The standard view of the fall of the Roman Empire is horrifying and deeply troubling. A long time ago, there was a prosperous empire. They created advanced technology and complex philosophy. After existing for many centuries, violent barbarians invaded, ending the prosperity and ushering in The Dark Ages. Knowledge and technology was lost and civilization disappeared. After a thousand years of depressing mud hovels and Viking raids, the Renaissance happened - the rebirth of the classical world and the start of our modern era.
It's frightening, because it demonstrates that progress isn't inevitable. We are not guaranteed to continously get more wealthy, more peaceful and more civilized. Setbacks do happen, and they doom many millions of human beings to live horrible lives that could have been avoided.
As someone who did have a strong believe in 'Progress', this unsettled me. I had all kinds of questions. How do you lose knowledge and technology? How do you "uninvent" things? How did a bunch of unorganized, primitive barbarians defeat a civilization that was way more advanced than them? For many years, I studied the subject, spoke with leading experts and got access to the most recent data. Things merely became more confusing.
Lots of historians and archaeologists have made graphs presenting their findings from the Roman era. The same curve returns over and over again. Here it is:
It's extraordinary. Things start out at very low levels, nearly zero, and in the centuries before 1AD, they suddenly rise dramatically. They peak somewhere in or around the first century AD, and then decline again with the same pace. In 476, when the last Western Roman Emperor is deposed by a Germanic chieftain, little had been left of the former Roman economic activity. Europe becomes quiet once again.
It does make sense. Although classical Rome lasted from 753BC to 476AD, all the things it's famous for concentrate in the area around the peak in the graph. The Colosseum was completed in 80AD; the Pantheon was built between 113 and 125AD; Julius Ceasar died in 44BC; Pliny the Elder died in 79AD; the Pont du Gard was constructed between 40 and 60AD.
In my opinion, the standard narrative surrounding the rise and fall of ancient Rome has not properly integrated these new datasets. It barely explains the wealth of Rome, seeing it as relatively stable and the result of centuries of progress (and progress doesn't have to be explained; it just happens, like it does today). It explains the fall of Rome with the spread of some diseases, pressure by barbarians and 'corruption and decadence'.
For me, it's not convincing. It completely ignores the "shape of the curve", the sudden explosion of wealth and the equally quick decline afterwards. It assumes a prosperous Rome defeated by barbarians in the fifth century - not a hugely declined Rome that was merely a shell of its former self.
So, when the advanced Roman Empire came under pressure from plague and barbarians, it collapsed, and led to a thousand years of stagnation.
When medieval Europe came under pressure from the Black Death and Genghis Khan - ...it prospered? Explanations about how a decline in the population led to increased wages leading to progress abound.
Ian Morris is a historian and archeologist who is an expert in the ancient Mediterranean world and wrote a book analyzing all of world history. He measured/estimated the most advanced Western and Eastern civilizations in four aspects:
- Energy Capture
- City Size
- War-Making Capacity
- Information Technology
When you combine the scores for all these civilizations in one graph, you get this image:
As you can see, there has been a steady progress through the millenia, with a sudden exponential explosion at the end. That might be surprising to many, but I did not find it very strange. What I did find strange was the fact that there was only one serious, long-term decline: the Fall of Rome, followed by the Medieval Period.
The more I learned, the more confused I became.
- Why did the Roman economy suddenly explode and why did it decline just as rapidly?
- Why do 'barbarians' and diseases boost progress in the Medieval Period (just as WWII is seen as a period of rapid technological progress) while the same things are seen as valid causes for a thousand years of stagnation in the Roman era?
- Why is steady, long-term progress so stable in almost all eras, except the Post-Roman one?
After mulling it over, I think I found some very useful theories that answer these questions. I've investigated them further and all the answers I found fit my predictions. I want to explain my findings, and would love to hear your feedback. I intent to continue this story in the next post.
Where do you get your idea of the "standard view"? I've always heard the view that internal decline, late in the process, made Rome vulnerable to invaders it would easily have repulsed in the past. In fact, I have never heard anybody claim that random "barbarians" just waltzed up and posed any threat to Rome anywhere near its peak.
