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Rome did Fall and it was a Bad Thing

The traditional view of the end of the Western Roman Empire and its aftermath is relatively straightforward. Rome was overrun by the barbarians and it was a bad thing because it was the end of a glorious civilisation and followed by the Dark Ages.

More recent historiography has tended to take a somewhat less categorical approach. The Western Empire did not so much fall as get transformed, it is not quite kosher to talk about a decline (but rises are always OK), certainly not the end of the civilisation and the Dark Ages is not a sensible term.

So it is refreshing to read a book by a serious historian and archaeologist saying, actually, no, the Western Empire was overrun by the barbarians, it was a very traumatic time, it was the end of a civilisation and what followed it was a period of decline and loss (particularly of literacy).

It is also reassuring that the picture we have been presenting to students in our Weapons and Armour presentation (1000 years of history in 50 minutes) is actually supported by the archaeological and other evidence.

The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilisation is a short, clearly written book by Bryan Ward-Perkins, fellow of Trinity College, Oxford.

Ward-Perkins starts by outlining the shift in the dominant view about historians mentioned above. In Part One, he then goes through various written sources from the period to talk about the horrors of war as the Western empire is overrun and carved up into various Germanic kingdoms. He analyses the road to defeat (why the Western Empire fell and the Eastern Empire did not) as a result of the Western Empire having (due to simple geography) a harder task and poorer leadership. He notes that the Crisis of the Third Century showed that keeping the Empire functioning against a strong external challenge was no easy task. He then examines the Germanic takeover as being a genuine take-over, with the locals having a clearly inferior position.

In Part Two Ward-Perkins goes through the archaeological and other evidence about the level of comfort and sophstication that existed under the Empire (particularly as indicated by the widespread, standardised and high quality pottery) and the dramatic economic, cultural and population decline in the West in the C5th to C7th which has no parallel in the Eastern Empire until the wars of the C7th.

In Roman Britian, the decline upon the withdrawal of the legions is precipitous. The evidence (including such things as the average size of cows) is that the decline was to a lower level of technology and cultural sophistication than had existed in Iron Age Britain prior to the Roman conquest. He also points out that the "most backward" areas of the Western Empire (Wales, Brittany, Asturias) actually held out better. (I liked his comment that the last bit of the Western Empire to fall to the barbarians was when Wales was conquered by Edward Longshanks in 1282). This was because those areas had less economic specialisation so a more widespread level of basic skills in the population. The peace and common jurisdiction of the Empire allowed the building up of great networks of economic specialisation. This meant a high level of convenience and comfort, and not only for the elite. Once war and rapine disrupted that, the high level of specialisation became a high level of vulnerability. Pottery (and other production) becomes much less common and cruder, the population falls, literacy levels collapse. What follows was clearly worse than what had preceded it: a collapse from sophisticated complexity to survival-focused simplicity.

Ward-Perkins concludes with a (very polite) discussion of why current events (particularly the rise of the EU) had led to the creation of a historical view which nuances away overthrow, decline, conquest and collapse. I would go a bit further than Ward-Perkins does. After all, the traditional view meant that the Roman legions really were defending civilisation, and both the EU specifically--and contemporary academe in general--has a great dislike for the idea that thugs in uniform really can have a positive social role.

I found it a very sensible, very well-written and very enlightening book.


( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 20th, 2006 10:22 pm (UTC)

I've never had too much trouble with the term 'Dark Ages'. It does suggest that, as you've pointed out, literacy declined, trade declined etc. What wasn't 'dark' about it?
Apr. 20th, 2006 11:20 pm (UTC)
I don't think that's erudito's position, rather, the opposite - he just mentions that as the more recent histiographic position.
Apr. 21st, 2006 06:45 am (UTC)
I have no great problem with the term Dark Age either, as long as one understands that regression was not total or universal.

Once the process of collapse was over (by about 600) folk were actually bigger (more calories per person) and technology was starting to be more dynamic. But the loss of literacy and cultural resources was enormous.
Apr. 21st, 2006 02:08 am (UTC)
It was and it wasn't, depending on how you look at it.
Depends on definitions. The term 'Dark Ages' was originally chosen partially because of a lack of documentation, and partially (mostly?) because it was seen as an interregnum between one period of Real History (the Roman Empire in the West) and the next period of Real History (which seems to have started roughly around the time of William the Bastard and the First Crusade, c1050), but even that was just the necessary warm-up to the real Real History -- the Renaissance, which was seen as a completion of Graeco-Roman civilisation and its promises.

