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’ The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. 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 The Fall of the Roman Empire 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 “crisis of the third century”. 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….