What have the Romans ever done for us?

Dario Sidhu
Feb 27 · 11 min read

The Roman Empire casts a long shadow over world history. Around 800 million people around the globe speak Romance languages, all direct descendants of the Latin spread by Roman conquest and trade. Christianity, a sect incubated in and later fused with the empire, remains the largest religion in the world. An entire academic field, tellingly termed “Classics”, dedicates itself in large parts to the study of Roman antiquity, and still forms informs the canon of Western culture. Comparing modern societies to ancient Rome, and poring over its history for contemporary lessons, forms an entire cottage industry. Given its important place in European history, might Europe’s Roman inheritance even be responsible for Europe’s modern prosperity? This is the central question motivating Walter Scheidel’s excellent new tome, Escape from Rome.

Scheidel might be one of the people best placed to answer this question. A professor of Classics at Stanford University, his academic research has focused on state formation in the ancient world, and is marked by an ambitious, transregional comparative approach. In his last book, 2017’s The Great Leveler, he tackled the history of violence and inequality over the whole sweep of recorded human history. Scheidel is a prominent exponent of what is sometimes called “New Ancient History” — an approach to studying the ancient world that liberally incorporates insights from other disciplines, particularly quantitative economic history. Over the course of 500 pages of real (and imagined!) history, he tries to convince us that rather than prefiguring European prosperity, Rome’s most important contribution to human welfare was to go away, and never return.

Scheidel is only the latest in a long line of scholars attempting to explain the so-called Great Divergence- the vast gulf in standards of living between world regions that emerged in the 19th century, and set Europe and its overseas offshoots off on a radically different economic trajectory from the rest of the world.

This debate is a lively one among economic historians in particular. In explaining why it was Europe, and Britain in particular that experienced an Industrial Revolution, a whole laundry list of factors has been argued for. Cultural change, the development of new economic and political institutions, human capital formation, and natural resource endowments feature prominently among them. Similarly, there is no real consensus on when the seeds for this divergence were sown. Did it happen only shortly before the Industrial Revolution, when per capita incomes in northwestern Europe were still roughly comparable to other world regions? Or were these societies already on a fundamentally different trajectory starting in the late Middle Ages, when Florentine merchants tinkering with double-entry bookkeeping prefigured modern capitalism. In these works, European societies are usually contrasted with China, ostensibly Europe’s closest peer civilization.

One piece of the puzzle that is often rather off-handedly mentioned by purveyors of this Big History™ is Europe’s alleged political fragmentation throughout history, usually contrasted with China’s supposed perennial unity.

The basic argument goes like this: Since Europe has always been divided among many polities, new inventions, institutions, and forms of knowledge had a much easier time of spreading than in China or other regions of the world. Any king might want to stamp out new, destabilizing innovations such as science or democracy. It is hard to do so if troublesome inventors or philosophers could simply pack up and move to a neighbouring kingdom, so the logic goes. To use an oft-cited example, Christopher Columbus couldn’t get the Portuguese crown to bankroll his voyage to the new world, but Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain did. Conversely, when successive Ming emperors banned overseas trade, would-be Zheng Hes simply couldn’t find alternative backers for their ambitions.

In a related but distinct dynamic, direct competition between the many European states may have catalyzed a virtuous cycle that led rulers to invest in effective administrative and military structures, leading to the modern state.

So far, this is old news. One need not buy the argument that this difference in political fragmentation is at the root of modern inequalities, though it certainly seems plausible, to find it an interesting historical question. It also happens to be a question that I’ve never encountered a satisfying answer to. Oftentimes, authors referencing it mention something vague about the many mountains and indented coastlines of Europe. Why is it then that Europe has traditionally been divided, whereas China and most other world regions have generally been politically centralized, and does this pattern even exist at all?

Unpacking this question is Scheidel’s unique contribution to the debate, and Rome just happens to be involved in the story. To start off, he shows us that Europe really has been an outlier in that throughout history, it has been far more fragmented than other world regions. The contrast with East Asia, where a Chinese polity of some sort has usually been dominant, is particularly striking. With the exception of Rome, the largest European polities have almost never claimed more than around one fifth of Europe’s population. In East Asia, a Chinese imperial state has usually claimed more than three quarters of the population, with only intermittent bouts of disunity.

Why is this so? According to Scheidel, some features of the natural environment, including those mentioned above, really did make Europe less prone to large-scale state formation. Europe’s geography is uniquely fragmented among major world regions, with a much larger share of its landmass consisting of islands, peninsulas, and criss-crossing mountain ranges. These phenomena have divided the continent into several natural core regions rather than a single large one, and this has acted as a natural brake on universal empire.

