Good Riddance to the Roman Empire

Maybe Rome needed to disintegrate before the West could grow wealthy.


Escape From Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity, by Walter Scheidel, Princeton University Press, 670 pages, $35

Walter Scheidel makes a dramatic claim in Escape From Rome: The collapse of the Roman Empire made the modern world possible. The release from imperial governance, he argues, had an outcome in Europe that was not replicated elsewhere. That in turn explains why Europe became the birthplace of modernity.

Scheidel, a Stanford-based historian, argues this thesis with an amazing erudition and a sweeping synthesis of scholarship. There is just one major weakness in his analysis, and it can be addressed without abandoning the main argument. Indeed, addressing it strengthens the already compelling case.

Escape From Rome belongs to what is by now a well-established genre of historiography: books that try to explain the nature and origins of the modern world. Works of this kind all have to account for the central feature that distinguishes modernity from previous human history—the enormous and unprecedented increase in wealth produced by sustained intensive economic growth. Since roughly the middle of the 18th century, ever larger numbers of human beings, over more and more of the planet, have escaped the constraints that had bound their ancestors since the advent of agriculture. Scheidel calls this "the Great Escape."

The challenge for every author in this genre is to explain why this process of liberation started when and where it did. Most recent accounts point to the ways Western Europe became strikingly different from other major civilizations in the later 17th and early 18th centuries—what the historian Kenneth Pomeranz calls "the Great Divergence." But Scheidel thinks the real divergence happened much earlier.

Scheidel's argument has three main elements. First, he attributes the sustained intensive growth of the Great Escape to innovation of all kinds. This, he says, was made possible—indeed, was encouraged—by a political order of polycentrism.

In Scheidel's usage, this means a system in which major densely populated geographical regions are divided into a large number of smaller and competing territorial states rather than being ruled or dominated by large and long-lived empires. Those states, in turn, are relatively decentralized, with many competing centers of power. This competition provides both space and incentive for experimentation and diversity, and it limits elites' ability to stop them. Large empires, by contrast, can provide stable government but have a strong impetus to smother innovation and variety. (This is the almost exact inverse of the argument put forward by another Stanford historian, Ian Morris, in his 2014 book War! What Is It Good For?)

Second, Scheidel argues that the Great Divergence and subsequent Great Escape first happened where they did because Europe was more polycentric and less prone to empire than the other densely populated parts of Eurasia, with the sole exception of Southeast Asia. China is at the opposite pole, having been ruled by empires for most of its history. The Middle East and South Asia occupy intermediate positions, but they have been sufficiently prone to empire to stop a robust and lasting polycentrism from appearing.

In a fascinating and arresting section, Scheidel argues that the proclivity to imperial governance is mainly determined by geography—above all by proximity to the steppes and deserts of Eurasia. Because of its internal geography and its physical location relative to the steppes, Europe in general and Western Europe in particular have been much less likely than other regions to develop a single dominant empire. Steppe and desert nomads living in proximity to settled civilizations want the products of those societies, through trade or, frequently, plunder. This leads them to organize into large confederations or "mirror empires" (a term Scheidel takes from the anthropologist Thomas Barfield), and these, combined with nomads' military effectiveness, makes them a serious threat to the settled civilizations. The response is to develop a significant fixed military capacity, which encourages the formation of large and long-lived empires.

The third part of Scheidel's argument tackles the most obvious problem with the second part: If Europe is less likely than other places to be united under imperial rule, how to explain Rome? Scheidel's answer is ingenious. He argues that the unification of all the lands around the Mediterranean, along with significant parts of Atlantic and Danubian Europe, was an inherently low-probability event. But the Roman Republic fortuitously hit upon a form of social, political, and military organization that, once established, proved almost impossible to stop before it had conquered all of those lands and reached its natural and social limits. Once established, it proved to have considerable staying power, but eventually it collapsed and, like Humpty Dumpty, could not be put back together again.

In China, the collapse of the Han Empire was followed after an interval by the reconstitution of an imperial state by first the Sui and then the Tang. But the collapse of Rome led to the emergence of a particular kind of polycentric system, which proved not only stable but expansive, spreading beyond the lands once controlled by Rome to other parts of Europe. And so, Scheidel concludes, the first Great Divergence between Europe and the rest of Eurasia happened in the sixth century. It made the second Great Divergence possible, leading eventually to the Great Escape.

The first main element of Scheidel's argument is almost certainly correct, and it is in line with what a range of authors have posited. The second part is one that I have been skeptical about in the past, but Scheidel makes a persuasive case. He does an especially impressive job of deploying two techniques that more historians should use. One is geopolitics—the connections between geography, the natural environment, and the social orders that people create. The other is counterfactuals through which he tries to determine whether the course that history took was contingent or determined.

The third part of his argument is more problematic. Scheidel argues convincingly that, once the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the chances of its being revived were vanishingly low. But he is much too dismissive of the chances that either Habsburg Spain or Bourbon France could have emerged as a hegemonic power (though he's right that neither could have unified Europe the way Moscow did the Russian realms). A hegemonic power would have had the same stultifying effect as an empire, particularly if combined with a restored Catholic monopoly.