Agreed, there are plenty of historians who argue for an internal decline. Bad leadership, infighting, civil war, corruption, decadence, etcetera. I won't deny they play a role, but personally, I was never strongly convinced by these arguments. The Roman decline is exceptional; incompetent politics and corrupt humans seem to be universal.
It seems that even through you admit that historians who voice the standard view don't see the barbarian invasion as the sole cause you still argue against that strawman in your post.
From the Wikipedia article on the Fall of the Western Roman Empire:
It seems "barbarians" are explicitly mentioned as one of the influential and clear causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The second paragraph in the quote isn't a random paragraph from the article; it's the second paragraph of the article itself. Causes like "the economy / population / competence of the Emperors declined" are pretty vague. They seem more like parts of an interdependent process than clear causes.
I don't want to imply other historians only look at barbarians! But I've never encountered a clear theory that properly explains why the late-Roman / Early Medieval Period is such a unique and devastating period of decline. The short story is "stuff was bad and barbarians invaded", the long story is "here is a long list of everything that went wrong". But things like "they had incompetent Emperors" seem like bad explanations to me: all periods had bad rulers and they didn't cause 1000 years of decline and stagnation.
Based on that first chart you're also looking at the trade volue, and presumably GDP, of the empire dropping to 40% of it's original value in the span of just 100 years between 200AD and 300AD and continuing to plummet almost as badly after that. That chart seems to show an economic rot starting centuries before Rome started seriously loosing wars.
I'll note that the inflection point does largely line up with the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. Far from a complete theory, but also easy to imagine something important was lost in the transition - chief candidate among them a formerly strong tradition for not transfering power via military coups and political assassinations. Your question is more concerned with "what reversed the progress" rather than "what finally put Rome out of it's missery", so we're probably looking much much earlier than the actual fall.
At least one explanation for the fact that the Fall of Rome is the only period of decline on the graph could be this: data becomes more scarce the further back in history you go. This has the effect of smoothing the historical graph as you extrapolate between the few datapoints you have. Thus the overall positive trend can more easily mask any short-term period of decay.
Eg see also the bronze age collapse: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late_Bronze_Age_collapse?wprov=sfla1
I fear you're beating up a strawman. As Gibbon makes pretty clear (and he's nothing if not the "standard narrative"), Rome rotted from the inside - politically and economically. The barbarians didn't get anywhere until Rome was practically collapsed from internal corruption.
Rome suffered an extreme case of all the standard things that modern economists write about - public choice failures, protectionism, price controls, government-backed trade monopolies, etc., etc. The political system was inherently unstable and tended to dictatorships.
The founders of the United States studied classical history closely, and consciously attempted to create a structure that would resist those failure modes. They succeeded better than they imagined (IMHO most of the American founders would have been shocked to hear the USA made it even 100 years, yet it's sort of still running today...sort of) but of course far from perfectly. They were aware that this is a hard problem never before solved in history (altho Switzerland has done pretty well too).
And, as you hint, lead pipes and lead poisonings didn't help any either. That was just bad luck.
Synthetic 'civilization' scores are unavoidably subjective
Just to be clear, the Ian Morris graph is Western Eurasia vs Eastern Eurasia(since it can't be Western Europe vs colloquial East, as Western Europe was a backwater pre-Rome)? I'm very skeptical of these historical score approaches, they obscure more than they enlighten and depending on how actual data is weighted the author can come up with any conclusion they want.
For instance, why wouldn't population density be the defining characteristic of a successful society(higher energy density, more efficient use of space, all sorts of engineering style arguments favour that)? China would utterly dominate Western Eurasia in that model. I don't necessarily prefer that metric, I'm just pointing out synthesized metrics are very subjective though of course they have pop-history appeal.
