The material consequences of Rome’s decline


The plot at the top is from a Peter Turchin post, History Is Now a Quantitative Science. Peter has been on this for more than ten years now. I’ve long been broadly sympathetic, but of late it’s been nice to see his formal and data-intensive approach take hold and make some waves. Using raw data from a PNAS paper on the concentration of lead in Greenland ice caps one can illustrate the theory of secular cycles, as the western edge of the oikoumene went through periods of rise and fall. I don’t say specifically Rome because as Peter observes the first rise probably had more to do with Carthage than Rome, and the last recovery was particular mild probably because its focus was on the eastern Mediterranean, rather than the west.

As readers of this weblog know this lead data is not entirely new. I remember stumbling on it in The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. It’s just more fine-grained and detailed than what came before. This sort of result definitively convinced me in a flash that the “fall of Rome” was neither fiction nor propaganda, but a true material event.

And yet the materiality is important. Like Song China, the Augustan and Antonine periods were characterized by a phase of intensive coordinated economic activity and productive output that one can’t deny. It’s right there in the material record. But from the perspective of a Christian or a Muslim, the collapse of the power of the Roman state coincided with the rise to power of the most important development in human history: the cultural dominance of singular religious visions.

The point being that when we say that “Rome fell,” it hides within it assumptions of value and importance. History is not fiction and can be understood in all its reality, but it is always critical to expose your assumptions and gain an understanding of the common ground shared between individuals whose viewpoints may differ.

 

5 thoughts on “The material consequences of Rome’s decline

  1. I wonder if the rise in lead levels in the 3rd century B.C. could be in large part due to the establishment and consolidation of the Hellenistic Kingdoms in the Eastern Mediterranean, instead of the rise of the Roman Republic.

  2. But from the perspective of a Christian or a Muslim, the collapse of the power of the Roman state coincided with the rise to power of the most important development in human history: the cultural dominance of singular religious visions.

    And it was this coincidence (“correlation”) that Gibbon seized on as the cause of the fall!

    (I just finished the book yesterday. I won’t say it was a fun read; documenting the material changes to the extent he did, necessary I imagine to make his point against a strongly opposed point of view, makes for dull reading for the non-specialist beyond a certain point. But it was nevertheless fascinating, and the tone and perspective of the last chapter were quite enjoyable. Thank you for mentioning it some weeks – months? – ago. Onward, to The Fate of Rome)

  3. Another point may be that the plumbum was mainly used for plumbing – hence, the word “plumbing”. Those pipes were already laid as of Hadrian’s accession.

    Let’s consider Cyprian’s Plague in North Africa and posit a recovery under the Balkan Emperors. We wouldn’t see the latter in lead levels until there was a demand for new lead. During the initial years of the recovery, the new people are simply moving into abandoned areas. They need only enough new lead to patch the older pipes.

    Lead levels are a good proxy for initial growth but a weaker proxy for recovery.

  4. In Ancient Roman times, lead was largely a byproduct of silver mining. The first graph is basically a proxy for very large silver mining operations taking place in Spain during that time. By the Roman high empire period, those silver mines were very sophisticated, and required constant industrial-scale removal of water to remain functional. One theory is that during the Antonine Plague, water removal stopped, causing flooding of the mines which made them unrecoverable. Silver mining then shifted to the Danube frontier (if I remember correctly). Silver mining there (along with all non-silver mining economic activity anywhere) wouldn’t be reflected in those Greenland ice cores.

    People shouldn’t read too much into this one set of data points.

  5. Silver mining there (along with all non-silver mining economic activity anywhere) wouldn’t be reflected in those Greenland ice cores.

    People shouldn’t read too much into this one set of data points.

    did you bother to read the fucking post? everyone acknowledges that an eastward shift might have occurred.

    and as you have to know there are plenty of other economic patterns (e.g, specie hordes discovered) that correlate with this.

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