The fall of Rome and the retreat of European multiculturalism: A historical trope as a discourse of authority in public debate
By Andrew Gillett
Cogent Arts & Humanities, Volume 4, 2017
Introduction: History can be used as a discourse of authority in a variety of ways. Most obviously, past events are used as causal explanations of present conditions (e.g., the critique that the reduction of taxation rates because of “trickle-down economics” in the 1990s led to inadequate government revenues now). History can serve as a moral imperative urging change (such as the argument that occupation of indigenous peoples’ lands by colonial settler societies demands redress). And history can be an affective discourse: a historical phenomenon with no immediate connection to the present can be deployed to suggest that past conditions could be replicated now; past historical periods can serve as templates for the present not because of actual causation but because of the sense that patterns of history may be repeated.
In the early twenty-first century, such affective use of history has been particularly apparent with the invocation of “Classical” history, the history of ancient Greece and Rome. As Classics, once a mainstay of European education systems, has become increasingly peripheral, Classical tropes have nevertheless maintained or perhaps increased their appeal for argumentation from simile, especially for conservative commentators. The year 2017 alone has seen popularisation of the “Thucydides Trap” as a model for predicting great power competition between China and the USA, and public debates between British Classicists and Brexit supporters over the implications of the end of the ancient Roman Republic for British immigration policy and Brexit.
This paper examines one recent incident of the use of a highly charged trope of Classical history, the Fall of the Roman Empire, as a discourse of authority in current public debates on western multicultural policies, in relation to the tragic events of the Paris terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015. The public debate over this incident involved the intersection of multiple political, cultural, and academic factors: neo-conservative critique of multicultural and immigration policies and liberal responses; “neo-medievalist” interpretation of Islamist terrorism; the cultural status of Classics and Eurocentric “grand narratives” in British education; popular history and its use in online venues; and academic revisionism and reaction.
Top Image: Ruins of the Hippodrome in Constantinople, from an engraving by Onofrio Panvinio in his work De Ludis Circensibus