The fall of the Roman Empire wasn’t a tragedy for civilization. It was a lucky break for humanity as a whole.
For an empire that collapsed more than 1,500 years ago, ancient Rome maintains a powerful presence. About 1 billion people speak languages derived from Latin; Roman law shapes modern norms; and Roman architecture has been widely imitated. Christianity, which the empire embraced in its sunset years, remains the world’s largest religion. Yet all these enduring influences pale against Rome’s most important legacy: its fall. Had its empire not unravelled, or had it been replaced by a similarly overpowering successor, the world wouldn’t have become modern.
This isn’t the way that we ordinarily think about an event that has been lamented pretty much ever since it happened. In the late 18th century, in his monumental work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), the British historian Edward Gibbon called it ‘the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind’. Tankloads of ink have been expended on explaining it. Back in 1984, the German historian Alexander Demandt patiently compiled no fewer than 210 different reasons for Rome’s demise that had been put forward over time. And the flood of books and papers shows no sign of abating: most recently, disease and climate change have been pressed into service. Wouldn’t only a calamity of the first order warrant this kind of attention?
It’s true that Rome’s collapse reverberated widely, at least in the western – mostly European – half of its empire. (A shrinking portion of the eastern half, later known as Byzantium, survived for another millennium.) Although some regions were harder hit than others, none escaped unscathed. Monumental structures fell into disrepair; previously thriving cities emptied out; Rome itself turned into a shadow of its former grand self, with shepherds tending their flocks among the ruins. Trade and coin use thinned out, and the art of writing retreated. Population numbers plummeted.
But a few benefits were already being felt at the time. Roman power had fostered immense inequality: its collapse brought down the plutocratic ruling class, releasing the labouring masses from oppressive exploitation. The new Germanic rulers operated with lower overheads and proved less adept at collecting rents and taxes. Forensic archaeology reveals that people grew to be taller, likely thanks to reduced inequality, a better diet and lower disease loads. Yet these changes didn’t last.
The real payoff of Rome’s demise took much longer to emerge. When Goths, Vandals, Franks, Lombards and Anglo-Saxons carved up the empire, they broke the imperial order so thoroughly that it never returned. Their 5th-century takeover was only the beginning: in a very real sense, Rome’s decline continued well after its fall – turning Gibbon’s title on its head. When the Germans took charge, they initially relied on Roman institutions of governance to run their new kingdoms. But they did a poor job of maintaining that vital infrastructure. Before long, nobles and warriors made themselves at home on the lands whose yield kings had assigned to them. While this relieved rulers of the onerous need to count and tax the peasantry, it also starved them of revenue and made it harder for them to control their supporters.
When, in the year 800, the Frankish king Charlemagne decided that he was a new Roman emperor, it was already too late. In the following centuries, royal power declined as aristocrats asserted ever greater autonomy and knights set up their own castles. The Holy Roman Empire, established in Germany and northern Italy in 962, never properly functioned as a unified state. For much of the Middle Ages, power was widely dispersed among different groups. Kings claimed political supremacy but often found it hard to exercise control beyond their own domains. Nobles and their armed vassals wielded the bulk of military power. The Catholic Church, increasingly centralised under an ascendant papacy, had a lock on the dominant belief system. Bishops and abbots cooperated with secular authorities, but carefully guarded their prerogatives. Economic power was concentrated among feudal lords and in autonomous cities dominated by assertive associations of artisans and merchants.
The resultant landscape was a patchwork quilt of breathtaking complexity. Not only was Europe divided into numerous states great and small, those states were themselves split into duchies, counties, bishoprics and cities where nobles, warriors, clergy and traders vied for influence and resources. Aristocrats made sure to check royal power: the Magna Carta of 1215 is merely the best-known of a number of similar compacts drawn up all over Europe. In commercial cities, entrepreneurs formed guilds that governed their conduct. In some cases, urban residents took matters into their own hands, establishing independent communes managed by elected officials. In others, cities wrung charters from their overlords to confirm their rights and privileges. So did universities, which were organised as self-governing corporations of scholars.
Councils of royal advisers matured into early parliaments. Bringing together nobles and senior clergymen as well as representatives of cities and entire regions, these bodies came to hold the purse strings, compelling kings to negotiate over tax levies. So many different power structures intersected and overlapped, and fragmentation was so pervasive that no one side could ever claim the upper hand; locked into unceasing competition, all these groups had to bargain and compromise to get anything done. Power became constitutionalised, openly negotiable and formally partible; bargaining took place out in the open and followed established rules. However much kings liked to claim divine favour, their hands were often tied – and if they pushed too hard, neighbouring countries were ready to support disgruntled defectors.
