How the Roman Empire led to the Great Divergence

Joe Henrich argued in The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous that the post-Roman order is what you have to look to to understand the nature of Western exceptionalism, and how it led to modernity as we understand it. Walter Schiedel in Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity makes the same argument. But whereas Henrich emphasizes the peculiar family system of Western Europe, imposed in part by the Roman Catholic Church, Scheidel engages in geographic determinism of a sort, emphasizing the special position and ecology of Europe after the fall of Rome and how it was conducive to multiple polities.

The two books are fundamentally complementary. If Scheidel had written Escape from Rome a few years later, I think he would integrate insights from The WEIRDest People in the World.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Escape from Rome is that the rise of Rome, and the persistence of the Roman Empire, was something of a miracle. Scheidel hammers home again and again how the human and physical geography of Europe mitigates against the development of a large unified imperial order analogous to China (he agrees with the argument that proximity to the steppe and large core zones such as the North China plain were critical in the formation of large states over and over).

From what I can tell Scheidel’s argument is that the Roman city-state employed various “social technologies” to mobilize massive armies at a minimal cost. This allowed the Romans to conquer their rivals in the eastern Mediterranean and Carthage through the sheer robustness of their system (the strategy Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus employed was only possible due to its ability to mobilize). Second, Western and Northern Europe was relatively underdeveloped before the rise of Rome, allowing the Italian power to conquer them in short order. In contrast, after the fall of Rome, the social and political system of Western and Northern Europe was complex and well developed enough that imperial conquests were much more difficult. Peter Heather in The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians argues that the existence of the Roman Empire spurred the development of larger barbarian groupings just beyond the limes, which eventually were able to invade the Empire.

To be honest I suspect the “Roman miracle” may have been an inevitable “one-off” exception. By this, I mean that many of the arguments for polycentrism presented by Scheidel really apply to the period after 0 A.D. The rise of the Empire was going to occur, of some sort, but after its inevitable collapse in Europe, the system was not going to be “rewound” for structural reasons.

Scheidel accepts Victor Lieberman’s argument in Strange Parallels that mainland Southeast Asia shares many geographic features with Europe. But the difference between Europe and Southeast Asia is that the Roman Empire served as a cultural template and left institutional legacies that bound European polities together more tightly as a social whole than Southeast Asia. Henrich’s argument about the role of the Western Church in breaking down the power of kindreds in post-Roman Western Europe is contingent upon the Church existing as a powerful Roman institution. Not only did Europe benefit from competitive polycentrism, as argued by Scheidel, but Western Europe also benefited from a powerful multinational binding institution which was the “ghost of the Roman Empire,” the Church.


14 thoughts on “How the Roman Empire led to the Great Divergence

  1. One interesting aspect of the Roman Empire perhaps relevant to this question seemed to me to be the Tetrarchy; dividing the empire politically to make it more sustainable – I’m not sure if anything similar was attempted in China. The Roman Empire was not just deconstructed by barbarians but somewhat willingly, if fitfully, deconstructed by Romans themselves! Perhaps that points to differences in underlying dynamics or political beliefs?

    Razib: But the difference between Europe and Southeast Asia is that the Roman Empire served as a cultural template and left institutional legacies that bound European polities together more tightly as a social whole than Southeast Asia.

    Yeah, absolutely that’s one argument for divergences between these two regions (MSEA+Western Europe) … Another is the argument made by Mark Koyama’s recent paper modelling imperial formation, and seeking to model fit an explanation for enduring “polycentricism” in Europe (as I’ve said on the Open Thread I think the model has some potential problems and deficiencies, but it is an interesting attempt), which he makes particular in some video coverage of the paper that he has done.

    That’s the argument that MSEA simply had very low populations and low agricultural productivity relative to Europe (let alone the regions in Northern and Eastern China, and Northern India that are thought to have very dense early populations), and this mostly alone is enough to explain lesser formation of stable interacting polities. That might also explain lower convergence to the “technological frontier”. (E.g. too few Khmers / Burmanese, Thais, etc).

    I’m pretty sympathetic generally to the “polycentricism” argument, or at least that there are benefits to polycentricism that offset the advantages of scale to larger states.Within the whole idea of polycentricism of course there seem like there are two different (though potentially complementary) explanations.

    You have “Polycentric Dynamism” in the form of arguments that a polycentric state system simply leads to more innovations, either by limiting state power to stop innovators, or by pushing forward state competition. The other is that you have “Polycentric Robusticity” – that’s more Koyama’s model – where having a polycentric set of states is *not* really emphasized as a spur or enabler of innovation, but does means that any particular catastrophe is localised in scope, and so economic progress can be better sustained.

    In any case between the two, there is some argument for avoiding “One Billion Federal European Unioners” (for example) and other such tendencies to much larger and more consolidated states with mega-large populations.

    The counterargument being what I’ve always been confronted with when I’ve raised these ideas in the past though – “Yes, yes, it is all very fine to airily talk about the deep historical case for polycentric state systems, but when the mega-empire (variously; China, US, Russia, India) comes knocking on your door, its irrelevant compared to scale and power!”

