Stanford Professor Says the Fall of Rome Was the "Best" Thing to Happen to Europe
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?
10/24/2019 10:44:55 am
Scheidel was recently interviewed on the Tides of History podcast (which is hosted by a recent PhD whose thesis was on the late Roman economy). I haven't read the book yet either, but in the interview he positions his argument as drawing from the fact that cities played a very prominent role in everyday life, moreso than the imperial government did in almost every instance, and how this was different from other states in Asia.
10/24/2019 12:35:55 pm
SciFi author Robert Silverberg wrote Roma Eterna in 2003 which is his story about how things might be if Rome had not collapsed but still existed into the present and near future (e.g. space travel). Along the way, certain things had to be "handled" such as assassinating Mohammed so that Islam didn't get established, as I recall.
Bread and Circuses
10/24/2019 12:41:43 pm
There was an episode of the original Star Trek with a similar premise.
Let the barbarians in
10/24/2019 12:41:57 pm
Western Europe is headed down the path of Western Roman Empire.
10/24/2019 12:58:06 pm
"Scheidel argues that Western civilization only emerged because of the absence of an imperial authority. Empires, he says, stifle innovation and prevent economic development."
10/24/2019 01:17:33 pm
This body which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.
10/24/2019 04:10:02 pm
Stick with the Philosophy side of things Volty.
10/24/2019 04:16:50 pm
Thank you Voltaire
10/24/2019 04:20:33 pm
You will notice that in all disputes between Christians since the birth of the Church, Rome has always favored the doctrine which most completely subjugated the human mind and annihilated reason.
Cato the Elder
10/24/2019 02:03:27 pm
We need to recreate the Roman Empire of old with our leaders being modeled on Caligula and Nero. Wait, I am mistaken, we do have a leader who thinks of himself as a God King. His next project will probably be to build a large structure and throw his political rivals to the lion to the delight of his supporters.
10/28/2019 02:43:11 pm
He's only emperor for 8 years max and some large projects are desired by a majority of Americans and required to be enforced by the Constitution...and your statement applies to both parties. Thanks for posting the 19,993,778,899th posting on the internet that you don't like Trump and want us to vote for Socialist nanny state Warren instead. American politics is no longer about leadership but about backing a person that gives me freebies. Greece can tell you how well that worked for them.
Cato the Elder
10/28/2019 04:31:19 pm
Your reading ability is poor. I did not recommend voting for anyone. I personally haven't voted in more than twenty years and have no intention of voting in the 2020 election farce. With the stupidity of the electoral college, individual votes are meaningless and a complete waste of time.
10/28/2019 04:58:25 pm
If you don't vote, then don't complain. Children complain about things that are out of their control. Adults understand that most things are out of their control, but still take responsibility for their lives. You can control whether you vote or not, you can't control how much your vote counts. But, in close elections every vote counts. Not to mention local elections are where your vote has an impact even if its a drop in the bucket nationally. Civic responsibility starts locally, if you can't even be bothered to perform your duty locally then why should you have any say on national issues.
10/29/2019 05:52:01 am
The "stupidity of the elecoral college" is that the U.S. was founded as a federation of states, and the states elect the president. Before direct election of senators, senators were representatives of the states' governments and House repreesentatives were representatives of the people of their district. Now senators like the Nantucket Orca and John "Bomb Bomb Iran" McCain are transformed into super congressmen.
10/29/2019 07:48:46 am
Nothing in the Constitution that prevents us having 300 hundred Senators instead of 100, think that will help?
10/29/2019 01:17:44 pm
First, you are the guy or are posting under the name of the guy, who advocated assassinating the President of the United States. That's one strike.
10/29/2019 01:28:50 pm
And I have to ask, why did you advocate the assassination of the President?
10/29/2019 05:03:58 pm
I stand corrected on senators then. Damn.
10/24/2019 05:40:12 pm
I'm not so sure innovation, at least in a technological sense was stifled by the Roman Empire, They became pretty high tech relative to the rest of the world.
11/4/2019 05:40:41 am
We have concrete proof of that in some areas of technology, particularly architecture/building.
