The material consequence of the Pax Romana

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A few days ago I posted on the effect of a unitary (at least notionally) Islamic state in the early 8th century which stretched from the Atlantic to the Indus. Though prior to the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate the whole region had been ruled by civilized states (defined by the accoutrements of high society such as cities, literacy and institutional religions) the relative fragmentation resulted in difficulties for the transfer of ideas and trade. For example, in 550 a merchant attempting to make the journey from the borders of the Chinese Empire to Alexandria would have had to traverse the lands of the Turks, a host of Iranian flavored states in Transoxiana, the Sassanid Empire, before finally reaching East Roman lands. By 700 once once they reached Transoxiana they would have been close to the borders of the Islamic state which ruled the city of Alexandria. This state was still very heterogeneous, ruled by a bureaucratic class who by and large perpetuated the traditions of the East Roman Empire or a local gentry which remained attached to the values of the Persian past, but there still existed an Arab Muslim elite which served as the nexus of power across disparate regions. Of course, this is not a sui generis case. After the fall of the Islamic Caliphate there was the Pax Mongolica, which fostered trade and exchange of ideas on a massive scale across Eurasia, and before it there was the Roman Empire.

Speaking of which, over the past generation or two there has been a great deal of debate over the nature of the Pax Romana, and whether its passing meant anything. It seems entirely plausible, for example, to assert that for the free peasantry the fall of Rome meant little, as they continued to eke out their existence on the margins of subsistence. The transition in the West Roman Empire was simply the shift of elites; from a Latin speaking one which prized literary cultivation and civilian values to a Germanic one which emphasized martial valor and a warrior ethos. There was no catastrophic break, rather antiquity faded into the medieval period seamlessly and qualitatively life went on.

Some of Peter Brown’s work reflects this sensibility, and shows that there was a shift of values, and measuring late antiquity by the standard of say the Second Sophistic is simply wrong-headed. In Europe After Rome Julia Smith makes the same case for cultural continuity drawing upon both documentation and archeology. I think to many readers these works will seem a touch Post-Modern and anti-Whiggish. In The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization and The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians you get a revisionism of the revisionism, an attempt to defend the older perception against an overreaction. The first book is unabashedly materialist, while the second reflects the position that the culture that produced Boethius was qualitatively different from that which looked to him as the interpreter of all the knowledge of the ancients. The barbarians were called such for a reason.

How do we reconcile this? Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization comes out and admits forthrightly that to some extent the differences are ones of values. For a medieval Christian the period of the “High Roman Empire” coincided with the persecution of the True Religion, so of course they did not perceive their own age as a dark one. Rather, though medieval folk did admit the glory of Rome (or what they knew of it) they would have also felt it important that many of those glories preceded the acceptance of Christ as Lord. Over the past 500 years the perception of the past has been strongly shaped by changes in norms. During the Renaissance the emphasis on the achievements of the classical world seem to have been in part a reaction against the intellectual monopoly of scholasticism which was a product of the High Middle Ages. Later on, during the Enlightenment and after the arguments were driven by an inversion of the values of the medieval period when Christianity was the measure of cultural attainment; 17th century China and 2nd century Rome were both examples of the genius of non-Christian & pre-Christian civilization, a rebuke to the claim that without Christ all was darkness.

Some of these cultural trends are elucidated in Plato to NATO, a book length polemic by the classicist David Gress where he argues that the modern perception of the foundations of Western civilization are strongly conditioned by contemporary biases. Gress’ states that the Germanic and Christian aspects of the Western tradition have been deemphasized so as to root all the genius of modern liberal democracy in its Athenian antecedent. This is the extreme end-product of the leapfrogging tendency which turns the Middle Ages into a detour from the natural course of events. In the interests of naming names Gress gives a lot of space to the influence of Will Durant. This is an exploration of a boundary condition, an extreme case during the mid to late 20th century in the United States, but it is illustrative of the general trend since the revival of classical learning in the West.

Of course today we know that the Middle Ages was not a period of total stagnation. Even in material terms there were major advances. The horse collar, three-field crop rotation and windmills resulted in such inreased agricultural productivity in Northwestern Europe that by the period before the Black Death this region was far more densely populated than it had been during antiquity (see A Concise Economic History of the World). The demographic correction after the withdrawal of Roman Empire had not only been erased, it had been surpassed.