Secondly, western Europe in particular is far removed from the Eurasian steppe- a natural environment that has historically fomented a specific form of state formation. Drawing on the cliometric work of Peter Turchin and others, Scheidel appeals to the empirical regularity that most large-scale empires began in liminal zones between the steppe and agricultural lands, where conflict between nomadic pastoralists and sedentary populations ratcheted up coercive, large-scale state-making. Western Europe, at a distance from the steppe, never experienced these pressures. Only in Eastern Europe, situated much closer to the steppe, did truly large empires form.

Despite these natural barriers, Europe did have its one universal empire.

How it came to be that a fairly peripheral city-state in north-central Italy took took control of the entire Mediterranean basin and beyond forms the first part of Scheidel’s story. In his view, it was a series of unique institutional innovations, coupled with a fortuitous geopolitical environment, that allowed Rome to achieve dominance in its region of the world. Rome’s military success was predicated on a set of extraordinarily effective political arrangements: an inclusive attitude towards allied and conquered populations, and an astounding potential for military mobilization. At the same time, Rome was surrounded by mostly weak and small polities, both within Italy and its near abroad in the western Mediterranean. In exploiting these strengths, Scheidel argues that Rome’s ascendance was all but unstoppable by the middle of the third century BC.

In a curious historical parallel, at roughly the same time that Rome was busy mopping up the Mediterranean, the Qin state in East Asia was unifying all of ancient China under its own dominance. Its successor regime, the Han dynasty, experienced a trajectory strikingly similar to Imperial Rome. Both were states of comparable size and sophistication, ruled by a semi-divine emperor with the help of literate officials.

After several centuries of hegemony in their respective regions, both states fell apart early in the common era. In China, this period of disunity was followed by successful reunification under the Sui and Tang dynasties. Rome on the other hand was never fully restored in Europe, even if the dream of doing so lived on for centuries, arguably not ending symbolically until the abdication of Francis II as Holy Roman Emperor in 1804.

Scheidel has us believe that at no historical juncture between the fall of the Western Empire and the Industrial Revolution, from Justinian the Great to Frederick the Great, was the return of universal empire in Europe particularly likely. China though was never permanently fragmented again, despite multiple cycles of dynastic decline and foreign conquest.

To him, the different trajectories of post-Roman Europe and China after the Han mark a “First Great Divergence”, and the distant but clear antecedents of Europe’s modern ascendance.

What accounted for this difference, in Scheidel’s reading, was how state-society relations were reshuffled in the aftermath of imperial collapse.

Simply put, state deformation went much further in the post-Roman West than it did in China. Administrative structures and systems of taxation simply withered away in western Europe. Rather than granting their warrior elites a share of tax revenue collected by the state they took over, new Germanic rulers of the Roman successor states chose to allot them land, massively decentralizing political authority in the process. In Scheidel’s words, political power was “localized and privatized”.

In contrast to Europe, Chinese administrative machinery and tax infrastructure never decayed to the same extent, and was fairly swiftly restored, even among foreign conquest regimes from the northern steppes.

A gradual reconstitution of political authority in Europe unfolded in the Middle Ages. In this centuries-long power vacuum, other independent sources of power had the time and space to establish and assert themselves, chief among them the Catholic Church, autonomous cities with their merchants, and the warrior elites that had turned into Europe’s nobility.

By the time serious interstate competition resumed in the late Middle Ages, these stakeholders had grown independent and powerful. Any king who wanted to raise taxes to field increasingly large armies needed to negotiate with clergy, nobles, and merchants, who often represented themselves through assemblies- vestiges of the small-scale societies Germanic rulers hailed from. As a result of this bargaining, polities become more politically inclusive at the same time as they became more capable. This set off the virtuous cycle mentioned earlier. Over the centuries, these increasingly capable and inclusive states began investing in public goods, and carved out sufficient space for their merchants and scientists to develop the institutions and inventions that led to the Industrial Revolution. In Scheidel’s view, all of the proximate causes of that revolution can be traced back to this political order.

The importance of Rome, then, for European ascendance, was to collapse and never come back. The Empire, in Scheidel’s view, was a historical aberration in Europe, a universal empire that stood in the way of a productive polycentricity. Only in its aftermath were sown the seeds of modern prosperity.

As with every entry in the big history genre, you might find the story Scheidel tells a bit too neat, as do I. I tend to think a lot of the developments that led to modern prosperity were sheer dumb luck. If we could run the past two thousand years a few hundred times in a simulator, how often would Europe end up on top? How often would Europe even end up polycentric? I think the answer to both questions is “less often than Scheidel would have you believe”.

