(1836) by Thomas Cole.
Courtesy Met Museum, New York
The Fall of the Roman Empire
wasn't a tragedy for Civilization.
It was a Lucky Break
for Humanity as a Whole...
Yet all these enduring influences pale against Rome's most important legacy:
Had its empire not
unraveled, or had it
been replaced by a similarly overpowering successor, the world
wouldn't have become modern.
Tankloads of ink have been expended on explaining it.
Back in 1984, the German historian Alexander Demandt patiently compiled no fewer than 210 different reasons for Rome's demise that had been put forward over time.
And the flood of books and papers shows no sign of abating:
Wouldn't only a
calamity of the first order warrant this kind of attention?
Although some regions were harder hit than others, none escaped unscathed.
But a few benefits were already being felt at the time.
Roman power had fostered immense inequality:
The new Germanic rulers operated with lower overheads and proved less adept at collecting rents and taxes.
Yet these changes didn't last.
Their 5th-century takeover was only the beginning:
When the Germans took charge, they initially relied on Roman institutions of governance to run their new kingdoms.
But they did a poor job of maintaining that vital infrastructure. Before long, nobles and warriors made themselves at home on the lands whose yield kings had assigned to them.
While this relieved rulers of the onerous need to count and
tax the peasantry, it also starved them of revenue and made it
harder for them to control their supporters.
The Catholic Church, increasingly centralized under an ascendant papacy, had a lock on the dominant belief system.
The resultant landscape was a patchwork quilt of breathtaking complexity.
Not only was Europe divided into numerous states great and small, those states were themselves split into duchies, counties, bishoprics and cities where nobles, warriors, clergy and traders vied for influence and resources.
Aristocrats made sure to check royal power:
In commercial cities, entrepreneurs formed guilds that governed their conduct.
In some cases, urban residents took matters into their own hands, establishing independent communes managed by elected officials. In others, cities wrung charters from their overlords to confirm their rights and privileges.
So did universities, which were organized as self-governing corporations of scholars.
So many different power structures intersected and overlapped, and fragmentation was so pervasive that no one side could ever claim the upper hand:
Power became constitutionalized, openly negotiable and formally partible:
However much kings liked to claim divine favor, their hands
were often tied - and if they pushed too hard, neighboring
countries were ready to support disgruntled defectors.
Some rulers managed to tighten the reins, leading toward the absolutism of the French Sun King Louis XIV.
Sometimes parliaments held their own against ambitious sovereigns, and sometimes there were no kings at all and republics prevailed.
The details hardly matter:
The educated knew that there was no single
immutable order, and they were able to weigh the upsides and
drawbacks of different ways of organizing society.
and the state splintered,
new dynasties emerged
and rebuilt the empire...
Ever costlier warfare became a defining feature of early modern Europe. Religious strife, driven by the Reformation, which broke the papal monopoly, poured fuel on the flames.
Conflict also spurred expansion overseas:
Merchant societies spearheaded many of these ventures, while public debt for funding constant war spawned bond markets.
Capitalists advanced on all fronts, lending to
governments, investing in colonies and trade, and extracting
concessions. The state, in turn, looked after these vital allies,
protecting them from rivals foreign and domestic.
Like the 'Red Queen' in Alice in Wonderland, these rival states had to keep running just to stay in place - and speed up if they wanted to get ahead.
Nothing like this happened anywhere else in the world.
The resilience of empire as a form of political organization made sure of that.
Wherever geography and ecology allowed large imperial structures to take root, they tended to persist:
China is the most prominent example.
Ever since the first emperor of Qin (he of terracotta-army fame) united the warring states in the late 3rd century BCE, monopoly power became the norm.
Over time, as such
interludes grew shorter, imperial unity came to be seen as
ineluctable, as the natural order of things, celebrated by elites
and sustained by the ethnic and cultural homogenization imposed on
Yet similar patterns of waxing and waning can be observed around the world:
After the fall of Rome, Europe west of Russia was the only exception, and remained a unique outlier for more than 1,500 years.
This wasn't the only way in which western Europe proved uniquely exceptional.
It was there that modernity took off - the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, modern science and technology, and representative democracy, coupled with colonialism, stark racism and unprecedented environmental degradation.
Was that a coincidence...?
Historians, economists and political scientists have long argued about the causes of these transformative developments. Even as some theories have fallen by the wayside, from God's will to white supremacy, there's no shortage of competing explanations.
The debate has turned into a minefield, as scholars who seek to understand why this particular bundle of changes appeared only in one part of the world wrestle with a heavy baggage of stereotypes and prejudices that threaten to cloud our judgment.
But, as it turns out, there's a shortcut.
If you side with those scholars who believe that political and economic institutions were the basis for modernizing development, western Europe is the place for you.
In an environment where bargaining trumped despotism and exit options were plentiful, rulers had more to gain from protecting entrepreneurs and capitalists than from fleecing them.
Size also mattered:
The better medieval legacies of pluralism survived, the more such states developed in close engagement with organized representatives of civil society.
International competition rewarded cohesion,
mobilization and innovation. The more governments expected from
their citizens, the more they had to offer in return. State power,
civic rights and economic progress advanced together.
Those terrors too grew out of fragmentation:
It has been said that the Europeans rather than the Chinese reached the Americas first simply because the Pacific is much wider than the Atlantic.
