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The Goths of Emperor Valens
Saturday, 12 September 2015
Arturo Pérez Reverte


In the year 376 AD, an enormous mass of men, women and children appeared on the Danube frontier of the Roman Empire. They were refugee Goths who sought asylum, pressed by the advancing hordes of Attila. For several reasons - among others, that Rome was no longer what it had been - they were allowed to enter the territory of the Empire and were not exterminated, enslaved or conquered, as according to the custom of the time had happened to previous waves of immigrant peoples. In the following months those refugees discovered that the Roman Empire was not Paradise, that the governors were weak and corrupt, that there was not wealth and food for all, and that injustice and greed were fattening upon them. And so, two years after crossing the Danube, these same Goths killed Roman Emperor Valens and destroyed his army at the battle of Adrianopole. And ninety eight years later, their grandchildren dethroned Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman Emperor, and liquidated what remained of the Roman Empire.

What the West faces has all happened before. But the thing is, we have forgotten it; irresponsible governments have erased the resources that would allow us to understand. Since the dawn of History, some peoples have invaded others due to hunger, to ambition, or because of pressure of still others who were invading them or mistreating them; and all, until recently, defended and stood against invaders in turn: knifing them, taking their women and enslaving their children. Thus those peoples survived until History finished them, and opened the way for other empires, that once again, suffered the same fate when their day was over. A problem confronts what we call Europe, or the West (the empire heir to a complex civilization, that has its roots in the Bible and the Talmud, with some relation to the Koran; the empire that flourished in the medieval Church and the Renaissance, that establishes the rights and freedoms of man during the Age of Reason and the French Revolution). The West is all that - Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Newton, Voltaire - and the problem it faces is that it has reached the end of its time-line and is being liquidated through overthrow. It is incapable of sustaining its existence. It is incapable of defending itself. It only has money. And money only buys some time, nothing more.

We pay for our sins. The disappearance of the communist régimes and the war that an imbecile American president unleashed upon the Middle East - to install a western-style democracy in places where the words Islam and Rais (religion mixed with tribal leaderships) make it difficult for democrac - set the pot to boil. The centurions who guarded our borders fell: barbarians themselves, as at the end of all empires. All those centurions were sons of bitches, but they were our sons of bitches. Without them now, our borders are overwhelmed with waves of desperate people, vanguard of the modern barbarians -in the historic sense of the word - who ride in after them. This places us in a situation which is new to us, but as old as the world. A situation which is inevitably historic, for we find ourselves in the position of empires incapable of controlling waves of migration, peaceful at first but later aggressive: Empires, civilizations, worlds that were conquered because of their weakness, or else transformed and then died out. And the few centurions left today along the banks of the Rhine or the Danube are under death sentence. They are sentenced due to our selfishness, our do-good hypocrisy, our ignorance of history, our cowardly incompetence. Sooner or later, again by the operation of a simple natural law, those last centurions will end by going over to the side of the barbarians for their elementary survival.

It's about time we understand once and for all: these battles and this war are not going to be won. It cannot be done anymore. Our own social, religious and political dynamic will not allow it. And those who are pushing the Goths forward know it. The men who stopped invaders on the battlefields, slaughtering whole populations, cannot do that any longer. Our civilization, fortunately, will not tolerate such atrocities. The bad news is that we have over-reacted on the side of tolerance. European society today demands that its armies shall be "NGOs", not military forces. All vigorous action - and only vigor is effective in certain dynamics of History - is avoided at its root, and not even Hitler would find a West so resolute in confronting him by warfare, as it was in 1939. All action against those who are pushing the Goths is criticized by pacifist forces who oppose such action with as much legitimate ideology as their lack of historic realism. Demagoguery takes the place of reality and its consequences. A significant detail: naval surveillance operations in the Mediterranean sea are not carried out to stop immigration, but rather to help the immigrants arrive safely on European shores. It is all one enormous and inevitable contradiction. Today's European citizen is a better person than he was centuries ago, and will not tolerate a certain class of injustices and cruelties. The historic resource of cutting throats is therefore happily discarded. There can be no massacre of Goths: bad news for the empire.