That did not happen for two reasons. The first was Habsburg Spain's failure to defeat the Dutch, something that I'd argue was highly contingent. The second and more structural reason involves the military revolution of 1450–1650, in which warfare was transformed by the introduction of gunpowder. The pre-existing division of Europe meant that several powers simultaneously adopted the new military techniques, so no one gained a sufficiently decisive head start. This created a dynamic in which blocking alliances arose to check any potential hegemon.

The bigger problem with the third part of the argument is this: If polycentrism is the key to innovation, why did it take so long to result in the second Great Divergence and the Great Escape?

Scheidel writes as though there is a single continuous process running from the ninth century to the 18th. That is not plausible. The solution, which strengthens his basic model, is to argue that political polycentrism per se is not enough. One needs a certain kind of polycentrism, one where states have stable frontiers and stable systems of government. These systems must be powerful enough to check local predators and social resistance to innovation but not so powerful that they can smother the innovators. And they must be embedded in a stable system of interstate relations.

This never appeared in Southeast Asia (which is otherwise a puzzle) or during the episodes of fragmentation in the Middle East and South Asia. It also did not exist fully in medieval Europe. It did appear in Europe after the military revolution of 1450–1650 and was consolidated by the Treaty of Westphalia, which established an institutional order that regulated the relations between the competing states without a higher authority (such as the medieval papacy). You can still argue that this was the high-probability outcome of the way Rome collapsed, because that collapse gave rise to a system in which the military revolution could have the results that it did.

The perils of empire are visible everywhere today, and so are the drawbacks of a web of constraints that check experimentation and impose conformity. Ian Morris concluded his praise of empire in human history by arguing for an American world imperium. This book is the antidote to that dangerous vision. We owe our current good fortune, Scheidel reminds us, to the collapse of one of the world's greatest empires and the failure of every attempt since to revive it.

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  1. Yes, this is precisely why the century old American empire has provided so little innovation.


    1. Does it also explain why Europe’s main competitor in the innovation game was Africa?

      1. Africa was strangely missing. It’s almost as if…

        1. Africa was never civil, never went thru these stages outside the Mediterranean area.

      2. At least according to modern African Studies departments!

        1. Just what I wanted to say about this

    2. Unless you’re counting the incorporation of Indian, Hawaiian, and Filipino populations as nations within an empire, there is no American empire. “American empire” has a different meaning from the sorts of empires of the recent and distant past, wherein foreign nations were incorporated without full embodiment into a single people of the country.

  2. Scheidel writes as though there is a single continuous process running from the ninth century to the 18th. That is not plausible.

    *** rising intonation ***

    What about The Illuminati?

  3. What complete drivel.
    Re-read “Guns, Germs and Steel”

    1. Yes, but keep in mind that Jared Diamond too, was talking out his ass for half of it.

      1. Yes.
        Should be read with a salt shaker handy.

  4. Except the Empire never really ended…Eastern, Western, Holy Roman, Papal, there was some level of empire going on for most of that time.

    1. That’s what I don’t understand: why those don’t seem to count in the thesis. But it’s consistent with the skip of a millenium!

    2. “Except the Empire never really ended…”

      Yes, it did.
      How many legs does a dog have….?

  5. Water is the key element to how empires are built, how they survived, and how they fell.

    Italy is only a few hundreds miles from Tunisia via the Mediterranean Sea. Italy is thousands of miles from Tunisia over a land route.

    The Chinese Empire always had trouble maintaining power in Inner Mongolia, Gobi Desert, and Xinjiang region. There are few rivers to project power. Meanwhile, Eastern China has super large cities along the Yangtze, Yellow, and Xi Rivers.

    The only peoples who can maintain “empires” in these Asian wastelands are nomadic horsemen. The Khans and Mongolians, who didnt establish large cities that stood the test of time.

  6. Dramatic claim? Of course the Roman Empire needed to fall for humanity to progress once it had turned from a meritocratic, competitive society into an imperialistic social welfare state. Of course, it’s cash was followed by a millennium of abject poverty, regression, wars, and chaos.

    The US is following the same path: under progressivism, we’re building an empire and turning to bread and circuses. The fall of the US will eventually become inevitable and necessary. That doesn’t mean we should hasten it.

  7. One should add that “the fall of the US” ideally would simply consist of the US breaking up peacefully and consensually into a dozen nation states with mostly free trade between them.

    1. How likely do you think that would be?

      1. Not bloody likely. There’s gonna be a lot of snowflakes dying in their safe rooms and quite a number subjugated into subservience, if not outright slavery.

  8. Excellent review of an excellent book. I cited Escape from Rome repeatedly in my recent blog post “Does the libertarian movement need a kick in the pants? Or is it just Nick Gillespie?”

    1. Anal, you’re no OBL!!

  9. If Europe was less prone to empire, why’d it have so many of them (but not such a profusion as to be polycentric) for so long and with so little time between? There was darn little of Europe and nearby Asia that stayed out of empires over the past 2000 years. Franco-Germanic, Ottoman, Swedish, Russian. British…the only places left out were Iberia and some of the Alpine region.

