Arizona Senate Bill 1070: America and the Fall of Rome

Arizona Senate Bill 1070

In April of 2010, The Arizona State Senate passed a bill that would effectively curb illegal immigration into the state, and also allow for the removal or detainment of illegal aliens already found present. However, the passing of the Arizona Senate bill brought widespread protests due to its purported discrimination and racial precedent. Those protesting the bill claim that Arizona law enforcement can now check immigration status based upon the color of suspects’ skin, the language they use, and any other factor that an officer deems suspicious of unlawful immigration. To opponents of AZ SB1070, the very prospect of such legislation goes against what makes America America: a melting pot of cultures united by values of freedom and equality.

Supporters of the bill raise the concern that Arizona’s unlawful immigrant population is higher than most of the states in the nation and as such, reform must be immediate and uncompromising. Their concerns may be valid, as the population of unlawful immigrants in Arizona is roughly the size of the entire city of Boston. Not limited to merely numbers, those supporting Senate Bill 1070 claim that along with illegal immigration comes a rise in crime. Arizona is a state that borders Mexico, and is subject to a high amount of drug and human trafficking from the neighboring nations to the south. These illegal operations unsurprisingly bring accompanying violence into the state. One incident in particular that fueled the creation of the bill was the drug-related murder of a legal border rancher and his dog.

But the goal of this blog is to not take a firm stance on issues like the Arizona Senate Bill, nor to influence the reader to any specific stance either.  Rather, this blog will attempt to parallel a historical scenario to the issue d’jour and hopefully provide some guidance for the reader to draw their own conclusion. As such, this entry in particular will explore the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and its relevance to America’s immigration debate.

The Roman Empire and the Beginnings of Change

Figure i: The extent of the Roman Empire, 125 AD

Hardly anyone, even the most ignorant to history, can deny that Rome was a powerful and highly influential empire. We can see the remnants of its culture all around us on a daily basis: on our money, our buildings — even the name “Capitol” derives from the Roman “Capitoline Hill”. Their lasting culture is no doubt a testament to their extraordinary expansion, as Rome’s military supremacy was stunning. Rome grew from a mere Italian farming village into a vast Empire  of marble, stretching into the throes of Africa and Asia. But the Roman reign, though not by any means short-lived, was not everlasting. What ultimately began in 753 BC and transformed into a world power in 509 BC, ultimately crumbled in the late 400s AD. Tribes from — the never conquered — Germania migrated at will throughout Europe and undermined Rome’s rule, until the Empire eventually dissolved and no longer had the power to dictate the stretches of land it once could.

Figure ii: The migratory patterns of invading Germanic tribes

There is some debate regarding the manner in which Rome “fell”. The traditional school of thought presents a placid Rome prior to the 400s AD which was violently destroyed by invading Germanic tribes. This scenario can be found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a text written in 731AD which details the conflicts of post-Roman Britain between Romano-Britons, Celts, Picts, Saxons and Angles. One of the more recent scholarly works reinforcing this traditionalist view is that of Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

Perkins is an intriguing scholar in that, aside from being an accomplished historian, he is also an archaeologist. In his work on Rome, Perkins decries the lack of archaeological evidence in other  studies on the Fall of Rome, and therefore undertakes the task himself of collecting such data to support his conclusion. By showing with archaeological finds –such as the degradation of high quality pottery and housing — how the quality of life differed between a pre-Germanic and post-Germanic Roman empire (94-121), Perkins’s case is convincing that the conversion to a new Romano-Germanic era was not a comfortable one, nor one of a gradual transition.

But the modern conclusions are conclusions for a reason. Often they are based on new findings unavailable or overlooked by previous scholars. These theories postulate that the break up of the Roman Empire was not a clear shift from white to black, but rather a slow transition of white to a light gray, light gray to medium gray, medium gray to dark gray, and a dark gray to the blackened, ashen remains of what was once empire. I find this to be the more believable of the schools. For instance, Jill Harries in Sidonius Apollinaris and the Fall of Rome AD 407-485, sets out to prove that the fall of Rome was not a quiet event to everyone, but rather that Sidonius Apollinaris, Roman aristocrat and Gallic land owner, was well aware of the catastrophe.

