Tuesday, April 17, 2007

When Rome fell   posted by Razib @ 4/17/2007 07:19:00 PM

Update: Daniel Larison, a Byzantine history graduate student, responds.

The past is the undiscovered country. I have argued before that ignorance of the past makes for good contemporary myth-making, and in fact, it might aid in the process. After all, facts tend to introduce ambiguity and muddiness into an elegant and forceful narrative. Over the years I've come to understand, and even respect, some "Post Modernist" critiques of grand historical narratives precisely because the naked influence of social parameters is so clear in the sample biasing of a few factual points to support tenuous conjectures. This tendency doesn't always fall in the direction that you might think, in From Plato to NATO the conservative historian David Gress makes the argument the the liberal post-War consensus, typified by Will Durant, reshaped the idea of the West toward a minimalist conception which leapfrogged the over 2,000 years between Classical Athens and Enlightenment (with a possible exception for the Renaissance), stripping away the detritus of the Middle Ages and its incontrovertibly Christian character as well as the authoritarianism of the Roman Empire. Gress argues that this elides the reality of the complex organic emergence of the Western identity as a compound of Classical, Christian and Germanic elements which developed between the fall of Rome and the breaking apart of Christendom during the Reformation. The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins advances a different critique of a different dominant narrative, that Rome did not decline and fall, it simply evolved into something different. The author is an archaeologist, so the argument is heavily biased toward material remains. His basic thesis is that there was a marked drop off in social complexity and economic output during the transition between the Empire and the Germanic successor states, and that this can fairly be termed "decline." Additionally, there was also a definite change in the culture of the ruling caste, ergo, the "fall" of the Roman autocratic system.

Several lines of evidence are used to draw up the material case. First, Imperial Roman pottery exhibited aesthetic virtuosity, diversity of motif, quantity and standardization. Also, one can trace widespread trade routes because of the style and nature of pottery produced at a particular location. The author makes the last point compelling by explaining that archaeologists are confident that a given pottery shard found in 6th century Iona, in Scotland, is derived from a site in modern day Tunisia. Maps clearly illustrate that pottery derived from one production center (e.g., in southern France) can be found on sites across the Roman Empire (though with increased density as one nears the point of production). The emphasis on manufacturing continues when the author observes that tiling on roofs was common in much of Italy during the Roman period. Though this seems a banal fact, the tiles required some native industry and their later disappearance is a testament to the decline in local economic capacity. Additionally, wheel driven pottery production disappeared from most of the Western provinces of the Empire (and so the pottery was invariably of inferior quality and style), while in Italy where this process continued a diverse and wide randing suite of pottery styles and aesthetics were sharply truncated down to one dominant type. Of course, accepting these talking points means accepting the archaeologist's expertise and notorious bias toward writing history via pottery and other material goods. But here is a point which I think is less parochial:
There is also some fascinating recent evidence from the ice cap of Greenland, that seems to confirm, for metalworking, the general picture from pottery, that manufacturing in the Roman period was on a grand scale. Snow, as it descends to earth, collects and traps atmospheric pollution; in the Arctic it then forms a distinct annual layer, distinguishable from that of other years by a partial thaw in the summer and a subsequent refreezing. By coring into the ice cap and analyzing the samples, it is therefore possible to reconstruct the history of atmospheric pollution through the ages. This research has shown that lead and copper pollution-produced by the smelting of lead, copper, and silver-were both very high during the Roman period, falling back in the post-Roman centuries to levels t hat are much closer to those of prehistoric times. Only in around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did levels of pollution again attain those of Roman times....

This, I think a rough gauge of the nature of industry in western Europe in regards to its quantitative scope which nicely supplements the author's qualitative sense.

