Collections: Rome: Decline and Fall? Part II: Institutions

This is the second of a three part (I, II, III) series tackling the complicated and still very much debated question of ‘how bad was the fall of Rome (in the West)?’ In the last part, we looked at ‘words’ – culture, literature, language and religion. What we found is that in these aspects, signs of sharp discontinuity are hard to find – rather the processes of cultural fusion, the expansion of Christianity, and trends towards idealism and stylization in artwork continued pretty much straight through the period. We also made the point that the period from the fourth through the seventh century was hardly some literary wasteland devoid of great or important works.

This week, we’re going to turn to institutions: cities, states, administration and institutional religion. To what degree did the great institutions of Rome survive the collapse of its empire in the West? As we’ll see, this is a complex question because some of those institutions were already dying before the final political collapse began. This question will also dovetail with one of the questions which motivated this series: ‘what caused the loss of state capacity during the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West?’ Of course that assumes a loss of state capacity, but as we’re going to see, the evidence for that loss is actually quite ample.

Before we dive in again, I want to note again that my goal here is to steelman the arguments being made here, presenting them in what I see as their strongest forms (while also delivering my own judgements). I suppose I can tell that I did my job there well enough given that after the last post I was being accused in other corners of the internet of being a rabid partisan of the side of this debate I do not actually hold. But in all seriousness, this is an argument where I think both of the two major ‘sides’ – our two knights, ‘change and continuity’ and ‘decline and fall’ – make good points and that the reality is a blend of their views.

As I noted earlier, this topic was one voted on by the members of the ACOUP Senate, patrons at the Patres et Matres Conscripti level. You too could support this effort on Patreon, but I am just as happy if you share what you are reading here; I rely entirely on word-of-mouth to reach my audience with this public scholarship project. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

Political Institutions

While last week we noted how the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West did not destroy the Roman cultural sphere so much as accelerate its transformation (albeit into a collection of fragmented fusion cultures which were part ‘Roman’ mixed with other things), it did bring an end to the Roman state in the West (but not the East) and an end to Roman governance. But here too, we have to be careful in defining what that governance meant, because the Roman Empire of August, 378 AD was not the Roman Empire of August, 14 AD. This is a point that is going to come up again and again because how one views the decline of the fifth and sixth centuries depends in part on what the benchmark is: are we comparing it to the empire of Hadrian (r. 117-138) or the empire of Valentinian (r. 364-375)? Because most students are generally more familiar with the former (because it tends to be get focused on in teaching), there is a tendency to compare 476 directly with Rome under the Nervan-Antonines (96-192) without taking into account the events of the third and early fourth century.

Roman rule as effectively codified under the first emperor, Augustus (r. 31BC – 14AD) was relatively limited and indirect, not because the Romans believed in something called ‘limited government’ but because the aims of the Roman state were very limited (secure territory, collect taxes) and the administrative apparatus for doing those things was also very limited. The whole of the central Roman bureaucracy in the first century probably consisted of just a few hundred senatorial and equestrian officials (supported, of course, by the army and also several thousand enslaved workers employed either by the state directly or in the households of those officials) – this for an empire of around 50 million people. Instead, day to day affairs in the provinces – public works, the administration of justice, the regulation of local markets, etc. – were handled by local governments, typically centered in cities (we’ll come back to them in a moment). Where there were no cities, the Romans tended to make new ones for this purpose. Roman officials could then interact with the city elites (they preferred oligarchic city governments because they were easier to control) and so avoid having to interact directly with the populace in a more granular way unless there was a crisis.

By contrast, the Roman governance system that emerges during the reigns of Diocletian (r. 284-305) and Constantine (r. 306-337) was centralized and direct. The process of centralizing governance1 had been going on for some time, really since the beginning of the empire, albeit slowly. The Constitutio Antoniniana (212), which extended Roman citizenship to all free persons in the empire, in turn had the effect of wiping out all of the local law codes and instead extending Roman law to cover everyone and so doubtless accelerated the process.

Via Wikipedia, a map of Diocletian’s reformed imperial provinces. Much smaller than the provinces at the time of Augustus, these were intended to allow for much more direct and intensive central governance.

During the Crisis of the Third Century (235-284) this trend accelerates substantially; the sources for this period are relatively poor, making it hard to see this process clearly. Nevertheless, the chaotic security situation led Roman generals and usurpers to make much greater demands of whatever local communities were in their reach, while at the same time once in power, emperors sought to draw a clearer distinction between their power and that of their subordinates in an effort to ‘coup proof’ their regimes. That new form of Roman rule was both completed and then codified by Diocletian (r. 284-305): the emperor was set visually apart, ruling from palaces in special regalia and wearing crowns, while at the same time the provinces were reorganized into smaller units that could be ruled much more directly.

Via Wikipedia, a reconstruction of Diocletian’s palace as it may have looked in 305, located in what is today Split, Croatia. This sort of administrative center was a far cry from Augustus’ fairly normal aristocratic house on the Palatine hill in Rome, or even the later Flavian palace.

Diocletian intervened in the daily life of the empire in a way that emperors before largely had not. When his plan to reform the Roman currency failed, sparking hyper-inflation (whoops!), Diocletian responded with his Edict on Maximum Prices, an effort to fix the prices of many goods empire wide. Now previous emperors were not averse to price fixing, mind you, but such efforts had almost always been restricted to staple goods (mostly wheat) in Rome itself or in Italy (typically in response to food shortages). Diocletian attempted to enforce religious unity by persecuting Christians; his successors by the end of the century would be attempting to enforce religious unity by persecuting non-Christians. Whereas before taxes had been assessed on communities, Diocletian planned a tax system based on assessments of individual landholders based on a regular census; when actually performing a regular census proved difficult, Constantine responded by mandating that coloni – the tenant farmers and sharecroppers of the empire – must stay on the land they had been farming so that their landlords would be able to pay the taxes, casually abrogating a traditional freedom of Roman citizens for millions of farmers out of administrative convenience. Of course all of this centralized direction demanded bureaucrats and the bureaucracy during this period swelled to probably around 35,000 officials (compared to the few hundred under Augustus!).

All of this matters here because it is this kind of government – centralized, bureaucratic, religiously framed and interventionist, which the new rulers of the fifth century break-away kingdoms will attempt to emulate. They will mostly fail, leading to a precipitous decline in state capacity. This process worked differently in different areas: in Britain, the Roman government largely withered away from neglect and was effectively gone before the arrival of the Saxons and Angles, a point made quite well by Robin Flemming in the first chapter of Britain after Rome (2010), while in Spain, Gaul, Italy and even to an extent North Africa, the new ‘barbarian’ rulers attempted to maintain Roman systems of rule.

Via Wikipedia, the Votive Crown on the Visigothic king Recceswinth (r. 649-672), now in the MAN, Madrid. While these crowns weren’t for wearing – they were elaborate gifts meant to show that the Visigothic kingdom in Spain recognized the ecclesiastical authority of the Church in Rome, note how they parallel the design of Byzantine crowns of the period (scroll down to see Justinian wearing one a few sections down). At the same time, the gem encrustation and lettering here are Germanic in style, a fusion of Roman and ‘barbarian’ artistic and cultural elements.

This is thus an odd point where the ‘change and continuity’ and ‘decline and fall’ camps can both be right at the same time. There is continuity here, as new kings mostly established regimes that used the visual language, court procedure and to a degree legal and bureaucratic frameworks of Late Roman imperial rule. On the other hand, those new kingdoms fairly clearly lacked the resources, even with respect to their smaller territories, to engage in the kind of state activity that the Late Roman state had, for instance, towards the end of the fourth century. Instead, central administration largely failed in the West, with the countryside gradually becoming subject to local rural magnates (who might then be attached to the king) rather than civic or central government.

The problem rulers faced was two-fold: first that the Late Roman system, in contrast to its earlier form, demanded a large, literate bureaucracy, but the economic decline of the fifth century (which we’ll get to next time) came with a marked decline in literacy, which in turn meant that the supply of literate elites to staff those positions was itself shrinking (while at the same time secular rulers found themselves competing with the institutional Church for those very same literate elites). Second – and we’ll deal with this in more depth in just a moment – Roman rule had worked through cities, but all over the Roman Empire (but most especially in the West), cities were in decline and the population was both shrinking and ruralizing.

That decline in state capacity is visible in a number of different contexts. Bryan Ward-Perkins (Rome and the End of Civilization (2005), 148ff) notes for instance a sharp decline in the size of Churches, which for Christian rulers (both the post-Constantine emperors and the new ‘barbarian’ kings) were major state building projects meant to display either royal or local noble wealth and power; Church size really only reaches Late Roman equivalent in the West (an important caveat here, to be sure) in the ninth century. In this kind of context it is hard to say that Visigothic or Merovingian rulers are actually just doing a different form of rulership because they’re fairly clearly not – they just don’t have the resources to throw at expensive building projects, even when you adjust for their smaller realms.

Nor is it merely building projects. Under Constantine, the Romans had maintained a professional army of around 400,000 troops.2 Much of the success of the Roman Empire had been its ability to provide ‘public peace’ within its borders (at least by the relatively low standards of the ancient world). While the third century had seen quite a lot of civil war and the in the fourth century the Roman frontiers were cracking, for much of the empire the legions continued to do their job: war remained something that happened far away. This was a substantial change from the pre-Roman norm where war was a regular occurrence basically everywhere.