But at the end of the day, with the values that I bring to the table, figures like the one to the left make a deep impression on me. The Y axis represents the lead deposition in ice cores from Greeland. The X axis represents the last 30,000 years, scaled by powers of 10. I’ve added the label for the Roman Empire and 1800. A natural inference is that the anthropogenic production of lead because of smelting is what is producing the changes over time. Yes, the typical peasant always lived a miserable existence on the margins of the Malthusian trap until about 1800, but the scale of economic production and extent of specialization achieved during the Roman Empire took many centuries to recreate once it collapsed.

The data are what they are, now your interpret them is shaped by your norms. I’m obviously inclined to look to material considerations are the most important ones. The pollution in modern China is horrible, but it is an indicator as to its economic vitality. Conversely, many traditionalists may observe enviously the robustness of a religious ethos in the Middle East, but in terms economic growth there is far less activity (obviously the presence of petroleum contradicts this, but I think it’s the exception that proves the rule). All the facts are to be admitted into evidence, but the verdicts are highly contingent upon the normative framework.

Note: The Pax Romana coincided with the first flowering of Imperial China.

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12 Comments

  1. What does the high value at the right of the x-axis indicate?

  2. I’ve encountered the reevaluation and I find it initially very unconvincing. For one thing, I’m pretty sure that there was a population decrease and a decrease in trade after about 550 AD which only gradually was recouped by about 800. (Those aren’t exact dates at all). The Gothic, Frankish and Lombard kingdoms did claim to be heirs of Rome, and they did try, but they didn’t do a very good job of it.  
     
    It’s hard to exaggerate the poverty of the literature 600-800 AD. I spent awhile looking at it in translation, and it’s almost all chronicles of a very crude sort, law codes, and very unoriginal encyclopediac summaries of past scholarship. Part of the problem may be that the Germanic literature was later destroyed by monks; “Beowulf” is the sole long survivor of what presumably had been an extensive body of work. (Charlemagne supposedly took steps to preserve the old Frankish songs, but nothing survived of that.) 
     
    One oddity is that in Ireland, outside both the German and Roman rule, literature seems to have flourished.

  3. What does the high value at the right of the x-axis indicate? 
     
    From what I could gather from the article, it’s from the lower depths of the glaciers picking up minerals as they churned up the earth’s crust, which gives an idea of how much lead is being thrown into the atmosphere in recent years that it rivals those concentrations. 
     
    Also, it looks to me like what’s labeled 1800 is actually 1900. – 1800 looks like it’s one tick mark to the right. the big dip after the peak ~1900 is kind of odd, but I assume it’s from WWI followed by the great depression, and then it picks up with a vengeance after WWII. There’s also a dip after 1800 – French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars – the Dalton Minimum? 
     
    Earlier, you can see the rise from the depths of the Dark Ages peaking around 1300 then staying flat for 100 years – presumably the black death? I’m sure I’m reading too much into it, but it’s a fun little graph.

  4. John J, I had a rotten experience early last year which you might identify with… 
     
    I was looking for a reference to a climate event mentioned in a Maronite Chronicle (Palmer, West Syrian Chronicles). I figured that something which brought snow upon Syria would have effects elsewhere, so I also dug up the Liber Pontificalis, which has entries written about that time. It mentioned floods. A-ha, I thought, I’m onto something… and there’s more odd weather mentioned in the Irish annals, and a plague by Saint Bede and some Frankish saints. I went after the Liber historiae francorum while I was at it. Also there might be references in Theophilus and Jacob of Edessa, if they could be extracted from the documents which quote from them… 
     
    And then I read Palmer (and Hoyland) again… turns out that the Maronite Chronicle played deliberately loose with its chronology, in order to attack Caliph Mu`awiya as an enemy of God. It did stuff like reassign an earthquake to Mu`awiya’s accession. So at least one Syrian chronicle at the time wasn’t even a real chronicle; just religious / political propaganda dressed up as a chronicle. The same is true of the Liber historiae francorum – it makes a complete hash of the reigns of Clovis II and Chlothar III, not even getting their length of reign right. 
     
    It gets worse: Bede was writing a generation or two after the 660s, and the Irish annals are a complete mess – surviving from badly-copied copies scattered around the Emerald Isle and often interpolated. Besides the Irish annals mostly record a depressing litany of plague and regicide during the 600s. Even Ireland didn’t get civil until the 700s, I’d say. 
     
    After a few months going nuts trying to recalibrate the Irish annals and looking for climate records in, say, Greenland – I cleared my head one day and said to myself, “screw it – these are the DARK AGES”. I can no longer listen to someone who uses the term “late antiquity” without rolling my eyes. We’re dealing with a time in which few honest men dared write of what they saw, unless they were in the Church, and many churchmen were the least honest of all.