Of course, when you include in the whole Carolingian renaissance, the extended period of scholarship of the Irish and the English (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles cover a good chunk of the canonical 'Dark' period, then you start to see that the Dark Ages weren't always that dark. Of course they were violent, nasty and brutish. But so were the [Thirty|Hundred] Year Wars, or the various wars on the British Peoples, or the Cathar Crusades, or the various plagues, or, or, or...

There was a dark period in the West, with SFA records surviving, between the fall of Rome and the reign of Charlemagne, so that's roughly c400 -- c750.
Not as long as usually described professionally, let alone in public opinion (given, of course, the widespread ignorance of just about all history out there).

Pedant mode off...
Apr. 21st, 2006 06:53 am (UTC)
Re: It was and it wasn't, depending on how you look at it.
That the Irish managed to ensure that the loss of cultural resources was merely enormous rather than total is not exactly a counter-argument for the utility of the term.

The level of trade in the Western Mediterranean does not recover to its Roman levels for about 8 centuries. Western Europe does not reach Roman levels of literacy until even later. It is certainly true there are signs of revival after 750, but it is pretty slow and from a dramatically low base.
Apr. 21st, 2006 07:05 am (UTC)
Re: It was and it wasn't, depending on how you look at it.
The level of trade in the Western Mediterranean does not recover to its Roman levels for about 8 centuries.

All that proves is that after the massivly disruptive event of the Fall of the (Western) Roman Empire, that trade patterns were fundamentally rearranged. What about Viking traders? What about the Eastern Mediterranean? (Byzantium didn't fall until the fourth crusade, remember. Well after the Dark Ages is supposed to end.)
Apr. 21st, 2006 12:21 pm (UTC)
Re: It was and it wasn't, depending on how you look at it.
They weren't "re-arranged" they were devestated. For Western Europe the term 'Dark Age' is quite appropriate. Indeed, the contrast with the Eastern Empire and later the Arab Caliphate indicates how much so.
Apr. 20th, 2006 11:18 pm (UTC)
It was my understanding that Roman civilisation fell for a number of reasons, but the most important was the exhaustion of silver mines, which paid the wages of the legions - and when there was no more pay, the legions abandoned their posts, leaving many areas then ripe for plunder by barbarian hordes. Essentially, the major factor was the collapse of economic growth due to their wealth creation mechanism becoming untenable. You don't mention this in your post, but does the book?

I especially like the bit where you mention: He also points out that the "most backward" areas of the Western Empire (Wales, Brittany, Asturias) actually held out better" ... "This was because those areas had less economic specialisation so a more widespread level of basic skills in the population."

.... I can only quote a common cliche here: Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. ;)
Apr. 21st, 2006 06:48 am (UTC)
Bad theory
Ward-Perkins does not mention the silver mines theory, probably for the simple reason it does not provide any explanation of why the Eastern Empire continued happily.

The collapse of the tax base from barbarian plunder and invasion is certainly crucial, as Ward-Perkins argues. The question is, how did they get that successful in the first place?

Ward-Perkins does point out we live in a civilisation of great specialisation, and there is plenty of apocalyptic alternate history which plays on that. But the problem of the lessons of history is they can be read more than one way. There are some obvious parallels with Europe's current situation, but does that mean they should expel the Muslims or embrace them more effectively?
Apr. 21st, 2006 10:02 pm (UTC)
Re: Bad theory
I've always enjoyed the lead-poisoning theory, personally... :)
Apr. 21st, 2006 01:55 am (UTC)
Sounds like one to add to my list.

Which reminds me, I've finally started The Cousin's War and am finding it very interesting. (Me? Slack?)

Then at some stage I shall have to organise a time to catch up and return it and 1423. :-)
Apr. 21st, 2006 06:26 am (UTC)
Sounds good
Yes, you would enjoy it. It's nice and short too.