The kingdoms that emerged from the collapse of Roman rule proved incapable of either maintaining a meaningful professional army or provisioning much of that public peace (though of course the Roman state in the West had also proved incapable of doing this during the fifth century). Instead those kingdoms increasingly relied on armies led by (frequently mounted) warrior-aristocrats, composed of a general levy of the landholding population. We’ve actually discussed some of the later forms of this system – the Anglo-Saxon fyrd and the Carolingian levy system – already; those systems are useful reference points because they’re quite a bit better attested in our evidence and reflect many of the general principles of how we suppose earlier armies to have been organized.

The shift to a militia army isn’t necessarily a step backwards – the army of the Middle Roman Republic had also been a landholder’s militia – except that in this case it also marked a substantial decrease in scale. Major Merovingian armies – like the one that fought at Tours in 732 – tended to be around 10,000-20,000 men (mostly amateurs), compared to Late Roman field armies frequently around 40,000 professional soldiers or the astounding mobilizations of the Roman Republic (putting around 225,000 – that is not a typo – citizen-soldiers in the field in 214, for instance). Compared to the armies of the Hellenistic Period (323-31BC) or the Roman Empire, the ability of the post-Roman kingdoms to mobilize force was surprisingly limited and the armies they fielded also declined noticeably in sophistication, especially when it came to siege warfare (which of course also required highly trained, often literate engineers and experts).

That said, it cannot be argued that the decline of ‘public peace’ had merely begun in the fifth century. One useful barometer of the civilian sense of security is the construction of city walls well within the empire: for the first two centuries, many Roman cities were left unwalled. But fresh wall construction within the Empire in places like Northern Spain or Southern France begins in earnest in the third century (presumably in response to the Crisis) and then intensifies through the fifth century,3 suggesting that rather than a sudden collapse of security, there had been a steady but significant decline (though again this would thus place the nadir of security somewhere in the early Middle Ages), partially abated in the fourth century but then resumed with a vengeance in the fifth.

Consequently the political story in the West is one of an effort to maintain some of the institutions of Roman governance which largely fails, leading to the progressive fragmentation and localization of power. Precisely because the late Roman system was so top-heavy and centralized, the collapse of central Roman rule mortally wounded it and left the successor states of Rome with much more limited resources and administration to try to achieve their aims.

But, speaking of cities…


The ancient Mediterranean was a world of cities and in the eastern Mediterranean at least, it had been long before the Roman period. By the beginning of the Roman Republic (509 BC), the pattern of organization was broadly similar in Italy, Sicily, coastal North Africa, Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Greece: agricultural land was broken up into the territory of cities (so that each city consisted of both its urban core but also its agricultural hinterland). Those cities might then either be independent, as with the poleis of Greece and the various communities of pre-Roman Italy, or be the basic administrative units of larger empires, as in the Persian Empire (or later Roman Italy). And so, while most people still lived in the countryside, most of that countryside was in turn attached to an urban center which was the center of political, economic, religious and cultural life.

This was the world the Romans knew and the world they were most comfortable governing. Consequently, while the Romans were utterly uninterested in ‘civilizing’ anyone, when they conquered areas which weren’t urbanized, they tended to found cities or encourage local urbanization in order to create the administrative structures through which the Romans could extract revenue most efficiently.

Via Wikipedia, a map of the cities in the Roman world. Note that the urban centers of the East were generally larger and more developed than those of the west, with the exception of Roman Italy itself. Rome’s empire was, for the most part, a world of cities.

As mentioned above, the Romans generally wanted these cities to be mostly self-governing. While at conquest, the Romans found themselves managing a bewildering array of different styles of local urban government, over time a mix of Roman administrative preference and cultural diffusion tended to produce a fairly similar set of civic institutions. City governments, which also administered their rural countryside, were run by a town council which consisted of the wealthiest notables of the town – the curiales – in much the same way that the Roman upper-class had dominated the running of the city during the Republic. Roman authority generally protected the curiales and their wealth from the sorts of popular uprisings that tempered many Greek oligarchies in the classical period and in return the curiales managed the population and the collection of taxes for the Romans.

The curiales both managed the town affairs and were also expected to use their own wealth to fund public activity and works: maintain temples and baths, fund religious rituals and festivals, and so on. Through the first and second century, that process was mostly responsible for providing the cities of the Roman Empire with the impressive collection of often still-visible public works they boasted: baths, theaters, amphitheaters, aqueducts, temples, courthouses, public spaces and so on. While some of these structures were little more than the public posturing of the elites, many of them were open to the general public and will have represented, in as much as anything before the industrial revolution could, meaningful improvements in the lives of regular people.

Via my 2018 vacation in southern France, this is the old Roman amphitheater in Arles. Arles had been an important local center before the Romans took over in 123, but it was substantially enlarged by Caesar, who established a veteran’s colony there in the early 40s. The city then built over the years the full constellation of Roman public buildings, many of which, like the amphitheater, can still be seen today.

While most of the wealth of any of these cities was derived from the rents and taxes extracted from their agricultural hinterlands, these cities also substantially lived off of trade and markets. Because the local city typically housed the local market, they were the obvious point for local products to enter the stream of provincial-wide or empire-wide trade or for distant imports to reach their final customers. We’ll come back to this next time when we discuss trade and the economy, but for now I want to note that this trade provided a fair bit of the economic vitality of these cities but also that it did in fact reach down beyond mere luxury goods into the basic staples that even the relatively poor might buy.

The decline and fall of these Roman cities is most extensively described in J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz’ aptly titled, Decline and Fall of the Roman City (2001). Given his title, as you might imagine, Liebeschuetz is in the ‘decline and fall’ camp, arguing that the classical city which defined the Roman world largely did not survive it. Regional patterns differ, with Liebescheutz identifying three ‘patterns:’ I) Western and Central Anatolia, II) Syria, Palestine and Arabia, III) the West, including North Africa).

We’ll deal with the situation in the East in just a moment, so let’s focus here on the cities of the West, which were at the start generally smaller, less wealthy and generally far younger than those of the East (with some exceptions in Italy). Decline sets in fastest and is most severe in Britain, with the final collapse of the cities coming as early as the 360s, whereas in North Africa, the classical city doesn’t seem to tip into decline until after 400.

While each individual region and indeed each city will have been subject to its own unique conditions, a few basic causes seem to have been active everywhere to some degree. First, the crisis of the third century seems to have fundamentally disrupted empire-wide Roman trade, which then stabilized at a lower level for the fourth century, before declining precipitously in the fifth. That first decline seems to have been somewhat offset by the increased demands of imperial administration and in particular the centralized taxation in-kind and movement of goods which had to move through cities. Peter Brown describes the late Roman state as, “the crude but vigorous pump which had ensured the circulation of goods in an otherwise primitive economy” (The Rise of Western Christendom, 2nd ed., 13). We’ll return to this when we discuss the shape of the economy next time, but for now it works as a crude, but vigorous description of that facet of the late Roman economy.

At the same time, as Liebescheutz describes, the role of the curiales steadily atrophies in the fourth century. On the one hand, much of the authority and power of being on the council was steadily eroded as those functions were pulled upwards into the imperial bureaucracy. At the same time, members of the curial class who sought imperial office could get immunities from the progressively more severe taxation which otherwise often fell on the curiales and so the imperial elite often crowded out the curiales when it came to wealth and prestige in the community. As they lost both control and responsibility for their cities, the curiales investment in public works and monumental architecture also ceased (though local elites do invest in church-building and monastic foundations), leading to the decay of the physical urban centers.

Finally, the warfare of the fifth century had its impact, though as Liebescheutz notes, it cannot be presented as a sole cause simply because many urban areas were already clearly in decline when conflict hit. In the case of Britain, the cities were gone by 420, decades before the arrival of any invaders. Nevertheless, political instability and violence in the fifth century seems to have delivered death-blows to ailing communities, especially in the Balkans and along the Rhine.

The end result was that in the West, urbanism declined severely between the fourth and sixth centuries. Rome, once a city of a million people, collapsed down to a population of just 80,000. Arles, which had been a thriving Roman city with an amphitheater, an aqueduct, a chariot-racing track, a theater and full city walls shrunk so severely that the remains of the city moved inside its amphitheater, repurposing it as a new set of city walls, with the town square in the middle and houses built in the stands. While many towns survived in their new, shrunken and impoverished form, urbanism in Europe outside of the Eastern Roman Empire would largely have to be reinvented during the High Middle Ages, (though with some key institutional survivals from the Roman era and often rising out of the diminished remains of Roman cities). Instead, the society of the early Middle Ages was overwhelmingly rural in both population and focus. If on politics we have a bit of a mix between decline and continuity, when it comes to the cities that made up the old political system, the ‘decline and fall’ knight strikes a clear blow: the system of social organization that characterized the ancient world practically vanished and would have to be redeveloped centuries later. The institutions that had maintained it (like the curiales) largely vanished, replaced in some cases by local ‘notables’ and in other cases by ruralization.

Via Wikipedia, an 18th century engraving showing the amphitheater of Arles, with the core of the town moved inside and defensive towers built on the perimeter.

Religious Institutions

But the decline of political and civic institutions did not mean the decline and destruction of every sort of institution and this is particularly obvious with the survival of the institutional Church. It is important here to stress at the beginning how Roman an institution the Church was by the start of the fifth century. After Constantine (with a brief hiatus under the emperor Julian) the ‘catholic’ church (that is, the institutional Church which conformed to the ‘right’ sort of Christianity) had been the continued recipient of imperial benefaction: emperors built churches and funded Church activity. This was itself very Roman, reflecting a continuation of the role that pagan emperors had played in previous centuries, demonstrating their piety by building temples and reviving old religious practices. The emperors had not ‘gotten religion’ but merely changed religion and so changed their religious benefaction accordingly.