There are a few other points at which I part ways with Scheidel. The core focus of Escape from Rome is, naturally, Europe. Its main analytic comparand is China, which is both common to the genre, and in line with Scheidel’s academic specialization. As a result, other world regions get relatively little attention. In Scheidel’s reading, Europe and China form something like ideal types along multiple dimensions, with the Middle East and South Asia, the other regions he considers, falling in between. If these other regions were closer to Europe on the polycentricity scale, and this is factor is so central to world history, wouldn’t a contrast between Europe and more similar regions be more interesting? In particular, Scheidel mentions that Southeast Asia’s history shares with Europe’s long periods of fragmentation, but he does not include that region in his study at all.

It’s also not clear from the story we are told that it was simply European polycentricity that ended up mattering so much. In Scheidel’s telling, what was really important was not simply that Europe has historically been polycentric. Rather, what was critical was that Europe experienced a few centuries of near anarchy during which societal interest groups, apart from the state, were able to establish and assert themselves. Only among polities such as these was polycentric interstate competition productive for long-run development. In their absence, interstate competition could have simply taken the form of constant war among despotic states. This argument makes sense, although it complicates Scheidel’s narrative, but it does make one wonder if perhaps there was something unique about late antiquity in Western European history that allowed these independent social bases of power to rise.

All that being said, as an organizing framework for understanding why the European state and state system developed so differently from other world regions, it’s extremely valuable- and convincing. It brings us a significant step closer to understanding the origins of the modern world.

Escape From Rome left me with a number of questions that I hope future work by Scheidel and other historians will dig into: Why was post-Roman polycentricity so durable? Why did state deformation in post-Roman Europe go so much further than in China in the first place? Why did new Germanic rulers decide to decentralize power so radically?

More than any other books in recent history, Escape from Rome made me furiously scribble down thoughts, reflections, and most of all, more questions. That might be the highest praise I can give.

Some further thoughts that don’t fit neatly into the overall discussion:

-The extreme uniqueness of early Rome’s integrative political institutions and mobilization potential remains so interesting. Republican Rome was able to have a larger number of men under arms than early modern European states until the mass levies of late 18th century - a fact that simply boggles the mind. The detailed political economy of early Rome will probably forever remain fairly nebulous given the paucity of source material, but it’s fascinating to ponder.

-Why did state resources get localized and privatized all across the former Western Roman Empire? Sure, state structures held on longer in the Byzantine Empire and the new Muslim state, but why this uniformity among the western successor states? They were not all facing the same set of challenges, and the territories they ruled differed significantly in how tightly they were bound to the Roman state in its late period- and what Germanic groups their leaders came from. Why did they choose such similar governing strategies?

-The absence of an institutional innovator on a Roman scale in the European Middle Ages is an intriguing question to ponder. Why was there no medieval Prussia? In a polycentric international system like medieval Europe, characterized by extremely low state capacity, a cohesive state with a standing army could conceivably have been enormously successful. England, a polity on the fringes of core Europe, which centralized and gained state capacity sooner than anywhere else on the continent, would seem as if it might have filled this role, but it never came close.

-Escape from Rome makes an excellent companion to Daron Acemoglu’s and James Robinson’s recent The Narrow Corridor. Their title concept argues that successful societies are the product of a virtuous cycle between state strengthening and the growth of societal forces- a strong state that is also inclusive. Scheidel essentially argues that European societies entered the Narrow Corridor in the late Middle Ages- when state strengthening began going hand in hand with a greater role for social forces. Scheidel’s story provides more background on why these social forces established themselves to begin with. Acemoglu and Robinson further argue Europe’s uniqueness stems from the combined legacies of Germanic assembly politics and Roman administrative centralization. Scheidel, it appears, largely discounts the latter. In his view, interstate competition inevitably generates incentives for increases in state capacity. A specific Roman legacy was largely irrelevant in his telling.

-It’s really nice to see someone who is genuinely fluent in academic literature across disciplines. Being at home in the political science / economics literature on long-run development, I was impressed by how easily he draws on works from these traditions.

-If we think that political arrangements are a fundamental cause of long-run development (which is certainly the dominant position in the current literature), there ought to be a lot more research on the origins of political divergence. Scheidel himself notes in his introduction that very few political scientists have contributed to the Great Divergence debate (with James Robinson being a very notable exception). Political scientists should get on it!

Dario Sidhu

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Social science, international development, and general do-goodery. Website: dariosidhu.com Twitter: @dariosidhu

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