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.