Are we on the cusp of the Third Age of Migration?

The immigration crisis is back. U.S. Border Protection expects to detain more than 100,000 undocumented migrants this month on our border with Mexico. That’s 1,250,000 people a year fleeing oppression and starvation, not counting the ones who weren’t caught. President TrumpDonald TrumpDonald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' Schiff sees challenges for intel committee, community in Trump's shadow McConnell says he'd back Trump as 2024 GOP nominee MORE’s knee-jerk reaction is a threat to close the border, send the military to build his wall, and cut off aid to three Latin America countries. But history teaches us these actions have proven devastatingly counterproductive.

Meanwhile, politicians in both parties are flogging “border security” as a campaign slogan, with no apparent thought about what happens after the next election.

If conditions in Latin American countries continue to worsen, this pan-hemispheric flow of refugees could swell to a torrential flood of historic proportion. There is indeed a crisis on our border but it’s not just a “border crisis.”

At least twice in human history, mass movements of people across continents destroyed powerful, sophisticated civilizations and precipitated millennium-long dark ages. Considering the immigration crisis in the Americas, unrest in the Middle East and sea-level rise in Asia, we could be on the cusp of the "Third Age of Migration." If so, we ignore the past at our existential peril.


During the late Bronze Age, a thriving group of city-states flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean, with complex social and legal structures, economic specialization, global trade and written diplomatic treaties. This global system created wealth, stability and security for nearly a millennium. You know the names from high school history books: Mycenae, Crete, Cyprus, Ugarit, the Hittite Empire and, of course, Egypt.

Today, the ruins of this once-great civilization bespeak a horror of fire, war, death and destruction. 

Archaeologists believe that, sometime in the 12th century BCE, a decades-long drought — climate change — coupled with a 50-year “earthquake storm” caused severe economic stress, forcing displacement of hundreds of thousands of people during what is considering the First Age of Migration. These refugees attacked, destroyed, and pillaged Ugarit, Crete, Cypress, Hattusa (the capital of the Hittite Empire), Babylon, Canaan and pretty much everything in their path. The only regional power able to resist their onslaught was Egypt, which fought them off twice. By 1175 BC that entire civilization had been destroyed, ushering in the “Greek Dark Age” lasting more than 700 years.

The culprits were warrior/refugees, a mysterious horde known today as the "Sea Peoples.” The only solid information we have is from Egypt. Pharaoh Merneptah’s stele names them as “Foreigners of the Sea,” and Pharaoh Ramesses III’s Pylon at Medinet Habu describes the defeat of their second great invasion. Afterward, even Egypt was so weakened that its New Kingdom quickly lapsed into anarchy.

One fascinating aside: Ramesses claims to have re-settled defeated survivors of the Sea Peoples in the Canaanite cities of Philistia and Ashdod. Scholars think these are the biblical Philistines. But that’s a story for another time.

The Second Age of Migration hastened the fall of Rome. Since our Western civilization is rooted in Roman law and culture, the modern relevance is immediately apparent. From the 2nd to the 4th centuries CE, Germanic Gothic tribes in their hundreds of thousands were on the move across Roman Europe, sometimes as invaders but more often as refugees from the Huns.

Forced by the sheer weight of their numbers, the Emperor Valens allowed the Goths to settle in Roman territory. They were considered Roman foederati ("allies," almost "citizens") and many served in the legions. But drought and climate change made it inconvenient for the Romans to live up to their commitments, so they extorted the Goths, sometimes taking Gothic children in payment for food.

Naturally, rebellion ensued. At the Battle of Adrianople in 378 CE, the Romans, along with Valens, were slaughtered. Then in 410 CE, reacting to yet more Roman abuse, the Visigoth Alaric I, formerly a Roman general, sacked Rome. Finally, in 476 CE, the last Roman emperor of the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by a Germanic-Gothic prince named Odovacar, who sent the imperial regalia to Constantinople. And that was that.


Thus, began the Dark Ages, a thousand-year European collapse in which, in the words of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” One remarkable example of the knowledge lost was Roman hydraulic concrete, for example. To this day, modern engineering has not matched its durability.  We don’t even know its exact composition. But Roman aqueducts, bridges, temples and amphitheaters still stand, stronger than ever. Now think about the crumbling sidewalk in front of your house.

Could the Bronze Age rulers have aided their neighboring cities and forestalled their own destruction? We will never know, but the archaeological record suggests they didn’t try. Could the Romans have treated their foederati better? Their hubris and xenophobia prevented it. In neither case could armies or walls stop the migrations. Quashing and ejecting barbarians not only failed but backfired with devastating consequences.

So, what can America do? History says we have three workable options:

First, we can increase aid to Latin countries, helping people build a better life at home and slowing migration. Second, we can welcome and assimilate migrants; economists generally agree that immigrants drive economic growth, and America’s own history proves it. Lastly, we can work to stabilize the climate.

Yet, President Trump, blissfully ignorant of world history, is doing the exact opposite on all three scores — and politicians in both major parties are doing nothing to produce realistic, bipartisan solutions, either.

Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, warned: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Are America's political leaders all blindly reprising the blunders of Bronze Age kings and Roman emperors?

Joe McLean managed L. Douglas Wilder’s historic gubernatorial campaign and was a founding member of the leadership team of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs O.T. Fagbenle to play Barack Obama in Showtime anthology 'The First Lady' Obama says reparations 'justified' MORE’s successful U.S. Senate race. McLean is president of the Crockett Policy Institute, a Tennessee-based nonpartisan think tank which seeks to provide practical, workable, and fair solutions to everyday problems in America's heartland.