main story Inmigrants

The Goths and Emperor Valens

And there's no way to stop history. “There ought to be a solution” is the cry of newspaper editors, commentators and citizens unable to understand. No one explained in schools that History is not helped, but we lived and, at best, is read and studied to prevent phenomena that are never new, and as often happens in the history of humanity, the new is what once was forgotten. And what we forget is that not always is there a solution; sometimes things happen irremediably, purely by natural law: new times, new barbarians.

In the year 379AD, a vast mass of men, women and children showed up in the Danube frontier. These were Goths refugees seeking asylum, flying from the pressing hordes of Attila. Even though the Goths were not exterminated, enslaved or subjected, as was then practiced. They were allowed to enter the Roman Empire. In the following months, those refugees discovered that the Roman Empire was not a paradise, its rulers were weak, corrupt and greedy and there was no wealth and food for everyone. So two years after crossing the Danube in Adrianople, these same Goths killed Emperor Valens and destroyed his army. And ninety-eight years later, their grandchildren dethroned Romulus Augustus, the last emperor, and liquidated what remained of the Roman Empire.

The thing is everything has already happened. Another thing is that we have forgotten. Since olden times, towns have invaded others because of hunger, ambition, or under pressure from those who invaded or mistreated them. And all of them, until recently, defended and held in the same fashion: slashing invaders, taking their women, enslaving their children and so on until History sacked them, giving way to other empires that in turn suffered the same fate. What we call Europe or the West is the heir empire of a complex civilization, rooted in the Bible and the Talmud, related to the Koran, and blooming in the medieval church.  And thanks to the Renaissance, established in rights and freedoms based on the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. And Europe, or the West,  is facing this problem:  that it all -Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Newton, Voltaire- has an expiration date and is ready for demolition, unable to stand or to defend herself. It only has money. And money keeps you safe only for a while.

We pay for our sins. The demise of the communist regimes and the war unleashed in the Middle East by a jerk American president,  to install a Western democracy in places where the words Islam and Rais (religion mixed with tribal leadership) make it difficult to democracy, put the boiler to boil. Like at every end of an empire, the Centurions-also barbarians- guarding our limes, fell. All those Centurions were bastards, but they were our bastards. Without them, the frontiers are drowning under waves of desperate people -forefront of modern barbarians in the historical sense of the word- who ride behind. That puts us in a situation new to us but old to the world. A juncture that is inevitably historic, because we are now where empires used to be:  unable to control the migratory waves, peaceful first and then aggressive. Empires, civilizations, worlds that were defeated in their weakness, transformed or disappeared. And the few centurions left in the Rhine or the Danube are doomed. They are condemned by our selfishness, our hypocritical cynicism, our historical lack of culture, our cowardly incompetence. Sooner or later, also by simple natural law or basic survival, those last centurions end up siding with the barbarians.

Let's see if we understand this for once and for all: these battles, this war, will not be won. It is impossible. Our own social, religious and political dynamic prevent it. And those pushing behind the Goths know it. Who previously slowed to each other on the battlefield, slaughtering whole populations, cannot do it anymore. Our civilization, fortunately, does not tolerate these atrocities. The bad news is that we exaggerated the constraint.  The European Society now requires its armies to behave like ONGs, and not like the military. Any firm performance is ruled out from the beginning. Only vigor is in state of competing against particular History dynamics. Not even Hitler would find today a Western world so resolute to defeat him by force like it did in 1939. Peace forces, which have as much ideological legitimacy as lack of historical reality, criticize any action against those who push the Goths. Demagogy replaces reality and its consequences. Interesting detail: surveillance operations in the Mediterranean are not aimed at stopping emigration, but to help migrants to safely reach European shores. In short, everything is an enormous, inevitable contradiction. The citizen is better now than centuries ago and does not tolerate certain kinds of injustice or cruelty. The traditional tool of dying by the sword remains happily discarded. There can be no killing of Goths, fortunately for humanity, unfortunately for the Empire.


