A friend of mine was pointing out that there is something of an anti-civilizational polemic in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. It’s the same sort of impulse which also asserts that “Rome never fell it evolved” and that the “Dark Ages” is a myth. I pretty much agree with Scott Alexander’s take. The datum that pollution due to lead did not match that of Classical Antiquity until the early modern period is one I remember as a searing one from The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. You can’t really argue with that.
After reading The Fall of Rome I had a period when I read a lot of stuff on late antiquity. For example Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000. Brown is a serious scholar, and I’ve read several more of his books. But, I do think it shares something with earlier scholarship, and some of the more polemic recent screeds of Rodney Stark (see How the West Won), and that is that Christianity is viewed as a good in and of itself.
That is, if there is one thing that can be said for the period after the fall of Rome, it is that Christianity transcended its Mediterranean focus, and became a truly international religion, and a light unto the nations. If you believe that Christianity is true, then details about population collapse and a recession of cultural productivity matter a lot less than otherwise.
I think the economic historical evidence on the balance does lead to the conclusion that the Roman Empire achieved an optimum of economic development during the Antonine period of the 2nd century A.D. through classical efficiencies on the margin (e.g., specialization through trade, bringing all of the land into production, etc.). These levels were not again reached until after 1000 A.D. in Europe, though comparisons are not entirely apt because innovations such as the moldboard plow and windmills allowed for increases in genuine economic productivity.
The bigger question that looms in the background though is would it have been better to be a median Roman citizen or a median subject of a Dark Age warlord? I don’t have a strong opinion on this, especially when it comes to the ability to consume above subsistence. It seems likely that the far worst treatment of slaves in places like Sicily than anything serfs were subject to (though serfdom only truly came into its own during the end of the Dark Ages) should be weighed in the calculus, but the Roman peace was also a genuine peace. The petty conflicts persistent at a local level in the Dark Ages may have made the life of a typical peasant less secure than for Roman citizens.
Rather constant reports of subjects and citizens fleeing from strong political units, or more “advanced” nations (e.g., the early American frontier), tell us something real. People valued freedom. But not everyone fled, so we’re probably seeing a bias in terms of who attempted to escape the shackles of civilization (e.g., young able-bodied single men, in particular, loom large in these reports, and I think there’s a reason for that).