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The fall of the Roman Empire

This book states what the revisionists have questioned: the fall of the Roman Empire sucked and the Dark Ages really were dark and a regression for civilisation. Looks like a must-read for fans of ancient history.

13 comments to The fall of the Roman Empire

  • dearieme

    The tittish argument that the Dark Ages weren’t a degradation is just another reason why academics are so often treated with contempt. Pity.

  • Good grief, what’s next? Will Ptolemaic cosmology start making a comeback?

  • Ian

    Hurrah! My old English tutors always said I was rash to talk about the Dark Ages, which were really a period of fascinating and exciting literature, chiz chiz.

    Personally, I’m so pro-classics that I’d like to believe we went back to painting ourselves blue with woad when we went into battle. We certainly didn’t have undefloor central heating as the Romans did. No, in our great halls we went back to having a fire in the middle and a hole in the roof to let the smoke out.

    Thanks for the heads-up.

  • dearieme

    Learnt from reading two different books in successive weeks, a few years ago:- In Roman times, roads meant trade, so new villages were built beside roads. In Anglo-Saxon times, roads meant marauders, so new villages were built far from roads. Tells you most of what you need to know, I reckon.

  • Be sure to check out this excellent review essay of the book by James McCormick on the ChicagoBoyz blog.

  • RAB

    Taken from my people’s perspective, the Anglo Saxons WERE the marauders!
    That’s why the Welsh shunned towns anyway.
    And why you had to build so many castles to subdue us. Set back Norman world domination by oh, centuries it did! Still let’s bygones be bygones eh?
    The fall of the Roman Empire was down to wimmin you know. You didn’t?
    It was all about fashion and chic.
    Look Androlious Bach, this underfloor central heating is so last year – darling!
    Why cant we have beaten mud floors, like them at no 42?
    Oh and their Whattle and Daub is to die for!!!
    And what could be better than the one central fire and a big hole in the roof , to give that home that New Labour glow!

  • Midwesterner

    Theough the similarity is probably obvious to all, I’d like to highlight some things from James McCormick’s review, linked by Lexington Green,

    The overall story, then, was not of overwhelming Germanic or Gothic superiority — a clash of titans — but of a Roman system unable to convert its hinterland from a peace to a war footing before a welter of barbarians broke through to create utter chaos.

    We have a global economy now. The oil fields in the Mideast, etc are our ‘hinterland’.

    He goes on to say –

    Whatever treaties were made between Roman central authorities and invading groups were inevitably at the expense of local provincial land ownership and its prosperity. And as Ward-Perkins points out, what might have seemed like peaceable settlement of barbarians was usually matched by violent expansion from those settlements to neighbouring areas. When an armed community unified under a chieftain or king moves into an unarmed civilian population, the balance of power shifts immediately.

    And a different point,

    However, the evidence is very strong that a thin band of water, reinforced by sea power and supported by peace on other fronts, was the eastern empire’s greatest defence.

    Is the US the ‘Eastern’ empire protected by its thin band of Atlantic?

  • Midwesterner

    I forgot to mention, if you don’t read the entire review on Chicago Boyz, at least skip down and read Anglosphere Musings.

  • darkbhudda

    Was it a peaceful transition?

    Was Rome going to build central heated bath houses for every one of it’s conquered citizens?

    Rome held back technological innovation.

    The fall of Rome sucked for Romans, but everyone else benefited.

  • Paul Marks

    Most people did not benefit from the collapse of the Roman Empire – the chaos led to a population crash.

    However, the population decline had already been going on – as the Empire became a highly taxed and regulated nightmare.

    The Romans did not hold back technological advance (the Romans, in the Republican period, were just as ready to use new ideas as any other ancient people) – but the Empire did.

    Not just no different polities (so if something was blocked in one city one went to another – the way of the old classical world), but a tyrannical polity where the Emperor’s word was law.

    The insane tax levels and caste society (with peasants bound to the land and many other compulsions) of the late Empire are well known – but even in the early Empire the trend was clear.