This deeply entrenched pluralism turned out to be crucial once states became more centralised, which happened when population growth and economic growth triggered wars that strengthened kings. Yet different countries followed different trajectories. Some rulers managed to tighten the reins, leading toward the absolutism of the French Sun King Louis XIV; in other cases, the nobility called the shots. Sometimes parliaments held their own against ambitious sovereigns, and sometimes there were no kings at all and republics prevailed. The details hardly matter: what does is that all of this unfolded side by side. The educated knew that there was no single immutable order, and they were able to weigh the upsides and drawbacks of different ways of organising society.
Whenever dynasties failed and the state splintered, new dynasties emerged and rebuilt the empire
Across the continent, stronger states meant fiercer competition among them. Ever costlier warfare became a defining feature of early modern Europe. Religious strife, driven by the Reformation, which broke the papal monopoly, poured fuel on the flames. Conflict also spurred expansion overseas: Europeans grabbed lands and trading posts in the Americas, Asia and Africa, more often than not just to deny access to their rivals. Merchant societies spearheaded many of these ventures, while public debt for funding constant war spawned bond markets. Capitalists advanced on all fronts, lending to governments, investing in colonies and trade, and extracting concessions. The state, in turn, looked after these vital allies, protecting them from rivals foreign and domestic.
Hardened by conflict, the European states became more integrated, slowly morphing into the nation-states of the modern era. Universal empire on a Roman scale was no longer an option. Like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, these rival states had to keep running just to stay in place – and speed up if they wanted to get ahead. Those that did – the Dutch, the British – became pioneers of a global capitalist order, while others laboured to catch up.
Nothing like this happened anywhere else in the world. The resilience of empire as a form of political organisation made sure of that. Wherever geography and ecology allowed large imperial structures to take root, they tended to persist: as empires fell, others took their place. China is the most prominent example. Ever since the first emperor of Qin (he of terracotta-army fame) united the warring states in the late 3rd century BCE, monopoly power became the norm. Whenever dynasties failed and the state splintered, new dynasties emerged and rebuilt the empire. Over time, as such interludes grew shorter, imperial unity came to be seen as ineluctable, as the natural order of things, celebrated by elites and sustained by the ethnic and cultural homogenisation imposed on the populace.
China experienced an unusual degree of imperial continuity. Yet similar patterns of waxing and waning can be observed around the world: in the Middle East, in South and Southeast Asia, in Mexico, Peru and West Africa. After the fall of Rome, Europe west of Russia was the only exception, and remained a unique outlier for more than 1,500 years.
This wasn’t the only way in which western Europe proved uniquely exceptional. It was there that modernity took off – the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, modern science and technology, and representative democracy, coupled with colonialism, stark racism and unprecedented environmental degradation.
Was that a coincidence? Historians, economists and political scientists have long argued about the causes of these transformative developments. Even as some theories have fallen by the wayside, from God’s will to white supremacy, there’s no shortage of competing explanations. The debate has turned into a minefield, as scholars who seek to understand why this particular bundle of changes appeared only in one part of the world wrestle with a heavy baggage of stereotypes and prejudices that threaten to cloud our judgment. But, as it turns out, there’s a shortcut. Almost without fail, all these different arguments have one thing in common. They’re deeply rooted in the fact that, after Rome fell, Europe was intensely fragmented, both between and within different countries. Pluralism is the common denominator.
If you side with those scholars who believe that political and economic institutions were the basis for modernising development, western Europe is the place for you. In an environment where bargaining trumped despotism and exit options were plentiful, rulers had more to gain from protecting entrepreneurs and capitalists than from fleecing them. Size also mattered: only in moderately sized countries could commercial interests hope to hold their own against aristocratic landlords. Smaller polities enjoyed greater capacity for inclusion, not least by means of parliamentary deliberations. The better medieval legacies of pluralism survived, the more such states developed in close engagement with organised representatives of civil society. International competition rewarded cohesion, mobilisation and innovation. The more governments expected from their citizens, the more they had to offer in return. State power, civic rights and economic progress advanced together.
But what if Europeans owed their later preeminence to the ruthless oppression and exploitation of colonial territories and plantation slavery? Those terrors too grew out of fragmentation: competition drove colonisation while commercial capital greased the wheels. Geography as such played second fiddle. It has been said that the Europeans rather than the Chinese reached the Americas first simply because the Pacific is much wider than the Atlantic. Yet successive Chinese empires failed to seize even nearby Taiwan until the Ming finally intervened in the late 17th century, and never showed much of an interest in the Philippines, let alone more distant Pacific islands. That made perfect sense: for an imperial court in charge of countless millions of people, such destinations held little appeal. (The Ming ‘treasure fleets’ that were dispatched into the Indian Ocean didn’t make any sense at all and were soon shut down.)