    By the way, I’ll LOL if it turns out, as I suspect, that this piece and Stephanie Slade’s, adjacent in HyR’s listing, make opposite points!

    1. Come to think of it, even Iberia was imperial much of the time.

  10. There’s a major missing piece of this discussion: climate change.

    There were quite a few disruptions to climate that I have read of, starting with the 12th century BC cooling and collapse of the late bronze age and the Sea Peoples coming from the cold north. Of interest to the Roman empire is the Roman Warming Period, where (I have read) Egypt, Libya, and North Africa in general were much warmer and even wetter, to the point that the current concept of a Mediterranean climate, warm and dry in the summer, did not exist — it rained year round, only somewhat less in the summer. The Roman Empire thus has few famines and other empire-destroying disruptions. That Roman Warming Period began a couple of centuries before the Republic became the Empire, and ended a couple of centuries after. It corresponds very well with the major expansion of the Roman Republic and Empire, and the cooling after corresponds to the end of expansion and the beginning of the bad emperors and eventual collapse.

    There is no need to posit that the Roman Republic and Empire were a rare thing. Climate warming sounds like a very likely cause, making it all but inevitable.

    I have no citations; just a general reading of general histories of the pre-Roman and Roman eras, from Sea Peoples to the Dark Ages..

    1. As for why Europe and not anywhere in Asia, that’s simple: Europe has all sorts of geographical boundaries — mountain ranges all over, islands, peninsulas, and all mighty close to coastlines. It is both easy to maintain isolated centers of power (because actual invasions require armies) and easy to raid other countries (because coasts and rivers are easy for small raiding parties). The Greek pre-Roman era was not populous enough to establish bigger kingdoms; the post-Roman era was, partly because the Roman Warming Period had spread people everywhere, and they were too many and too settled by then to let a little snow stop them from raiding everyone else.

      I find nothing at all mysterious about the Roman and post-Roman eras.

    2. Was there really a warming period? Or was it just the tail end of a much longer, wetter period whose very slow ending was brought on by the opening of the Straits of Gibraltar and the flooding of the Mediterranean and Black seas? The Sahara Desert is the result of a changed ocean current flow that followed the influx of sea water, but it was tens of thousands of years coming; took a long time to dry out the land that much.

      1. There was a warmer wetter growing climate, compared to what came before, and few famines. That is what led to the growth and stability of the Roman Republic and Empire, and the cooler drier climate led to its collapse.

        Warmer and wetter implies warming and wetting. Cooler and drier implies cooling and drying. Whether the global climate warmed and wetted and cooled and dried, or just the Mediterranean, is immaterial. FWIW, it is recognized (except by Michael Mann and his ilk) and called the Roman Warm Period by wikipedia.

        The Roman Warm Period, or Roman Climatic Optimum, was a period of unusually warm weather in Europe and the North Atlantic that ran from approximately 250 BC to AD 400.[1]

        Theophrastus (371 – c. 287 BC) wrote that date trees could grow in Greece if they were planted, but that they could not set fruit there. That is the case today, which suggests that South Aegean mean summer temperatures in the 4th and 5th centuries BC were within a degree of modern temperatures.

  11. So wait a minute — Scheidel thinks that a small number of hegemons in western Eurasia is that big of a difference with the one that was Rome? And skips in accounting a millenium from the fall of Rome?! Like it was that big a deal that exactly the Mediterranean empire wasn’t re-established, although parts of it were, for a long time, and others were as well and farther inland?

  12. Seems to me Steven Davies is putting words in Scheidel’s keyboard. The critical part of the shole thing is a proviso the present author wrote and should take credit for without the book review hook.

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  14. Thar would also suggest that the Medieval period was a necessary step in the evolution of Western European society.

    1. The taming of fire was also a key contributor to the rise of Western civilization.

  15. The older I get, the more critical I become of these ‘grand narrative’ history books that try to explain everything in a neatly packaged way. Maybe I’m being too harsh on this book (as I’m only getting the summary from this post).

    I have no doubt that lots about this book is correct, but I think it says more about the ebb and flow, expansion and contraction of super-empires than it does about how the West is prosperous because Rome failed. Rome undoubtedly became prosperous because empires before them failed, those empires became prosperous because the empires before them failed… and so on and so forth.

    I think the more interesting narrative is to figure out WHY an empire failed and try to learn lessons from that.

    1. try “The collapse of complex societies” By Joseph A. Tainter

      Spoiler alert: it has to do with inefficiencies of large organizations

  16. Ian Morris concluded his praise of empire in human history by arguing for an American world imperium.

    #Brexit threw a wrench into the works of the European World Imperium.

    1. The EU is still trying to correct fill out Form I45.27b/iii (Application for World Empire) but it keeps getting stuck on the “Gender of Emperor” bit.

      1. **correct = correctly**. WHY is there no edit function?!?

  17. Yeah, it only took the west till the twentieth century to surpass Roman prosperity.

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  19. If Napoleon had succeeded in uniting Europe via military conquest, then the divergence would have been snuffed out in its infancy.

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