The emperors and the Roman state had also taken an active role beginning in the fourth century in defining exactly what the ‘right’ sort of Christianity was. In response to a dispute over the ordination of bishops in North Africa (the ‘Donatist‘ schism), Constantine called a council of bishops to convene in Arles in 314 to resolve the matter (it didn’t work and Constantine began persecuting the remaining Donatists). But that council would hardly be the last – Constantine convoked the first ecumenical council (one that in theory reflected the entire Christian Church) in Nicaea in 3254 in order to create a single universal Christian doctrine and resolve a number of internal disputes (having grown as a religion in secret and facing persecution, as you might imagine Christianity had a lot of significant local variations). The emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395) convened the next major council at Constantinople in 381; after that it was the emperor Theodosius II (r. 402-450) who convened the next at Ephesus in 431 and then the emperor Marcian (r. 450-457) who convened the next at Chalcedon in 451. All of these councils served to define what the ‘right’ Christianity was (‘Chalcedonian‘ Christianity, named after the council), putting some belief systems outside of the doctrine of the Roman Church.

But whereas other Roman institutions didn’t survive the collapse of Roman political authority, the Church as an institution very much did. It was perhaps not obvious that it would – many of the ‘barbarians’ had embraced a non-Chalcedonian Christianity, Arianism, and so might have been hostile to the Church as it existed in Rome. But in practice the need to consolidate the loyalty of their Roman Chalcedonian Christian subjects (on this, note Brown, op. cit. 2nd ed., 105-6, 133-8) and the prestige that the institutional Church held led the rulers of Rome’s successor states to convert to Chalcedonian Christianity; the last of the major Arian Christian kings was Garibald, King of the Lombards in 671.

Indeed, the institutional Church was in some ways a lifeboat in which other elements of the Late Roman world were carried through the storm of the fifth century into the Middle Ages. We’ve already talked about the Church’s role in preserving a fair chunk of the Latin literary tradition. Much of this was done through the spread and then perseverance of monasticism. The first communities of monks emerged in the Eastern Roman Empire in the fourth century and spread through the failing Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. The Western monastic tradition builds from this with the foundation of Monte Cassino5 in 529 by Benedict of Nursia and the promulgation of the Rule of Saint Benedict.

Via my 2019 vacation to Italy, some of the garden interior of Monte Cassino. Note of course the buildings here all date to the post-WWII period, as the medieval monastery was almost totally destroyed in 1944.

Meanwhile, the Church also emerged as one of the central institutions in the cities of the Roman world, with the bishop, the religious head of the Church in a given city, emerging as a key figure in civic governance. While the figure of the bishop rose to importance in both the East and the West, in the East, bishops largely did not move into becoming secular leaders alongside religious figures, in part presumably because the central Roman authority still existed to handle those functions. But in the West, the decline of both civic and centralized government left bishops in the breach. This in turn often preserved older Roman political geography as Liebeschuetz notes, with the civitas surviving as an administrative unit in the form of the diocese6 of a bishop, precisely because those bishoprics were originally established along Roman administrative lines and remained so even after Roman administration vanished. Bishops ended up taking up some of the tasks that in the past would have fallen to a Roman governor and since they had their seats in the embattled Roman cities, many of those cities survived the difficult fifth and sixth centuries precisely because they were the seat of a bishop.

Via my 2019 vacation to Italy, this is a cat that we saw at Monte Cassino. We named him MonastiCat. He was a bit standoffish, which seems appropriately Benedictine.

And in order to run the institution of the Church, its bishoprics and their diocese, it needed both educated clergy who could read the Bible but also administrators who had learned the law – by which they meant Roman law. Secular learning had largely collapsed with the Roman Empire in the West – it had existed to provide training for wealthy men to become secular administrators for the central imperial government and so when the demand for that kind of training vanished, so too did the schools that trained the administrators and jurists. And so the Church had to train them itself, setting up episcopal and monastic schools which trained theology, but also law and administration (and of course provided the context for that survival of Latin literature as a teaching tool). As levels of education and literacy among the secular elite declined, it made sense for kings to employ bishops and other members of the clergy as members of their own administration, leading to this distinctly Roman religious institution having a key place within the secular ‘barbarian’ kingdoms that followed.

The East

The picture in the East is more complex. We’ve been avoiding the Eastern Roman Empire because our question is about the fall of Rome and Rome didn’t fall there. Like the successor states of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire was heir to the centralized, bureaucratic, somewhat top-heavy imperial system of the late empire, though whereas the Western Empire had multiple centers of power (Rome itself, but also Ravenna, Milan and Split all spent time as imperial headquarters), in the East, Constantinople was the obvious center of the empire and thus the home of the imperial bureaucracy.

This isn’t a place for a full history of the Eastern Roman Empire (because that would run until 1453), but we do need to note some features. The Eastern Roman Empire was more urbanized, more densely peopled and wealthier than the West, but it also faced arguably more severe security problems in the fifth century and beyond. The East was as exposed in the fifth century to the in-migration of the Goths (Adrianople had been in the Eastern Empire, after all) and later the Huns, but the armies of the East always had to have their primary focus on the Eastern border with the Sassanid Empire. Founded out of the collapse of the Parthian Empire in 205, the Sassanid Empire was a hostile competitor to Rome for its entire existence (205-651), with the two at war more often than not and engaged in a robust cold war stand off between wars. The Sassanids, controlling the Iranian Plateau, Mesopotamia and the coastlines of the Persian Gulf, were a true peer to the Eastern Roman Empire, similar in size, population and wealth. Both states had sophisticated and disciplined armies.

The Sasanian Empire at its greatest extent c. 620, under Khosrow II
Via Wikipedia, map of the Sassanid Empire, with its core territory in dark green and its furthest extent under Khosrow II in light green.

The fourth century had seen a series of major wars between the two powers, culminating in the disastrous campaign of 363 which cost the emperor Julian his life. Despite more minor flare-ups (in 421 and 440), the fifth century was calmer which was fortunate because the Eastern Roman Empire had its hands full for much of the century dealing with the Goths and Huns. But the calm broke in the sixth century with a series of inconclusive but escalating wars (502-506, 526-532, 541-562, 572-591). Nevertheless it was in the midst of this that the emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) – an emperor of considerable talents and supported by the equally talented Empress Theodora – felt strong enough to try to reclaim large parts of the Western Roman Empire, launching invasions into North Africa, Italy and Spain while also fighting with the Sassanids. Justinian’s campaigns were successful, but they mostly succeed only in straining imperial resources, especially because climate-motivated harvest failures in the 530s and plague in the 540s severely weakened the empire precisely as he was stretching it.

The bigger catastrophe was Khosrow II (r. 590-628), a Sassanid Shahanshah with both talents and ambitions to match the by then deceased Justinian, who would be even more of a disaster to his own empire. In 602, Khosrow launched what would be the last great Roman-Sassanid War (though by this point, after Justinian, we generally call this state the Byzantine Empire, so this would be the last great Byzantine-Sassanid War; I am going to keep calling these folks the Romans because that’s what they called themselves). Khosrow was initially fantastically successful, overrunning much of the Eastern Roman Empire and even laying siege to Constantinople in 626 but then the tide turned catastrophically against him. Khosrow II was killed in a mutiny which sparked civil war in the Sassanid Empire and left both empires exhausted, their subjects over-taxed and war weary. And then in 634, Arab armies, united by the new religion of Islam slammed into the Roman province of Syria; by 650, Egypt, Syria and the Levant were lost to the Romans, while the Sassanid Empire was destroyed outright. What was left of the Eastern Roman Empire became a primarily Aegean power, its strength concentrated in the Balkan Peninsula and Anatolia and the sea that united them.

Via Wikipedia, a rock relief erected by Khosrow II showing him being invested with royal diadems by both the Zoroastrian divinities Ahura Mazda and Anahita, from Taq-e Bostan, Iran.

Unlike in the West, where the Church and secular rulership had eventually become separate institutions, in the East the emperor and the church – what would become the Eastern Orthodox Church – were closely linked and there was an expectation that the emperor would encourage the ‘right’ sort of Christianity. That was certainly a continuity with early Roman policy – the first emperor to persecute Christians for being the ‘wrong sort’ of Christians was Constantine who persecuted the Donatists. By 388, imperial law required all citizens of the empire to follow “catholic” Christianity (the term adopted, amusingly, by the anti-Donatists to define themselves against the Donatist ‘heretics;’ in this context it doesn’t mean ‘Roman Catholic’ but merely ‘not heretical’) and so the emperors attempted to enforce that. This was a problem because prior to the loss of Syria and Egypt to the Rashidun Caliphate, the ‘heretics’ may have outnumbered the ‘orthodox’ though of course the many splintered heretical branches didn’t agree with each other either. Miaphysite Christianity was common in Egypt and the Levant and Nestorianism was common in Syria (though many Nestorians fled Roman persecution to live in the Sassanid Empire). Efforts by the imperial center to stamp out these branches of Christianity contributed to the ease with which the southern parts of the empire were lost to the Rashidun Caliphate: many ‘heretical’ Christians could expect better treatment under Muslim rulers who did not much care what sort of Christian one was.

