The Paris attacks and the abuse of history

Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, does not shy away from controversy. His debate about the legacies of European colonialism with Pankaj Mishra in the pages of the London Review of Books is enough to show that. The recent horror visited on Paris has prompted from him another broadside, published in two Murdoch-owned titles, The Sunday Times and The Australian.

Cole the_destruction
The Course of the Empire: The Destruction. Thomas Cole 1836

In his op-ed, he argues that modern Europe, like the Roman empire in the 5th century AD, stands on the brink of collapse before insuperable external forces – but the 21st Europeans are too complacent to spot the obvious analogy. Where Rome faced barbarians, modern Europe faces Daesh. He quotes from Edward Gibbon’s lurid description of the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410, offering it as an obvious parallel to Friday’s massacre in Paris. Ferguson wants to push the parallel further: fifth century Rome was complacent about its frontier defences; so too, he argues on the basis of the recent influx of refugees, is modern Europe. The link he posits is causal: “Poor, poor Paris,” he concludes. “Killed by complacency.”

Ferguson admits he “do[es] not know enough about the fifth century” to trace what he would see as ancient parallels to the supine responses of modern European leaders to current threats. But I do know about the fifth century: it is my historical stomping ground, and I, along with others in the field (to judge by social media), have read Ferguson’s op-ed with dismay mounting to anger. He seriously misrepresents the historical experiences of the fifth century, which matters when a Harvard history professor purports to be presenting the past to a general audience. For all his lack of knowledge, Ferguson claims to have done some cursory research. In addition to Gibbon, he cites two important studies of the end of the Roman empire, both published in 2005: Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization and Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire.

But what he does with these works amounts to eye-wateringly simplistic distortion. For instance, basing his deductions on Peter Heather’s discussion of the economic attractions of the empire to its barbarian neighbours, he remarks: “Like the Roman empire in the early 5th century, Europe has allowed its defences to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its syrian-refugees-of-turkey-on-long-walk-of-hope-to-europemalls and stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.” Notice the pernicious conflation there between economic migrants and refugees: it is a point Ferguson labours elsewhere in his article, when he remarks “Things in their own countries have become just good enough economically for them to afford to leave and just bad enough politically for them to risk leaving.” For Ferguson, all these people, no matter how desperate their circumstances, represent an undifferentiated external threat.

There are other conflations too, this time underscoring an “us” versus “them” mentality of fear. He writes begrudgingly: “It is doubtless true to say that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe are not violent. But it is also true the majority hold views not easily reconciled with the principles of our liberal democracies, including our novel notions about sexual equality and tolerance not merely of religious diversity but of nearly all sexual proclivities.” But this is a straw man argument, producing a caricature of “us” that fails to account for the wide variety of opinions on matters of inclusion and tolerance to be found across Europe. In equal fashion, his construction of a Muslim “other” is a caricature devoid of nuance.

Edward Gibbon (by Sir Joshua Reynolds)

But this caricature aids his simplistic argument about a Europe beset by hostile forces from without. Some of my fellow historians have asked the obvious question why Ferguson fixates on the fifth century, when the seventh century in the East, which saw the rise of Islam, might present more obvious food for thought. Perhaps Ferguson knows even less about that. But there is another point here, in that it enables Ferguson to construct a narrative that fixates on the West. Edward Gibbon, whom Ferguson cites with approval, pulled a similar trick. In his ‘General considerations on the decline of the empire in the west’ that concluded volume 3 of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon made this European dimension explicit by considering how a similar chain of events might impact on the Europe of his own day.

Gibbon, then, saw the demise of the Roman empire in the fifth century as a peculiarly western tragedy; it was also one that risked happening again. No modern specialist of the period would accept Gibbon’s analysis as anything more than the posturing of an Enlightenment intellectual decrying the forces of “superstition” and “barbarism”. That Ferguson chooses to do so fits neatly with the primacy and ascendancy of the West in his historical vision. In this he is not alone: a string of right-wing commentators in the United States have expounded a similar vision equating modern America with ancient Rome, and issuing dire warnings that it risks a similar fate. This perspective has been subject to withering deconstruction by the late Jack Goody, who argued in his The Theft of History (2006) that much of world history has been shoehorned into a narrative framework derived from and designed to satisfy the experience of the West. It also purposefully leaves out of the picture the dynamic interactions and genuinely shared histories of the West and the rest of the world. But that is not a story that suits an agenda of “us” pitted against “them”.

Jacques Bertaux, Prise du palais des Tuileries (1793)

Even Gibbon came to question the validity of his analysis and see that not everything could be blamed on an external barbarian foe crashing inwards towards a civilised centre. The final, sixth volume of his Decline and Fall was published in 1788. A year later, France was thrown into the convulsive horrors of revolution. Gibbon was compelled to acknowledge that he had completely missed the significance of internal problems, notably civil war, in bringing about Rome’s demise. In notes made for a never-realised seventh volume of his history, he wrote: “Should I not have deduced the decline of the Empire from the Civil Wars, that ensued after the fall of Nero or even from the tyranny which succeeded the reign of Augustus? Alas! I should: but of what avail is this tardy knowledge? Where error is irretrievable, repentance is useless.” Ferguson would do well to meditate on this.

Peter Heather, one of the modern historians of Rome’s fall cited by Ferguson, allows for a more nuanced analysis of the empire’s collapse. He writes: “there is no serious historian who thinks that the western Empire fell entirely because of internal problems, or entirely because of exogenous shock.” I’ve often wondered what the obvious opposite of Heather’s “serious historian” – a frivolous one – might write. Having read Ferguson’s ill-judged and shallow analogies between 5th century Rome and 21st century Europe, I think I now know.

Poor, poor Ferguson. Undone by complacency.

Mark HumphriesMark Humphries is Professor of Ancient History at Swansea University. His research focuses on religion, politics and society in Late Antiquity. He is a general editor, with Professor Gillian Clark (University of Bristol) and Dr Mary Whitby (University of Oxford) of the series Translated Texts for Historians (Liverpool University Press), which publishes scholarly translations of and commentaries on texts from Late Antiquity (AD300-800). He is also a member of the international advisory boards for the Irish Theological Quarterly and the Rivista di Cultura Classica e Medioevale. This piece originally appeared on Monday 16th November as a Facebook note and has since been shared several hundred times.


5 thoughts on “The Paris attacks and the abuse of history

  1. Niall Ferguson may be a very good historian when he writes history books and lectures students.

    But he’s surely noticed that a better path to wealth and fame is producing politically-charged mass media bluster to fire up the faithful. For this, he uses his academic credentials as leverage for credibility and attention rather than a badge of intellectual merit that he should try to live up to.


  2. Apropos of this line of historical rhyming, I have been considering the present refugee movement into Europe, more along the lines of the refugees crossing the Danube in 378, when the eastern refugees were so horribly treated by the Romans that the disastrous Battle of Adrianople ensued.


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