[ This is a book review of Ward-Perkins “The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization“.
What sparked my interest in reading several books on the decline of Rome was when James Howard Kunstler (KunstlerCast 278) interviewed me about my book “When Trucks Stopped Running” and asked whether I thought there’d be mass migrations at some point of energy decline as supply chains broke. This was certainly one of the many reasons that many civilizations fell in 1177 B.C., and our supply chains are far more complex, global, and fragile than they were back gotten. So what had happened to people after the Roman Empire fell? The population of Rome dropped from 1 million people to just 10,000 – where did they go?
One of my favorite books in high school was Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, and it turns out there’s been a tremendous amount of scholarship since then. Peter Turchin finds the patterns of the rise and fall of nations going back 5,000 years to Mesopotamia, including Rome. Montgomery’s book “Dirt: The erosion of civilizations” makes the case that loss of topsoil is the main, or one of the main reasons civilizations have fallen, and Perlin’s “A Forest Journey” makes the case that civilizations fell due to deforestation. This doesn’t contradict Montgomery’s topsoil theory, since deforestation is a large factor in topsoil loss.
The Roman Empire lost top soil and deforested, but evaded this fate by making Carthage and Egypt pay tribute with massive shipments of food. Carthage was the main source of food for Rome, so when it fell to barbarians, this was the beginning of the end.
Although I’m still trying to find a book that explains exactly what happened to Rome’s citizens, I suspect famine and disease from broken supply chains played a larger role in its decline than mass migrations.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]
Bryan Ward-Perkins. 2006. The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. Oxford University Press.
Notes from this book follow:
The Germanic invaders of the western empire seized or extorted through the threat of force the vast majority of the territories in which they settled, without any formal agreement on how to share resources with their new Roman subjects. The impression given by some recent historians that most Roman territory was formally ceded to them as part of treaty arrangements is quite simply wrong. Evidence shows that conquest or surrender to the threat of force was definitely the norm, not peaceful settlement.
The city of Rome was repeatedly besieged by the Goths, before being captured and sacked over a 3-day period in August 410. During one siege the inhabitants were forced to progressively reduce their rations and eat only half the previous daily allowance, and later as scarcity continued, only a third. When there was no means of relief, and their food was exhausted, plague not unexpectedly succeeded famine. Corpses lay everywhere. The eventual fall of the city, according to another account, occurred because a rich lady ‘felt pity for the Romans who were being killed off by starvation and who were already turning to cannibalism’, and so opened the gates to the enemy.’
Unsurprisingly, the defeats and disasters of the first half of the 5th century shocked the Roman world. This reaction can be charted most fully in the perplexed response of Christian writers to some obvious and awkward questions. Why had God, so soon after the suppression of the public pagan cults (in 391), unleashed the scourge of the barbarians on a Christian empire; and why did the horrors of invasion afflict the just as harshly as they did the unjust? The scale of the literary response to these difficult questions, the tragic realities that lay behind it, and the ingenious nature of some of the answers that were produced, are all worth examining in detail. They show very clearly that the fifth century was a time of real crisis, rather than one of accommodation and peaceful adjustment.” It was an early drama in the West, the capture of the city of Rome itself in 410, that created the greatest shock waves within the Roman world. In military terms, and in terms of lost resources, this event was of very little consequence, and it certainly did not spell the immediate end of west Roman power.
The pagans now, not unreasonably, attributed Roman failure to the abandonment by the State of the empire’s traditional gods, who for centuries had provided so much security and success. The most sophisticated, radical, and influential answer to this problem was that offered by Augustine, who in 413 (initially in direct response to the sack of Rome) began his monumental City of God.” Here he successfully sidestepped the entire problem of the failure of the Christian empire by arguing that all human affairs are flawed, and that a true Christian is really a citizen of Heaven. Abandoning centuries of Roman pride in their divinely ordained state (including Christian pride during the 4th century), Augustine argued that, in the grand perspective of Eternity, a minor event like the sack of Rome paled into insignificance.
Most resorted to what rapidly became Christian platitudes in the face of disaster. In a similar vein and also in early 5th-century Gaul, Orientius of Auch confronted the difficult reality that good Christian men and women were suffering unmerited and violent deaths. Not unreasonably, he blamed mankind for turning God’s gifts, such as fire and iron, to warlike and destructive ends.
Roman military dominance over the Germanic peoples was considerable, but never absolute and unshakeable. The Romans had always enjoyed a number of important advantages: they had well-built and imposing fortifications; factory-made weapons that were both standardized and of a high quality; an impressive infrastructure of roads and harbors; the logistical organization necessary to supply their army, whether at base or on campaign; and a tradition of training that ensured disciplined and coordinated action in battle, even in the face of adversity. Furthermore, Roman mastery of the sea, at least in the Mediterranean, was unchallenged and a vital aspect of supply. It was these sophistications, rather than weight of numbers, that created and defended the empire.
These advantages were still considerable in the 4th century. In particular, the Germanic peoples remained innocents at sea (with the important exception of the Anglo-Saxons in the north), and notorious for their inability to mount successful siege warfare. Consequently, small bands of Romans were able to hold out behind fortifications, even against vastly superior numbers, and the empire could maintain its presence in an area even after the surrounding countryside had been completely overrun.
The Alamans were physically stronger and swifter; Roman soldiers, through long training, more ready to obey orders. The enemy were fierce and impetuous; Roman men quiet and cautious, putting trust in their minds while barbarians trusted in their huge bodies. At Strasbourg discipline, tactics, and equipment triumphed over mere brawn.