While Harries’s thesis is to prove that some held a feeling of catastrophe, I find that the obverse commentary derived from her thesis says a lot more: that the majority of commoners were simply unaware or put up with a gradual social change in Rome. It’s understandable that a high-ranking noble would notice a distinct difference in a shift of power, but the majority of the empire’s denizens simply went about their daily lives. But what does this all have to do with The United States and Arizona’s tough policy on immigration via Senate Bill 1070? Gradual social change.

Rome Did Not Break – It Grew Apart

It’s important to understand the post-Roman world before making any such parallels. In this 5th and 6th century world, there was no England, France, or Germany after the enfeeblement of Rome. These nations did not rise up against the eternal city, design a unifying flag, elect a king for their people, and declare themselves independent states. It was more of a snail’s pace of social change that simply made being subject to Roman authority irrelevant. Once the Germanic tribes settled in, they themselves became more “Roman”, but the way they adopted Roman methods and customs wasn’t quite the same. For instance, Classical Latin slowly evolved into Vulgar Latin, which in turn mixed with other languages to become old French, Occitan, old Castillan, old English, and so on.

One of the key problems that opponents of unlawful immigration cite is the language barrier that those crossing the border into the United States create. In the history of lawful immigration to the US, non-English speaking immigrants were forced to conform by learning English. Learning the language was necessary to gain citizenship. The right to citizenship provided a right to work and make income, and a byproduct of learning English was assimilation into US culture. Without any necessity to acquire legal documentation, immigrants from Mexico and Central America have simply carried on the customs they were familiar with in their former nations, specifically in this case the continuance to speak Spanish.

As it were different tribes, each with their own customs, that settled into various parts of the empire, Roman law shifted and became less unified among the settled areas. Tribes would either attempt to amalgamate, or conquer, but in either scenario if was often a Germanic leader in the new region. This is what essentially broke down Rome and set in place the age of feudalism; of medieval nobles and kings, drawing their lineage from these new, non-Latin rulers. There was no longer a single language to bind these remote areas together, and once the unity of law broke down, Rome’s authority had vanished. Gaul (modern-day France) transformed into a mishmash of separate kingdoms, as did Spain and Britain; and these multitudes of duchies and kingdoms were the product of the earlier migrating tribes.

Figure iii: The late-Medieval geography of France. The multitudes of duchies and kingdoms can be directly traced to specific Germanic tribes which invaded Roman Gaul almost 1,000 years prior.

One can make certain parallels between the influx of undocumented Latin-American immigrants to the United States and migrating Germanic tribes into the Roman Empire. Both host nations acquiesced to the permanence of their new residents, and both underwent drastic-yet-gradual social change. Our packages, telephone and computer services, and billboards now prominently feature Spanish or a Spanish alternative. The de jure minimum wage laws have been altered in such a way that an undocumented worker can claim no right to such benefits, and companies are more than willing to save on overhead by jumping at their employment. There is a movement, briefly supported by President Obama, to reform the immigration laws in order to better accommodate those who defy the current policies. However, in April, Arizona took a direct stand against the influx of undocumented workers. This is directly at odds with the complacency the US has held in the past. But could there be ramifications for trying to turn back an already-changed society? One of Rome’s final Emperors attempted a similar policy.

Figure iv: A map showing the amount of illegal immigrants in the US, broken down by state population. Note the migratory patterns: the geographical convenience of the Southwestern US, Texas, and Florida as they are easily accessible, as well as the economic draw of the affluent and job-rich Northeast.

A Bill Fit for Justinian

While unity in the western part of the now-defunct Roman Empire was a thing of the past, the Eastern Byzantine half remained intact, affluent, and also free of Germanic influence. Ruled by separate Emperors for some time, the East rarely concerned itself with the affairs of the West until the rise of Byzantine Emperor Justinian. During his reign, the Western Roman Empire had long been divided and ruled under several Germanic Kings.