Urban culture lasted longer in the East than in the West, though regional patterns vary. In Syria, Egypt and the Levant, Liebescheutz notes that on the whole the classical form of city continues largely unchanged during the fifth century and indeed continues relatively undiminished until the eighth century. The relatively rapid Muslim conquests caused these regions to transition fairly seamlessly from being protected Roman territory to being the core heartland of the Umayyad dynasty; it was only the movement of the capital to Baghdad under the Abbasid which finally led to the marked decline of these civic centers. The exception here were cities that had thrived off of Mediterranean trade – places like Antioch, Tyre and Caesarea, which lost importance as those trade systems broke down, though their fall was matched by the rise of places like Aleppo, Damascus and Emesa (modern Homs).

Via Wikipedia, mosaic (547) showing the emperor Justinian and his retinue from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.

Urban decline in Anatolia and around the Aegean was swifter and sharper; older scholarship (and occasionally newer scholarship) tends to assume that the downturn for most of these cities began with the catastrophic Roman-Sassanid Wars of the 600s, but Liebescheutz shows fairly clearly that for the smaller centers, the decline set in substantially earlier, though the full collapse would come only in the seventh century. What seems to be the main factor was the further centralization of Roman administration, leading to wealth and importance piling up around regional and provincial capitals which became the focus of that centralized administration.7 Consequently the smaller centers declined sharply, while the provincial and later theme capitals held on.

Roman governance in the East responded to the challenges of the sixth and seventh century with evolution. Civil and military officials, who had been divided by Diocletian, began to be merged back together by Justinian in an effort to make provinces which were more able to defend themselves; this trend would continue and culminate in the mid-seventh century with the theme system, which tied territorial division directly to local military units (both called themata) which in theory were then supported by the main field army (the tagmata) which stayed with the emperor in Constantinople. This system shed almost all of its old Roman terminology and organization (indeed, much of it was gone by the age of Justinian), but it represented a fairly straightforward evolution of the Late Roman army, changing in small evolutionary steps over centuries.

Via Wikipedia, a map of the theme system as fully developed by 1025. Initially, the themes had only been divisions for territory in Anatolia, but were steadily expanded to cover all of the remaining territory of the Eastern Roman Empire.

If our look at ‘Words’ was largely a victory for our knight of ‘change and continuity,’ the look at ‘Institutions’ has been much more mixed, with the collapse of urbanism in particular making for a strong argument for a ‘decline and fall’ viewpoint. But the collapse of institutions was hardly a complete process, with significant survivals in the Church and also in the East. And while political institutions did collapse, the kingdoms that followed owed more than a little of their structure to the Roman model that had come before, yet at the same time, the decline of administrative capacity and state capabilities is obvious: these were smaller, weaker, poorer states. In my own view, the question, in the end, really comes down to the impact this period had on the lives of the great majority of people who were not elites and did not wield any power within the great institutions of the day. And that’s where we’ll go for our last part of this series, on ‘Things.’

  1. Note – not power. Power had always been centralized – this was an empire where the Romans ruled and everyone else was ruled, not some kind of federal structure and so Roman governors – be they senatorial promagistrates or imperial legati – had practically absolute authority in their provinces. They just tended not to exercise it fully it because Roman aims were limited.
  2. There is a lot of scholarly debate on the size of the Late Roman army and has been for quite some time. Southern and Dixon, The Late Roman Army (1996) provides a decent summary to the 90s, but then note Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay: AD 180-395 (2004) for a heterodox take. Estimates range anywhere from around 360,000 (Potter) to as high as 645,000 (A.H.M. Jones). Also note that while older studies of the Late Roman Army tend to treat it as a composite group with professional comitatenses and part-timer limitanei, but it is increasingly clear that the limitanei of the fourth and fifth century were full-time soldiers
  3. For details on this, E. Intagliata, S. Barker and C. Courault, City Walls in Late Antiquity (2020)
  4. Contrary to popular belief, neither this nor any other council established the biblical canon. Instead the canon had formed earlier, in the second and third centuries, through a more ad hoc consensus process, rather than being mandated by the organized church. By Nicaea, the canon had been largely set for at least fifty years.
  5. As a side note: you can visit Monte Cassino and it is not to be missed, although of course the current structure dates only to WWII. It has some family resonance for me as well – my grandfather visited with the US 5th Army in 1944 under far less pleasant circumstances
  6. Itself a Roman administrative term – a dioecesis was originally a collection of small provinces into a single unit, a division created by Diocletian
  7. Provincial capitals, it should be noted, was a new thing for late antiquity – Roman provincial government in the early and high empire was itinerant. Governors moved through their province over the course of their year and left at the end, keeping no permanent base.

135 thoughts on “Collections: Rome: Decline and Fall? Part II: Institutions

  1. I’m now very curious as to what the state of Roman education looked like, most especially in late antiquity. As well as what education in the post-Roman political scene looked like. If someone wanted to become a priest in say, the 8th century, what was the route that said person took? Was it open to anyone who wanted to sign up? Who paid to teach them to read and write? (Could all priests read and write?) How similar, or dissimilar was the process to someone wanting to enter the late imperial bureaucracy?

    That’s the annoying about history. Every time I learn something new, it opens up a whole lot of new questions, and in the end I find myself feeling more ignorant, not less.

    1. All good questions! I believe cathedrals generally had schools attached and so did many monasteries and those schools were specifically for clergy. There are a number of educated churchmen attested to in the early medieval period. But the education of the rank and file clergy was always a problem and complaints about village priests ignorance and superstition perennial.

      1. These complaints are common enough that we know the public assumed that a clergyman would be literate, even if it wasn’t always the case.

      2. My father was born in what was then Italy in 1941. The local priest refused to baptize him with the name they asked for because it was not a saint’s name…he was unaware of the existence of a saint, and a country, named San Marino.

      1. The Church boiling down to the local bishop. And if he was desperate for clergy he might not be too particular. Or if he owed the candidate’s patron a favor.
        Villagers, and even knights and gentlemen were happy enough with a parish priest or chaplain who could perform the sacrements by rote. They didn’t care about his latinity or knowledge of scholastic debates.

    2. In the Roman world, many – perhaps even the most – children in cities and towns went to school where they studied under a magister ludi to learn to read and write. Those whose parents could afford it would continue, around age 11, to study under a grammarian. The topic would be the proper use of Latin language, also learning Greek. It needs to be noted that you would need to learn to use Latin with upper-class pronounciation, and with late-Republic grammar. In Greek, you would aim to learn Koine with somewhat antiquated Attic style. (Not that different from reading Shakespeare.) Then, if you wanted to become an official, you would continue to study rhetorics. Traditionally, the upper class would finish their education with a visit to Athens to study philosophy, but that was no longer quite necessary in the 4th century.

      We can well see, from writings of Augustinus, how this changed. He was the product of traditional secular education, and he wrote many of his texts to an audience of Christians who had done the same. On the other hand, he maintained his own monastic community which also educated clergy (using the income of his office as bishop). The church needed educated priests, and when the world crumbled around her, she took over their training.

      By 8th century, the provate ludi magistri had disappeared everywhere in the West, and grammarians and rhetoricians were not even a memory. If you wanted any kind of education, you needed to study either in the mosatic schools or in the schools maintained by the cathedral chapters.

  2. I’m so reminded of how in our local Russian-Orthodox parish in Deventer, the Netherlands, we used to pray for his Holiness Bartholomeus, patriarch of the new Rome until we got kicked about and ended up praying for his Holiness Kyrill, patriarch of the third Rome.

    And also how, until I came out as trans, I used to wear Byzantine court clothing when in function as a hypodeacon.(I’m still with the parish, and all that, the priest is fine with my transition, but obviously, I can no longer be clergy.)

    1. That’s really cool! I’m questioning my gender identity a bit myself at the moment, and those kinds of long robes have always appealed to me much more than today’s male clothing. Glad to hear your parish is accepting who you are!

      1. I am sorry if my comment comes across as a bit insensitive or rude, I phrased it awkwardly and I’m not entirely fluent in English

  3. Hey Bret, three of the pictures appear to be broken: the Arles amphitheater, and the two from Monte Cassino. The captions are present, but it says “No poto description available” where the image should be. Thanks as always for your hard work.

  4. It’s sounding like both continuity and change and decline and fall are both partially correct. Institutions declined and fell but Rome’s cultural heritage survived and informed the successor states.

    1. This is not really surprising – if both sides could not be seen as partially correct even in a high level survey like this, then it probably would not be a controversy.

  5. I have loved that image of post-Roman Arles ever since the urban history professor at my university showed it in a lecture! In Antiquity Arles was also the hometown of Favorinus, a person I thought would be mentioned in the “Who were the Romans” series: a Gallo-Roman philosopher who “Hellenised” himself and lived in Greece

    1. When I visited Arles, I wondered why the amphitheater is in such good condition that they still use it, when all the other Roman structures are in ruins. Now I know.

      1. But didn’t you have a lot more coups in the post crisis of the third century era than before? Did these coup-proofing techniques really work? And if not, why did emperors keep pushing them? If they did, what were the presumably larger countervailing tendencies that led to more coups after they’re enacted than before?

        1. It gets complicated, but basically, the characteristic of internal power struggles differ, and it never gets *quite* as bad as the 3rd. century. In that often rather than having a general rebel in the provinces it’s more often either a struggle between co-emperors or imperial family members.

