Rome fell fast, and so did we

The fall of Rome has obviously been a topic of much interest and discussion. It is, after all, a conversation about the fall of civilization as we knew it.

If you read my blog you are probably aware that I lean toward a thesis of genuine and rapid fall. One of the most revelatory books I’ve read in the past 20 years is Bryan Ward-Perkins’ . Ward-Perkins’ tale is an apocalyptic one. The material basis of Roman civilization the West collapsed. Perhaps the most relevant and evocative fact for me is that pollution due to manufacturing production in England did not match that of the Roman period until the industrial revolution. Though the Roman economy never achieved the industrial revolution’s gains in productivity, it did attain a level of Smithian efficiency and interdependence on the margins of the factors of production.

From a totally different perspective Peter Heather in broadly agrees with Ward-Perkins’ contention. The Roman Empire fell, and it fell fast, and the imperial elites didn’t see it coming. Remember, the Roman Empire was dismembered and disordered during the . Under Diocletian and his successors in the 4th century it came back to health and strength before the distress of the 5th century in the West. But at the time contemporaries did not view the shocks and exigencies of these decades as any more distressing then the events of the 3rd century, and the Eastern Empire around Constantinople was reasonably robust.

Ultimately though 476 was a coup de grace to the Western Empire. The Gothic wars tore apart the fabric of the Italian peninsula in the 6th century, and the substantive reality of the old empire faded away. There was no going back. Of course I’m well aware of the argument that the Roman world evolved, that it did not collapse. And Late Antiquity and its continuities with the Classical world, and how it bridged itself to the Medieval world, are fascinating. But I do not accept that the preservation of Roman motifs and ideals in the courts of barbarian German warlords is evidence that substantively nothing changed.

Much of it depends on how you weight material vs. ideological parameters. The idea of Rome cast a shadow centuries beyond its substantive material integrity. After, the Byzantines called themselves Romans until the conquest of their city-stateless in 1453. But no matter the name, they were not Romans as the Romans were in 400 A.D.

The theoretical context of all this is that it strikes me cultures can go through rapid nonlinear shocks which induce very quick and unexpected changes. In the human past this would often entail collapses and regressions. The “Dark Age” after the chaos of the late Bronze Age is a case in point. In one generation the citadel society of Mycenanean Greece disappeared across much its extant range. The gap between 1966 and 1969 in much of the West was arguably greater than between 1956 and 1966.

The United States today is the most powerful nation in the world. And our cultural centrality and ascendency is such that we don’t challenge our implicit position as the premier power in the world. But I believe that we’ve become a inward looking involuted culture. There’s no point in litigating this, and obviously I may be wrong. But too often we confuse our own petty internecine squabbles with the concerns of the world. The world is passing us by….

16 thoughts on “Rome fell fast, and so did we

  1. That may be Peter Heather’s take, but what I took from the narrative of his book was that the Western Empire collapsed from a concatenation of stressors, each invasion killing soldiers or destroying farmland or inducing secession or cutting off supplies, so that Rome was weakened progressively until it could no longer cope well at all with the final attacks.

    Perhaps I missed his point, but that was the impression I got.

  2. “Inward-looking” and “involuted” is certainly the reputation American culture has in the wider world, and there’s lots of anecdotal (and hard) data to support the stereotype. I don’t think it’s a new one, either.

    What struck me most, as a Canadian who lived in the USA for some time, was not just the lack of knowledge when it came to the world outside the USA’s borders, but the lack of curiosity — even among well-educated Americans. This will make for a rough adjustment, if or when the USA ever loses its top-dog position.

  3. 9/11 and our over-reaction in the Middle East may come to be seen as a turning point in our position as a global military power. What happened in the late 1960’s by contrast was an ideological collapse of “liberalism” in some sense. Then there have been our perennial trade and national deficits, which if Walter Russell Meade is correct, represents the financial collapse of the blue model welfare state. So if these are the principal components of the American collapse (assuming we cannot recover) it happened over 50 years, which is still pretty sudden.