Large empires were generally indifferent to overseas exploration, and for the same reason. It was small, geographically peripheral cultures – from the ancient Phoenicians and Greeks to the Norse, Polynesians and Portuguese – that had the most to gain from striking out. And so they did. Had Europeans not sailed forth with reckless abandon, there would have been no colonies, no Bolivian silver, no slave trade, no plantations, no abundant cotton for the Lancashire mills. Capitalising on military skills honed by endless war, European powers escaped the perpetual stalemate on their own continent by exporting violence and conquest across the globe. Separated by entire oceans from the imperial heartlands, colonised populations could be squeezed much harder than would have been feasible back in Europe. Over time, much of the world turned into a subordinate periphery that fuelled European capitalism.
Intense competition among rulers, merchants and colonisers fed an insatiable appetite for new techniques
Yet brute force alone would have taken Europe only so far. Useful knowledge also played a vital role. There was no hope of transforming industry and medicine without dramatic advances in science and engineering. That posed a serious challenge: what if new insights and ways of doing things clashed with hallowed tradition or religious doctrine? Innovators had to be able to follow the evidence wherever it led, regardless of how many toes they stepped on in the process. That turned out to be a hard slog in Europe, as incumbents of all stripes – from priests to censors – were determined to defend their turf. However, it was even harder elsewhere. China’s imperial court sponsored the arts and sciences, but only as it saw fit. Caged in a huge empire, dissenters had nowhere else to go. In India and the Middle East, foreign-conquest regimes such as the Mughals and the Ottomans relied on the support of conservative religious authorities to shore up their legitimacy.
Europe’s pluralism provided much-needed space for disruptive innovation. As the powerful jostled for position, they favoured those whom others persecuted. The princes of Saxony shielded the heretic Martin Luther from their own emperor. John Calvin found refuge in Switzerland. Galileo and his ally Tommaso Campanella managed to play off different parties against each other. Paracelsus, Comenius, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Voltaire headline a veritable who’s who of refugee scholars and thinkers.
Over time, the creation of safe spaces for critical enquiry and experimentation allowed scientists to establish strict standards that cut through the usual thicket of political influence, theological vision and aesthetic preference: the principle that only empirical evidence counts. In addition, intense competition among rulers, merchants and colonisers fed an insatiable appetite for new techniques and gadgets. Thus, while gunpowder, the floating compass and printing were all invented in distant China, they were eagerly embraced and applied by Europeans vying for control over territory, trade and minds.
Paired with commercial expansion, political fragmentation also encouraged a change in societal values. In imperial states, coalitions of large landowners, military men and clerics usually called the shots. Such elite groups eyed merchants, artisans and bankers with suspicion and disdain: after all, weren’t farming, war and prayer much more honourable pursuits than profiting from markups and interest? For bourgeois attitudes to thrive, and for capitalists to enjoy protection from predatory intervention, these traditional snobberies had to lose their grip on the popular imagination. Smaller states that were deeply immersed in commercial operations led the way: first the city-states of Italy and the Hanseatic League, then the Netherlands and Britain.
In the end, once the Italian Renaissance had run its course, it was precisely those parts of western Europe where the legacies of Roman rule had faded most thoroughly, or where Rome had never held sway at all, that spearheaded political, economic and scientific progress: Britain, the Low Countries, northern France and northern Germany. It was there that Germanic traditions of communal decision-making survived the longest and that the Reformation precipitated yet another break from Rome. It was there that social values changed most profoundly, modern commercial capitalism took root, and science and industrial technology flourished. But that was also where the fiercest wars of the era were being hatched and fought.
We might well be forgiven for finding this combination of fracture, violence and growth baffling or even implausible. Wasn’t it preferable to lead peaceful lives in a large and stable empire than on a continent where people were constantly at each other’s throats? Only if we think in the short term. Large-scale empire was indeed an extremely effective way of organising agrarian societies: by providing limited governance, it ensured a degree of peace and order while largely staying out of most people’s lives. Even taxes were generally quite modest. Designed to cater to the needs of a small ruling class and drawing heavily on the services of local elites, empires were relatively easy to build and cheap to maintain. But they came with built-in limitations: on liberties, on innovation, on sustainable growth.