All this takes us to the heart of the question: Europe - or whatever we wish to call this warm realm of rights and freedoms, of economic and social welfare -is broken inside and threatened from outside. It neither knows how to, nor can, nor wants to and perhaps should not even try to defend itself. We are living in the absurd paradox of feeling sorry for the barbarians, even cheering them on, and at the same time pretending that our comfortable way of life will go on intact. But things are not that simple. The Goths will go on arriving in waves, flooding borders, roads and cities. They are within their rights, and they have just what Europe does not have: youth, vigor, resolve and hunger.

They are forcing us to the heart of the matter: the installation of the Goths, when they become too many, within the empire. The conflicts derived from their presence. The rights they acquire or should acquire, and which it is just and logical that they should enjoy. But neither in the Roman Empire nor in today's Europe was there or is there abundance for all - neither of work, nor of food, nor of hospitals, nor of comfortable spaces. And besides, even for good consciences, it is not the same to feel compassion for a refugee at the border, or for a mother with her son crossing a barb-wire fence or drowning in the sea, than to see them installed in a hut next to one's home, or garden, or golf course, and being outlaws, if they must, to survive in a society where fairy godmothers have broken wands; where not all of us, and every day less of us can obtain what we should like to have. And of course, there are those areas, those cities which are turning into barrels of gunpowder on a slow fuse. From time to time they will explode, for this too is historically inevitable. All the more so in a Europe where intellectual élites are disappearing, snuffed out by mediocrity, and where politicians who can't read and populists of all stripes take over power according to how the wind blows. The final measure will be a harder and more repressive policy, supported by those who have things to lose. That will give rise to new conflicts: the have-nots demanding what they want, furious citizens, reprisals and settling of grievances. We shall not wait too long now, and violent xenophobic groups will have multiplied all over Europe. And other groups of desperate people who choose violence to emerge from hunger, oppression and injustice. It was also a part of the Roman population - not only the barbarians - who helped the Goths sack the Empire, either to ingratiate themselves with the barbarians or of their own accord. No pax romana (Roman peace) benefits all equally. The problem is that there is no way to halt History. "There must be a solution", say those who write editorials, the denizens of cafés and citizens incapable of understanding, because no one explains in the schools, that History is not "solved", but lived; and because for the most part, one reads and studies to foresee events that are never new; for often, in the history of Mankind, what is new is what has been forgotten. And what we forget is that there is not always a solution; sometimes things happen necessarily, obeying a simple natural law: new times, new barbarians. Much will remain of what is old, mixed in with the new; but the Europe that shed light upon the world is sentenced to death. Perhaps in the course of time and with the mixture of races other empires may be better than this one, but neither you nor I will be here to find out. We are getting off at the next stop. On this journey there are only two reasonable attitudes. One is the analgesic consolation of looking for an explanation in science and culture, so that if we cannot prevent it, which is impossible, we can at least understand why everything went to Hell. I like to imagine a Roman gentleman at the window of his library, quietly observing the sack of Rome; for to understand always helps one to endure pain.

The other reasonable attitude is, I think, to prepare young people, with their children and grand-children in mind. So that they may face clearly, bravely, humanely and with common sense, the world that is coming. So that they may adapt to the inevitable, keeping what they may be able to keep of what good things this dying world may leave behind. To give them tools to live in a territory that for a certain period will be chaotic, violent and dangerous. So that they may fight for something in which they believe, or that they may resign themselves to the inevitable; but not though stupidity or passivity, but rather through lucidity, through intellectual peace of mind. Let them be what they may wish to be or may achieve: let us make them Greeks who think, Trojans who fight, or if the case should be such - Romans conscious of the proud dignity of suicide. Let us make them mixed-race survivors, willing to face a new world and to better it; but let us not confuse our children with cheap demagoguery and Walt Disney stories. It's time that we speak to our sons in the schools, in the home, and in life, looking them straight in the eye.

*Arturo Pérez-Reverte Gutiérrez (born 25 November 1951 in Cartagena) is a Spanish novelist and journalist. He 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. (

(Translation from the Spanish by Hugo Salinas Price,