    Augustus destoyed books he did not like (and remember no alternative cities or kingdoms to flee to), Tiberious executed the inventors of shatter resistant glass (because the glass blowers asked him to – using Lord Keynes type arguments). Vespasian rejected the inventors of building machinary (“please allow me to feed my people” – i.e. employing large numbers of people on public works projects) and so on.

    The Empire was indeed a technological dark age, with no progress (indeed some regress) over five centuries.

    The collapse produced further decline (the various war bands killing and plundering did not do peaceful civil interaction much good).

    It took centuries for society to regrow. However, by the late Anglo Saxon period (in spite of the failure to recover some lost Roman ideas) the population of England (most of old Roman provice of Britian – exculding what became Wales) was higher than in Roman times and the population were taller and in better health (to judge by the bones found in graves).

    To the coloni (peasants tied to the land since the time of Diocletian) and to the townsfolk tied to caste like positions and taxed and regulated at every turn, the folk of late Anglo Saxon England would have seemed like supermen – not just because they were taller, but because they were in better health and lived to a much greater age (although one must remember that Britanniae was, in some ways, the least worst part of the Western Roman Empire – indeed some tribes in the north and west of the provice were even allowed to own and carry weapons, whereas most Romans had been slaves in this respect since the time of Augustus in much the same way that modern British people are slaves).

    Taxes and regulations were a lot lower in 1066 than they were in (say) 400 A.D. and the population was better off. Even in techology not all was decline – for example the ploughs and other farming equipment were better than anything the Romans had (Anglo Saxon England was dominated by village culture – towns were of less importance than in Roman times and subsidising towns was not.

    It is true that not all the population was free in the Anglo Saxon period (and whilst slavery may not have been so savage as in the Roman period a slave was not allowed to own or carry weapons) – but only about one person in ten was a slave (and slavery was not impossible to escape – as there were no central records and no police, if a person ran away to a different area no one could know they were a slave) whereas in the late Roman period most people had been either coloni or in one ot tied positions in the towns.

    Of course then came the Norman Conquest.

  • Perry E. Metzger

    Paul Marks has it spot on. The tragedy was complete at the point at which a society that prided itself on liberty turned into a corrupt dictatorship that rotted from within almost from the start. The Republic had a chance, but the Empire was doomed from the beginning.

    History is, of course, written by the victors, and today we remember those that fought for the preservation of liberty within Rome as evil men. Who mourns for Brutus, who tried to save Rome from tyranny? No one. Instead, we still have a month named after Julius Caesar, who’s main claim to fame was his skill at organizing violence, including the subjugation and pillage of those who posed no threat to him or Rome at all, and another month still named after his crude, brutal adopted son Octavian, who renamed himself Augustus after he managed to murder all rivals to his dictatorial rule.

    In the centuries after them, Rome slowly lost more and more freedom, and government was often selected by coup d’etat or worse. A legal system that had been based on one of the first great common law traditions in the world slowly was codified, tampered with by the arbitrary dictates of the rulers and rendered sclerotic and worthless. In the end, Rome fell not because of barbarians from without but because of barbarism within: its dictatorial rulers assumed they could do anything they wanted — pass any law, abridge any freedom, extract any tax — without negative impact on the society around them. They were, of course, completely mistaken. Then, as society collapsed, they piled mistake on mistake.

    The lesson for us is that civilizations do fall, and that the cause is often woefully predictable. Sadly, to this day, the cult of the state is almost never blamed for the horrors it inflicts.

  • I’m reasonably certain that plagues up and down the Danube valleys had at least something to do with those population crashes.

    Though the author is stellar, I’m wondering how he deals with Pirenne’s thesis: after all, if Britannia’s economy dried up and blew away as soon as the legions left, that’s a heck of an arrow in the quiver of the folks he’s trying to debunk, who argued that the so-called vast economy was by and for the benefit of the Roman military and bureacracy.

  • Midwesterner

    I’m reasonably certain that plagues up and down the Danube valleys had at least something to do with those population crashes.

    Russ, my brother said the same thing. Since so much of what I hear of the Roman empire is about facilities for hygiene and quality of life features, I wonder how much of the plagues can be attributed to deteriorating hygiene and living conditions. The timing is certainly right.