Why was that? Influenced by Orientalising tropes about Asian societies, Western scholars used to think that, in traditional empires, human development was held back by despotism. We now know that this was at best a small part of the story. To be sure, ambitious rulers sometimes contrived to wreak considerable damage; but for the most part they preferred a laissez-faire approach. Empires tended to be quite detached from civil society: notorious for the sporadic exercise of despotic power, the ability to deal with their subjects unconstrained by what we now call the rule of law, they often scored low in terms of infrastructural power – their ability to shape people’s lives.
Faced with the challenges of holding on to huge territories, central authorities prized stability above all. As we saw, their empires reflected this priority by encouraging conservatism and reinforcing the status quo. They also empowered the ruler’s allies to prey on the weak, while sheer scale made the idea of political representation a nonstarter. At the same time, limited managerial capacities exposed such empires to secession and invasion, which threatened to undo the economic growth that had been achieved. China, which was repeatedly laid low by warlords, peasant uprisings and assaults from the steppe, is the best-known but by no means the only example.
In post-Roman Europe, by contrast, the spaces for transformative economic, political, technological and scientific development that had been opened up by the demise of centralised control and the unbundling of political, military, ideological and economic power never closed again. As states consolidated, intracontinental pluralism was guaranteed. When they centralised, they did so by building on the medieval legacies of formalised negotiation and partition of powers. Would-be emperors from Charlemagne to Charles V and Napoleon failed, as did the Inquisition, the Counter-Reformation, censorship, and, at long last, autocracy. That wasn’t for want of trying, of attempts to get Europe back on track, so to speak, to the safety of the status quo and universal rule. But the imperial template, once fashioned by ancient Romans, had been too thoroughly shattered to make this possible.
The benefits of modernity were disseminated around the world, painfully unevenly yet inexorably
This story embraces a grimly Darwinian perspective of progress – that disunion, competition and conflict were the principal selection pressures that shaped the evolution of states, societies and frames of mind; that it was endless war, racist colonialism, crony capitalism and raw intellectual ambition that fostered modern development, rather than peace and harmony. Yet that’s precisely what the historical record shows. Progress was born in the crucible of competitive fragmentation. The price was high. Bled dry by war and ripped off by protectionist policies, it took a long time even for Europeans to reap tangible benefits.
When they finally did, unprecedented inequalities of power, wealth and wellbeing began to divide the world. Racism made Western preeminence seem natural, with toxic consequences to the present day. Fossil fuel industries polluted earth and sky, and industrialised warfare wrecked and killed on a previously unimaginable scale.
At the same time, the benefits of modernity were disseminated around the world, painfully unevenly yet inexorably. Since the late 18th century, global life expectancy at birth has more than doubled, and average per-capita output has risen 15-fold. Poverty and illiteracy are in retreat. Political rights have spread, and our knowledge of nature has grown almost beyond measure. Slowly but surely, the whole world changed.
None of this was bound to happen. Even Europe’s rich diversity need not have produced the winning ticket. By the same token, transformative breakthroughs were even less likely to occur elsewhere. There’s no real sign that analogous developments had begun in other parts of the world before European colonialism disrupted local trends. This raises a dramatic counterfactual. Had the Roman Empire persisted, or had it been succeeded by a similarly overbearing power, we would in all likelihood still be ploughing our fields, mostly living in poverty and often dying young. Our world would be more predictable, more static. We would be spared some of the travails that beset us, from systemic racism and anthropogenic climate change to the threat of thermonuclear war. Then again, we would be stuck with ancient scourges – ignorance, sickness and want, divine kings and chattel slavery. Instead of COVID-19, we would be battling smallpox and plague without modern medicine.
Long before our species existed, we caught a lucky break. If an asteroid hadn’t knocked out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, our tiny rodent-like ancestors would have had a hard time evolving into Homo sapiens. But even once we had gotten that far, our big brains weren’t quite enough to break out of our ancestral way of life: growing, herding and hunting food amid endemic poverty, illiteracy, incurable disease and premature death. It took a second lucky break to escape from all that, a booster shot that arrived a little more than 1,500 years ago: the fall of ancient Rome. Just as the world’s erstwhile apex predators had to bow out to clear the way for us, so the mightiest empire Europe had ever seen had to crash to open up a path to prosperity.
Walter Scheidelis Dickason Professor in the Humanities, professor of Classics and history, and a Catherine R Kennedy and Daniel L Grossman fellow in human biology, all at Stanford University in California. His recent books include Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity (2019) and The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (2017), and he is co-editor, with Peter Bang and Christopher Bayly, of The Oxford World History of Empire (2021).
About Featured Image: The Course of Empire: Destruction (1836) by Thomas Cole. Courtesy Met Museum, New York/Wikipedia