There is one way that one can uncontroversially assert that Rome did not fall: it continued in the east and morphed into the Byzantine Empire. Wards-Perkins does not deny that while the western provinces of the Empire fell the east remained vital. In fact, he shows that the material remains in Anatolia, the Levant and Egypt attest to a vibrancy through the 5th and 6th centuries. But these same data are also important in highlighting the universal trends which were brought to bear locally at particular times and places. For instance, coinage disappeared, or became rare, throughout much of western Europe just as the Roman provinces fell under Germanic rule. Graphs which record the quantities retrieved at a specific archaeological site as a function of time illustrate this neatly. At each site sharp drops in coin production can be correlated with historical dynamics. For example, the Balkan cities of the Empire exhibited a sharp decrease late in the 6th century, while Anatolia and the Levant only dropped off in the first half of the 7th. Some of the eastern cities did not bounce back to 6th century levels until the 10th century. Finally, the cities of Egypt and the Levant in particular showed the least variation over time as they maintained robust coin production through the 7th and 8th centuries. What's going on here? You can open up an encyclopedia (or, go to Wikipedia), and easily establish probable cause. During the last decades of the 6th century Avars and their Slavic vassals flooded the Balkan provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire, and imperial writ did not extend much further than Constantinople, Thessalonika and a few other fortified citadels in mainland Greece. During the first decades of the 7th century Persia and Byzantium were engaged in a "World War," during which Avars and Slavs from the north besieged Constantinople and Persian armies pushed through the Levant into Syria in the south and north through the heart of Anatolia to the shores across from the capital city (the Empire was only saved by a sweep around Anatolia by sea which enabled deep penetration into the Persian heartland). The 10th century was a Byzantine renaissance, whereas prior to this period the emperors at Constantinople were at a disadvantage to Muslim caliphs based out of Damascus or Baghdad, now they were expanding deep into the Levant (reconquering Antioch), pushing into Armenia and even claiming suzerainty over Mesopotamian emirs. Finally, why were sites in the Levant and Egypt so robust in their coin production through the 7th and 8th centuries? Simple, these were the heartlands of Umayyad Caliphate, the cities of the Levant and Egypt were buoyed by the expansion and preeminence of the greatest power of the day. This is not to write history-by-coins, but rather to show that material metrics can be mapped onto our intuitive gestalt sense of social complexity & economic productivity.

There is much more to The Fall of Rome than a tally of pots, pans and coins. The first third of the book breezily touches upon the conventional narratives of institutional, political and military decay that occurred during the 5th century within the Western Roman Empire. In short, the author concedes that the older models which posit a night and day transition between Romanitas and the barbarism of Germanic warlords were too glib and simplistic. Even in what became England, where a Roman province was culturally assimilated by a Germanic folk movement in contradiction to the other canonical cases (e.g., France, Spain and Italy) the local indigenous population was not exterminated. Written records during the 7th and 8th centuries imply that Anglo-Saxon lords had British speaking vassals. We know from genetic data that this is not unfounded. But, we also know that it is precisely in England that a substantial genetic impact was achieved by Germanic peoples overlain upon the indigenous substrate. In contrast, the signal is weak, if discernible at all, in the provinces of the Roman Empire which preserved post-Latin speech and culturally absorbed the newcomers. Nevertheless, in England the "blood price" for British vassals of the Anglo-Saxon lords was substantially less than that upon similar status members of the ruling race. Though German chiefs and warlords might have been patrons of classical culture (e.g., Theodoric), it is notable that they also clung to their heretical Arian faith (taking centuries to convert), sported mustaches and maintained their own hairstyles, enforced legal inequalities between German and Roman, and even encouraged the implementation of statutes to prevent intermarriage between the peoples. Though many elite families of Roman origin flourished under the new dispensation, it is clear that dispossession also occurred as the German ruling caste expropriated properties for its own maintenance and enrichment. The specific dynamics were local, and varied over both space and time. Romans were not summarily massacred so long as they were useful or necessary, but neither was it a condominium of equals.

Much of this must seem rather obvious to most of you. For the widely read public the idea of the decline and fall of Rome has never been denied, and it remains the consensus view. But, this not true within the academy. In fact, I had dinner with a recent graduate of Columbia University's classics program who disputed that there ever was a decline based precisely upon what he had learned at this institution. If not decline and fall, what? There seem two broad counter-arguments. First, there is the position that the Germanization of the Western Roman Empire was voluntary, insofar as Germanic federate allies of the Empire were invited in and over time simply took over the temporal reigns from the Roman bureaucratic class. In other words, business as usual, the names simply changed. Another tack seems to be to deemphasize material remains and cultural complexity, and suggest that the energies of the post-Roman Western world were funneled into Christianity. Ward-Perkins notes that encyclopedias of Late Antiquity are heavily tilted toward coverage of religious arguments, schisms and transformations, with relatively little space given to architecture, secular learning or politics. In other words, though Late Antiquity might be materially poorer than the Classical Imperial period, at least in the west, it was spiritually superior. Frankly, to me this is reminiscent of Communist era attempts to dismiss the consumer cornucopia of the capitalist world by suggesting that socialist man was spiritually richer if materially poorer. Ward-Perkins does not deny that the Roman empire's plentitude might be perceived as somewhat vulgar, and he makes the argument that the relative commonality of casually obscene and frivolous graffiti before the Empire fell and its near total absence after is another testament to the relative sophistication of the masses during the Pax Romana in comparison to the successor states: a large minority of the population could read and write (he gives 10-30 percent as ballpark figures). Interestingly, of all the Roman Emperors, Justin I in the early 6th century was the first illiterate to ascend to the purple! (see the full list of emperors) Of course we know that amongst the Germanic kings who ruled after Rome illiteracy was no shame or out of the ordinary.