However, even at the best of times, the edge that the Romans enjoyed over their enemies, through their superior equipment and organization, was never remotely comparable to that of Europeans in the 19th century using rifles, Gatling and Maxim guns against peoples armed mainly with spears. Consequently, although normally the Romans defeated barbarians when they met them in battle, they could and did occasionally suffer disasters. Even at the height of the empire’s success, in AD 9, three whole legions under the command of Quinctilius Varus, along with a host of auxiliaries, were trapped and slaughtered by tribesmen in north Germany. Some 20,000 men died:
The West was lost mainly through failure to engage the invading forces successfully and to drive them back. This caution in the face of the enemy, and the ultimate failure to drive him out, are best explained by the severe problems that there were in putting together armies large enough to feel confident of victory. Avoiding battle led to a slow attrition of the Roman position, but engaging the enemy on a large scale would have risked immediate disaster on the throw of a single dice. Did the invaders push at the doors of a tottering edifice, or did they burst into a venerable but still solid structure? Because the rise and fall of great powers have always been of interest, this issue has been endlessly debated. Famously, Edward Gibbon, inspired by the secularist thinking of the Enlightenment, blamed Rome’s fall in part on the 4th-century triumph of Christianity and the spread of monasticism: “’a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity.”
Gibbon’s ideas about the damaging effects of Christianity were fiercely contested at the time; then fell into abeyance. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the fall of Rome tended to be explained in terms of the grand theories of racial degeneration or class conflict that were then current. But in 1964 the pernicious influence of the Church was given a new lease of life by the then doyen of late Roman studies, A. H. M. Jones. Under the wonderful heading ‘Idle Mouths’, Jones lambasted the economically unproductive citizens of the late empire-aristocrats, civil servants, and churchmen: “the Christian church imposed a new class of idle mouths on the resources of the empire … a large number lived on the alms of the peasantry, and as time went on more and more monasteries acquired landed endowments which enabled their inmates to devote themselves entirely to their spiritual duties.”
In my opinion, the key internal element in Rome’s success or failure was the economic well-being of its taxpayers. This was because the empire relied for its security on a professional army, which in turn relied on adequate funding. The 4th-century Roman army contained as many as 600,000 soldiers, all of whom had to be salaried, equipped, and supplied. The number of troops under arms, and the levels of military training and equipment that could be lavished on them, were all determined by the amount of cash that was available. As in a modern state, the contribution in tax of tens of millions of unarmed subjects financed an elite defense corps of full-time fighters. Consequently, again as in a modern state, the strength of the army was closely linked to the well-being of the underlying tax base. Indeed, in Roman times this relationship was a great deal closer than it is today. Military expenditure was by far the largest item in the imperial budget, and there were no other massive departments of state, such as ‘Health’ or ‘Education’, whose spending could be cut when necessary in order to protect ‘Defense’; nor did the credit mechanisms exist in Antiquity that would have allowed the empire to borrow substantial sums of money in an emergency. Military capability relied on immediate access to taxable wealth.
Invasions were not the only problem faced by the western empire; it was also badly affected during parts of the 5th century by civil war and social unrest.
We know that what the empire required during these years was a concerted and united effort against the Goths (then marching through much of Italy and southern Gaul, and sacking Rome itself in 410), and against the Vandals, Sueves, and Alans (who entered Gaul at the very end of 406 and Spain in 409). What it got instead were civil wars, which were often prioritized over the struggle with the barbarians.
As we have seen, the revolts by the Bacaudae in the West can partly be understood as an attempt by desperate provincials to defend themselves, after the central government had failed to protect them. Roman civilians had to relearn the arts of war in this period, and slowly did so. As early as 407-8 two wealthy landowners in Spain raised a force of slaves from their own estates, in support of their relative the emperor Honorius. But it would, of course, take time to convert a disarmed and demilitarized population into an effective fighting force.
Interestingly, the most successful resistance to Germanic invasion was in fact offered by the least Romanized areas of the empire: the Basque country; Brittany; and western Britain. Brittany and the Basque country were only ever half pacified by the invaders, while north Wales can lay claim to being the very last part of the Roman Empire to fall to the barbarians-when it fell to the English under Edward I in 1282. It seems that it was in these ‘backward’ parts of the empire that people found it easiest to re-establish tribal structures and effective military resistance.
Sophistication and specialization, characteristic of most of the Roman world, were fine, as long as they worked: Romans bought their pots from professional potters, and bought their defense from professional soldiers. From both they got a quality product–much better than if they had had to do their soldiering and potting themselves. However, when disaster struck and there were no more trained soldiers and no more expert potters around, the general population lacked the skills and structures needed to create alternative military and economic systems. In these circumstances, it was in fact better to be a little ‘backward’.
Unlike the Romans, who relied for their military strength on a professional army (and therefore on tax), freeborn Germanic males looked on fighting as a duty, a mark of status, and, perhaps, even a pleasure. As a result, large numbers of them were practiced in warfare-a very much higher proportion of the population than amongst the Romans. Within reach of the Rhine and Danube frontiers lived tens of thousands of men who had been brought up to think of war as a glorious and manly pursuit, and who had the physique and basic training to put these ideals into practice. Fortunately for the Romans, their innate bellicosity was, however, to a large extent counterbalanced by another, closely related, feature of tribal societies-disunity, caused by fierce feuds, both between tribes and within them.
Already, before the later fourth century, there had been a tendency for the small Germanic tribes of early imperial times to coalesce into larger political and military groupings. But events at the end of this century and the beginning of the next unquestionably accelerated and consolidated the trend. In 376 a disparate and very large number of Goths were forced by the Huns to seek refuge across the Danube and inside the empire. By 378 they had been compelled by Roman hostility to unite into the formidable army that defeated Valens at Adrianopolis. At the very end of 406 substantial numbers of Vandals, Alans, and Sueves crossed the Rhine into Gaul. All these groups entered a still functioning empire, and, therefore, a very hostile environment. In this world, survival depended on staying together in large numbers. Furthermore, invading armies were able to pick up and assimilate other adventurers, ready to seek a better life in the service of a successful war band. We have already met the soldiers of the dead Stilicho and the slaves of Rome, who joined the Goths in Italy in 408; but even as early as 376-8 discontents and fortune-seekers were swelling Gothic ranks, soon after they had crossed into the empire-the historian Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that their numbers were increased significantly, not only by fleeing Gothic slaves, but also by miners escaping the harsh conditions of the state’s gold mines and by people oppressed by the burden of imperial taxation.