  4. “What struck me most, as a Canadian who lived in the USA for some time, was not just the lack of knowledge when it came to the world outside the USA’s borders, but the lack of curiosity — even among well-educated Americans. This will make for a rough adjustment, if or when the USA ever loses its top-dog position.”

    This is nothing new. Americans in the nineteen-fifties were not any more engaged with the outside world than Americans are today. Critics complained that Americans only saw the world in terms of the Cold War and didn’t make any effort to see beyond that.

    But Americans in the nineteen-fifties were far less trivial about their domestic concerns. Improving the material condition of all Americans was still a paramount concern rather than, say, identity politics. Important civil rights battles were being fought rather than the need to push for uni-sex bathrooms.

    It was a more serious society and therefore better-equipped to handle serious problems, wherever those problems might come from.

  5. “…there’s lots of anecdotal (and hard) data to support the stereotype…”

    Do you have an example of hard data supporting this? I hear this charge a lot, and certainly the modal person from the USA doesn’t know much about world history, geography, current events, etc. but I’ve never seen a side-by-side comparison with the knowledge level of people from other parts of the world.

  6. 439 (the loss of Carthage and North Africa to the Vandals, and thus a loss beyond which even the shattered empire of the Third Century suffered) and 535 feel like more significant dates than 476, even if the latter was the final end of the Roman Emperors in the west. The social and economic structure of Roman Italy continued after 476 even if it was now being ruled by Gothic kings loosely allied to the eastern Emperors, and if you were a Roman aristocrat born after the sack of Rome in 455 you might very well have not noticed more than a gradual decline in Rome’s population (and your own personal wealth) over your lifetime. By the time Roman Italy was effectively destroyed in the Gothic Wars of the 530s-550s, nobody would have been alive to remember what Roman Italy would have been like before it entered that (in hindsight) terminal phase.

    Is it quick if there’s no one alive at the beginning of the meaningful change who was there by the end of it? Contrast that with the collapse of Romanized Britain, where someone might very well have lived long enough to see Britain go from a fully Romanized society with cities and market towns, to a heavily depopulated, much more rural society where every aspect of that Romanized Britain (including the cities) had been lost (Britain in the early-to-mid-500s honestly sounds like a post-apocalyptic society in the descriptions).

  7. @Jokah Macpherson — the hard data supports the “inward-looking” stereotype, as I mentioned — in that a majority of Americans do not have passports and thus are unable to travel outside the country. The state-by-state breakdowns are especially interesting.

    I don’t know that there are ways to quantify knowledge about the outside world and compare to residents of other countries. Surveys I’ve seen focus specifically on relationships between the US and the outside world, and so aren’t generalizable.

  8. I found this podcast about the fall of the Roman Empire very interesting and at a high academic level.

    One particular episode – Why didn’t Rome rise again? – is particularly interesting, the type of historical theorising that is like catnip to me (and perhaps to other people as well)

  9. By the time Roman Italy was effectively destroyed in the Gothic Wars of the 530s-550s, nobody would have been alive to remember what Roman Italy would have been like before it entered that (in hindsight) terminal phase.

    this is the real date I think.

    the loss of North Africa was bad, but remember that in the 3rd century they lost much of the east to Zenobia. they had recovered before.

  10. too often we confuse our own petty internecine squabbles with the concerns of the world.

    Our internecine squabbles may not be the concerns of the world until we force them upon the world (which we not infrequently do), but that doesn’t mean that they are petty. Terrorism is not an existential threat to the U.S., but these “internecine squabbles” absolutely are. If the U.S. cannot find a reliable way of securing governance by informed grown ups (not necessarily liberal ones), it could easily be the first country to decisively move from fully developed to developing and regress economically and by all reasonable standards of well being.