Pet theory: Rome collapsed because all the greedy farmer soldiers became serfs
The fall of (Western) Rome has been the subject of 15 centuries of scholarship, so I'll just toss my personal favourite single cause to rule them all(it wasn't just one cause, it was multifactor but whatever): the collapse of the small-scale citizen farmers and the rise of the latifundia and the general demilitarization of roman citizens.
Disclaimer: the Romans were the historical villains of the region, in my opinion, I'm not glorifying them or their society.
The key contrast: Hannibal killed >100,000(?) roman soldiers while in Italy, yet never felt able to besiege the city. His army was maybe 100,000 strong. In 410 Alaric takes Rome with ~40,000 soldiers, despite the city being larger than the one that faced Hannibal, with no resistance worth mentioning.
The problem is the composition of Roman society had changed.
Growing Rome was a society where most fighting age males knew a bit of how to fight and could be drafted and would answer the draft out of patriotism/religious/civic devotion or greed. Late Rome was a society where a lot of people were coloni(proto-serfs) or fully slaves. They were purposefully not allowed to fight since their owners were afraid those skills might be turned against them. Late Roman society also wasn't expanding => the wars being fought wouldn't result in plunder => the incentive for citizens to join the army was greatly reduced.
Early Roman soldiers had arguably unlimited upside, conquer some rich city or tribe and your share of the loot leaves you set for life. Late Roman soldiers just had a salary and much more competent enemies.
There were tons of rich land owners in the Italian peninsula, tons of people? How could the city fall to a mere 40,000 soldiers? No one really cared to defend it. The latifundiaries made their own deals with the 'barbarians', not caring about the fact that their families would slowly lose control of the land over the coming centuries. The religious(?) obsession with long-term legacy of the Republic and early empire were gone, the men of the Late west were short term focused. Early Rome elites cared about their prestige in Roman society, they saw themselves as part of the population of one city, at the end of the day they'd fight together against external societies. Late Roman elites had their wealth and power in the provinces and didn't see other latifundiaries as part of their in-group and worth fighting along with.
Plot twist: the latifundia grew because the farmer soldiers were too successful and wouldn't stop
The reason the latifundia grew and the old Roman system collapsed was the very success of the old Roman system flooding Italy with slaves and money and allowing elites to buy out small landholders. Furthermore a good reason for the Roman state to allow this process to happen was that the old get rich quick Roman war strategy ended up being used against Rome itself as Imperial pretenders persuaded our heroic yeomen farmer soldiers to turn arms against the state(since there wasn't much worth conquering outside the borders). Damned if you do damned if you don't.
Just for fun: modern democracies fuse roman legalese, revived roman civic religion, dying christian feudal ideas of obedience to authority and feudal cultural practices for peacefully transferring power
Epistemic status, wild fun speculation.
I'd argue that Western Europe continued evolving culturally and politically after Western Rome collapsed. The key technology that developed in Western Europe was the (comparatively) peaceful transfer of power from one monarch to another upon death, without lobotomizing the monarch and replacing him with a weaselly bureaucracy the way the Ottomans/Chinese harem systems solved the endless succession civil war problem.
The ability to ACTUALLY transfer power, as opposed to sidestepping the succession by having real power embodied in a constantly regenerating collection of people is the enabling cultural technology for modern republican democracies. Better put: both elite and popular culture expects a peaceful, legally codified transfer of power. It's this ingrained instinct that's valuable and is essential(and can be lost, as Republican Rome lost it and Imperial Rome never acquired it in the West), rather than the formal rules for how you transfer power.
That and Europe's weird obsession with separating the person of the king from the institution of the monarch(see Britain's linguistic weirdness around King/Queen-in-parliament, possibly related to Christian weirdness around the Trinity, maybe the religious mental calisthenics got applied to political ideas as well) creates a neat interface where you can cleanly replace a monarchy with an elected government and it sort of all just works the same in the minds of everyone involved.
I would like to slightly argue with this proposition regarding the fall of Rome.
It is indeed true that the direct reason for the fall was the weakness of the late Roman armies compared to barbarian forces.