The different groups of incomers were never united, and fought each other, sometimes bitterly, as often as they fought the `Romans’– just as the Roman side often gave civil strife priority over warfare against the invaders.” When looked at in detail, the ‘Germanic invasions’ of the fifth century break down into a complex mosaic of different groups, some imperial, some local, and some Germanic, each jockeying for position against or in alliance with the others, with the Germanic groups eventually coming out on top.
Balkans, Italy, Gaul, and Spain between 376 and 419, were indeed quite unlike the systematic annexations of neighboring territory that we expect of a true invasion. These Goths on entering the empire left their homelands for good. They were, according to circumstance (and often concurrently), refugees, immigrants, allies, and conquerors, moving within the heart of an empire that in the early fifth century was still very powerful. Recent historians have been quite correct to emphasize the desire of these Goths to be settled officially and securely by the Roman authorities. What the Goths sought was not the destruction of the empire, but a share of its wealth and a safe home within it, and many of their violent acts began as efforts to persuade the imperial authorities to improve the terms of agreement between them.
The incoming peoples were not ideologically opposed to Rome–they wanted to enjoy a slice of the empire rather than to destroy the whole thing. Emperors and provincials could, and often did, come to agreements with the invaders. For instance, even the Vandals, the traditional ‘bad boys’ of this period, were very happy to negotiate treaty arrangements, once they were in a strong enough negotiating position. Indeed it is a striking but true fact that emperors found it easier to make treaties with invading Germanic armies who would be content with grants of money or land than with rivals in civil wars-who were normally after their heads.
Because the military position of the imperial government in the fifth century was weak, and because the Germanic invaders could be appeased, the Romans on occasion made treaties with particular groups, formally granting them territory on which to settle in return for their alliance.
Is it really likely that Roman provincials were cheered by the arrival on their doorsteps of large numbers of heavily armed barbarians under the command of their own king? To understand these treaties, we need to appreciate the circumstances of the time, and to distinguish between the needs and desires of the local provincials, who actually had to host the settlers, and those of a distant imperial government that made the arrangements. I doubt very much that the inhabitants of the Garonne valley in 419 were happy to have the Visigothic army settled amongst them; but the government in Italy, which was under considerable military and financial pressure, might well have agreed this settlement, as a temporary solution to a number of pressing problems. It bought an important alliance at a time when the imperial finances were in a parlous condition. At the same time it removed a roving and powerful army from the Mediterranean heartlands of the empire, converting it into a settled ally on the fringes of a reduced imperial core. Siting these allies in Aquitaine meant that they could be called upon to fight other invaders, in both Spain and Gaul. They could also help contain the revolt of the Bacaudae, which had recently erupted to the north, in the region of the Loire. It is even possible that the settlement of these Germanic troops was in part a punishment on the aristocracy of Aquitaine, for recent disloyalty to the emperor.
The interests of the center when settling Germanic peoples, and those of the locals who had to live with the arrangements, certainly did not always coincide. The granting to some Alans of lands in northern Gaul in about 442, on the orders of the Roman general Aetius, was resisted in vain by at least some of the local inhabitants. The Alans, to whom lands in northern Gaul had been assigned by the patrician Aetius to be divided with the inhabitants, subdued by force of arms those who resisted, and, ejecting the owners, forcibly took possession of the land. But, from the point of view of Aetius and the imperial government, the same settlement offered several potential advantages. It settled one dangerous group of invaders away from southern Gaul (where Roman power and resources were concentrated); it provided at least the prospect of an available ally; and it cowed the inhabitants of northern Gaul, many of whom had recently been in open revolt against the empire.) All this, as our text makes very clear, cost the locals a very great deal. But the cost to the central government was negligible or non-existent, since it is unlikely that this area of Gaul was any longer providing significant tax revenues or military levies for the emperor. If things went well (which they did not), the settlement of these Alans might even have been a small step along the path of reasserting imperial control in northern Gaul.
The imperial government was entirely capable of selling its provincial subjects downriver, in the interests of short-term political and military gain.
At a number of points along the line, things might have gone differently, and the Roman position might have improved, rather than worsened. Bad luck, or bad judgment, played a very important part in what actually happened. For instance, had the emperor Valens won a stunning victory at Hadrianopolis in 378 (perhaps by waiting for the western reinforcements that were already on their way), the ‘Gothic problem’ might have been solved, and a firm example would have been set to other barbarians beyond the Danube and Rhine. Similarly, had Stilicho in 402 followed up victories in northern Italy over the Goths with their crushing defeat, rather than allowing them to retreat back into the Balkans, it is much less likely that another Germanic group in 405-6, and the Vandals, Alans, and Sueves in 406, would have taken their chances within the western empire.
How did the East Survive? The eastern half of the Roman empire survived the Germanic and Iiunnic attacks of this period, to flourish in the 5th and early 6th centuries; indeed it was only a thousand years later, with the Turkish capture of Constantinople in 1453, that it came to an end. No account of the fall of the western empire can be fully satisfactory if it does not discuss how the East managed to resist very similar external pressure. Here, I believe, it was primarily good fortune, rather than innately greater strength, that was decisive.
The Cost of Peace. The new arrivals demanded and obtained a share of the empire’s capital wealth, which at this date meant primarily land. We know for certain that many of the great landowners of post-Roman times were of Germanic descent, even though we have very little information as to how exactly they had obtained their wealth at the expense of its previous owners.
The Germanic settlers rapidly used their power to acquire more wealth.
The Germanic peoples entered the empire with no ideology that they wished to impose, and found it most advantageous and profitable to work closely, within the well-established and sophisticated structures of Roman life. The Romans as a group unquestionably lost both wealth and power in order to meet the needs of a new, and dominant, Germanic aristocracy. But they did not lose everything, and many individual Romans were able to prosper under the new dispensation.