  2. Related to my above comment does seem like there’s a longstanding “puzzle” of low population growth in SE Asia, then fast and sustained growth relative to historical norms (unusual before the 20th century) in 19th century. Causes still unknown – Perhaps Theravada “premature demographic transition” preferring low fertility and concerned with high wellbeing, perhaps lack of suitable crops and technologies, perhaps limited degree of market integration limiting degree of trade, etc.

    (Low population probably tends to help explain why populations migrating from Yunnan could even make a significant impact at all; in addition to technological “runoff” from China Proper advantaging north migrants to south, the MSEA countries just weren’t that densely settled overall, even though hotspots like Angkor could be highly dense, leveraging mass cooperation to mass control of water to high agricultural yields).

    It might be one of the more interesting whatifs of history whether this had to be so.

  3. So I guess the obvious question is then, why didn’t something similar happen in Southeast Asia?

    i think too much of se asia is rugged to be united easily. the ‘hill people’ were ‘uncivilized’ down to the modern period, they were never integrated into Buddhist civilization. it would be like if people in the alps or Pyrenees remained pagan. perhaps se asia has ‘too much’ geographic fracturing?

  4. I am daunted by the depth of time. It was a thousand years from the collapse of the Western Empire to the discovery of the Americas. And 500 years from then until now. That is a very long time.

    The biggest advantages the Europeans had in the era from the discovery of the Americas were:

    1. the Americas, nothing like having a couple of continents to exploit that the other guys have no access to,

    2. the sailing ships Europeans invented to sail the North Atlantic, which is a very rough patch of water, that took them to the Americas and around Africa to Asian ports, and

    3. the use of those ships with the cannons they had learned to use in their incessant internecine wars to create a new form of naval warfare. It was 400 years before a non-European country defeated a European country in a naval engagement (Battle of Tsushima, May 1905 in the Russo-Japanese war).

    I don’t see much deep culture or any other structure here except maybe that geography allowed for a multitude of culturally and politically separate kingdoms that were similar enough to quarrel and separate enough to engage in incessant internecine warfare. The warfare provoked the development of cannons. The genius stroke was mounting numbers of cannons on a sturdy ship that could be used as a gunnery platform.

  5. Walter Sobchak’s #3 reminded me that someone wrote that the skills used for making church bells enabled western Christians to be particularly good at making cannons once they discovered guns. I can’t remember who it was now though.

  6. @FictionIsntReal

    I don’t know who you might be talking about in terms of western Xtians, but Billington in The Icon and the Axe talks about it a fair amount re the Muscovites, particular the Ivan Grozny period.

  7. @Razib: “i think too much of se asia is rugged to be united easily. the ‘hill people’ were ‘uncivilized’ down to the modern period, they were never integrated into Buddhist civilization. it would be like if people in the alps or Pyrenees remained pagan.”

    Pagan is no negative civilisational category, it only is from a deeply Christian point of view and as you know, pagan as a term is itself only meaningful from a Christian point of view.
    However, you are right about SEA, but it was even much more extreme, because it was more like stone age hunter gatherers living beside Neolithic people, early Iron Age people, with dots of a more developed civilisation being sprinkled in.
    Even when the Europeans arrived, the process of ethnocultural replacement and acculturation was still very active, so they could find all developmental stages there, with the whole region being only fairly recently colonised by higher cultures from the wider Chinese sphere.
    Especially the Tai people might be used as an example, since they spread mainly at a time in which Europe had its high Medieval era. After their conquest and colonisation, they first consolidated and one could argue they were about 500 years behind when meeting the Europeans.
    I’m not saying that they would have achieved a similar civilisational success story as the Europeans did necessarily, but considering their lag behind, simply because of the time of their emergence and consolidation, its simply impossible. Considering how relatively young these states were, and how heterogenous still, it was quite remarkable what they achieved from that starting point.

    I think one could use similar measures for cultures around the world, like when they reached a specific milestone. By doing so you can easily explain why some people can’t possibly be at a specific cultural developmental level now. Because when meeting the Europeans, they had to close a gap not just of one, but several cultural-civilisational stages. And this is before even beginning to discuss the regional environmental and human genetic differences.

    One big thing about Europe, especially its temperate zone with heavier soil, was that investment into technology which reduced human labour input into productivity was very early absolutely worth it. So you not just had to have the culture to be innovative, the natural ingenuity to put it into practise, but also a situation in which both paid off. Like the investment into cattle and horses, the heavy plow, wind- and watermills, not just for milling corn, but soon for other purposes like forges too, or the more elaborated sailing vessels (like mentioned by Walter). This was, together with the educational system and the establishment of standardised learning methods and goals, research facilities, like the universities, crafts for the artisans and a specific social stratification – to which interestingly Japan was closest – all quite important and interconnected.

    Christianity ruined a lot of in the Roman Empire and its aftermath, but at the same time it kept some traditions alive and especially the monasteries became islands of early entrepreneurship and efficient, more modern methods for everything, but especially farming.

