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.