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    Front Page
     Sep 7, 2005
BOOK REVIEW
Deep in denial (or in de' Mississippi)
By Spengler
The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins Buy this book
The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History by Peter Heather Buy this book

New Orleans sank in a matter of hours, although we now know that the man-made erosion of the Mississippi Delta through flood control made the disaster inevitable. What astonishes us after the fact is not the scale of suffering, but the depth of denial that allowed the burghers of New Orleans to ignore widely available evidence that life as they knew it must come to an unpleasant end.

Hurricane Katrina should put us in the right frame of mind to consider two new studies on the fall of the Roman Empire, the historical archetype for denial in the manifest presence of doom. Katrina destroyed the city, just as the Huns' invasion of 376 AD destroyed the Western Roman Empire; but Rome had

 

spent centuries digging its own grave, just as the levee builders on the Mississippi had spent decades with New Orleans. What explains such passivity in the manifest presence of doom? In his History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky reviewed Nicholas II's 1917 diaries, attentive to domestic gossip but deaf to the footsteps of approaching nemesis and quipped that whom history wishes to destroy, she first makes insensate. That is a bon mot but not an answer. Men do not have beliefs so much as they have lives and cannot easily change beliefs that have such deep roots in their lives. Those who are closest to great events may have the poorest vantage point with which to see them. Europe and Japan face a demographic catastrophe, as I have observed frequently, but can change their behavior no more easily than Chinese pandas, endangered by the shrinkage of bamboo groves, can learn to eat potato crisps.

We may excuse the peoples whose presence of mind fails in the face of existential threats, but we cannot excuse the historians who should have sufficient distance from events to judge them. Prevailing scholarship in today's academy does the complacent Romans one better: it denies that a decline and fall of the Western Empire ever took place. That may surprise laymen, but it is not an exaggeration. Peter Brown, the editor of Harvard University Press' Guide to the Postclassical World, lauds the middle of the First Millennium as "a quite decisive period of history that stands on its own", as opposed to "the story of the unraveling of a once glorious and 'higher' state of civilization".

Bryan Ward-Perkins, an archeologist, explains, "In the modern post-colonial world, the very concept of 'a civilization', be it ancient or modern, is now uncomfortable, because it is seen as demeaning to those societies that are excluded from the label. Nowadays, instead of 'civilizations', we apply universally the neutral word 'cultures'; all cultures are equal, and no cultures are more equal than others."

His compelling book is not only about the fall of Rome, but about the nature of denial. He warns us:
The end of the Roman West witnessed horrors and dislocation of a kind I sincerely hope we never to have to live through; and it destroyed a complex civilization, throwing the inhabitants of the West back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times. Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue forever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.
Was there a decline and fall? The population of the Western Empire fell by at least half, and perhaps three-quarters, between the 4th and 7th centuries, while every material index of the quality of life deteriorated. Ward-Perkins has arrayed the evidence in a lean and compelling narrative that shows that Rome not only fell, but fell with a sickening crash that spread misery on a horrifying scale. To cite a few of his examples:
  • Rural settlements revealed by pottery discoveries fell by three quarters in the northern vicinity of Rome between 100 AD and 400-700 AD. That does not mean that the population fell by as much, but clearly it fell drastically.
  • Use of the pottery wheel, brick-making and other Roman skills disappeared from Britain for three centuries.
  • High-quality manufactured pottery was available to peasant households in the 3rd century, while royalty ate off rough hand-shaped pottery in the 7th century.
  • Rome's largest dump of discarded pottery prior to the 5th century contains the shards of 53 million amphorae (two-handled jars with narrow necks); the largest 7th-century dump contains the remains of only 500, half the load of a contemporary cargo ship. So many wrecked cargo ships have been found that some scholars contend that Mediterranean trade did not regain its 1st century volume until the 19th century.
  • Copper coinage, freely available until the 4th century, disappeared thereafter in the Western Empire, along with trade.

    Ward-Perkins' review of the archeological clues makes short work of the "no decline" theorists. The more difficult question is, how did a technologically complex and commercially sophisticated economy from the Pillars of Hercules to Asia Minor collapse back into Iron Age primitivism within less than two centuries?

    Heather's book is not much help. He sticks to the simplest explanation, namely that the Goths, Vandals, Alans and Sueves, driven into Roman territory by the migrating Huns, reduced a complex and vibrant economy to a shuddering ruin within a century. Yet at first count there were not sufficient barbarians to anything of this sort. Ward-Perkins notes, "A large Germanic group probably numbered a few tens of thousands, while regions like Italy and Roman Africa had populations of several millions," supporting a standing army of 600,000 during the 4th century.

    Why did such small numbers overwhelm the much larger population of Romans? There are several answers suggested by Ward-Perkins, whose admiration for Rome's economic sophistication makes him reluctant to draw what seem rather obvious conclusions. Roman sources warned of a declining population due to falling fertility from the 1st century, although present-day demographers have been unable to document a fall in the population [1].

    But archeological evidence tells a clearer story, notes Ward-Perkins. "Much of central Italy and parts of Gaul seem to have been in decline during the third and fourth centuries," while Britain was abandoned, shrinking the recruitment base for the Roman legions and the tax base with which to pay them. It is telling that central Italy, the Latin heartland, showed the sharpest decline. I tend to credit the old-fashioned view, unpopular in the academy, that infertility due to infanticide, contraception, promiscuity and general immorality rotted out Rome long before it collapsed.

    Ward-Perkins cautions that the economy of the Eastern Mediterranean remained robust, and that the "the jury should remain out on the important question of whether the overall economy of the Western Empire, and hence its military strength, was in decline before it was hit by the problems of the early fifth century."

    But that is like saying that the jury should remain out as to whether the economy of New Orleans was in decline before the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. The levees holding back Lake Ponchartrain could not withstand a storm of that magnitude. The complex Roman economy depended on masses of slave labor, and it was the Roman social system that could not withstand the barbarian storm.
  • Rome's economy worked its slaves to death and required a constant new supply (unlike the American South, where the slave population grew through natural increase). It already was under stress due to diminishing returns of conquest and a high proportion of the slaves recently captured coming from the same barbarian tribes that were about to invade.
  • "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."
  • During the Goths' siege of Rome in the winter of 408-409, a contemporary source reported, "Almost all the slaves who were in Rome, poured out of the city to join the barbarians."
  • In 399-400, the Germanic general Tribigild revolted in Asia Minor and was joined "by such a mass of slaves and outcasts that the whole of Asia was in grave danger".

    Mayan cities came to a sudden end by denuding their land of trees; Rome came to a sudden end by denuding their empire of people. Roman society was as vulnerable as the Louisiana levees and needed only a smart blow to crumble. At least 80% of the Roman tax base vanished in the wake of the Gothic incursion of the early 5th century and the death-spiral of the Western Empire began.

    The European Union now occupies more or less the same territory on which the Roman Empire stood. A century from now, will it go with a whimper or a bang?

    Note
    [1] See John C. Caldwell, "Fertility Control in the Classical World," Journal of Population Research vol. 21, no 1, 2004 (available on the Internet).

    The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins. Oxford University Press, September 2005. ISBN 0192805649. Price $20, 248 pages.
    The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History by Peter Heather. MacMillan, 2005. ISBN 0333989147. 500 pages; $74.

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