  5. yeah, 1800 is badly labeled.

  6. I think you’re shortchanging the Sassanian empire. While there were some local blips in central Asia, the Sassanians did control most of the area until ca. 600 or a little later. See the map at The Geography of Persia Through History. I wrote about their empire on my blog, with a more detailed map, in Why the Romans Always Seem to Get in First Licks and several posts under “Sassanian Stuff”. 
     
    I think you also underestimate the despair of the Roman educated classes from the late 3rd-Century AD onwards. They knew that their world was ending. You can follow the shift from Roman order to Christian-Catholic identity in the letters of Bishop Sidonius Apollinaris at the time of the Gothic conquest of Gaul in the late 5th-C. This shift does mark, imo, the end of antiquity….

  7. See the map at The Geography of Persia Through History.  
     
    is that map accurate? it shows the sassanids as far south as gujarat?!?! your map also shows them as far east as the doab in india. i don’t know whether the sassanids had more or less control over transoxiana. can you think of a way to quantify it? on the one hand, the caliphate had more resources to throw at the problem. on the other hand, aside from a short period after harun al-rashid the empire was always centered far from this region. 
     
    I think you also underestimate the despair of the Roman educated classes from the late 3rd-Century AD onwards. They knew that their world was ending.  
     
    hm. well, the extensive letters of symmachus from the late 4th century suggest a pretty stable and self-satisfied order. peter heather’s argument in the fall of rome is that the romans recovered in the 4th century and didn’t know what hit them in the 5th (in the west).

  8. I see what you mean about the The detailed map that I published on my site is probably the most accurate reflection of current scholarly thinking. It’s taken from the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies.  
     
    I don’t get the feeling that Symmachus was describing a happy or self-satisfied world in his Memorial, but rather tells of disasters in the provinces, and blames ‘all the misfortunes of the Roman race’ on the closing of the pagan shrines.  
     
    I wonder how much of the 4th C ‘recovery’ is, in fact, based on the Christians — now recognized and in power — writing in praise of the emperors. We don’t see stability, for example, in the currency. After Diocletian’s reforms, which attempted to halt the Great Inflation, the new silver-clad nummus as well as the copper coinage went on being debased during most of the 4th C.

  9. Apoligies for poor proofreading. The first sentence should read, “I see what you mean about the maps but the detailed map that I published ….

  10. I see what you mean about the The detailed map that I published on my site is probably the most accurate reflection of current scholarly thinking. It’s taken from the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies.  
     
    well, my reading of indian history does not suggest sassanid power further than sindh or punjab.  
     
     
    I don’t get the feeling that Symmachus was describing a happy or self-satisfied world in his Memorial, but rather tells of disasters in the provinces, and blames ‘all the misfortunes of the Roman race’ on the closing of the pagan shrines.
     
     
    right. the memorial though is one of the few points in symmachus’ correspondence where he touches on the real world. most of the rest of the extant letters suggest a typical roman aristocrat living a life of leisure, friendship, personal cultivation and public acclamation. 
     
     
     
    I wonder how much of the 4th C ‘recovery’ is, in fact, based on the Christians — now recognized and in power — writing in praise of the emperors. We don’t see stability, for example, in the currency. After Diocletian’s reforms, which attempted to halt the Great Inflation, the new silver-clad nummus as well as the copper coinage went on being debased during most of the 4th C.
     
     
    point taken. i think bryan ward-perkins and peter ward make the case that the 4th century system was simply the 2nd century system under stress and reorganized. it might have been under qualitative decline, but the rate of change in the 6th century was simply far greater than any between 300-500. additionally, the mid 3rd century would be another period of decline.

  11. Sorry, but I can’t see the 4th C simply as a reorganized 2nd. It feels different: more fear, more poverty, and, definitely, a new kind of frozen rhetoric. 
     
    Wouldn’t it be fun if we could fine tune your lead smelting index against my currency devaluation chart? Hmmmm.

  12. David Ross, you write: “So at least one Syrian chronicle at the time wasn’t even a real chronicle; just religious / political propaganda dressed up as a chronicle.” This is the nature of the sources, you know; what makes people write is having a point to make. You seem here to equate attempted impartiality with civilisation, but almost all of the biographies of the Roman emperors that we have are somewhere between tabloid scuttlebutt and high political propaganda. I’m not sure when this stops the other side of the Dark ages either; could you suggest an example of a `real chronicle’ which doesn’t have a propaganda purpose?

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