    In the East Asian sphere, south of a certain latitude, human labour force was cheaper and more abundant, with a more stable population and population growth than in Europe. And the rice farming method too made it less promising to invest big time into innovations. More horticultural farming methods create a rigid social system, in which a large population of dependent, quite disciplined farmers invest a lot of work into creating higher outputs.
    Large domestic animals like in Europe were much less widespread in this zone also, and they were not as efficient there overall, which in part can be attributed to the intensive use of milk products in the occidental sphere, the climate, the natural conditions of the area and again the horticultural tendencies to increase producivity by ever more work put into small patches of land.

    There are plenty of reasons and all add up, but then again, South East Asia was mostly off the radar for that time, because higher developed cultures and ethnic groups just entered the scene quite recently and it needed time for them to consolidate, after their conquest and colonisation. In SEA there were still independent forager and simple farming people around when the Tai entered the scene, which is when in Europe the first cathedrals were built.

    This map about the disappearance of foragers from different world regions is quite useful to get an impression:

    Agriculture was not as productive in all places of South East Asia and even though it was not that late concerning its introduction, foraging and quite basal agricultural techniques were even up to very recent times fairly widespread in inland South East Asia in particular.

    I know there were previous higher cultures in SEA, but these were largely replaced and never managed to either reach the same level as later kingdoms, nor did they ever include the whole population of the region, in which there were always many independent tribals.
    Homogenisation of a region and people makes the next steps of development much easier and more effective. The SEA countries struggle with their diversity to this day.

    Europe had similar issues, but these were “largely solved” when the European states began to expand. And interestingly, it was those states which solved it earlier, which expanded and colonised earlier and more successful, like the Western kingdomes. Usually the general consolidation and homogenisation predates the expansion.

  8. I think that History is more contingent than Walter Scheidel
    believes. In the 6th century it was far from clear that the
    Byzantines would fail to conquer Western Europe. If the Justinian
    plague had not occurred and the Rise of Islam had not greatly weakened
    Byzantium who knows but the Western Roman empire might have been
    reconstituted. And the Ming dynasty took an explicit decision to
    avoid technological development and especially exploration. A different emperor and the history of China and the West would be very different.

  9. Razib, can you elaborate what conditions obtained before 0 AD that made a Rome-like hegemonic empire inevitable?

  10. @ Nick

    Any ETA on when the final version of the Dzudzuana paper from Lazaridis will be released (along with the genome itself)? It’s been nearly two years since the original pre-print I believe, quite a wait for such an important/interesting sample.

    I know you can’t divulge too much intel, but any hints you’re able to share about any new ancient DNA papers coming out in the next few months – in particular, any Upper Paleolithic samples from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Oceania on the horizon?

  11. Re; Nick’s comment, the good sense of it is appreciated, though I don’t know if Scheidel is that deterministic really. Part of the idea of why polycentricism matters is that unicentric regions are more vulnerable to bad decisions by a particular leadership or to a particular structural crisis, which are contingent, chance events. If everything was absolutely deterministic, that wouldn’t matter!

    (The classic example I think of poor leadership is: Had the Qing not favoured massive agrarian population growth off the back of introduced crops of the Americs and new varieties of rice, and had they not singularly failed on a dangerously silver dependent monetary policy, would you have really seen the immiseration and structural crises of population that China had and then consequential failure to “catch up” as soon as Japan, for’ex? And would the Qing not have made that choice in the Ming didn’t embark on pro-agrarian ideology itself, possibly somewhat in reaction to the pro-mercantile biases of the Mongol Yuan? etc.)

    But I think the argument is that Europe would have tendencies to fracture, whether due to “the fractured land” as presenting direct barriers to conquest, or more about it preserving certain kinds of human population structure that then structured greater cultural / linguistic / religious differences, or something else. It’s not really that deterministic, but is really about a strong tendency.

    If the Byzantines, for instance, have reunified the Roman Empire, or more of it, then how much would that hold? Constantine’s reunification didn’t, for’ex. If the Byzantines could do it, why did none of the other expanding European powers ever achieve it (no external Carolignian waxing)? If the Ming made a decisive choice against technological development, why did that hold through the whole Ming and then the Qing, which is roughly 500 years? Might there not be an institutional factor at play, that’s more parsimonious than simply “The Ming made a decision, and then for some reason no one subsequently could unmake it”? &c. There is absolutely some contingency, but there must be some systematic factors. With only one history the best we can do is to make a best guess about what those were…

  12. When Scheidel

    ‘agrees with the argument that proximity to the steppe and large core zones such as the North China plain were critical in the formation of large states over and over’,

    does he talk about the Mediterranean as being analogous to that kind of geography, once Rome held the entire coastline?

  13. @Matt not only did the Romans deconstruct their state and therefore weaken their power but the self hating plagiarists moved the center to the Greek east and ended up becoming Greeks. Sure those Greeks called themselves “Rhomaioi” but we know the original Romans spoke Latin and were more related to Celts and other western/central europeans than Greeks. Anyway I don’t understand why western Europeans admire them, what came after Rome was a lot better although with its own faults, Latin Christendom.

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