        2. But all of this coup-proofing is a product of the third century and implemented in the fourth century, where there is still a lot – but markedly less – civil war going on. What you arguably have is a situation where the early imperial system was extremely vulnerable to a coup, but benefited from political norms which discouraged them. When those norms collapsed in the late second/early third century, the result was relentless civil war. Diocletian couldn’t roll back the clock on the norms, so he coup-proofed the regime as best he could, reducing but not eliminating the problem.

      2. I have trouble understanding how centralizing civilian administration would reduce vulnerability to military rebellion.

        These aren’t modern armies that live and die by the supplies they receive from a vast, well-organized civilian industrial base. Military power is concentrated in the very armies whose generals decide they should be Emperor (or local king) – not in the provincial cities.

        Also, if anything, it would seem easier to take over a centralized system than a motley collection of self-administrating city-states. One would simply replace the top official and let the rest of the machine run for one’s own benefit, instead of having to subdue N cities one by one.

        What am I missing?

        1. It made it easier for the Emperor to keep an eye on what his administrators were doing.

          It also meant, at least in theory, that it was harder for local governors to get the resources to rebel. Whilst ancient armies didn’t have as big a logistic tail as modern ones, they still had them, and a would-be rebel needs a way of keeping order in the territory he manages to capture. Splitting off the logistics and admin people from the military people and placing them under the direct authority of the Emperor made it harder for the head military person to get the logistics and admin resources necessary for a successful coup (again, at least in theory).

        2. Just a dilettante, but: the local civilian administrator is part of the local power system, and can channel that local power.
          Also note that Diocletian’s reforms made the district much smaller in addition to having the civilian administrators appointed from the Imperial Seat, instead of promoted from the local aristocracy.

        3. Also, on the point of subduing cities one by one, whilst cities in the early and high Empire were generally administratively self-sufficient, they certainly weren’t *militarily* self-sufficient — indeed, as pointed out in the OP, most of them didn’t even have walls. So a rebellious general could basically cow all the nearby cities into submission with his military might, and leave them to run themselves, thereby lessening the need to leave people in his rear to oversee things. On the other hand, when administration was more centralised, the cities generally couldn’t run themselves, meaning that a rebel general would have to divert resources to keeping things in line (since the central government would no longer be doing it).

      3. How does centralisation make coups less likely? As I understand it, the things that make a coup more likely are a political system where the ruler has little more legitimacy than the coup plotters (so few people see much reason to fight against the coup); and a highly centralised political system (so that a successful coup leaves no one left with power to fight against the coup).

        To me, it looks like centralisation makes regional revolts less dangerous (because the regional leaders now have less power with which to fight against the central power), but that is not the same thing as making coups less likely.

        1. It collection power around the emperor and his court rather than dispersing it out to the provincial governors, who were generally the dangerous figures. Early imperial governors had access to their own territory, armies and revenue which made for administrative convenience, but it also meant they were self-sufficient if they turned their armies against the center.

          Diocletian centralizes the revenue, collects the army around his person with only weaker garrison forces in the provinces, and splits civil and military administration into separate org-charts which only meet up with the emperor and his court, avoiding the problem (in theory) of regional commanders having complete control over commands.

          At the same time, all of the theater and pageantry of rule he puts together is intended as legitimacy building, stressing the ways in which the emperor is not merely one more Roman aristocrat but qualitatively different, which is a pretty standard tool of royal legitimacy building.

          1. The money quote here, for me, is “collects the army around his person with only weaker garrison forces in the provinces”. Now that, I can see as coup-proofing.

            So, centralized admin per se doesn’t coup-proof, but it helps with centralizing the military, which does.


    1. As said, both coup-proofing (which they were somewhat successful with) and the need to deal with foreign competitors. The late-roman army was (by neccessity) larger than the high imperial one, and that meant more taxes needed to be levied, more soldiers raised, etc.

      And note that this is happening against a backdrop of already decreasing economic situation: The Empire has to do more with less, so the only solution is to squeeze harder.

      1. To be fair, it’s not really clear that the late Roman army actually *was* larger than the High Imperial one. At any rate, the caution which late Roman generals tended to show vs. their earlier counterparts, and the Empire’s willingness to spare threatening bands of barbarians in return for military service, don’t really suggest that they had much spare manpower.

        1. If you contrast the Cambri invasion ca 100bce with the Goth invasion ca375 ce it’s clear that the empire of the the latter era was much less able to deploy resources than the late republic’s empire.

          Over a period of years Cimbri defeated several Roman armies before ultimately being defeated and enslaved en mass. Along the way, new armies were raised by the Romans to be beaten and destroyed. Followed by yet more armies being raised. In the Gothic invasion, the Roman Empire was dealt a fatal blow at Adrianople that required a generation to stabilize and that they never fully recovered from. The Goths were co-opted following the battle into semi-service for the empire, but then went of to help dismember the western empire a century later.

          The empire of 375 was geographically much larger than that of 100bce. Leading to the supposition that the population density was subStantially lower than it had been 500 years earlier and that the Roman states capacity to deploy resources had also been degraded.

    2. One historian tied it to the increasing influence of the equestrian class. Late Republic/Early Empire officials tended to be drawn from the Roman or provincial aristocracies, whose style was personal and familial; the later Empire (and emperors) came from the professional classes, with their preference for uniformity and procedure. It became more feasible to impose common processes as Roman rule solidified and also seen as desirable in itself. The British empire went through a similar process.

      1. And some would argue that the United States has gone through a similar process internally, with national elites (the federal bureaucracy and judiciary) increasingly impinging on and reining in the power of local elites.

        1. a “Crisis of the First Century”?
          (The choice of the Framers and their successors to literally use the styles of the Roman Republic fascinates me, pun *very* much intended. If you don’t get the joke, see Lincoln’s Throne)

        2. Though the details differ interestingly, probably because whereas Late Roman emperors were very much autocrats, power in the American republic comes from popular movements voting large groups of candidates into public office.

          When Diocletian and Constantine wanted to centralize power into a bureaucracy under their control at the expense of local elites, they did it by (among other things) forcing millions of Roman citizens into serfdom just to make the state more accessible to their tax collectors.

          When the American republic centralized power into an increasingly federal state, they did something that is arguably the opposite- abolition of the enslavement of rural farm workers. Because in a republic, nothing disrupts the power of a local elite by taking away his slaves and then giving those same slaves a vote in how the community is to be governed thenceforth.

          Of course, viewing things over the long run and zooming back a bit from the specific dispute on slavery, local elites in the US fought back against that pretty hard. Creating whole constellations of systems and institutions of their own to reconstruct the power of local elites, generally at the expense of the kind of national-level mass institutions that would otherwise be able to overwhelm them using methods such as labor organization, high voter participation, and universal distribution of factual media.

          1. TBH, I was thinking more of this century. Of course, you could argue that sharecroppers with children in segregated schools were the equivalent of slaves, or (more fancifully) that women who couldn’t get abortions or atheists who were required to listen to school prayers or accused criminals tried by six person juries or unmarried cohabitants unable to rent an apartment were slaves.

          2. Coming back to this a bit late, I know, but-

            At the point where you’re talking about rules regarding whether unmarried cohabitants can rent an apartment together, or whether prayers in schools disrespect the freedom of religion, or whether juries should have six people on them or twelve, you circle back to what I was saying earlier.

            Because these are not autocratic moves. Again, because the United States is a republic and not an autocracy, the creation of centralized government doesn’t take the conceptually simple form of “central government breaks local elites while simultaneously imposing its own tyranny” in the manner of Diocletian throwing the coloni into serfdom.

            An autocrat who wishes to centralize power will generally make moves that reduce liberty for some, or for all, in a straightforward manner. In a republic, the result is more likely to feel like tyranny to some and liberty to others.

            But this is amply illustrated by how the first great act of centralization of US federal power was to fight and win a civil war in which the losing side called Lincoln a ‘tyrant’ for generations afterwards, and in which the main result of the war was freeing the slaves.

            Subsequent rounds of centralization weren’t literally identical, but some of the same dynamics are in play. When a republic centralizes power, by definition it acquires the ability to do what large blocs of voters want them to do. This is unlikely to result in the oppression of a second group larger than the first group, by the nature of how voting works. The only way to bypass this process is to make the system less democratic, so when smaller groups genuinely wish to exert control over larger ones in America, they generally seek to make the system less democratic, not more.

            This effect is masked, rhetorically speaking, because of the reaction of those groups within society who are losing their special status. These groups historically have gotten to “call the tune” of how institutions and customs evolve over time. When they lose this ability, they see what others identify as liberty, and to themselves it scans as a form of tyranny.

            Because if you know that the old social order was created by people of similar mindset to yourself, and if you were comfortable with it… Watching others be liberated from the constraints imposed on them by that social order seems, to some such people, to feel like tyranny.

          3. “Watching others be liberated from the constraints imposed on them by that social order seems, to some such people, to feel like tyranny.”

            And sometimes it is tyranny, because the constraint imposed was “do not tyrannize.”

            There is no escape from handsorting.

          4. At the point where you’re talking about rules regarding whether unmarried cohabitants can rent an apartment together, or whether prayers in schools disrespect the freedom of religion, or whether juries should have six people on them or twelve, you circle back to what I was saying earlier.

            Because these are not autocratic moves.

            Of course they’re autocratic moves, if they’re imposed autocratically. Autocracy (“rule by oneself”) is a function of who makes the decisions and how, not of what decisions the autocrat chooses to make.

  6. On the instructions front, a variant theory i’ve read from Chris Wickam’s Framing the Early Middle Ages seemed to suggest that, rather than state decline leading to inability to field professional militaries that rather it’s the other way around – that lack of desire to have professional militaries lead to diminished state capacity.