As the book nears its conclusion I was wondering we were going to be asked, "Who is the Proust of the Papuans?" The author makes the case that the average Roman was materially richer and more likely to be literate than the average post-Roman, and he believes that this matters. Ward-Perkins is adamant that the revision to the field of Late Antiquity was necessary, the orthodoxy of the previous era was too reductive and value-laden, but, in the end history is not flat and differences do matter and count. Words like "Civilization" and "Barbarian" have gone into disrepute, but the author clearly believes that they have some substance and utility. Civilization declined in the Italian peninsula during the period between 400 and 600. It continued in Anatolia during the same period. What is civilization? Ward-Perkins does not give a simple definition, but rather suggests that the sum totality of economic productivity and societal complexity of a particular culture at a particular time allow one to slot it into a continuum populate by peoples across time and space. Repeatedly within The Fall of Rome the argument is made that material culture reverted back to an almost prehistoric state. Repeatedly the contention is made that material culture in many locales did not bounce back to Roman standards for centuries or even a millennium. Whether this is good or bad, this is a reality. I think that reading the evidence presented one can make the case that social complexity in many parts of western Europe reverted to Bronze Age analogs, a small warrior elite served by a scribal caste (in this case, often tied to the church) which extracted goods and services in kind from a peasant population which was predominantly engaged in year to year subsistence. In places like England, what was Britannia, literacy disappeared, just as it did in Greece after the fall of the Mycenaeans.

In the book's final chapter the author names names, so to speak, as to the factors behind the current consensus. He notes that in southern Europe, for example Italy, the old fashioned conception of a decline and fall hold true in all their glory and simplicity. The civilized Romans fell to the savage barbarian hordes who brought down all that was good and grand in the world. In contrast, he notes that the scholars who are foremost in pushing for a model of Late Antiquity which emphasizes continuity are northern European and North American. The author observes that research funded by the European Union to explore the past of the continent is ostensibly discussed in English and French, but often the debates switch into German because of the ethnic makeup of the scholars involved. In short, the revision of Late Antiquity and the rehabilitation of the Germanic successor states is in large part a product of the work of German scholars. It is clear that some of what they argue has validity to it, but The Fall of Rome makes the case that it has gone too far. The author recounts that during the period before and just after World War II the pendulum had swung the other way, and French historians accused the Germans of "assassinating" Rome and therefore civilization (making a partial exception for, of course, the Franks). With the integration of Germany into Europe and its central role in the EU this irrational hostility abated. But now the scales have titled in the other direction. Ward-Perkins is at a loss to explain exactly why North American scholars tend to favor the hypothesis of continuity and evolution as opposed to a decline and fall of one civilization and the transition toward a different cultural matrix. He hypothesizes that perhaps the emphasis on Christianity is more congenial in the United States, but the concentration of Late Antiquity scholars in "Blue America" seems make this less plausible (the exception to this is Rodney Stark, who in his recent spate of books does explicitly draw upon revisionist scholars to support his case that all that is good in the West is attributable to the Christian religion). I think that part of the congeniality is the Proust of the Papuans factor, all cultures are created equal and we must not speak of civilization. The hyper-skeptical sensibility which emerged from the Post Modern movement that fleshed out all the contradictions and false constructions within the older historical paradigms has birthed its own solid orthodoxy. All things are equal. Difference does not exist because everything is so different, who are we to judge? Just not, lest ye be judged.

Complexity does not mean description and characterization are beyond our reach. A stance of scholarly epoche as an instrument toward understanding does not entail universal Pyrrhonism. An acknowledgment of the failings of positivism removed from skepticism does not mean that fictions are our only salvation against ignorance. History is not physics, bias exists, subjectivity is the condition of our humanity, but that does not mean that striving is without meaning, that we can not move toward a closer approximation of reality as it was. The imprecision of verbal description, its inability to capture the moments about a given distribution, does not mean that misunderstandings should plant the seeds for perpetual future discord buffeted by the winds of social faction. Julius Caesar was a literate man of some cultural sensitivity, but he was also a megalomaniac for whom genocide was a tool of his own personal advancement. We can understand that individuals are complex entities, with various facets and perspectives, that Caesar could act with generosity and brutality. But this complexity does not imply that we can not place him within his proper social context, the universal richness of individual humans does not render them beyond specific characterization and contextualization in the range of the species. It is clear that Rome was a squalid slave state. It is also clear that the Germanic successor states were not without positive qualities. But just because someone received an A+ mark does not mean they are necessarily a stellar student, and one C- does not imply mediocrity.

The Fall of Rome makes a few attempts to explain how and why Rome fell (and how and why Byzantium did not), but the book is mostly about the aftermath, not the process itself. For that, I highly recommend Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians.