May 20, 2005


The End of The Roman Empire: Did it Collapse or Was it Transformed? (Bryan Ward-Perkins, June 2005, History Today)

[I]n the very years that I was documenting this post-Roman collapse, scholars elsewhere were engineering the downfall of such conventional views. The seeds of this change had been planted in 1971, when Peter Brown published his World of Late Antiquity, a book which was to have a remarkable effect on how the end of the ancient world was viewed by historians. Brown defined and described a period, which he termed ‘Late Antiquity’, stretching from the third century to the eighth century AD; but he saw it as characterized not by the disappearance of Roman sophistication and civilization, but by lively and positive developments. Brown invited his readers to reject the old language of ‘decline and fall’ and to embrace instead a vision of this as a period when Roman culture was transformed and revitalized.

The spread and impact of Brown’s new interpretation was slow but inexorable. He is a brilliant historian who writes beautiful prose, and he is a bewitching performer in a lecture or seminar. In the early 1970s, as an undergraduate in Oxford, I attended a course of his lectures in All Souls on early Egyptian monasticism, not because I understood much of what he was saying (I was studying later periods and his detailed arguments went way over my head), but because the way he talked, and his empathy with those tough old men of the Egyptian desert, were truly enthralling. Under his influence, the way that historians, and some archaeologists, describe the last centuries of the Western Empire and their immediate aftermath changed markedly. For instance, a massive recent research project into the fourth to eighth centuries, sponsored by the European Union, was entitled the ‘Transformation of the Roman World’. The very title of this project rejects the notion of any abrupt break at the end of the Roman empire; the underlying vision is instead of a Roman World seamlessly ‘transformed’ into the Europe of Charlemagne. The many Germanic peoples who entered the empire in the fifth and sixth centuries (Goths, Vandals, Franks, Burgundians, Sueves, Thuringians, Alamans, Lombards and others) are no longer seen as invaders who, wittingly or unwittingly, severely damaged the well-being of the Roman world, but as peaceful settlers in a world that continued much as before.

As a reinterpretation of the political and military history of the disintegration of the western empire, this is radical enough. But can the new upbeat thinking about the end of the Roman world be reconciled with the gloomy evidence of material collapse from Luna, and from hundreds of other similar sites across the ancient world? I think not, though efforts have been made by others to square this circle. For instance, some archaeologists have argued that one of the most striking changes at the end of the Roman period – the almost universal switch from solid stone and brick buildings, to much less permanent structures in perishable materials – was caused by cultural choice rather than economic necessity. They argue that it is possible to construct complex, sophisticated and highly decorated structures over the simple post-holes which are the only evidence we have for the buildings of post-Roman times; and that building in stone was merely a fashion – a way of expressing political and ideological allegiance to Rome – which was dropped when the empire disappeared. According to this way of thinking, the descendants and successors of the Roman aristocracy abandoned their villas, with their solid walls and floors, tiled roofs, bath-buildings, and under-floor heating, not because they were forced to, by a collapse in economic and technological sophistication, but because they actually preferred to live in wooden halls.

I find this deeply implausible: tiled roofs are, quite simply, much more durable, brick and stone floors far easier to keep clean, and stone walls more weatherproof, than their equivalents in perishable materials; and heating systems and hot baths are both effective and very pleasant indeed – much more so than a smoking open fire in the middle of a hall, and a bowl of lukewarm water. The evidence of buildings will, however, always remain controversial, because it is impossible in most cases to reconstruct with confidence, from the scant remains we find in the soil, what a post-Roman building was really like to live in. But if we look at domestic pottery, an inescapable picture emerges of technological and economic collapse at the end of the Roman period, leading to a dramatic regression in living standards. And there is little prospect of arguing it away in terms of ideological and cultural choice.