    Wickham presents that the military elite of the post-roman kingdoms did not want to be professional soldiers, that they wanted to landed aristocrats, and so these kingdoms settled the army on the land and substituted tax-financed professional militarism for service based militia forces. With the primary public expense having been dispensed with by setting up the army as landlords, the tax system tended to atrophy over the coming centuries until it mostly disappeared in the West, taking the administrative capacity engendered by mass taxation with it.


    1. That’s basically what happened in Heian-period Japan IIRC, they set up a centralized bureaucratic state and a professional army to fight of a potential Tang invasion, when the Tang threat dissipates the administrative apparatus isn’t needed and local security issues can be handled by local landed aristocrats (and so we get the genesis of the samurai)

      1. That’s not entirely correct, the samurai clans were established to fight against the mounted tribal people north of Kyoto. The centralized armies for whatever reason weren’t working (likely inability to maintain them long enough against raiding) but the landed clans being permanently settled could. This however created issues in that these clans became their own political groups who’s power rivelled and then eclipsed the courtly nobles in Kyoto.

        1. “Local security problems” might be a bit of an understatement, but that was what I was referring to, yes.

    2. Partially, it is also about the military systems. We can see that Stilicho, for example, was fine with posing in art as a Roman professional soldier. However, the Germanic tribes that entered late Western Empire either with permission or without it, brought their own military system. What we know about their society points to the idea that usually, a free man was also a warrior.

      Living on your own estate, small or large, and waging war were part of the culture, and they were not, by any means, contradictory. So, it was not just about the ideals of the military aristocracy but about the society at large. The Germanic nations relied a lot on infantry, and consequently, were more egalitarian than nations dependent on heavy cavalry. Even if their leaders might have been willing to adopt the trappings of a Roman officer, the normal foot soldier wanted land where he could feed his family: now, not after 20 years of service. After all, with the politics being what they were, there was no one who could reliably promise a reward after 20 years of time.

      So, it was not just about being a landed aristocrat. It was about the lifestyle choice between being a career soldier (which was a dead end) and getting yourself a respectable income as a peasant militiaman.

  7. The bit about Arles and how the city got small enough to move into the amphitheatre is very interesting and makes me wonder if someone at Bethesda is a serious history nerd and drew inspiration from it when creating Diamond City in Fallout 4…

    1. Playing the game as someone already aware of the medieval occupation of amphitheaters and arenas, it never occurred to me that it wasn’t a deliberate reference, although I never thought Arles specifically until I reached the picture in this post today.

    2. Todd just heard us all making fun of Fallout 4’s bad world building so he went back in time and caused the collapse of the Roman Empire to cause the creation of Amphitheater-cities to justify Diamond City’s existence.

    3. There’s a similar thing in Terry Brook’s Genesis of Shannara books. Humans living in post-apocalyptic North America have formed fortified compounds in baseball and football stadiums (in order to defend themselves from the less human inhabitants of the continent).

    4. Speaking about video games, that’s also a feature in The Last Of Us II, where the Washington Liberation Front is living in Seattle stadium.

      1. If it doesn’t have a TVTropes page, it should. The zombie movie cliche of “holed up in a mall” would also fall under it

  8. From what I have been taught at university, both sides (both knights) can be right at the same time, but the decline and fall school has been so prevalent, mostly in Anglosphere and non-Mediterranean Europe, that now there is some balance towards the change and continuity position.

    In northern Europe the few Roman cities that existed, vanished, with the exception of Colonia (Koln) or Treveris, maybe a few others… And scholars from those countries focus on the decline and fall. In Britain, there were no cities, except for London, (that is why, they called it The City, till today).

    In the rest of the West, as Brett points out, there was also a decline of cities, population, importance…
    But most of cities in Southern Spain , for example, remained active and populated since way before the Romans till today, being inhabited with no interruption. Of course they shrank in those centuries but most of the Mediterranean cities continued to exist, and that can not be said from their northern counterparts outside the Mare Nostrum, and I just wanted to stress this point here…

    Thanks as always, Professor Devereaux, it’s a real pleasure to read acoup every week!!

    1. My understanding is that the same is true of Italy (and I’ve even seen arguments that Italy should be counted as part of the “east” for these purposes): Cities shrank, but very few of them were actually abondoned and most remained cities throughout the period, though some new ones were also founded, and most of the high medieval italian city states (Venice being the main exception, I think?) Were ancient-era cities.

      1. The big losses seems to have been Aquileia (refugees from which may have played a part in the founding of Venice) and Ostia. There was some fluctuation in size across the board, but those are the only major Roman cities I can think of that effectively ceased to exist.

        It makes sense for there to be some continuity in urban centres, because firstly there are buildings there to occupy and building materials to build with, and secondly because those sites are chosen for a reason, and they don’t stop being attractive (an exception sometimes being ports, since coasts move, which is part of what happened to Ostia). I think the pattern of important medieval cities being former Roman cities holds good across most of the western empire… except in Britain, which as usual is weird: among the largest medieval English cities, Bristol, Norwich, Coventry, Lynn and Boston were all (probably) new foundations, and Salisbury was moved from its Roman site during the Middle Ages; except for Carmarthen and Caenarfon, the majority of large Welsh towns I know of in that period were also “new”.

    2. “In Britain, there were no cities, except for London”

      From what I’ve read, they didn’t have London either. It was abandoned and later rebuilt.

    3. “In Britain, there were no cities, except for London, (that is why, they called it The City, till today)”

      I don’t think this is right. London was abandoned in the sub-Roman period and while a new Saxon town was established outside the old city and the Roman city eventually reoccupied, there was never a time when London was the *only* important city in England – most obviously, there was York, but also Winchester, which for most of the Saxon period was arguably even more important than London.

      When people refer to “the City”, they mean specifically the old city that was contained by the city walls, aka the Square Mile. This is still the actual City of London, separate from Greater London, which long since sprawled beyond the walls and across neighbouring counties (annexing the whole of Middlesex). While most cities are formally “the City of x”, the City of London is the only one that generally gets the full title, not because of its size or political importance (it is actually Britain’s smallest city by population, and not the seat of government) but to clarify that they are talking about the City of London, not Greater London, and therefore when abbreviated it follows suit. There is no need to distinguish between the City of York and York, so it just gets called York, but there is sometimes a need to distinguish between the City of London and Greater London, so the City of London becomes “the City” and Greater London becomes “London”.

      Outside London, when people talk about “the City”, they usually mean specifically London’s financial district (based in the City of London) and its associated economic importance and culture. Within London, people also use “the City” as a specific geographic area to distinguish it from the rest of the conurbation (which some old-school Londoners refer to as London Town). But without qualification if a non-Londoner mentions “the city” in conversation and it’s obvious they’re not talking about investment banking and hedge funds, they may well just mean their local one.

      1. There’s a similar situation in Bristol, which was a distinct and separate county until modern reorganisations folded it into Avon. The county was reinstituted awhile ago, but while much large than the medieval county is still only about half of the modern urban area.

      2. As someone who’s lived in the shadow of London for pretty much all my life (borderlands between Surrey/Sussex/Kent for most of it, and now Whitstable-way) if someone said ‘I’m going to the city today*’, pretty much everyone I know would instantly think ‘they’re going to London’ in the sense of ‘greater london’. The conceptualisation as ‘the City of London – London’s financial district’ would come a distant second. I think the weight of London in general weighs heavily on the South East, such that it very much dwarfs the other population centres in public conception.

        I would say that I am a little outside of the direct orbit of London though, not having worked in the city (at large), and being quite parochial in my outlook (if pressed for a definition, I’d say London starts at Orpington where the houses start an unbroken chain from there to Watford). Other people often conceptualise ‘London’ as the area enclosed by the M25.

        I expect the use of ‘the city’ to mean ‘London at large’ or ‘specifically the City of London financial district’ depends on the utility of that definition. If you work or live in London or the immediate periphery then delineating between the financial district and the rest of London is useful. If London just exists in the background for you, then ‘the City’ would just mean ‘London in general’.

        I can’t speak to further afield where the influence of another major city is more important (say, if you live nearer York or Bristol, or directly live in Brighton).

        *Personally, I’d say ‘I’m going up to the Big Smog’ or some other colloquialism.

  9. It is interesting how much inspiration the Eastern Roman Empire seemed to take from Persia, especially details of the Imperial court like the imperial diadem, giving important court functions to eunuchs, and perfoming proskynesis to the ruler. During the Middle Ages some very specific things seems to be taken directly from Herodotus’ description of the Achaemenids, like having an elite unit called “Immortals” and the ruler having a golden tree in the palace. The theme-system also sounds a lot like how the Achaemenid Army is described, with regional troops coming from each province and a more elite standing army in the metropole

  10. Bret, here’s a few proofreading points, if you’d like:

    still very much debates question > debated
    it is was tends to be > [which verb do you want?]
    once in power emperors > [insert comma]
    palaces ins special regalia > [delete s from in]
    both managed . . . but were also expected > the correlative is both…and]
    steadily atrophies away > superfluous word away
    divisions to directly to local > [delete first instance of to]
    fairly straight-forward > straightforward

    1. Also I think capitol should be capital in one case, though that seems to be a rather common American (mis?)spelling

    2. Fixed!

      Honestly, some of these errors are issues where, for some reason, WordPress’ editor gets really slow with long posts, so I end up typing two or three different verbs before the first one shows up and forget to delete the ones I don’t want.

