 2020. Evidence shows that President Biden will have to negotiate with Republicans in Congress to achieve any of his goals. The American system of checks and balances is working and will continue to work. We should continue to pray for all our elected leaders, and we should be prepared to support the best candidates for Congress in 2022. Meanwhile, the presidency of President Biden is not, thus far, the unmitigated disaster that some Trump supporters predicted. J.

Immigration policy

Migration is a constant element of human history. Groups of people continually move in search of a better food supply, greater security from enemies, a more comfortable climate, better jobs, more opportunities for future generations, and various other reasons. The United States was built by immigrants. Even the oldest civilizations of the western hemisphere were established by people whose ancestors crossed over from Asia. The United States is less a melting pot where all newcomers are forced into conformity and more a salad where assorted ingredients each add their distinctive flavor to the whole.

The Bible frequently urges God’s people to be compassionate and helpful to the outsider, the foreigner, the immigrant. The spirit of the poem attached to the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”) can and should continue to be the American attitude toward all the people of the world who want to join our country.

On the other hand, immigrants should enter legally. Those who first entered the United States in defiance of the law can hardly be expected to suddenly respect the law now that they are within our borders. Offering sanctuary to illegal immigrants creates problems without solving problems. The United States needs secure borders for the protection of our citizens, even while it needs to continue welcoming legal immigrants who will contribute to the richness of our combined heritage.

For that reason, I support continued measures to keep our borders secure. I support the government of the United States working with the government of Mexico to combat criminal smugglers of people and of drugs and violent crime into our country. I support projects to welcome immigrants into the United States, particularly from those countries in north Africa, west Asia, and Central America that are torn by war, rebellion, violence, and poverty. At the same time, I support actions of our government to work with other governments in those places to end the violence, reduce the poverty, and improves the lives of the people dwelling in those places.

In 1975, the United States welcomed thousands of Vietnamese immigrants. In 1980, we welcomed thousands of Cuban immigrants. These people were temporarily housed in government facilities (military bases) and given various kinds of support while sponsors arranged to welcome these newcomers into American society. The American government was able to isolate and remove the few troublemakers mixed into these large migrations, as it monitored all the families who were sponsored and helped by American groups and organizations. The same kind of help can be offered today for those fleeing trouble in other parts of the world, those seeking better lives, safety, and a new beginning within the peace, prosperity, and freedom enjoyed in the United States.

During the previous administration, conservatives joked that President Obama was solving immigration problems by making the United States less desirable of a place to live. Although our country is not flawless, it remains a beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world, a shining example of what can happen when people are encouraged to live freely rather than oppressed by their government. So long as we believe in the greatness of America, we can expect other people to believe the same and to seek to join us in this land. Welcoming those who come legally with compassion and encouragement remains the best policy for the United States of America. J.

A letter to President Trump

To the Honorable Donald Trump, President of the United States:

Greetings.

Many people in our country are talking about the large number of Central Americans (now estimated to include 6,000 people) crossing Mexico on the way to the United States border. This situation brings to mind the 160,000 Vietnamese refugees who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam, and also the 125,000 Cuban refugees who left Cuba in 1980 for the United States. In both cases they were fleeing Communist governments and were welcomed into the United States. But the procedure used to resettle them is one that could be repeated this year. As you no doubt remember, both the Vietnamese and the Cuban refugees were temporarily housed in US military facilities where they could be interviewed and processed, and troublemakers could be isolated. At the same time, sponsors were sought for each individual or family—sponsors who would watch over their resettlement, help them find jobs and adjust to American life, and keep them from causing trouble in their new home. Sponsors included families, church groups, other charitable organizations, and many humanitarians who wanted to assist these foreigners who wished to become American citizens.

I believe the same thing can be done with these Central Americans who say that they want to become American citizens. In addition to border guards and Army reinforcements, the people in these caravans could be met by Spanish-speaking clerks from Immigration who would help them to fill out paperwork to request permission to entry our county legally. Sponsors could be recruited within the United States—perhaps calling the bluff of those who are saying for political reasons that we should not try to stop these people from coming. These six thousand people who say they want to live in the United States could become a resource making America even stronger and greater, as waves of immigrants (including the Vietnamese and the Cubans) have done in the past.

Meanwhile, this is a tremendous opportunity to remind our own citizens and the other countries of the world of the greatness of America. Since no one is sure who is organizing and supporting these caravans, some Americans are beginning to accuse the Russians or some other foreign power of trying to embarrass the United States. What an excellent time this is to ask why thousands of people are not trying to enter Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The United States is a great country, and the rest of the world knows it, whether they admit to it or not.

You remain in my prayers as you continue in your difficult job as the President of all the citizens of the United States of America.

J.