Catching up at your convenience (sometime after May 7th) seems like a plan :)
Apr. 21st, 2006 03:53 am (UTC)
now if only america would follow suit... ;)
Apr. 21st, 2006 04:32 am (UTC)
America is the first country to have gone from barbarism to decadence without the usual intervening period of civilization.
-- Oscar Wilde
Apr. 21st, 2006 06:50 am (UTC)
Yes, I am really looking forward to China being the most powerful state on the planet. The Beijing regime are such a fun lot ...
Apr. 21st, 2006 02:12 pm (UTC)
Dark ages, evidence and fantasy
Hey erudito,

fantastic post. I'll get my corpulent bottom up to the bookshop and get Ward-Perkins book.

The problem with the debate about the fall of the Western Roman empire (or 'transformation' in more postmodern terms) is that you get a real lack of information and evidence. Which creates a large vacuum. Into which folk project their own ideologies, pouring into the historiography like barbarians over the frontier.

Thus for medievalists I knew at Melbourne University, there was no 'Dark Age.' At the mention of this archaic concept, they would raise their eyes and exchange sniggers. It seemed that from the comfort of their own common room they couldn't imagine the disruption and heightened violence that accompanied the gradual collapse of central authority. In their world, there are no declines, falls or weakenings, just a series of changes and renegotiations that are not bad or good, but just different. And of course, at the same time as their relativism, there was there implicit anti-imperialism: one wouldn't want to mourn the passing of a dominant empire with institutions claiming universal validity for their values. Nial Ferguson once wrote a clever article basically questioning whether those who want a world without any dominant power should be careful what they wish for: a multi-polar world without a Leviathan in which trade and cultural exchange is ruptured in favour of anarchic, violent competition.

And as another example of 'gap-filling', there are now environmentalist interpretations, where deforestation is the main culprit. Although resource scarcity can be a real security issue, this seems again to fail to account for the survival of the eastern empire.

With my own bias towards war & politics explanations, I still think it is the restaging of a problem from the period of the Roman Republic: the political power of the armies, which continually show primary loyalties to their commanders rather than the senate/emperor etc, who are effectively the 'clients' of their patron-commanders. The further they fight away from Rome, the more the centre seems distant and the more compelling their commander seems as their source of security and advancement: thus Constantine is proclaimed emperor by his army in York, England.

What interests me is how the barbarian successors to the Western Empire actually saw and presented themselves. I think I recall that various emperors, facing a manpower shortage, paid them to be absorbed into the frontier defence plan, co-opting their armies. Was the impact of this to Romanise them culturally over time, so that after the 5th century, many saw themselves as the legitimate successors?

Jumping forward, was this claim to embody the western (or eastern) Roman authority therefore a natural move for dynasties like the Romanovs, Hohenzollerns to legitimise themselves?

Apr. 22nd, 2006 01:25 am (UTC)
Re: Dark ages, evidence and fantasy
One of the great advantages for Ward-Perkins is there is now a mass of archaeological data to draw upon, and that is very much a basis of his analysis.

Your description of Uni Melb common rooms rings very true.

There is some tagential discussion of barbarian self-image in Ward-Perkins. I am currently reading Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire: A new history of Rome and the barbarians which examines the barbarians in much more detail. The two books seem to be fairly complementary.