In the case of the Anglo-Saxons and others who bordered Roman territory by land or sea, the number of immigrants was probably substantially larger, since here the initial conquests could readily he followed up by secondary migration. However, except perhaps in regions that were right on the frontiers, it is unlikely that the numbers involved were so large as to dispossess many at the level of the peasantry. Many smallholders in the new kingdoms probably continued to hold their land much as before, except that much of the tax and rent that they paid will now have gone to enrich Germanic masters.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF COMFORT
It is currently deeply unfashionable to state that anything like a ‘crisis’ or a ‘decline’ occurred at the end of the Roman empire, let alone that a ‘civilization’ collapsed and a ‘dark age’ ensued. The new orthodoxy is that the Roman world, in both East and West, was slowly, and essentially painlessly,’transformed’ into a medieval form. However, there is an insuperable problem with this new view: it does not fit the mass of archaeological evidence now available, which shows a startling decline in western standards of living during the 5th to 7th centuries. This was a change that affected everyone, from peasants to kings, even the bodies of saints resting in their churches. It was no mere transformation-it was decline on a scale that can reasonably be described as ‘the end of a civilization’.
The Fruits of the Roman Economy
The Romans produced goods, including mundane items, to a very high quality, and in huge quantities; and then spread them widely, through all levels of society. Because so little detailed written evidence survives for these humble aspects of daily, life, it used to be assumed that few goods moved far from home, and that economic complexity in the Roman period was essentially there to satisfy the needs of the state and the whims of the elite, with little impact on the broad mass of society. However, painstaking work by archaeologists has slowly transformed this picture, through the excavation of hundreds of sites, and the systematic documentation and study of the artefacts found on them. This research has revealed a sophisticated world, in which a north-Italian peasant of the Roman period might eat off tableware from the area near Naples, store liquids in an amphora from North Africa, and sleep under a tiled roof. Almost all archaeologists, and most historians, now believe that the Roman economy was characterized, not only by an impressive luxury market, but also by a very substantial middle and lower market for high-quality functional products.
Evidence comes from the study of the different types of pottery found in such abundance on Roman sites: functional kitchen wares, used in the preparation of food; fine table wares, for its presentation and consumption; and amphorae, the large jars used throughout the Mediterranean for the transport and storage of liquids, such as wine and oil.’
Pots, although not normally the heroes of history books, deserve our attention. Three features of Roman pottery are remarkable, and not to be found again for many centuries in the West: its excellent quality and considerable standardization; the massive quantities in which it was produced; and its widespread diffusion, not only geographically (sometimes being transported over many hundreds of miles), but also socially (so that it reached, not just the rich, but also the poor). In the areas of the Roman world that I know best, central and northern Italy, after the end of the Roman world, this level of sophistication is not seen again until perhaps the fourteenth century, some 800 years later.
What strikes the eye and the touch most immediately and most powerfully with Roman pottery is its consistently high quality. This is not just an aesthetic consideration, but also a practical one. These vessels are solid (brittle, but not friable), they are pleasant and easy to handle (being light and smooth), and, with their hard and sometimes glossy surfaces, they hold liquids well and are easy to wash. Furthermore, their regular and standardized shapes will have made them simple to stack and store. When people today are shown a very ordinary Roman pot, and, in particular, are allowed to handle it, they often comment on how ‘modern’ it looks and feels, and need to be convinced of its true age.
On the left bank of the Tiber in Rome, by one of the river ports of the ancient city, is a substantial hill some So meters high, Monte Testaccio, Pottery Mountain, is a reasonable translation into English. It is made up entirely of broken oil amphorae, mainly of the second and third centuries AD and primarily from the province of Baetica in south-western Spain. It has been estimated that Monte Testaccio contains the remains of some 53 million amphorae, in which around 6,000,000,000 liters of oil were imported into the city from overseas.” Imports into imperial Rome were supported by the full might of the state and were therefore quite exceptional-but the size of operations at Monte Testaccio, and the productivity and complexity that lay behind them, none the less cannot fail to impress. This was a society with similarities to our own-moving goods on a gigantic scale, manufacturing high-quality containers to do so, and occasionally, as here, even discarding them on delivery. Like us, the Romans enjoy the dubious distinction of creating a mountain of good-quality rubbish.
In all but the remotest regions of the empire, Roman pottery of a high standard is common on the sites of humble villages and isolated farmsteads.
Pottery in most cultures is vital in relation to one of our primary needs, food. Ceramic vessels, of different shapes and sizes, play an essential part in the storage, preparation, cooking, and consumption of foodstuffs. They certainly did so in Roman times, even more than they do today, since their importance for storage and cooking has declined considerably in modern times, with the invention of cardboard and plastics, and with the spread of cheap metal ware and glass.
Amphorae, not barrels, were the normal containers for the transport and domestic storage of liquids. There is every reason to see pottery vessels as central to the daily life of Roman times.
I am also convinced that the broad picture that we can reconstruct from pottery can reasonably be applied to the wider economy. Pots are low-value, high-bulk items, with the additional disadvantage of being brittle-in other words, no one has ever made a large profit from making a single pot (except for quite exceptional art objects), and they are difficult and expensive to pack and transport, being heavy, bulky, and easy to break. If, despite these disadvantages, vessels (both fine table wares and more functional items) were being made to a high standard and in large quantities, and if they were travelling widely and percolating through even the lower levels of society-as they were in the Roman period-then it is much more likely than not that other goods, whose distribution we cannot document with the same confidence, were doing the same. If good-quality pottery was reaching even peasant households, then the same is almost certainly true of other goods, made of materials that rarely survive in the archaeological record, like cloth, wood, basketwork, leather, and metal. There is, for instance, no reason to suppose that the huge markets in clothing, foot ware, and tools were less sophisticated than that in pottery.