10/24/2019 06:27:01 pm
I agree that it's problematic to assert that the collapse of the (western) Roman Empire was necessary to western Europe's future success. I'm not sure, though, that it's accurate to say that Western Europe was a backwater for 1000 years after the "fall of Rome". There were definitely several centuries where literacy, cities, and trade declined in parts of Western Europe, but from the 11th century on there was a lot of population and economic growth. I doubt from the 12th century on Western Europe could be reasonably called a backwater.
10/24/2019 11:10:18 pm
10/24/2019 11:22:50 pm
Also: Don't know what you guys are doing this weekend but...
10/26/2019 01:25:55 am
Empires rise and fall. At the risk of being too deterministic, there is a cyclical pattern to empires. Rising empires tend to be very innovative; perhaps they have to be in order to rise in the first place. Rome in its early period of empire, was highly innovative, until it started to stagnant. Athens likewise during its short period of ascendance, a little before the Persian wars and until a little after its defeat in the Peloponnesian wars, was likewise innovative. China is a history of rising, stagnating, and falling until a new power can seize the mandate of heaven; during these periods China was highly innovative. Central Asia for about 200 years during the Abbasid Caliphate was the most creative place on earth, until it wasn't. Germany too has undergone cycles of unification and disintegration. Charlamagne united Western Europe including modern France, Germany, and Northern Italy, then a generation or so later Germany (and France and Italy for that matter) fractured. Germany was unified again in 1871, until it fractured again in 1945. Now unified once more, it is relatively powerful, but is also showing signs of stagnating.
10/26/2019 01:38:31 am
(You cut me off...so I'll finish here.):
10/27/2019 02:03:51 pm
Your post is the work of what Mr. Scales would call an imbecile and what I would further qualify as "a long-winded imbecile."
10/27/2019 02:57:19 pm
Thank you, Mr. Fitzgerald. A very interesting overview, and I thank you for your post. A fellow poster " Kent", has posted insults. Kent, in the nicest possible way, may I suggest that you go fuck yourself up the nose with a.30 caliber rifle cleaning brush?
10/27/2019 03:14:47 pm
Why should I want to fuck myself? And in the nose? And with an abrasive metal brush? Are you afflicted by nasal paraphilia?
10/27/2019 08:10:37 pm
Kent's post is the work of what a sane person would call Joe Scales.
PRINCE STEPHEN THE GREAT OF MOLDAVIA
10/27/2019 09:46:35 pm
10/27/2019 01:43:59 am
10/27/2019 01:50:17 pm
I'm not a historian, and have NO qualifications. What I do notice is that there seems to be agitation to fragment in the last few years. Catalonians want to separate, as does some of Papua-New Guinea, and several other areas including the Kurds. And I wonder if any of the places will succeed what will become of the countries involved if/when that happens. Anyone out there who does have knowledge in that sort of thing, I'd be interested in what you think.
10/27/2019 02:02:00 pm
This post should be titled "What I've heard of recently." Not trying to be harsh but everything you mentioned has been going on for quite a while.
10/27/2019 07:29:35 pm
10/27/2019 11:08:45 pm
@Lyn: You misunderstand. The Kurds don't want to "fragment", they want to come together. It goes back to Sykes-Picot and the divvying up of the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. While Ataturk made some good reforms it's arguable that the region was better off under the Ottomans.
10/28/2019 01:49:42 am
Um, the Aztecs???
Angel of Goliad
10/28/2019 11:41:28 am
The original Texas Constitution had a provision for fragmenting into different states. It had no explicit provision for reverting back to an independent nation. That's Texit blah, blah, bah.
10/28/2019 02:03:32 pm
The Kurds want to unify (probably), but to do so they need to "fragment" from the existing nations they are a part of. Same with the Palestinians: no they probably don't want to remain fragmented among themselves, but certainly want to seperate or fragment from Isreal.
10/27/2019 10:03:28 pm
Scotland is also talking about separating from the UK. In 2014 they decided to remain, but that was before Brexit. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. Now that the UK will likely leave, many Scots want to leave the UK, but only to join the EU. These things are always complicated.
10/28/2019 01:52:41 am
Thank you, interesting and informative, and as with Kent's point that people don't want to 'fragment', points I'd missed to some extent.That's why I asked. Learning something new is always great.
10/28/2019 03:34:19 pm
Who do you suppose was behind and financed the "split" of South Sudan from Sudan?
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