The Myth of Rome is a fascinating matter in itself. In my observation, worshipping at the altar of Imperial Rome never led to good places. Conversely, the Republic of Rome has been very imfluential in American political forms and iconography. In whatever form, the Myth--Rome as a source of example and ideas--seems to me to have been far more important in shaping Western civilisation than the very, very limited survival of institutional forms. That is, I regard Classical civilisation as a precursor to Western civilisation, not an earlier form of it.
Apr. 24th, 2006 04:17 pm (UTC)
Re: Dark ages, evidence and fantasy
So the Roman Empire is a good thing. But in becoming an empire and maintaining that empire, it overextended itself militarily and lessened the military's allegiance to the state. So then the empire collapsed, which, evidence shows us pretty conclusively, is a bad thing. Leading to a time where conditions were objectively worse than Before Empire.
Is there an empire whose collapse was not rooted in its very founding? I can't think of a single one that didn't let its eyes get bigger than its stomach. Not all of them collapsed as catastrophically as Rome, sure. But since the the collapse of an empire brings on the same political vacuum that Ferguson abhors and might even worsen that vacuum, doesn't that suggest that empire is actually a bad thing?
Also, isn't saying "imperialism is good" (or "imperialism is not a bad thing", which is about the same thing) kind of relativist? I'm pretty sure there's been a great hullabaloo over a (theoretical) resurgent Muslim Empire at this very moment. But didn't the different Muslim empires bring great technological and cultural improvements to their client states?
Really, when you're saying "imperialism is good", you're saying that, "imperialism is good as long as the conquerors aren't bloodthirsty, religious fanatics, insane or incompetent." And unfortunately, one can rarely tell empires not to display any of the above behavior if they would rather be bloodthirsty, fanatical, etc. And I'm sure that every empire has, at least at intervals, displayed some of those behaviors.
Apr. 24th, 2006 09:27 pm (UTC)
Re: Dark ages, evidence and fantasy
it overextended itself militarily and lessened the military's allegiance to the state.
It is an odd form of overextending which takes about 450 years to work through.

So far, no political form has proved eternal, all have displayed or developed ultimately fatal weaknesses. Though some have managed remarkable longevity--the Venetian Republic, for example. And various imperial retreats have performed better than others. The British Empire being patently the best "imperial retreat" in history--which is Ferguson's key example.

As I have remarked elsewhere, imperialism is a normal activity of rulerships in history, it is a peculiar and late Western/European idea that imperialism is somehow morally problematic. (Though one various colonial elites adopted, adapted and developed enthusiastically.)

What both Ward-Perkins and Heather are saying is that the Roman order enabled a much higher level of economic activity and comfort than what replaced it. Both note downsides in that achievement--Ward-Perkins the vulnerability of specialisation, Heather the extremely uneven nature of the benefits of Roman order. But as a long-standing critic of the notion of one-rule as being good for a civilisation, (I am definitely a competitive-jurisdictions-are-good person) I agree that Rome, however successful, turned Classical civilisation into a dead-end precisely because of its creation of imperial unity.

One of my tests of a good treatment of the fall of the Western Empire, as I mention in my next post on this topic (reviewing another recent book on the fall of Rome) is to explain why the (much smaller) Roman Republic survived the threat of Hannibal. As the discussion there with deathbeast indicates, the dynamics of expansion created needs for new political forms which provided solutions for existing problems but then turned out to create vulnerabilities for new problems. The question then becomes whether the evolved order can adapt sufficiently quickly in crisis situations. In the C5th, in the West, that turned out to be a no.
Apr. 25th, 2006 04:46 am (UTC)
Re: Dark ages, evidence and fantasy
Isn't the idea that imperialism is not morally problematic somewhat relativistic?
Surely there must be some form of "bad" imperialism. One that drains a country's resources without offering effective protection or corresponding benefits, perhaps? No one intends to actually defend King Leopold's rule over the Congo Free State, right?
Apr. 25th, 2006 06:48 am (UTC)
Re: Dark ages, evidence and fantasy
Imperialism (in the sense of rule by different group) more or less cannot avoid being exploitative from the simple dynamics of whose preferences get to have political impact and whose don't. To take a salient example, India stopped having famines once it gained democratic independence.

My point was not that imperialism is a good thing, my point is that it used to be a normal thing. Much like slavery. To observe this is not to advocate slavery.

Moreover, imperial rule may be genuinely preferable to the immediate alternatives. In the long run, I think the fall of Rome was enormously beneficial for the West-to-be. But it was very, very bad for folk for several centuries.

Apr. 25th, 2006 06:59 am (UTC)
Re: Dark ages, evidence and fantasy (2)
I would also add that what was genuinely distinctive about Roman rule compared to just about any other Empire ever was that it was prepared to accept folk incorporated into the Empire as full 'Romans'. The extension of Roman citizenship to every freeborn male was the culmination of developments that extended back to the early days of the Republic's expansion. This gave the Roman Republic a winning advantage over Greek cities, which were extremely reluctant to extend citizenship. (Not that there is any mystery in this difference--cities run by assemblies of citizens would obviously be reluctant to extend the vote: a city run by a self-selecting Senate has every incentive to extend citizenship which made the army they controlled bigger.)
Apr. 21st, 2006 07:16 pm (UTC)
Climate Data and Rome
This book sounds like a fresh view from that of the last 30 years. I will be interested in reading it. It is interesting that you mention none of the new arguments from climate in it, however. In the popular book on climate's effects on civilization, "The Long Summer", by Brian Fagan, there is some interesting new data about Rome and other western Eurasian groups in his chapter 10, Celts and Romans.

