Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Decline and Fall of Rome -- Spengler opines

By Aussiegirl

Spengler reviews a book about the decline of the Roman Empire, and has some thoughts as to how it pertains to the falling demographics of Western Europe.

Asia Times Online :: Asian News, Business and Economy.

We may excuse the peoples whose presence of mind fails in the face of existential threats, but we cannot excuse the historians who should have sufficient distance from events to judge them. Prevailing scholarship in today's academy does the complacent Romans one better: it denies that a decline and fall of the Western Empire ever took place. That may surprise laymen, but it is not an exaggeration. Peter Brown, the editor of Harvard University Press' Guide to the Postclassical World, lauds the middle of the First Millennium as "a quite decisive period of history that stands on its own", as opposed to "the story of the unraveling of a once glorious and 'higher' state of civilization".

Bryan Ward-Perkins, an archeologist, explains, "In the modern post-colonial world, the very concept of 'a civilization', be it ancient or modern, is now uncomfortable, because it is seen as demeaning to those societies that are excluded from the label. Nowadays, instead of 'civilizations', we apply universally the neutral word 'cultures'; all cultures are equal, and no cultures are more equal than others."

His compelling book is not only about the fall of Rome, but about the nature of denial. He warns us:
The end of the Roman West witnessed horrors and dislocation of a kind I sincerely hope we never to have to live through; and it destroyed a complex civilization, throwing the inhabitants of the West back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times. Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue forever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.
Was there a decline and fall? The population of the Western Empire fell by at least half, and perhaps three-quarters, between the 4th and 7th centuries, while every material index of the quality of life deteriorated. Ward-Perkins has arrayed the evidence in a lean and compelling narrative that shows that Rome not only fell, but fell with a sickening crash that spread misery on a horrifying scale. To cite a few of his examples:

Rural settlements revealed by pottery discoveries fell by three quarters in the northern vicinity of Rome between 100 AD and 400-700 AD. That does not mean that the population fell by as much, but clearly it fell drastically.
Use of the pottery wheel, brick-making and other Roman skills disappeared from Britain for three centuries.
High-quality manufactured pottery was available to peasant households in the 3rd century, while royalty ate off rough hand-shaped pottery in the 7th century.
Rome's largest dump of discarded pottery prior to the 5th century contains the shards of 53 million amphorae (two-handled jars with narrow necks); the largest 7th-century dump contains the remains of only 500, half the load of a contemporary cargo ship. So many wrecked cargo ships have been found that some scholars contend that Mediterranean trade did not regain its 1st century volume until the 19th century.
Copper coinage, freely available until the 4th century, disappeared thereafter in the Western Empire, along with trade.

Ward-Perkins' review of the archeological clues makes short work of the "no decline" theorists. The more difficult question is, how did a technologically complex and commercially sophisticated economy from the Pillars of Hercules to Asia Minor collapse back into Iron Age primitivism within less than two centuries?

Heather's book is not much help. He sticks to the simplest explanation, namely that the Goths, Vandals, Alans and Sueves, driven into Roman territory by the migrating Huns, reduced a complex and vibrant economy to a shuddering ruin within a century. Yet at first count there were not sufficient barbarians to anything of this sort. Ward-Perkins notes, "A large Germanic group probably numbered a few tens of thousands, while regions like Italy and Roman Africa had populations of several millions," supporting a standing army of 600,000 during the 4th century.

Why did such small numbers overwhelm the much larger population of Romans? There are several answers suggested by Ward-Perkins, whose admiration for Rome's economic sophistication makes him reluctant to draw what seem rather obvious conclusions. Roman sources warned of a declining population due to falling fertility from the 1st century, although present-day demographers have been unable to document a fall in the population [1].

But archeological evidence tells a clearer story, notes Ward-Perkins. "Much of central Italy and parts of Gaul seem to have been in decline during the third and fourth centuries," while Britain was abandoned, shrinking the recruitment base for the Roman legions and the tax base with which to pay them. It is telling that central Italy, the Latin heartland, showed the sharpest decline. I tend to credit the old-fashioned view, unpopular in the academy, that infertility due to infanticide, contraception, promiscuity and general immorality rotted out Rome long before it collapsed.


At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was certainly a decline of vision--a certain twisted morbid imagination--that had developed in the early to late Roman empire. A good bit of the literature of the Empire was perverse, graphic violence and self-indulgence. To read sample of it shows how that era's literature very closely matches (including the special effects) any of our media productions today with our fixation on graphic sex and violence. Roman stage plays were famous for their "realism", that is, when there was a death scene, some actor (usually a slave stand-in) actually was killed in it, often gruesomely for maximum audience pleasure.

This historic trend of decadence was studied in "Change and Decline: Roman Literature in the Early Empire" by Gordon w. Willaims.

At 3:20 PM, Blogger Aussiegirl said...

Thanks for the title of that book, and just when I was getting desperate for something new to read!


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