All this leads to the heart of the matter: Europe, as we like to call this warm area of rights and freedoms, economic and social welfare, is gnawed inside and threatened on the outside. It does not know how, nor can, nor wants, and perhaps should not be defended. We live the absurd paradox of having pity for the barbarians; even applaud them, while pretending that our comfortable lifestyle remains intact. But things are not so simple. The Goths keep coming in waves, flooding borders, roads, and cities. They are within their rights and have what Europe lacks: youth, vigour, determination, and hunger. When this happens there are few alternatives, also historical: if they are few, newcomers integrate into the local culture and enrich it; if they are many, they transform or destroy it. Not in one day, of course, empires take centuries to crumble.

This gets us to the heart of the matter: installing the Goths into the empire when they are too many, the conflicts arising from their presence, the rights they acquire or have to acquire, which is fair and logical that they expect to enjoy. But neither in the Roman Empire nor in today's Europe was or is for all: jobs, food, hospitals, or comfortable spaces. Moreover, even for good consciences, it's one thing to have pity for  a refugee at the border, a mother and son crossing a fence or drowning in the sea, than see them installed in a shack next to your house, the garden or golf course, at times cheating to survive in a society where fairies have a broken magic wand. Each day less of us can achieve what we envision. Of course, neighbourhoods and cities are turning into powder kegs with delayed fuse. Now and then, they will explode; that is also, historically speaking, unavoidable. Even more so in a Europe where the intellectual elites are disappearing, smothered by mediocrity and power is monopolised by illiterate and populist politicians of all signs abiding by the direction of the wind. The ultimate resource will be a tougher and more repressive police, encouraged by those who have something to lose. This will cast a light over new conflicts: the disadvantaged clamoring for what they crave, angry citizens, retaliation and reckoning. Within a short time, violent xenophobic groups will have multiplied throughout Europe. And also those groups of desperate who choose violence to escape hunger, oppression and injustice. Also part of the Roman population -not all were barbarians- helped the Goths in the looting, to ingratiate themselves with them or on their initiative. Pax Romana does not benefit all alike.

And there's no way to stop history. “There ought to be a solution”   is the cry of newspaper editors, commentators and citizens unable to understand. No one explained in schools that History is not helped, but we lived and, at best, is read and studied to prevent phenomena that are never new, and as often happens in the history of humanity, the new is what once was forgotten. And what we forget is that not always is there a solution; sometimes things happen irremediably, purely by natural law: new times, new barbarians. Much will remain of the old, mixed with the new; but the Europe that lit the world is sentenced to death. Perhaps in time and with miscegenation other empires will be better than this, but neither you nor I will be here to check. We get off at the next stop. In this path, there are only two reasonable attitudes. One is the analgesic comfort in seeking an explanation in science and culture; for, if not to prevent, which is impossible, at least understand why everything is going to hell. Like that Roman I like to imagine serene in his library watching through the window while the barbarians sack Rome, for understanding always helps to accept, to bear.

The other proper attitude, I think, is to raise the young people with the children and grandchildren of these youngsters in mind. So they can face the coming new world order with lucidity, courage, humanity and common sense. So they can adapt to the inevitable, preserving what they can from whatever good the world that is extinguishing leaves behind. Give them tools to live in a territory that for some time will be chaotic, violent and dangerous. So they can fight for what they believe in, or to resign themselves to the inevitable; but not for stupidity or meekness, but because of lucidity or mental serenity. To help them become what they want or can.  Let's make of them thinking Greeks, fighting Trojans, Roman worthy the loftiness of suicide if needed be. Let us make of them mestizos survivors, ready to face the new world unapologetically and improve it; let's not fool them with cheap demagoguery and Walt Disney's stories. It is time that in schools, in homes, in life, we talk to our children watching them straight in the eyes.

Read also: In the name of (our) culture

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By Arturo Pérez-Reverte

A Spanish novelist and journalist, Pérez-Reverte has worked as a war correspondent for RTVE and was a war correspondent for 21 years (1973–1994). His first novel, El húsar, set in the Napoleonic Wars, was released in 1986. He is well known outside Spain for his Alatriste series of novels. He is now a member of the Royal Spanish Academy, a position he has held since 12 June 2003.

Original article: "Los godos del emperador Valente", Arturo Pérez-Reverte, XLSemanal, 13.09.2015.

Image: "Towards a better future" by Andreas Schalk. Smaller images by Enes Reyhan (All CC BY 2.0) / Flickr.

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