Boris Johnson may not have quite the same reputation as former US president Donald Trump for saying things that even the most open-minded of observers struggle to get their heads around; however, he baffled those accompanying him in Rome for the G20 summit.
Attempting to say that humanity could once again return to the dark ages should world leaders not urgently tackle climate change, he stated that “[w]hen the Roman empire fell, it was largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration.”
On this, the Prime Minister is, quite simply, wrong.
Migration in the Roman empire, far from being minimised, was welcomed and was key to its significant growth. An easy way of demonstrating this is comparing the city of Rome to the other notable name of the ancient world – Athens. At its height ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, had a population of 70,000; by contrast, ancient Rome’s population at its height was one million.
Athens classed people as either citizens, foreigners, or slaves, with each having their own rights; such a system would not encourage masses of people to converge on the city from elsewhere. Rome on the other hand welcomed anyone who was a part of the empire, no matter where they came from. Even those captured as slaves, when freed, could become citizens, and their children ranked equally with any other citizen.
The Roman empire allowed the free movement of people across an area larger than that of the EU. A young man in the town of Londinium, Britannia, could travel along Roman roads, protected by Roman soldiers who acknowledged him as a citizen, with a currency he could use anywhere along his journey, all the way to Rome. He may not have had full voting rights in the city, but he had the right to live and work there, and that was enough.
With striking parallels to the modern day state of our nation’s finances, it was in fact economic mismanagement that triggered a chain of events that would lead to the eventual collapse of the empire. I explore this collapse, as well as the preceding economic rise, in my book Pugnare, Economic Success and Failure, in which I highlight the striking lessons we can learn for our modern day approach to the economy.
The Roman currency was made up of gold (aureus), silver (denarius), and bronze (sestertius) coins, with each coin’s value based on the value of the metal in it. Roman businesses and people trusted that the coins being used were worth what they should be, as we do today, enabling them to conduct business transactions.
For almost 200 years from the start of the 1st century AD, this worked perfectly, the value of goods across the empire remained stable, and trade flourished. The problems grew, however, when the emperor Septimius Severus decided at the end of the 2nd century AD to increase the amount soldiers were paid, nearly doubling their wages overnight. This required more coins, and therefore more metal to make the coins. Unfortunately, centuries of mining had greatly reduced the availability of the necessary metals. Therefore, in a ‘silver’ coin, for example, there was much less silver, mixed with a cheap base metal.
This had the effect of severely reducing the trust people had in their money; were their gold and silver coins actually gold and silver?
This pushed the prices of goods up – if a denarius had half the amount of silver in it, it was now worth half what it used to be, so something previously worth one denarius was now worth two. This inflation kept increasing as the value of and trust in the currency decreased, until businesses were forced to barter for goods rather than use the currency. Throughout the empire trade collapsed and political chaos ensued, allowing greater numbers of incursions and invasions by enemy forces. The empire gradually began to break up, with the city of Rome itself eventually being sacked by barbarians in 410 AD.
While the threat of barbarian invasion may not be applicable to the modern day (though you can never trust French fishermen), Boris Johnson should take heed of the lessons this episode of history presents. Septimius Severus treated the Roman currency with great complacency, assuming a great increase in spending would have little effect, and ended up setting in motion his empire’s future collapse.
Boris Johnson currently presides over an economy ravaged by Coronavirus, with borrowing figures at their highest ever peacetime levels, and inflation growing steadily. Despite this, he allows quantitative easing to continue, and has, via his Chancellor, set out a budget with hundreds of billions of pounds of spending commitments. Financial discipline and responsibility must be the order of the day in this most unpredictable of economic periods, or he will risk leading our economy to bankruptcy.
If our Prime Minister took the time to get his facts straight, he might learn a thing or two not just about history, but from history as well.