But Rome moved away from using farmer soldiers as the backbone of the army with the Marian reforms in 107 BC. This did not stop the expansion of the empire nor weakened the army for several centuries. Q.E.D.
However, I think your speculation in the second part (transition of power) is actually a really good explanation for this decline of the Roman army. The Imperial armies often rebelled in the late period, trying to promote a new Emperor. To counter this, reforms were introduced that decreased the chance of a successful army rebellion, but they also greatly diminished their effectiveness:
"Under the Roman emperors, besides, the standing armies of Rome, those particularly which guarded the German and Pannonian frontiers, became dangerous to their masters, against whom they used frequently to set up their own generals. In order to render them less formidable, according to some authors, Dioclesian, according to others, Constantine, first withdrew them from the frontier, where they had always before been encamped in great bodies, generally of two or three legions each, and dispersed them in small bodies through the different provincial towns, from whence they were scarce ever removed but when it became necessary to repel an invasion. Small bodies of soldiers quartered, in trading and manufacturing towns, and seldom removed from those quarters, became themselves tradesmen, artificers, and manufacturers. The civil came to predominate over the military character, and the standing armies of Rome gradually degenerated into a corrupt, neglected, and undisciplined militia.."
(The link is to the first chapter of Book 5 of the famous Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. I suggest reading it, it has really good insights on the nature of armies.)
I love wild speculation like this. (Appropriately labeled, of course.)
I think another thing that made Alaric successful was that by 410, Rome was not located in Rome. For the most part, the Western Empire was not as rich as the East, and the city of Rome itself was becoming less and less favoured by emperors (especially after the 3rd century crisis). Alaric was able to capture Rome in part because they had lost the culture of warrior-farmers, but also because Rome was like Philadelphia: Once a great city and capital, but now a medium-sized town with no real attractions (except the Pope, but even then, the Patriarchs were more powerful at the time).
I agree, but keep in mind just the city itself was like twice the size in the later period. Population wise 2nd Punic war Rome was around 3-500k, 410 Rome was around 8-900k. Presumably the greater southern Italian region was also way more populous, tho also less able/interested in coming to the city's aid.
Different comparison: https://old.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/7v15js/why_was_roman_military_so_small_during_the/ Late Roman armies were crippled by a loss of 75k men, despite similar losses being overcome by just Rome's Southern Italian coalition centuries earlier.
One thing to note here is the automatic assumption that Rome was "greater" than Medieval Europe. This is anecdotal, but if you look at technological progress from 200BCE (the Punic Wars) and 200AD, you find that not much has happened, except the expansion of trade networks.
Meanwhile, the 400 years from 476CE to 876CE saw the growth of the Frankish Empire, the subsequent Holy Roman Empire, the invention of the heavy plow (note that Rome had been in control of Gaul for 520 years, and never invented it) and further discoveries by Catholic monks. In fact, analysis on skeletons show that people were better fed after the fall, not before (I'll see if I can dig up the citations for these).
Rome did succeed Europe in some ways (namely architecture, central planning, and infrastructure), but it wasn't more "advanced" per se. All of the buildings, roads, and aqueducts still stood after Rome fell.
Your main point --- how Europe was able to stand up to outside pressure while Rome couldn't --- still stands, but we shouldn't consider that it was "better" in some way.
While this may be true, it overlooks the fact that many technologies that were developed in the precedent period (for example, the lighthouse, the cog and the gear wheel) were lost during the Roman age, not to be recovered until the Renaissance - or later.
Heron describes many artifacts that require tiny metal lives to be built, copying from previous Hellenistic sources, but at his age nobody knows anymore how to make tiny metal lives (he only describes a way to make big, wooden lives).
In the Imperial age the derivative was negative, but the technological and cultural level was obviously superior to the High Middle Ages. Between 500AD and 1000AD the urban society in Europe had become practically non-existent.
I definitely agree that it is wrong to assume that Rome was superior to Medieval Europe in all ways! I think they definitely outclassed Medieval Europe in a lot of aspects - but also that Medieval Europe outclassed Rome in a lot of other aspects.