Yet successive Chinese empires failed to seize even nearby Taiwan until the Ming finally intervened in the late 17th century, and never showed much of an interest in the Philippines, let alone more distant Pacific islands.
That made perfect sense:
Large empires were generally indifferent to overseas exploration, and for the same reason.
It was small, geographically peripheral cultures - from the ancient Phoenicians and Greeks to the Norse, Polynesians and Portuguese - that had the most to gain from striking out. And so they did...
Had Europeans not sailed forth with reckless abandon, there would have been,
Capitalizing on military skills honed by endless war, European powers escaped the perpetual stalemate on their own continent by exporting violence and conquest across the globe.
Separated by entire oceans from the imperial heartlands, colonized populations could be squeezed much harder than would have been feasible back in Europe.
Over time, much of the world turned into a
subordinate periphery that fuelled European capitalism.
among rulers, merchants and colonizers
fed an insatiable appetite
for new techniques...
Useful knowledge also played a vital role. There was no hope of transforming industry and medicine without dramatic advances in science and engineering.
That posed a serious challenge:
Innovators had to be able to follow the evidence wherever it led, regardless of how many toes they stepped on in the process.
However, it was even harder elsewhere.
As the powerful jostled for position, they favored those whom others persecuted.
Over time, the creation of safe spaces for critical enquiry and experimentation allowed scientists to establish strict standards that cut through the usual thicket of political influence, theological vision and aesthetic preference:
In addition, intense competition among rulers, merchants and colonizers fed an insatiable appetite for new techniques and gadgets.
Thus, while gunpowder, the floating compass
and printing were all invented in distant China, they were eagerly
embraced and applied by Europeans vying for control over territory,
trade and minds.
Such elite groups eyed merchants, artisans and bankers with suspicion and disdain:
For bourgeois attitudes to thrive, and for capitalists to enjoy protection from predatory intervention, these traditional snobberies had to lose their grip on the popular imagination.
Smaller states that were deeply immersed in commercial operations led the way:
In the end, once the Italian Renaissance had run its course, it was precisely those parts of western Europe where the legacies of Roman rule had faded most thoroughly, or where Rome had never held sway at all, that spearheaded political, economic and scientific progress:
It was there that Germanic traditions of communal decision-making survived the longest and that the Reformation precipitated yet another break from Rome.
It was there that social values changed
most profoundly, modern commercial capitalism took root, and science
and industrial technology flourished. But that was also where the
fiercest wars of the era were being hatched and fought.
Only if we think in the short term...
Large-scale empire was indeed an extremely effective way of organizing agrarian societies:
Even taxes were generally quite modest.
Designed to cater to the needs of a small ruling class and drawing heavily on the services of local elites, empires were relatively easy to build and cheap to maintain.
But they came with built-in limitations:
Why was that...?
Influenced by Orientalizing tropes about Asian societies, Western scholars used to think that, in traditional empires, human development was held back by despotism.
Empires tended to be quite detached from civil society:
Faced with the challenges of holding on to huge territories, central authorities prized stability above all.
As we saw, their empires reflected this priority by encouraging conservatism and reinforcing the status quo. They also empowered the ruler's allies to prey on the weak, while sheer scale made the idea of political representation a nonstarter.
At the same time, limited managerial capacities exposed such empires to secession and invasion, which threatened to undo the economic growth that had been achieved.
China, which was repeatedly laid low by warlords, peasant uprisings
and assaults from the steppe, is the best-known but by no means the
As states consolidated, intracontinental pluralism was guaranteed.
When they centralized, they did so by building on the medieval legacies of formalized negotiation and partition of powers. Would-be emperors from Charlemagne to Charles V and Napoleon failed, as did the Inquisition, the Counter-Reformation, censorship, and, at long last, autocracy.
That wasn't for want of trying, of attempts to get Europe back on track, so to speak, to the safety of the status quo and universal rule.
the imperial template, once fashioned by ancient Romans, had been
too thoroughly shattered to make this possible.
were disseminated around the world,
painfully unevenly yet inexorably...
Yet that's precisely what the historical record shows.
The price was high. Bled dry by war
and ripped off by protectionist policies, it took a long time even
for Europeans to reap tangible benefits.
Since the late 18th century,
None of this was bound to happen.
Even Europe's rich diversity need not have produced the winning ticket. By the same token, transformative breakthroughs were even less likely to occur elsewhere. There's no real sign that analogous developments had begun in other parts of the world before European colonialism disrupted local trends.
This raises a dramatic counterfactual.
Had the Roman Empire persisted, or had it been succeeded by a similarly overbearing power, we would in all likelihood still be ploughing our fields, mostly living in poverty and often dying young.
Our world would be more predictable, more static. We would be spared some of the travails that beset us, from systemic racism and anthropogenic climate change to the threat of thermonuclear war.
COVID-19, we would be battling smallpox and
plague without modern 'medicine'...
But even once we had gotten that far, our big brains weren't quite enough to break out of our ancestral way of life:
It took a second lucky break to escape from all that, a booster shot that arrived a little more than 1,500 years ago:
Just as the world's
erstwhile apex predators had to bow out to clear the way for us, so
the mightiest empire Europe had ever seen had to crash to open up a
path to prosperity...