      1. Not that I’ve blogged for a long time, but I’m a fan of writing up the text separately (say in Word) and then pasting it directly into WordPress for final editing and submission. When I was writing stuff it meant the significant risk of drafts being lost through various glitches was much reduced!

    3. There are also five “Liebescheutz” and three “Liebeschuetz”. 🙂 It should always be Liebeschuetz according to the linked Amazon page.

  11. “In the case of Britain, the cities were gone by 420, decades before the arrival of any invaders.”

    What did governance look like in Britain in 420? Was it no longer part of the empire at that point?

    1. From what I gather, the historiography on the subject is a bit of a mess because for centuries British chroniclers emphasised and probably exaggerated the apparent suddenness of the end of Roman rule for nationalist reasons, and Britain wasn’t important enough to get many mentions in non-British sources to give us much perspective.

      The traditional story is that in 410 Honorius ordered that Britain be effectively abandoned by Rome, after which time the island was ruled by British kings until the arrival of the Saxons a generation or so later, at which point – and this is one of the reasons why the British chroniclers wanted the Romans out of the way – King Arthur happens. There is an order from Honorius telling (what is probably but not uncontroversially) Britain to look to its own defences, but the extent to which this represents an end to Roman civilian rule – rather than just reliable military support – is a good question and one that someone other than me will have ot answer.

      There was (almost) certainly much more fragmentation than the basically-legendary traditional story implies, and while Britain was never an exemplar for Romanisation, the Britons probably tried to hang onto as close to a Roman way of life as they could manage until the Saxon conquest even if Britain was no longer functionally part of the empire.

      What the impact of the Great Conspiracy of 367-8 was is something I’d be interested to learn more about: this was a civil war/mutiny/invasion in Britain which was suppressed by Theodosius senior but which I guess might have done some serious damage to Roman institutions in Britain? It’s also worth noting perhaps that the Saxons were reportedly involved in the Great Conspiracy, and so were meaningfully present in Britain around 80 years before the traditional version dates their arrival. There were other revolts prior to 410 too, which may have contributed to the apparent decision of Honorius that defending Britain was no longer worthwhile.

      1. The question when the Saxons came to Britian is an interesting one. The Romans called the military district around the english channel “litus Saxonicum” the Saxon Shore. To me that sounds like Saxons were already setteling there in the 4th century.

        1. The “Saxon Shore” could mean “the shore where the Saxons settled” or “the shore where we guard against Saxons,” and it’s not clear which one was meant. Either way, Saxons were trying to settle, but whether they did or not isn’t indicated by the name.

          1. It could also be the case that there were a formerly tiny number of expatriate Saxon settlements in Britain which ended up being centers for later massive influx/invasion.

      2. I believe that archaeology points to significant Germanic settlement along the east coast in late Roman times.

        1. Guy Halsall in “Barbarians and the Western Roman Empire” makes some good points about the difficulty in deducing ethnicity from material goods. Many of the features labelled “Germanic” actually originated within the empire, not outside of it.

          This is not at all to deny the possibility (and probability) of Germanic immigration during the empire, which may well have been stronger before than after the empire left Britain! Just to say that it is hard to prove from styles in graves, houses etc.

      3. There is an order from Honorius telling (what is probably but not uncontroversially) Britain to look to its own defences, but the extent to which this represents an end to Roman civilian rule – rather than just reliable military support – is a good question and one that someone other than me will have ot answer.

        I think it’s pretty clear that, contrary to what is sometimes said in older histories, Honorius telling the British cities to look to their own defences was of more symbolic than practical importance. Aside from anything else, northern Gaul was, IIRC, outside Honorius’ control at the time, so it’s not likely he’d even be able to organise any meaningful withdrawal of Roman troops or administrators from the island, even if he’d wanted to.

        (Incidentally, I once came across an article arguing that the whole idea of Honorius writing to Britain was based on a scribal error, and that Honorius was actually writing to *Bruttium* in Italy, which at that time was menaced by Alaric’s Goths.)

        There was (almost) certainly much more fragmentation than the basically-legendary traditional story implies, and while Britain was never an exemplar for Romanisation, the Britons probably tried to hang onto as close to a Roman way of life as they could manage until the Saxon conquest even if Britain was no longer functionally part of the empire.

        It’s difficult to tell. On the one hand, the scale of the economic impact and the lack of written records certainly suggests that Roman-style government wasn’t/couldn’t have been operating. On the other hand, Gildas (pretty much the only British source we have from this general period) says that there had been a united British resistance against the Saxons, albeit he gives no indication as to whether this was based on surviving Roman structures or whether it was a more ad-hoc alliance against the common enemy.

        Interestingly, Gildas uses the word “cives” (“citizens”, used of Roman citizens) to describe his fellow Britons, which suggests he did see them as at least in some ways still subjects of the Roman Empire (unless it’s just an analogical usage, I suppose).

        Also interestingly, Gildas’ Latin style has more in common with that taught in the secular schools of the late Roman Empire than with the early medieval monastic schools, which is a bit strange, given that basically every other piece of evidence we have suggests that the late Roman education system was no longer operant in Britain. It’s possible he was educated on the Continent, or educated by someone who had been (the old education system, designed to train administrators for the Empire, was on its last legs and would die out by the end of the sixth century, but it would still just about be possible to get a classical education during Gildas’ childhood).

        What the impact of the Great Conspiracy of 367-8 was is something I’d be interested to learn more about: this was a civil war/mutiny/invasion in Britain which was suppressed by Theodosius senior but which I guess might have done some serious damage to Roman institutions in Britain?

        Stuart Laycock’s “Britannia: The Failed State” (which, as its title suggests, argues that the end of Roman Britain was analogous to the process of state failure familiar from examples like the break-up of Yugoslavia) suggests that Theodosius armed tribal British militias to deal with the emergency, which I guess could have damaged Roman institutions by creating potential alternative power structures. You can find a summary of his claims here:

  12. Typo:

    “Miaphysite Christianity”–Monosphysite Christianity

    Also, thank you for not falling into the “Constantine made the Bible at Nicaea” nonsense. Dan Brown has a LOT to answer for, and the popularization of that particular canard is high on the list.

    1. Miaphysite Christianity is a thing. It’s the doctrine of the Ethiopian Church. Not the same Monophysite.

  13. The usage of catholic here confused me since I’ve always heard it to mean “universal”, but that’s not to disparage your point since (if I recall correctly) its earliest usage in one of St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letters uses the term against the Docetists of his time.

    Note that the Eastern Orthodox Church does double-dip and refer to itself as Orthodox Catholic (meaning correct and universal).

    1. In their own terminology, many of the traditional Christian churches refer to themselves as “catholic” one way or another, including for instance the Anglican one, which is unsurprising in itself since they all see themselves as the legitimate continuation of the early Church, the various schisms being schisms away from their, correct, interpretation (although as a youngster I was confused why I was reciting in church that I believe in “one holy catholic and apostolic church” when my church was Protestant).

      The distinction between “Catholic” and “Orthodox” etc. in common parlance is essentially for convenience and doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual titles used by the churches themselves.

      1. (although as a youngster I was confused why I was reciting in church that I believe in “one holy catholic and apostolic church” when my church was Protestant)

        I suspect that’s a universal experience for people growing up Protestant.

        1. Not all protestant denominations lean as hard on the Nicene Creed. I ran across it maybe once, growing up in a Methodist church.

    2. The Donatists argued that a priest who once turned their back on the church (forced by persecution and torture) could never be readmitted. The term “catholic” – universal – was a rebuttal: a church not only of the faultless but also of the repentant.

      1. Priests? Anyone. Whoever had apostatized had left the Church, forever.

        (What’s more, they had more severe standards of what constituted apostasy. Both sides agreed that when Diocletian went in for book burning, handing over Scripture was apostasy. But if you handed over some other book, and the person, whether from sympathy or illiteracy, took it as if it were Scripture, the Donatists said that was apostasy.)

  14. Excellent read. Any chance of this series, and some of the other more recent series, being added to the “Resources for Teachers” or “Resources for World-Builders” pages? I personally find those the most convenient pages for navigating the site, yet they don’t seem to have been updated in quite some time.

  15. When the mouse is held over a footnote, a box appears showing the footnote’s text. In that box, links maintain the light-pink styling used in the main body, unlike non-link text which is made dark for contrast with the white popup background. To observe this yourself, mouse over the second footnote and observe that the titles of the two books, being links, are difficult to discern.

  16. What I’m going to be curious about in part III is the timeline of economic decline. You’ve previously mentioned how cows themselves shrank from lack of available feed in the post-Roman world, but I’m assuming it wasn’t like they were beeg in 475 and then smol in 477. As the whole story of Roman Britain implies, it was most likely a gradual process even before the barbarians show up, and I wonder when the process begins. I doubt Britain was the only province experiencing the slow decline in the fifth century.

  17. Wait… I through urban life continued in Winchester throughout the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries despite reducing in size.

    1. It did, and in York and (I think) Chester, Leicester, and to a lesser extent Canterbury too. But those sites still all saw decline, and many more were abandoned completely.

      I would be interested to read a more detailed study of that, but I don’t think it detracts from the overall point even if there were a few exceptions to the disappearance of British cities.