Yeah, I think that they both had their individual strengths and weak points. I would say that Rome was overall better if you lived in an urban area or valued peace, while Medieval Europe was a more "fair" (in relative terms) society for the rural folk.
Welcome to the study of the rise and fall of states, empires, dynasties, civilizations. Also see: Toynbee, Spengler, undoubtedly many other historians east and west. John Glubb's "Fate of Empires" even argues for a specific life expectancy of empires, 250 years.
The social development graph is unclear to me. How does Ian Morris define "east" and "west"? Is Egypt and the Levant "West" or "East"? We don't usually consider Egypt to be part of "the West" these days. From the perspective of Ancient Rome the Levant were as farther east as Asia [Roman province] but if you look at a globe they are both on the western side of Eurasia. Whether Cairo and Constantinople constitute "east" or "west" gives the graph completely different meanings. Does "East" include Arabia and Persia? How about the Levant? My guess is "West" refers to Europe and the Mediterranean and "East" refers to India and the Sinosphere.
I think this analysis could benefit from a broader perspective. The knowledge of Rome wasn't lost. The Renaissance didn't happen in a vacuum. The European classics were preserved by Arabic scholars during the European Medieval period. The Byzantines survived until 1453. They were the legitimate Roman Empire.
Western historians traditionally view the collapse of the Western Roman Empire as a deviation from normalcy. I think about the rise of the Western Roman Empire as the anomaly and its collapse as a return to normalcy. Rome's grain came from Cairo. Egypt was the center of Mediterranean civilization for the first half of history. It makes more sense that Egypt, not Italy, be the locus of Mediterranean civilization.
If you're curious to learn more, a terrific resource is The History of Rome podcast by Mike Duncan which walks you step-by-step through the rise and fall of the Western Roman Empire. From listening to that podcast, I think the destabilization of Rome started with an influx of slaves which increased inequality and drove citizens out of work. Internal economics broke democracy which brought about Caesar's autocracy. Mike Duncan isn't surprised because the Western Roman Empire fell too early. He is surprised it survived Crisis of the Third Century.
From Ian Morris' companion book Social Development:
Thanks. It sounds like, the Islamic world counts as "West" and India just isn't included on the chart.
I don't know if Rome is the anomaly for most civilizations. When looking at Europe, Rome was the only civilization to unify (most of) the continent, while others couldn't --- though many tried. But when looking at human civilizations as a whole, most centres are unified, and then stay so.
For the Middle East, that was the Assyrian and Achaemenid Empires, later being replaced by the Empires of similar sizes. For India, that was Ashoka and the Mauryan Empires, for China it was the Han, for Ethiopia it was Aksum, and so on.
Europe is (mostly) unique in that Rome came, Rome fell, and then no one was ever able to replace it.
The lack of an empire to supplant the Romans was recently discussed by Walter Scheidel in Aeon. In most cases the bureaucracy of empire survived when power was supplanted by an invader, and so some semblance of the the social structure of empire continued.
When Rome collapsed the empire totally fragmented.
It is a very interesting read:
I meant that the Roman Empire was an anomaly within European-Mediterranean history. It is unusual for the European-Mediterranean region specifically to be unified.
Oh yeah for sure. Europe is very unique in this regard, only really sharing it with West Africa. I don't have any definitive reasons why Europe specifically tends towards disunity, but I would say it is mostly culture.
The Frankish Empire got very close to dominating the entirety of the West (I feel like that's close enough), but then Charlemagne died, and it was split into three due to succession laws. Later, the Holy Roman Empire got close again (around the time of Otto II), but castles and the ratio between the ease-of-building and the defensibly prompted further disunity. The very fine balance of power between the Catholic Church, the nobility, the serfs, and burghers also prevented one from gaining too much power (in Rome the nobility and the urban-poor banded together).
Maybe geography played a small part, because there are no large irrigation-based river bodies to control, but there is the Rhine, Danube, and others (I'm not European, so I don't know which rivers require irrigation). Also, there was the Mediterranean, which Rome used.