The Romans produced pottery vessels to high standards, in enormous quantities, and shipped them widely. As we have already seen, in third- and fourth-century Italy even a cooking-pot might often be imported from North Africa. Furthermore – and this is very important – good-quality pottery, whether made in the region, or imported, was available at all levels of society. Fine tablewares, and imported amphorae for the storage and transport of liquids are discovered not just on the coast and in towns and rich villas, but also on inland sites and humble farmsteads.

Because pottery survives so well in the soil and because individual pot-sherds can be both dated and provenanced (reliably attributed to particular production sites), we know a remarkable amount about the trade in ancient pottery. We also know, from the objects themselves, that the vast majority of Roman pottery is of a quality not exceeded, in Europe, in terms of consistency and quality, before factory-made products became widely available in the eighteenth century. This judgement is based not on aesthetic considerations but on practical values. Roman pots are tough and hold liquids well; they are light and pleasant to handle; and they have smooth surfaces that are easy to clean. Furthermore, from the excavation of production sites we know a lot about the scale and levels of complexity involved in making some of the best-quality Roman wares. Excavators at a south Gaulish pottery, la Graufesenque near modern Millau, have found graffiti that record the stacking of great communal kilns, firing up to 30,000 vessels at a time. At the same site, a pit was discovered full of near-perfect vessels, discarded because they were not quite of a high enough quality; some of these pots had a hole punched through their base, in order to prevent them slipping into circulation – a remarkable testimony to Roman quality control.

Almost none of this sophistication survived into post-Roman times. In some provinces – particularly Britain – the regression was startling: even the potter’s wheel, widespread in Roman times, wholly disappeared for over two hundred years. Pottery of the early Anglo-Saxon period, and also pottery of the same date from unconquered western Britain, is rare and poor in quality – of badly selected clay, hand-shaped, and fired on an open fire. The resulting vessels are porous and very friable – many would score low marks as first efforts in pottery at an infants’ school. Elsewhere, the changes were slightly less dramatic and less sudden, but they were still very remarkable. On Mediterranean sites like Luna, the extraordinary and abundant range of tablewares available in Roman times became very rare in the fifth and sixth centuries, and eventually disappeared altogether; and kitchenwares, which were pretty much all that remained, became more or less restricted to a single bulbous design of pot. To explain these developments in terms of cultural change rather than of economic and technological regression, one has to work very hard indeed, perhaps imagining a culture with access to large numbers of metal vessels which replaced pottery but were all eventually recycled so they left no trace in the archaeological record!

If the archaeological evidence that points to a severe post-Roman regression cannot be squared with the historians’ cheerful view of ‘Late Antiquity’, how has the latter come about? Partly, it is through the optimism of some archaeologists themselves, who explain all change in terms of altered cultural values. But largely it is because historians like Peter Brown examine entirely different aspects of the human condition, and therefore come to radically divergent impressions about the same periods of the past. The ‘World of Late Antiquity’ tends to be defined in spiritual and religious terms, as the period when Christianity became established and defined, and, slightly later, Islam emerged as the dominant religion of the southern Mediterranean. If we take these as the key things that happened in our period, then there is no problem in depicting the third to eighth centuries as a ‘Golden Age’ of continuous and positive development. It is certainly true that with the conversion of the Germanic kingdoms, and the eventual spread of Christianity into areas like Ireland and Scotland, far more souls were saved in these centuries than under the Roman empire.

I may be wrong to believe that the disintegration of a complex economy, and a consequent collapse of living standards mattered even more than momentous religious developments, and that they mark a decisive break in Western history – but I don’t think I am.