It is an argument about empire building and collapse from logistical considerations about feeding large imperial armies. The air masses that control climate over western Eurasia are called: The Atlantic Air Mass, The Continental Air Mass, and the Mediterranean Air Mass, and the boundaries between them are called "Ecotones". The maps on page 192 summarize the climate changes.

A short summery is that the Mediterranean climate offered the best conditions for growing the wheat that could be transported over imperial distances with low spoilage, to feed imperial armies. The ecotones were the richest agrarian areas, because plant crops from both air masses on either side could do well there. Areas under the continental air mass did have the requisite dry summers, but a shorter growing season. It was the atlantic air mass, with its short and relatively wet summers, that made wheat a problematical crop, and the support of imperial armies at a distance harder, and more expensive.

Between 1200 BC and 300 BC, the ecotone between the mediterranean air mass and the two northern ones lay on a line through southern Spain, Sicily, Greece, and western Anatolia. Note that this is precisely the area where Magna Graecia and the Carthaginian Empire flourished in the latter parts of this period. Meanwhile, the Celts, were besieging the Capitoline Hill in 390 BC, but left because they could not ship in food to feed the besieging forces.

In 300 BC, the ecotone between the mediterranean air mass and the northern air masses moved North, all the way to Northern Spain, the Channel coast of Gaul, Frisia, Denmark, and the South shore of the Baltic. While Celtic political groups now grew in size, Rome was quicker off the mark. From 300 BC to 300 AD, the ecotone stayed tied to the southern coast of the Channel, and Rome expanded behind it, being able to feed imperial armies locally as far North as Britain.

By 300 AD the climatic boundary became unstable, and so did Roman control in the Western Empire. By 400+AD Rome itself was over-run, but the Continental Air Mass allowed the Eastern Empire to grow enough wheat to keep their Imperial Armies going, till 535 AD. Justinian made moves to reunite the Empire from this safer position.

In 535 AD, there was a massive climatic event. It is believed to involve a mega-volcanic eruption, that formed the Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra. Procopius, writing in Carthage, noted that the Sun, at mid-day, was no brghter than the Moon for months on end. The ecotone of the mediterranean and northern air masses moved south to Morrocco, Carthage, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Basra.

In the book, "Catastrophe An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World", by David Keys, it is also noted that the change in climate forced rats out of the suddenly colder "Mountains of the Moon", near the Great Rift Valley of Africa, and down to the coast. There they found new homes in coastal shipping, and by 539 AD, the "Plague of Justinian" had broken out in Alexandria, and spread from there. It is possible this was the true first occurence of Yrsina Pestis, "The Black Death". It killed as much as 40 percent of the peoples of western Eurasia. It may have killed as many sailors as the 1347 plague did, when 90 percent of Venice died. That broke the crucial shipping links that held the old Roman world together.

In 530 AD the Eastern Empire's Armies numbered 640,000. By 550 AD, they numbered only 150,000. Repeated outbreaks of the plague ocurred every few generations as late as 750 AD. Thus, Rome would not be rebuilt, by Justinian, or his successors.

The result of this new data seems to indicate that the "Dark Ages" really were dark in their inception, in 535AD. Still, it may be better to call them "The Plague Centuries", IMHO.


Tom Billings
Apr. 22nd, 2006 01:15 am (UTC)
Re: Climate Data and Rome
I have read Catastrophe, but Ward-Perkins does not cover the Justinian period of the Eastern Empire in any detail. The Justianic plague is a fascinating event, but one notices that Latin Christendom proved far more resilient in the face of the C14th Black Death.

As for the climate change point, interesting but it is so general a causal factor. For a start, to have major causal effects it would have to affect Rome and its enemies differentially. Now, I can see one might be able mount such an argument, but it would certainly have to be done to be persuasive.
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )



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