Further confirmation for this view can be found in an even humbler item, which also survives well in the soil but has received less scholarly attention than pottery-the roof tile.
Even buildings intended only for storage or for animals may well often have been tiled:
Tiles can be made locally in much of the Roman world, but they still require a large kiln, a lot of clay, a great deal of fuel, and expertise. After they have been manufactured, carrying them, even over short distances, without the advantages of mechanized transport, is also no mean feat. On many of the sites where they have been found, they can only have arrived laboriously, a few at a time, loaded onto pack animals. The roofs we have been looking at may not seem very important, but they represented a substantial investment in the infrastructure of rural life. A tiled roof may appeal in part because it is thought to be smart and fashionable, but it also has considerable practical advantages over roofs in perishable materials, such as thatch or wooden shingles. Above all, it will last much longer, and, if made of standardized well-fired tiles, as Roman roofs were, will provide more consistent protection from the rain-with minor upkeep, a tiled roof can function well for centuries; whereas even today a professionally laid thatch roof, of straw grown specifically for its durability, will need to be entirely remade every thirty years or so. A tiled roof is also much less likely to catch fire, and to attract insects, than wooden shingles or thatch. In Roman Italy, indeed in parts of pre-Roman Italy, many peasants, and perhaps even some animals, lived under tiled roofs. After the Roman period, sophisticated conditions such as these did not return until quite recent times.
Even smaller industries will have required considerable skills and some specialization in order to flourish, including, for example: the selection and preparation of clays and decorative slips; the making and maintenance of tools and kilns; the primary shaping of the vessels on the wheel; their refinement when half-dry; their decoration; the collection and preparation of fuel; the stacking and firing of the kilns; and the packing of the finished goods for transport. From unworked clay to finished product, a pot will have passed through many different processes and several different hands, each with its own expert role to play.
To reach the consumer then required a network of merchants and traders, and a transport infrastructure of roads, wagons, and pack animals, or sometimes of boats, ships, river- and sea-ports.
How exactly all this worked we will never know, because we have so few written records from the Roman period to document it; but the archaeological testimony of goods spread widely around their region of production, and sometimes further afield, is testimony enough to the fact that complex mechanisms of distribution did exist to link a potter at his kiln with a farmer needing a new bowl to eat from.
Wrecks filled with amphorae are so common that two scholars have recently wondered whether the volume of Mediterranean trade in the second century AD was again matched before the nineteenth century.
I am keen to emphasize that in Roman times good-quality articles were available even to humble consumers, and that production and distribution were complex and sophisticated. In many ways, this is a world like our own; but it is also important to try and be a little more specific. Although this is inevitably a guess, I think we are looking at a world that is roughly comparable, in terms of the range and quality of goods available, to that of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, rather than at a mirror image of our own times. The Roman period was not characterized by the consumer frenzy and globalized production of the modern developed world, where mechanized production and transport, and access to cheap labor overseas, have produced mountains of relatively inexpensive goods, often manufactured thousands of miles away. In Roman times machines still played only a relatively small part in manufacture, restricting the quantity of goods that could be made; and everything was transported by humans and animals, or, at best, by the wind and the currents. Consequently, goods imported from a distance were inevitably more expensive and more prestigious than local products.
Although some goods traveled remarkable distances, the majority of consumption was certainly local and regional-Roman pottery, for instance, is always much commoner near its production site than in more distant areas.
Many people were able to buy at least a few of the more expensive products from afar.
However, even if many would now choose to prioritize the role of the merchant over that of the state, no one would want to deny that the impact of state distribution was also considerable. Monte Testaccio alone testifies to a massive state effort with a wide impact: on Spanish olive-growers; on amphora-manufacturers; on shippers; and, of course, on the consumers of Rome itself, who thereby had their supply of olive oil guaranteed. The needs of the imperial capitals, like Rome and Constantinople, and of an army of around half a million men, stationed mainly on the Rhine and Danube and on the frontier with Persia, were very considerable, and the impressive structures that the Roman state set up to supply them are at least partially known from written records.
The distributive activities of the state and of private commerce have sometimes been seen as in conflict with each other; but in at least some circumstances they almost certainly worked together to mutual advantage. For instance, the state coerced and encouraged shipping between Africa and Italy, and built and maintained the great harbor works at Carthage and Ostia, because it needed to feed the city of Rome with huge quantities of African grain. But these grain ships and facilities were also available for commercial and more general use.
The End of Complexity. In the post-Roman West, almost all this material sophistication disappeared. Specialized production and all but the most local distribution became rare, unless for luxury goods; and the impressive range and quantity of high-quality functional goods, which had characterized the Roman period, vanished, or, at the very least, were drastically reduced. The middle and lower markets, which under the Romans had absorbed huge quantities of basic, but good-quality, items, seem to have almost entirely disappeared. Pottery, again, provides us with the fullest picture. In some regions, like the whole of Britain and parts of coastal Spain, all sophistication in the production and trading of pottery seems to have disappeared altogether: only vessels shaped without the use of the wheel were available, without any functional or aesthetic refinement. In Britain, most pottery was not only very basic, but also lamentably friable and impractical. In other areas, such as the north of Italy, some solid wheel-turned pots continued to be made and some soapstone vessels imported, but decorated table wares entirely, or almost entirely, disappeared; and, even amongst kitchen wares, the range of vessels being manufactured was gradually reduced to only a very few basic shapes. By the seventh century, the standard vessel of northern Italy was the olla (a simple bulbous cooking pot), whereas in Roman times this was only one vessel type in an impressive batterie de cuisine (jugs, plates, bowls, serving dishes, mixing and grinding bowls, casseroles, lids, amphorae, and others).
The great tableware producers of Roman North Africa continued to make (and export) their wares throughout the fifth and sixth centuries, and indeed into the latter half of the seventh. But the number of pots exported and their distribution became gradually more-and-more restricted-both geographically (to sites on the coast, and eventually, even there, only to a very few privileged centers like Rome), and socially (so that African pottery, once ubiquitous, by the sixth century is found only in elite settlements).