The idea that the end of the Roman Empire and the transition to the modern nation-states of Christendom was a tragedy per se has always been dependent on antagonism towards Christianity, chiefly by Gibbon. But if you just consider the epoch in terms of whether a Europe-wide, pagan, tyranny could ever have achieved what the modern West did then the transition, though awkward, seems eminently worthwhile. Empires outlive their usefulness rather rapidly.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 20, 2005 4:24 PM

This shows that a brilliant historian (Brown) in what had become a backwater field can impose new paradigms. There was, in fact, an economic decline of staggering proportions, and, aside from pottery, many important technologies were lost. How to make cement that could be used underwater became a lost art until the 19th century, and as a result ports that the Romans had literally made where nature hadn't became unusable as they could not be maintained. The skills to maintain, let alone build, the fantastic viaducts and water systems that were the backbone of Roman urban development. There was, in the 2nd and 3rd century, a significant decline in population in most Mediterranean coastal parts of the empire from what may have been the first smallpox and measles epidemics known to man.

I have never agreed with Gibbon. Christianity did not cause the collapse of the Roman empire, but the Christianity that dominated life in Europe as the state fell apart was itself on the road to becoming fallen.

Just the thoughts of someone with Anti-Baptist roots.

Posted by: Dan at May 20, 2005 9:19 PM

Citizens of Rome, we come in peace. Nothing in Rome has changed, and we will show this to the world.

Posted by: Atila the Hun at May 20, 2005 11:14 PM

This is why widespread literacy is so important.
It's one of the most important safety nets that make societies resilient.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at May 21, 2005 7:16 AM

Gibbon neither anatomized the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, nor did he "blame" Christianity.

He wrote a history that spanned the entire Empire from the end of the 2nd century C.E. until the final collapse of Byzantium. He earned the ire of Christians by treating the growth of their faith as a sociological and political phenomenon and not as the inevitable triumph of the TRUE faith. But he understood that if christanity perhaps eroded republicanism virtue in the western empire, it became the very matrix of the state in the east and succored it for a millenium.

It is true that historians have been uncomfortable with the periodization of European History into Classical, Medieval, Modern for quite some time. However, the need to conform to the Marxist Schematic and end the Feudal Period in the 18th century, caused much of the questioning to be supressed.

Further, the intense desires of German and British 19th century elites to claim a Classical heritage also resulted in a great deal of distortion.

It is clear that much of our view of European History need to be reevaluated. First, we need to understand that there is both contiuity and change between the Roman world and our own.

Continuity should be easy to understand, esecially when we look at Europe south of the limites. We can then understand that, even today Europeans live in Roman houses, speak Roman languages, obey Roman laws and worship in the one true institutional survivor of the ancient world, the Roman Church. All of this survived from the Western Roman Empire in Europe.

OTOH, any connection to the ancient Greeks was intellectual and cannot be found in institutions or cultures.

At the same time we can see that a great deal of change occured. Western Europe created new institutions to replace those of the old empire. The Church recast itself politically and socially first in beginning in the eleventh Century in its struggles with the newly assertive Germanic "Holy Roman Empire". Other institutions arose in the "Middle Ages". New religious orders on innovative models, such as Cluny, and the Franciscans were founded. The cities became chartered and independent of the local lords and bishops. Universities, a true innovation, were also founded to teach, not only religious subjects but also, law, medicine and the liberal arts. The Roman law was studied, rationalized, and recieved.

A new republicanism began to emerge not on the Classical Model of the Polis but on a new model based on Parliments and the rule of law.

All of these things, which are distinctive features of Western Civilization, can be traced to the High Middle Ages between the tenth and fifteenth centuries. Even technological changes begin in that era. The cannon and the North Atlantic sailing vessel arise then.

That the beginning of the fifteenth century represents an epoch seems to be beyond cavail. The religious unity of Europe is shattered by the first successful protestantism. Europe finds an incredible new world which gives it a hinterland unavailable to the civiliztaions of Asia. And an explosion of technology destroys the military balance of the world making obsolete the quadrangle of light cavalry, heavy cavalry, archers and spear carrying infantry, and rendering fortification and seigecraft, as they had been theretofore practiced, useless.

From that epoch, we can see the growth of the modern world. But there is no real break with the civilization founded in the High Middle Ages, just a continuity and intensification.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at May 23, 2005 1:04 AM