Originally published in The Huffington Post, 01.11.2013; Image: “The Course of Empire (Destruction)” by Thomas Cole; oil on canvass; 1836
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution. — C.P. Cavafy, “Waiting for the Barbarians”
In 122 AD, in the Roman province of Britannia, Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of one of the largest defensive structures of the Ancient World: a massive stone wall, 118 km long, 6 meters high, running from today’s North Sea all the way across to the Solway Firth of the Irish Sea. One of the purposes of Hadrian’s Wall, parts of which UNESCO now jealously guards, was to protect the northernmost parts of the Empire from the raids of local barbarians, picts mostly.
The raids continued anyway. Savage barbarians, along with their savage women, kids, sheep and pigs, pressed on Rome from all sides, shouting, stampeding, marauding, killing, burning. Goths, Avars, Vandals, Huns, Franks, Arabs: the torrent of names and tribes was endless, swallowing everything on its way.
In its panic, the Empire started erecting walls, ramparts and posts on its external frontiers, from Tripolitania to Germania, from Syria to Moesia. Later known as limes (pl. limites), these borders, colossal symbols of fear, dividing “civilization” and “barbarism,” unwittingly put into motion the beginning of the end. The fortifications gradually turned into prisons, behind which social and political life decayed, while pressure from outside mounted. The Empire reached its limit. It broke.
Every time I read about the crisis in the European Union, I think of the late Roman Empire. It is amazing to me how much the two periods resemble each other: breakdown of the political system; economic malaise, coupled with wide-spread malfeasance and enormous levels of corruption among the ruling class; lack of civic spirit; demographic collapse and depopulation of entire regions; foreigners besieging the borders.
It is also amazing how similar our reactions are, especially when it comes to the latter issue. Fear. Hate. Misunderstanding. Walls.
Several days ago, the Bulgarian government announced it would launch the construction a 30-kilometer fence on the border with Turkey, at the cost of three million euro, to halt the wave of illegal migrants, mostly Syrians running from the civil war. This is not a precedent of course. Last December, Greece completed its own 10-kilometer fence (at the cost of three million euro) on the border with Turkey.
Judging by the reactions in Internet forums (our virtual Roman public squares), the majority of Bulgarians enthusiastically support such initiatives. The reasoning is simple and hideous: Migrants and refugees carry unknown diseases; they are dirty; they commit crimes and harass pedestrians; they are Islamic fundamentalists, who want a caliphate; they are barbaric. Hidden behind the nationalistic turrets of fear and ignorance, Bulgarians — and Europeans generally — do not want to remember that they, too, were once considered barbarians, Asian hordes waving a horse’s tail for a flag, madly galloping towards the civilized world.
Having forgotten its own history, Europe is once again constructing limites in the hope that it would escape its fate and halt the inexorable march of time.
Time, though, does not care for walls and fences. If there is something permanent in human history, it is the movement from one place to another. Foreigners. Refugees. Great Migrations. From Africa to Europe. From Asia to America. From Europe to America. From Asia and Africa to Europe.
The European Union, Bulgaria included, is facing an important choice. To surround itself with walls, fences, cameras, and visas, until it slowly rots on the inside. Or to fling open the gates for a new life — life, which won’t be the same as before, but maybe, just maybe, it would save Europe from its own terrible self.
It may be appropriate here to quote the words of the Roman poet Ovid: “Everything changes, nothing perishes.” The so-called barbarians sacked Rome at the end, but also saved it from its agony and irrelevance. Barbarians began to defend the remnants of the Empire. Barbarians ruled it. Barbarians salvaged the fragments of the Roman cultural heritage. Barbarians were philosophers, poets. Barbarians founded new states. The seeds of Europe are barbaric.