But Justinian saw himself as an anachronistic Emperor; the kind from a Roman past where the East and West were one. Taking it upon himself to reclaim the West, Justinian first set out to conquer the Vandal-ruled North African kingdom. After successfully bringing North Africa under his tutelage, Justinian then went on to conquer Italy from the Ostrogoths, and parts of Spain from the Visigoths. Justinian had successfully reunited Rome and Constantinople into one Empire.

Figure v: Justinian’s initial Byzantine expansion in red, and his later western conquests are shown in orange.

It was a short reunification; for after Justinian’s death, Italy was lost to the Germanic Lombards and Africa and Spain fell to invading Muslims. The measures Justinian took to reshape a land that had slowly evolved for 300 years were impressive but ultimately futile. In fact, Bryan Ward-Perkins claims that the Western Roman Empire and culture would have been reborn under the Ostrogoths, but Justinian had ultimately shattered any rebirth by his military conquests (58). Perkins claims that:

If events had fallen out differently, it is even possible to envisage a resurgent western empire under a successful Germanic dynasty. Theodoric the Ostrogoth ruled Italy and adjacent parts of the Danubian provinces and Balkans from 493; from 511 he also effectively controlled the Visigothic kingdom in Spain and many of the former Visigothic territories in southern Gaul, where he reinstated the tradition Roman office of ‘Praetorian Prefect for the Gauls’ based in Arles. This looks like the beginnings of a revived western empire, under Germanic kings. As things turned out, all of this was brought to an end by Justinian’s invasion of Italy in 535. But, given better luck, later Ostrogothic kings might have been able to expand on this early success; and — who knows? — might have revived the imperial title in the West centuries before Charlemagne in 800.


America is not Rome. But those who have been crossing the border and slowly changing American culture over decades surprisingly resemble migrating Germanic tribes who effected gradual cultural changes in the Roman Empire . Perhaps we should take the route of immigration reform, and allow some kind of medium between latin immigrants’ amalgamation into American culture and the allowance of American culture to change and adapt to its new residents. In time, this could affect the unity of our nation — areas vastly more hispanic would be drastically different from those maintaining an Anglo-European culture, but perhaps not. It is unclear what the effects of Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 will be, a measure very Justinian in nature. It may hurt our unity more than embracing new waves of immigration would, and have the opposite result from what was intended. Only time and a good historian will be able to tell.


Harries, Jill. Sidonius Apollinaris and the Fall of Rome, AD 407-485. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Sherley-Price, Leo, trans. Bede: An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Ward-Perkins, Brian. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.


3 Responses

  1. A very fine piece of historical analogy, and there are many more to be found in the gradual but sure degradation of the Roman culture, including the lowering of standards for the status of “Roman Citizen” solely to increase the tax rolls for out-of-control spending by the State. As the special-ness of being a Roman citizen diminished, so did the culture and therefore the sovereignty of the Empire.

    Arizona has taken a bold step (I have said it is Christmas come early in defense of its and the nation’s sovereignty and we should all be very grateful.

    For our country is truly the last, best hope of Earth, and those who would come here by the millions and fail to assimilate will succeed only in destroying the greatest and most free nation the world has ever known.

  2. […] 6, 2010 by sasoc I found this interesting essay today on the parallel between the slow but sure degradation of ancient Roman culture by invading […]

  3. When this nation was founded it supported those coming here and becoming “Americans” now they swarm across the border and complain and try to change the United States into the country they have left. Tell me, if it was so good and you are so proud, then why did you leave? I say come here legally, come here learn MY language, I say come here and become American, I say join our melting pot as our laws state they have to. Do NOT make my country into Mexico. Do not require me to hit 1 for english, do not make me have to search for english forms and documents, I say if you dont like the laws we have GET OUT!

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