It was not only quality and diversity that declined; the overall quantities of pottery in circulation also fell dramatically.
Rome continued to import amphorae and table wares from Africa even in the late seventh century, and it was here, in the eighth century, that one of the very first medieval glazed wares was developed. These features are impressive, suggesting the survival within the city of something close to a Roman-style ceramic economy. But, even in this exceptional case, a marked decline from earlier times is evident, if we look at overall quantities.
In the Mediterranean region, the decline in building techniques and quality was not quite so drastic-what we witness here, as with the history of pottery production, is a dramatic shrinkage, rather than a complete disappearance. Domestic housing in post-Roman Italy, whether in town or countryside, seems to have been almost exclusively of perishable materials. Houses, which in the Roman period had been primarily of stone and brick, disappeared, to be replaced by settlements constructed almost entirely of wood. Even the dwellings of the landed aristocracy became much more ephemeral, and far less comfortable: archaeologists, despite considerable efforts, have so far failed to find any continuity into the late-sixth and seventh centuries of the impressive rural and urban houses that had been a ubiquitous feature of the Roman period-with their solid walls, and marble and mosaic floors, and their refinements such as underfloor heating and piped water.
It may have been as much as a thousand years later, perhaps in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, that roof tiles again became as readily available and as widely diffused in Italy as they had been in Roman times. In the meantime, the vast majority of the population made do with roofing materials that were impermanent, inflammable, and insect-infested. Furthermore, this change in roofing was not an isolated phenomenon, but symptomatic of a much wider decline in domestic building standards-early medieval flooring, for instance, in all but palaces and churches, seems to have been generally of simple beaten earth.
Coinage is undoubtedly a great facilitator of commercial exchange-copper coins, in particular, for small transactions. In the absence of coinage, raw bullion for major purchases, and barter for minor ones, can admittedly be much more sophisticated than we might initially suppose.” But barter requires two things that coinage can circumvent: the need for both sides to know, at the moment of agreement, exactly what they want from the other party; and, particularly in the case of an exchange that involves one party being ‘paid back’ in the future, a strong degree of trust between those who are doing the exchanging. If I want to exchange one of my cows for a regular supply of eggs over the next five years, I can do this, but only if I trust the chicken-farmer. Barter suits small face-to-face communities, in which trust either already exists between parties, or can be readily enforced through community pressure. But it does not encourage the development of complex economies, where goods and money need to circulate impersonally. In a monied economy, I can exchange my cow for coins, and only later, and perhaps in a distant place, decide when and how to spend them. I need only trust the coins that I receive.
A Return to Prehistory? The economic change that I have outlined was an extraordinary one. What we observe at the end of the Roman world is not a ‘recession’ with an essentially similar economy continuing to work at a reduced pace. Instead what we see is a remarkable qualitative change, with the disappearance of entire industries and commercial networks. The economy of the post-Roman West is not that of the fourth century reduced in scale, but a very different and far less sophisticated entity. This is at its starkest and most obvious in Britain. A number of basic skills disappeared entirely during the fifth century, to be reintroduced only centuries later. Some of these, such as the technique of building in mortared stone or brick,
All over Britain the art of making pottery on a wheel disappeared in the early fifth century, and was not reintroduced for almost 300 years.
Rare elite items, made or imported for the highest levels of society. At this level, beautiful objects were still being made, and traded or gifted across long distances. What had totally disappeared, however, were the good-quality, low-value items, made in hulk, and available so widely in the Roman period.
The complex system of production and distribution, whose disappearance we have been considering, was an older and more deeply rooted phenomenon than an exclusively `Roman’ economy. Rather, it was an ‘ancient’ economy that in the eastern and southern Mediterranean was flourishing long before Rome became at all significant, and that even in the north-western Mediterranean was developing steadily before the centuries of Roman domination. Cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, Naples and Marseille were ancient long before they fell under Roman control.
What was destroyed in the post-Roman centuries, and then only very slowly re-created, was a sophisticated world with very deep roots indeed.
Patterns of Change. There was no single moment, nor even a single century of collapse. The ancient economy disappeared at different times and at varying speeds across the empire.
There is general agreement that Roman Britain’s sophisticated economy disappeared remarkably quickly and remarkably early. There may already have been considerable decline in the later fourth century, but, if so, this was a recession, rather than a complete collapse: new coins were still in widespread use and a number of sophisticated industries still active. In the early fifth century all this disappeared, and, as we have seen in the previous chapter, Britain reverted to a level of economic simplicity similar to that of the Bronze Age, with no coinage, and only hand-shaped pots and wooden buildings.2 Further south, in the provinces of the western Mediterranean, the change was much slower and more gradual, and is consequently difficult to chart in detail. But it would be reasonable to summarize the change in both Italy and North Africa as a slow decline, starting in the fifth century (possibly earlier in Italy), and continuing on a steady downward path into the seventh. Whereas in Britain the low point had already been reached in the fifth century, in Italy and North Africa it probably did not occur until almost two centuries later, at the very end of the sixth century, or even, in the case of Africa, well into the seventh.’ Turning to the eastern Mediterranean, we find a very different story. The best that can be said of any western province after the early fifth century is that some regions continued to exhibit a measure of economic complexity, although always within a broad context of decline. By contrast, throughout almost the whole of the eastern empire, from central Greece to Egypt, the fifth and early sixth centuries were a period of remarkable expansion. We know that settlement not only increased in this period, but was also prosperous, because it left behind a mass of newly built rural houses, often in stone, as well as a rash of churches and monasteries across the landscape (Fig. 6.2). New coins were abundant and widely diffused, and new potteries, supplying distant as well as local markets, developed on the west coast of modern Turkey, in Cyprus, and in Egypt-. Furthermore, new types of amphora appeared, in which the wine and oil of the Levant and of the Aegean were transported both within the region, and outside it, even as far as Britain and the upper Danube. If we measure `Golden Ages’ in terms of material remains, the fifth and sixth centuries were certainly golden for most of the eastern Mediterranean, in many areas leaving archaeological traces that are more numerous and more impressive than those of the earlier Roman empire.’ In the Aegean, this prosperity came to a sudden and very dramatic end in the years around AD 6oo.` Great cities such as Corinth, Athens, Ephesus, and Aphrodisias, which had dominated the region since long before the arrival of the Romans, shrank to a fraction of their former size-the recent excavations at Aphrodisias suggest that the greater part of the city became in the early seventh century an abandoned ghost town, peopled only by its marble statues.” The tablewares and new coins, which had been such a prominent feature of the fifth and sixth centuries, disappeared with a suddenness similar to the experience of Britain some two centuries earlier
My focus here, however, will be on what happened after the invasions began. The evidence available very strongly suggests that political and military difficulties destroyed regional economies, irrespective of whether they were flourishing or already in decline. The death of complexity in Britain in the early fifth century must certainly have been closely related to the withdrawal of Roman power from the province, since the two things happened at more or less at the same time.