Sidenote: I just wrote 150 words on ancient history, completely unprovoked.
I think we're on the same page. Three more people who came close to dominating the region include Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. I think there are good arguments for both sides to the argument of whether Europe's disunity comes from culture or geography.
I didn't know West Africa is like Europe in this regard. That is interesting.
I would also include Charlemagne, Otto II, and Justinian onto that list.
For West Africa, I need to read more on the topic, but I believe that a couple empires came and left (Mali and Ghana?), but their descendants eventually split into various small kingdoms and polities. Although, I guess you could include the French as being one unifier.
What if it's just regression to the mean? Maybe the main problem wasn't that late Rome was unusally bad, but that Rome at it's peak was anomalously successful, and this didn't last because technology and culture just wasn't able to sustain an anomaly at the time?
Is it just pure coincidence that Jesus was allegedly born when these graphs show local peak? Just a thought.
The common cause is Roman expansion into the Levant. Roman imposition of polytheism on the monotheistic Jews triggered rebellion including (but not limited to) Jesus Christ. The Levant also marks the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Until that point, Rome was either fighting along the Mediterranean cost or competing against the small, weak states of Gaul and Britain. Rome had reached its natural geographic limits. To continue expanding they would have had to win a land war against Persia.
I agree with you as a whole on the fact that Rome expanding into the Levant helped cause the rise of Christianity, but for the most part, Rome didn't impose polytheism onto the Jews. I'm not familiar with Jewish history, but Rome mostly allowed the Jews to practice their religion; one example is how the Emperors (before Vespasian) sponsored the Second Temple and the practices there.
Secondly, we shouldn't forget survivorship bias. There were many different "cults" all vying for their share of followers (my favourite being Epicureanism and Manicheanism), it just happened to be that Christianity won out in the end. Until the 3rd century, Manicheanism was in the lead, it really was Constantine who allowed Christianity to become dominant.
But in the end, I think this all ties back to Rome. The late Republican era was a deeply agnostic period for Rome, with many outright disbelieving the classical Hellenic religion and the later Imperial Cult (especially after Octavian straight up committed human sacrifice). These cults were responses to the general agnosticism, allowing people to believe in things beyond themselves.
It sounds like you are concerned about the rise of Christianity in Rome. Is your comment intended toward guy_from_finland? My comment is about Roman geography and the pre-Christian geopolitics of Judea under the Roman occupation.
It is true Rome didn't outlaw Judaism. But I don't think that matters. My reference point for this is when Gaius Caligula tried to get a statue of his likeness built in the Jewish temple. He failed. But an attempt to insert a statue of the emperor into a monotheistic temple is an attempted imposition of polytheism. More importantly, conflicts between Rome and the Jews produced three major Jewish rebellions. They resulted in the destruction of the Jewish polity and a Jewish exodus.
The reason Jews don't do sacrifices anymore is because they're required to do so in a specific temple the Romans destroyed in 70 CE. Saying "Rome mostly allowed the Jews to practice their religion" is like razing Mecca and then claiming you allow Muslims to practice their religion because you built them a new city. This is my crux when it comes to Roman treatment of the Jews.
My main point is that Jesus was a Jew rebelling against Roman occupation. Jesus wouldn't have rebelled against Rome if Rome hadn't conquered Judea.
Oh yeah, sorry, I was mostly replying to the OP. I don't really know much about Jewish history so sorry for any inaccuracies. In my point I was mostly talking about the Republican Era (before Caligula and Vespasian) when Crassus (?) first conquered the area. I've heard that at the time, the governors were pretty lenient, up to (and maybe including, depending on your religious sect) Pontius Pilate.
You're 1000% correct however in saying that the Emperors after Tiberius were very bad to the Jews. However, the time before this --- including the time of Jesus, the Romans and the Jews coexisted.
Also, at a few points in his sermons, Jesus mentions that people should accept the rule of the Romans, e.g. Mark 12:17 (King James version):