A new book by Stanford historian Walter Scheidel claims that the fall of the Roman Empire was ultimately a good thing because, basically, it created capitalism a thousand years later. In Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity, Scheidel argues that Western civilization only emerged because of the absence of an imperial authority. Empires, he says, stifle innovation and prevent economic development. In an interview with Phys.org, Scheidel explained his reasoning:
The disintegration of the Roman empire freed Europe from rule by a single power. Imperial monopolies provided peace and stability, but by seeking to preserve the status quo also tended to stifle experimentation and dissent. When the end of empire removed centralized control, rival political, military, economic and religious constituencies began to fight, bargain and compromise and—in the process—rebuilt society along different lines.
My initial thought is that this seems overstated.
I find it difficult to believe that we can trace a direct line from the collapse of the Western Empire in the 400s CE to the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s. One immediate issue that arises is that the conflicting states of Europe were not all parts of the old Roman Empire. The territories that eventually became Germany were not part of Rome, for example, nor were the territories of eastern Europe. In Western Europe, arguably the “innovations” Scheidel attributes to the absence of Rome were due more to the interaction weak Western kingdoms and duchies with the powerful imperial states of Byzantium and the Islamic caliphates than internecine squabbling, at least for the first thousand years. Italy was dominated by the Byzantine Empire, and Iberia by the caliphs. Many of the economic innovations arose because Western Europe lost the African breadbasket that had fed Rome, requiring a restricting of the economy to adjust to reduced imports.
On the other hand, Scheidel is correct that the absence of an imperial authority created more competition between smaller states, but I’m not sure that this is necessarily the same thing as a net benefit for civilization. Medieval farmers, it is often said, had better technology than their Roman predecessors, but ate less well. More technology and more complicated politics aren’t necessarily the same as a better overall quality of life. There is no inherent good in using a more complicated technology over a simple one.
But I think that there is another factor that Scheidel didn’t mention in the interview (and which may be in the book, which I have not yet read) that may be more important. Europe at the end of the Roman period and the early medieval period was made up of a bewildering array of cultures. The end of the Roman Empire didn’t necessarily have to mean the end of unified government, but the number of different cultures and peoples trying to live in a small area kept the politics disorganized. But I don’t think that necessarily was unique Europe so much as it was to any border area. The Byzantines saw similar cultural innovations along their Balkan border and in the areas where Levantine and Arab cultures came into conflict with their own. Besides, the Iberian Peninsula, Eastern Europe, and southern Italy were all part of foreign empires for centuries after Rome’s fall. By “Europe,” we’re really just talking about Britain, France, and the messy blob that didn’t become Germany until 1871. And of these, Germany wasn’t Roman at all.
Scheidel argues that imperial power stifles economic expansion, and therefore, as the book description puts it, chaos allowed “Europe to surge ahead while other parts of the world lagged behind, burdened as they were by traditional empires and predatory regimes that lived by conquest.” But Edward Gibbon wasn’t wrong when he started The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by describing the prosperity under the Romans, nor was Jacques Barzun (at least I think it was he) wrong to say that the average peasant lived a better life under the Romans than he would at any time until the turn of the nineteenth century. I find it hard to attribute Victorian innovations to Roman failure. If it took 1500 years to see the benefits of Rome’s collapse, then the collapse might not have been the cause.
In the twentieth century it used to be fashionable to claim that Protestantism was the secret sauce that let the Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon nations surge ahead of the lazy, complacent Latin countries. Modern analysis of Austria-Hungary’s surprising prosperity despite being a Catholic empire with an authoritarian imperial government and a diversity of peoples gave the lie to the argument that Catholicism and economic progress were incompatible, but the impression that the northwestern fringe of Europe represents the highest achievement of humanity remains. (Scheidel, ironically, is Austrian by birth.) The fact of the matter, though, is that medieval Europe was a cultural backwater, and its creativity was probably due as much to being on the edge of the civilized world. Is being a backwater for a thousand years really a good thing?
At its base, Scheidel’s argument isn’t wrong: Modern Europe grew out of medieval Europe, so the fall of the Roman Empire was a necessary precondition. The Victorian historian James Bryce was an early advocate of this very idea, seeing in Late Antiquity more continuity than change and arguing that the foundations of modern Europe were laid in Rome’s ruin. I have an old book called An Economic History of Europe by Herbert Heaton from 1936 that makes virtually the same argument Scheidel does, though attributing the creative spark less to individual experimentation than to the interaction of many different cultures playing off one another across endless frontiers. As Heaton put it in describing medieval Europe, “Industrial advance owed much to the infiltration of patterns, methods, and tastes from more advanced areas.” In sum, the argument isn’t new, but Scheidel’s framing of it as a teleological myth of the birth of capitalism and individualism is perhaps more strongly stated than past views had it.
But in a teleological sense, it’s not clear that a continuing Roman Empire wouldn’t have achieved continued creativity and prosperity. It depends largely on how you define prosperity, and here we can only speculate how the Romans might have evolved over thousands of years without any of the factors that caused the Roman collapse in the West and transformed the East into a theocratic autocracy. Is prosperity simply having more and better stuff? Or does the “peace and security” that Scheidel sees as a drag on capital gains count for something, too?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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