All regions, except Egypt and the Levant, suffered from the disintegration of the Roman empire, but distinctions between the precise histories of different areas show that the impact of change varied quite considerably. In Britain in the early fifth century, and in the Aegean world around AD 6oo, collapse seems to have happened suddenly and rapidly, as though caused by a series of devastating blows. But in Italy and Africa change was much more gradual, as if brought about by the slow decline and death of complex systems. These different trajectories make considerable sense. The Aegean was hit by repeated invasion and raiding at the very end of the sixth century, and throughout the seventh-first by Slavs and Avars (in Greece), then by Persians (in Asia Minor), and finally by Arabs (on both land and sea).
The effect of the disintegration of the Roman state cannot have been wholly dissimilar to that caused by the dismemberment of the Soviet command economy after 1989. The Soviet structure was, of course, a far larger, more complex, and all-inclusive machine than the Roman. But most of the former Communist bloc has faced the problems of adjustment to a new world in a context of peace, whereas, for the Romans of the West, the end of the state economy coincided with a prolonged period of invasion and civil war. The emperors also maintained, primarily for their own purposes, much of the infrastructure that facilitated trade: above all a single, abundant, and empire-wide currency; and an impressive network of harbours, bridges, and roads. The Roman state minted coins less for the good of its subjects than to facilitate the process of taxing them; and roads and bridges were repaired mainly in order to speed up the movement of troops and government envoys. But coins in fact passed through the hands of merchants, traders, and ordinary citizens far more often than those of the taxman; and carts and pack animals travelled the roads much more frequently than did the legions.” With the end of the empire, investment in these facilities fell dramatically: in Roman times, for instance, there had been a continuous process of upgrading and repairing the road network, commemorated by the erection of dated milestones; there is no evidence that this continued in any systematic way beyond the early sixth century.
Security was undoubtedly the greatest boon provided by Rome
it is a remarkable fact that few cities of the early empire were walled-a state of affairs not repeated in most of Europe and the Mediterranean until the late nineteenth century, and then only because high explosives had rendered walls ineffective as a form of defense. The security of Roman times provided the ideal conditions for economic growth.
There were also other problems that played a subsidiary role. In 541, for instance, bubonic plague reached the Mediterranean
Economic sophistication has a negative side
Because the ancient economy was in fact a complicated and interlocked system, its very sophistication rendered it fragile and less adaptable to change. For bulk, high-quality production to flourish in the way that it did in Roman times, a very large number of people had to be involved, in more-or-less specialized capacities. First, there had to be the skilled manufacturers, able to make goods to a high standard, and in a sufficient quantity to ensure a low unit-cost. Secondly, a sophisticated network of transport and commerce had to exist, in order to distribute these goods efficiently and widely. Finally, a large (and therefore generally scattered) market of consumers was essential, with cash to spend and an inclination to spend it. Furthermore, all this complexity depended on the labour of the hundreds of other people who oiled the wheels of manufacture and commerce by maintaining an infrastructure of coins, roads, boats, wagons, wayside hostelries, and so on. Economic complexity made mass-produced goods available, but it also made people dependent on specialists or semi-specialists-sometimes working hundreds of miles away-for many of their material needs. This worked very well in stable times, but it rendered consumers extremely vulnerable if for any reason the networks of production and distribution were disrupted, or if they themselves could no longer afford to purchase from a specialist. If specialized production failed, it was not possible to fall back immediately on effective self-help. Comparison with the contemporary western world is obvious and important. Admittedly, the ancient economy was nowhere near as intricate as that of the developed world in the twenty-first century. We sit in tiny productive pigeon-holes, making our minute and highly specialized contributions to the global economy and we are wholly dependent for our needs on thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands, of other people spread around the globe, each doing their own little thing. We would be quite incapable of meeting our needs locally, even in an emergency. The ancient world had not come as far down the road of specialization and helplessness as we have.
The enormity of the economic disintegration that occurred at the end of the empire was almost certainly a direct result of this specialization. The post-Roman world reverted to levels of economic simplicity, lower even than those of immediately pre-Roman times, with little movement of goods, poor housing, and only the most basic manufactured items.
The sophistication of the Roman period, by spreading high-quality goods widely in society, had destroyed the local skills and local networks that, in pre-Roman times, had provided lower-level economic complexity. It took centuries for people in the former empire to reacquire the skills and the regional networks that would take them back to these pre-Roman levels of sophistication.
Food production may also have slumped, causing a steep drop in the population. Almost without exception, archaeological surveys in the West have found far fewer rural sites of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries AD than of the early empire. In many cases, the apparent decline is startling, from a Roman landscape that was densely settled and cultivated, to a post-Roman world that appears only very sparsely inhabited. Almost all the dots that represent Roman-period settlements disappear, leaving only large empty spaces. At roughly the same time, evidence for occupation in towns also decreases dramatically-the fall in the number of rural settlements was certainly not produced by a flight from the countryside into the cities.