    The U.S. does have different concerns that the rest of the world, much of which entirely or nearly entirely lacks social forces, political cultures and traditions that have great salience in the U.S. But, those forces are very important in the U.S. and will indirectly influence the entire world.

  11. @Dany #8

    I’ll second that. Patrick Wyman’s podcast series on the Fall of Rome is really good (and like Ward-Perkins, he definitely thinks the Roman Empire did fall).

    Agreed that the Counterfactual episode is really good, too (same goes for that interview with Walter Scheidel he did).

  12. They ran out of proper Romans. Some of the Germans and mixed race leaders did an adequate job for a while. It ended up being a group failure. The Franks, the elite anyway, tried like hell to be Romans and keep it going. It was just too heavy of a lift; higher levels of illiteracy in the ruling class; inadequate social capital.

  13. Is it really wrong to compare the distress of the 5th century to the crisis of the 3rd century? The mistake seems to be failing to acknowledge how bad the crisis of the 3rd century was.

    Perhaps the most relevant and evocative fact for me is that pollution due to manufacturing production in England did not match that of the Roman period until the industrial revolution.

    You sound like you are talking about using pollution in ice cores as a proxy for production. But that doesn’t isolate England, does it? Do you mean to compare Europe to Europe?

    The ice cores show pollution peaking circa 1AD. That is centuries of industrial decline before the fall of Rome. Maybe the elites didn’t see it coming, but isn’t this an argument that they should have? (Or is this decline due to something else, like English mines being cleaner than Spanish? But I think we see this with two different metals.)

    Nitpick: Ward-Perkins says that industrial pollution reached Roman levels not by the Industrial Revolution, but by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I haven’t read the survey he cites, but that looks right by the Hong et al ice cores. Their lead number for 1500AD exceeds all Roman numbers. Their number for 1000AD exceeds all but one outlier in 1AD. On the other hand, their noisier copper number might not catch up until the industrial revolution.

    Many people misread Hong et al’s graph of production, as assessed from history, and confuse it with their graph of ice cores. The read history as saying that metal production did not catch up to Roman levels until the Industrial Revolution, but their ice cores don’t see to say that. But if that is what history says, why do people need to cite Hong et al for it? No one else reads history that way, do they?

    Copper: history ice core.
    Lead: both graphs

  14. While the Fall of Rome is a very interesting topic, not sure how relevant it is. Empires can crumble without outside invasions, for example Han Dynasty China. USA’s fundamentals are in reality strong – a relatively well educated population living on a very large chunk of land in a temperate climate all speaking the same language.

    China’s fundamentals are quite strong as well and its population is much higher so it’s inevitable (barring a catastrophe) that it will surpass the USA in terms of GDP and perhaps in other spheres as well, so the US will have to adjust to not being number one. It may make the culture less inward-looking

    The US does seem to have a rather dysfunctional political system and political culture more generally. It has seen very large scale demographic changes which the political culture really hasn’t dealt with (neither blocking those changes or adjusting the institutions), and this points to a racially polarised, unstable political future.
    .

  15. >I’ve never seen a side-by-side comparison with the knowledge level of people from other parts of the world.

    And it’s not clear exactly what comparison would be apt.

    I once had an conversation where a New Zealander complained about how little Americans knew about his little island, because we’re so parochial, ya know. I asked how much he knew about Cook County, IL. After all, we have a population and economy larger than that of New Zealand. What nation-state fetish should make knowledge of New Zealand more important than knowledge of Cook County? If Americans should have detailed knowledge of the various regimes and cultures of the EU, should Europeans be able to distinguish North Carolina barbecue from South Carolina barbecue? Should they know about Nebraska unicameralism or the role of Delaware incorporation in the world economy?

    We’re a multicultural nation of 320 million, more of a global microcosm than any other nation.

  16. This what always happens when power is lopsided. ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ Condecension is a defensive mechanism and it is hard over estimate the carnage possible without Pax Americana.

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