Disruptive ages happen…and they happen fast

A friend of mine was pointing out that there is something of an anti-civilizational polemic in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. It’s the same sort of impulse which also asserts that “Rome never fell it evolved” and that the “Dark Ages” is a myth. I pretty much agree with Scott Alexander’s take. The datum that pollution due to lead did not match that of Classical Antiquity until the early modern period is one I remember as a searing one from The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. You can’t really argue with that.

After reading The Fall of Rome I had a period when I read a lot of stuff on late antiquity. For example Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000. Brown is a serious scholar, and I’ve read several more of his books. But, I do think it shares something with earlier scholarship, and some of the more polemic recent screeds of Rodney Stark (see How the West Won), and that is that Christianity is viewed as a good in and of itself.

That is, if there is one thing that can be said for the period after the fall of Rome, it is that Christianity transcended its Mediterranean focus, and became a truly international religion, and a light unto the nations. If you believe that Christianity is true, then details about population collapse and a recession of cultural productivity matter a lot less than otherwise.

I think the economic historical evidence on the balance does lead to the conclusion that the Roman Empire achieved an optimum of economic development during the Antonine period of the 2nd century A.D. through classical efficiencies on the margin (e.g., specialization through trade, bringing all of the land into production, etc.). These levels were not again reached until after 1000 A.D. in Europe, though comparisons are not entirely apt because innovations such as the moldboard plow and windmills allowed for increases in genuine economic productivity.

The bigger question that looms in the background though is would it have been better to be a median Roman citizen or a median subject of a Dark Age warlord? I don’t have a strong opinion on this, especially when it comes to the ability to consume above subsistence.  It seems likely that the far worst treatment of slaves in places like Sicily than anything serfs were subject to (though serfdom only truly came into its own during the end of the Dark Ages) should be weighed in the calculus, but the Roman peace was also a genuine peace. The petty conflicts persistent at a local level in the Dark Ages may have made the life of a typical peasant less secure than for Roman citizens.

Rather constant reports of subjects and citizens fleeing from strong political units, or more “advanced” nations (e.g., the early American frontier), tell us something real. People valued freedom. But not everyone fled, so we’re probably seeing a bias in terms of who attempted to escape the shackles of civilization (e.g., young able-bodied single men, in particular, loom large in these reports, and I think there’s a reason for that).

5 thoughts on “Disruptive ages happen…and they happen fast

  1. You can’t really argue with that.

    You can’t if material conditions are the focus. I tend to sit the middle in the dark age/total collapse-late antiquity continuity spectrum.

    To me, it seems pretty clear the material conditions deteriorated dramatically as Roman imperium disintegrated (hit worst was interregional trade rather than local economic conditions where autarky was always present to some degree, especially if one were to discount the effects of war and barbarian depredations in the affected regions).

    At the same time, there WAS a great deal of cultural continuity. The Germanics didn’t simply massacre the regional Roman aristocracy and take over – they gradually assimilated into them (the process of assimilation was mutual, as Roman notables also began to ape the barbarians in dress, manners, and custom).

    I tend to see this period as one of great decline and then renewal, rather than one simply of collapse.

    The bigger question that looms in the background though is would it have been better to be a median Roman citizen or a median subject of a Dark Age warlord?

    I think that depends on how you define a “Roman citizen.” When as well as where. It also depends on the criteria of comparison and the preferences of the person doing the comparison.

  2. Assuming you weren’t being bullied to give up your land, it almost certainly was better to be a free small farmer in the Roman Empire at its peak than in the Dark Ages.

  3. Razib, you may be interested in this novel just published by a friend of mine, premised on the idea that Rome experienced an industrial revolution.

    “Finally, instead of bringing Jesus forward in time and placing him in modernity, I thought to leave him where he was and instead put modernity into the past. What, I wondered, would have happened had Jesus emerged in a Roman Empire that had gone through an industrial revolution? Other things being equal, what would modern science and technology do to a society with very different values from our own? Would they react with the same incomprehension that we do when confronted by religious terrorism? I did not know the answers, but I suspected that writing a book based around the idea of a Roman industrial revolution might help me develop some answers, if not the answers.”

    That’s from the author’s note, reproduced here:


    Here is a review by economist Dr Mark Koyama :


  4. I wish I knew where that lead graph came from, because the one I saw was slightly different. It had a spike in lead production in the 11th century in Song China. This is not to contradict the point that civilizations can decline.

  5. Assuming you weren’t being bullied to give up your land, it almost certainly was better to be a free small farmer in the Roman Empire at its peak than in the Dark Ages.

    I don’t think there were many of those left in the Imperial age, free small farmers more of a Roman Republic feature.

    While it was undoubtedly better to be a Roman citizen during the peak than a Dark Ages peasant, it didn’t seem there was that much of a difference in the final stages of the Empire, many places gladly accepting the overlordship of Germanic warlords because they felt they’d get a better deal from them than the terminally corrupt Imperial officials.

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