Since economic complexity definitely increased the quality and quantity of manufactured goods, it is more likely than not that it also increased production of food, and therefore the number of people the land could feed. Archaeological evidence, from periods of prosperity, does indeed seem to show a correlation between increasing sophistication in production and marketing, and a rising population.
However sophisticated Roman agriculture was, harvests could still fail, and, when they did, transport was not cheap or rapid enough to bring in the large quantities of affordable grain that could have saved the poor from starvation. Edessa in Mesopotamia was one of the richest cities of the Roman East, surrounded by prosperous arable farming. But in AD 500 a swarm of locusts consumed the wheat harvest; a later harvest, of millet, also failed. For the poor, disaster followed. The price of bread shot up, and people were forced to sell their few possessions for a pittance in order to buy food. Many tried, in vain, to assuage their hunger with leaves and roots. Those who could, fled the region; but crowds of starving people flocked into Edessa and other cities, to sleep rough and to beg: ‘They slept in the colonnades and streets, howling night and day from the pangs of hunger.’ Here disease and the cold nights of winter killed large numbers of them; even collecting and burying the dead became a major problem.”‘
If we ask ourselves how the ability to read and write came to be so widespread in the Roman world, the answer probably lies in a number of different developments, which all encouraged the use of writing. In particular, there is no doubt that the complex mechanism of the Roman state required literate officials at all levels of its operations. There was no other way that the state could raise taxes in coin or kind from its provincials, assemble the resulting profits, ship them across long distances, and consume or spend them where they were needed. A great many lists and tallies will have been needed to ensure that a gold solidus raised in one of the peaceful provinces of the empire, like Egypt or Africa, was then spent effectively to support a soldier on the distant frontiers of Mesopotamia, the Danube, or the Rhine.
In Italy, the primacy of ancient civilization is seldom doubted, and a traditional view of the end of the Roman world is very much alive. Most Italians are with me in remaining highly skeptical about a peaceful `accommodation’ of the barbarians, and the ‘transformation’ of the Roman world into something new and equally sophisticated.’ The idea that the Germanic incomers were peaceful immigrants, who did no harm, has not caught on.
[ My comment: Egads! American historians are so politically correct that they ignore the role of invading immigrants and material life ]
A recent Guide to Late Antiquity, published by Harvard University Press, asks us “to treat the period between around 250 and 800 as a distinctive and quite decisive period of history that stands on its own’, rather than as the story of the unraveling of a once glorious and “higher” state of civilization”. This is a bold challenge to the conventional view of darkening skies and gathering gloom as the empire dissolved.
Words like ‘decline’ and ‘crisis’, which suggest problems at the end of the empire and which were quite usual into the 1970s, have largely disappeared from historians’ vocabularies, to be replaced by neutral terms, like ‘transition’, ‘change’, and ‘transformation’.
Here too old certainties are being challenged. According to the traditional account, the West was, quite simply, overrun by hostile ‘waves’ of Germanic peoples. The long-term effects of these invasions have, admittedly, been presented in very different ways, depending largely on the individual historian’s nationality and perspective. For some, particularly in the Latin countries of Europe, the invasions were entirely destructive. For others, however, they brought an infusion of new and freedom-loving Germanic blood into a decadent empire.
Unsurprisingly, an image of violent and destructive Germanic invasion was very much alive in continental Europe in the years that immediately followed the Second World War.” But in the latter half of the twentieth century, as a new and peaceful Western Europe became established, views of the invaders gradually softened and became more positive
More recently, however, some historians have gone very much further than this, notably the Canadian historian Walter Goffart, who in 1980 launched a challenge to the very idea of fifth-century ‘invasions’. He argued that the Germanic peoples were the beneficiaries of a change in Roman military policy. Instead of continuing the endless struggle to keep them out, the Romans decided to accommodate them into the empire by an ingenious and effective arrangement. The newcomers were granted a proportion of the tax revenues of the Roman state, and the right to settle within the imperial frontiers; in exchange, they ceased their attacks, and diverted their energies into upholding Roman power, of which they were now stakeholders. In effect, they became the Roman defense force.
Goffart was very well aware that sometimes Romans and Germanic newcomers were straightforwardly at war, but he argued that ‘the 5th century was less momentous for invasions than for the incorporation of barbarian protectors into the fabric of the West’. In a memorable sound bite, he summed up his argument: “what we call the Fall of the Western Roman empire was an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand.” Rome did fall, but only because it had voluntarily delegated away its own power, not because it had been successfully invaded. Like the new and positive ‘Late Antiquity’, the idea that the Germanic invasions were in fact a peaceful accommodation has had a mixed reception. The world at large has seemingly remained content with a dramatic ‘Fall of the Roman empire’, played out as a violent and brutal struggle between invaders and invaded.
As someone who is convinced that the coming of the Germanic peoples was very unpleasant for the Roman population, and that the long-term effects of the dissolution of the empire were dramatic, I feel obliged to challenge such views.
The historians who have argued for a new and rosy Late Antiquity are primarily North Americans, or Europeans based in the USA, and they have shifted their focus right out of the western Roman empire. Much of the evidence that sustains the new and upbeat Late Antiquity is rooted firmly in the eastern Mediterranean, where, as we have seen, there is good evidence for prosperity through the fifth and sixth centuries, and indeed into the eighth in the Levant.
Until fairly recently it was institutional, military, and economic history that dominated historians’ views of the fourth to seventh centuries.’ Quite the reverse is now the case, at least in the USA. Of the 36 volumes so far published by the University of California Press in a series entitled ‘The Transformation of the Classical Heritage’, 30 discuss the world of the mind and spirit (primarily different aspects of Christian thought and practice); only five or six cover more secular topics (such as politics and administration); and none focuses on the details of material life.’