    2. I think semantics are involved. What “city” means varies a lot; Wisconsin (where I went to college) recognizes 190 local jurisdictions as Cities, the US Census Bureau says Wisconsin has 27 urban areas that can be used as cores for statistical purposes, and my classmate from Croatia assured me that there were only two communities in the State that were large enough that they shouldn’t be considered villages instead of cities (but also that there were no real cities in Wisconsin).

      What people tend to mean when they say that cities disappeared from a place, is that the cities shrank (or sometimes just underwent some other form of transformation) such that the character of the population and it’s economy changed to the point where they personally consider it to just not really count anymore as a city.

  18. …because the Roman Empire of August, 378 AD was not the Roman Empire of August, 14 AD.

    To my disappointment, none of the three Roman Emperors Wikipedia lists as reigning in 378 were named any form of “Augustus”. Though Valens died in August 378, so there’s that.

    Arles, which had been a thriving Roman city with an amphitheater, an aqueduct, a chariot-racing track, a theater and full city walls shrunk so severely that the remains of the city moved inside its amphitheater, repurposing it as a new set of city walls, with the town square in the middle and houses built in the stands.

    That would be such a cool idea for a fantasy city, really showing how far the obligatory ancient empire has fallen, if not for the small problem that it would be decried as unrealistic.

    Justinian’s campaigns were successful, but they mostly succeed only in straining imperial resources, especially because climate-motivated harvest failures in the 530s and plague in the 540s severely weakened the empire precisely as he was stretching it.

    Imagine if Justinian had consolidated Imperial power after reclaiming the African provinces. On one hand, it might have laid the foundations for the Roman Empire to truly rise from its ashes, which makes for a neat alternate history idea. On the other hand, Justinian would only be remembered as “that emperor who made it possible for Emperor Thefamousone to reconquer Rome”.

    Anyways, next week should be…interesting.

    1. Of course you’d have to postulate that plagues and volcanic eruptions, completely outside the realm of politics, simply didn’t happen.

        1. Three major pandemics swept through the Roman world during the decline and fall period. The Antonine plague during the the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the Cyprian plague during the 3rd century and the Justinian bubonic plague. Each of the three killed upwards of 1/3 of the population of the empire at the time.

          Additionally, the Mediterranean climate was shifting at the time from the RCO to a mini ice age during Justinian’s reign. With resulting droughts and famines.

  19. Great blog post! I find this field very interesting, and I really enjoyed your balanced take on the topic. Sometimes I feel both sides of the debate are too quick to discount the evidence supporting the other side. Very well written and researched.

    One thing I remember from reading Ward-Perkins’ book was that the Roman cities declined after the fall of the Western Roman Empire because many of them were sustained by long-distance trade, which in turn enabled specialization and a larger population than was possible purely through subsistence agriculture in the vicinity. When internal stability collapsed, so too did this long distance trade, and it took the cities with it. You mention this somewhat, but I assume you’re saving it for the next post about economics?

  20. Since you mentioned how the Sassanids came after the collapse of the Parthian Empire, I gotta say I’ve always been very interested in an analysis of political and cultural continuity and rupture between the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid Empires, with or without the Seleucids in between. In the West they tend to be depicted and (I think) understood as fundamentally separate states, but did they see it the same way at the time, or did they see themselves as different elites taking over a pre-existing and continuing Iranian state?

    1. The sassanids are interesting in that they seem to have had only a fairly vague idea of the Achamenid period, with a whole list of legendary kings and such.

    2. The Sassanids had a recollection of the Achaemenids, but no detail. They did know that Iran had ruled from the Aegean to the Indus, and so could claim that. They were based in western Iran, while the Parthians were eastern. Interestingly, the Sassanids play a very prominent part in Iranian national consciousness, as thy were at the centre of Firdausi’s national epic and also lauded by the often somewhat heterodox but defiantly Iranian poets.

    1. It is Goku, he once explained the Roman system of socii as the “Goku Model”: you beat them and they become your friends

    2. I really regret not fighting harder in the comments on that post for the idea that he ought to use Sakura from CardcaptorS instead.

  21. Wonder if the provincial capitals worked a bit like primate cities, where one super city draws in population from all the smaller cities around it. Decreasing the size of all the other cities and towns as people chase their dreams in the big one. Examples include Heian Kyoto and I believe Bahgdad.

    1. This is a common phenomenon throughout history; one needn’t look as far as Baghdad or Kyoto. It’s why there are no big cities in Iowa (every big city activity moves to Chicago).

      1. There is a great example of this in Washington State where the ag. center of Yakima has declined massively since the 1980s, to the point of having built a giant 4-6 square block mall that was never occupied. Instead technology over took them and allowed the economic functions of Yakima to centralize in the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett urban center.

  22. First off, I’d like to say I enjoy this blog a lot. I didn’t comment last week but I just want to say I like what you’re doing. I’ll admit I get a lot of my “learning” nowadays from YouTube documentaries (paleontology in particular became a sort of fixation) so public scholarship definitely means something to me.

    What strikes me about all this is – perhaps this will get covered next week – where did everyone go? If you have a bunch of high population cities (relatively) being reduced to fitting inside an amphitheater, either there was a huge population decline or a massive rise in the rural population. I can’t imagine the Arles amphitheater could have had more than a few thousand people living in it just given the space, which makes it like a rural town today. If it was big enough to need a good sized amphitheater before that suggests a population of a few ten thousand, so maybe a 90% reduction in urban population.

    It’s also striking to me that centralization actually had the effect of accelerating decline. It makes sense to a degree, certainly New York and Tokyo tend to suck up a great deal of the talent from mid sized cities (Boston very much lives in the shadow of New York, and places like Chiba and Saitama are more or less defined by being in Tokyo’s orbit). And the decline of rural small towns in the west and midwest is basically a trope. But in the modern case, many urban areas have grown in proportion. Maybe less true in Japan or Russia where there is real population decline, but certainly in the US cities like Seattle and Austin have boomed. But the impression I get with Rome is that at some point only a few cities counted for much and even those were much less vital. The decline of literacy in particular is striking, perhaps just from a modern perspective but literacy is tied to everything else in modern times. It reminds me of the sci-fi book “Earth Abides”.

    1. Some of the population died. Wars and plagues don’t end with folks shaking hands at the end and all going home to their families, after all. Lots of folks die in the invasions and civil wars.

      Then you have the break-up of large, patrician-run plantations as those patricians declined in power and the land was instead settled by the people who lived there. Look back at OGH’s series on making bread; the average small farmer was working 5 acres or less, while having enough labor for 10 or 20.

      Finally while cities declines in the West they stayed strong in the East. It’s not hard to imagine a civil bureaucrat who saw the writing on the wall and moved his family out east. That would also be part of the brain-drain that post-Roman kingdoms experienced, as the people with the skills who could move likely did so years before the barbarians came through and set up their own kingdoms.

    2. Estimates of ancient and medieval populations are very iffy – the data is scarce, general numbers unreliable and local numbers very local. That said, Roman demographics seem to have been precarious even in good times, so wars, raids and plagues all took a toll, and were only slowly recovered from. Until modern times urban areas were population sinks (more deaths than births), kept stable or growing only by in-migration.
      There are a lot of indications that the late Empire was very manpower-hungry. The state also became more grasping, which drove peasants and small landowners to revolt (eg the Bagaudae in Gaul and northern Spain) – a downward spiral as towns were cut off from the countryside and from trade, no in-migration, decline, lower tax collection, weaker centre….All this would have a disproportionate effect on towns.

    3. In regards to the “where did they all go” question, over and above all the people who actually died… Remember that throughout this period, most people lived in the countryside. The productive activities that were required for minimal human sustenance in pre-modern times are pretty much always farming, textile working, and arguably woodcutting, and all of them would be happening in the countryside.

      When a city was depopulated for a reason other than “some enemy army killed everyone inside the walls,” you’d presumably see a slow ‘deflation.’ Trade and central administration breaking down mean less (or no) money and goods flowing into the city, which means less that can be exchanged for goods from the surrounding countryside.

      At the same time, things like wars and epidemics don’t only depopulate cities. Rural villages get burned out too, peasants die of plagues. There are going to be farms in need of strong backs, and urban-dwellers with nowhere to go but to try and make a go of it in the countryside.

      Of course, as per Dr. Devereaux’s “Lonely Cities” posts, it should be noted that the farms many of these city-dwellers go ‘back to’ may not be far outside the walls of the shrinking city. Land that was used for specialist high-value agriculture like vegetable gardening when the city was large becomes wheat fields when the city shrinks down into nothing but a glorified farming village in the ruins of the old metropolis.

      1. Thanks for the reply, I had never seen the “lonely cities” articles and going back to read them definitely helped. The emphereal and artificial nature of cities is easy to forget sometimes. They have to be supported by everything else.

        I follow some environmentalists blogs, which are into degrowth and have a lot of “back to the land” people. Many of them see a return to old population patterns of 90% farmers in the countryside as an inevitable outcome in the future. But if you did that now, well… it wouldn’t go well. In many ways.

        In the Roman context of agricultural life being the norm, and there actually being a available land to support most people, a city emptying out is still a disaster but much, much less of one. I actually live in a rural area currently but if you tried to put people in small holdings it would collapse into a type of poverty not familiar to most people in the western world. And since this entire area is orchards and very unsuited to grain, while a nearby area grows grain but is unsuited to orchards, the entire pattern of land use in the rural areas is dependent on transportation and trade. Not to mention the irrigation systems and river dams that make this area productive at all – it’s semi desert and without extensive irrigation would produce very little.

        But in a premodern world, going “back to the land” and doing things “by hand” is not nearly as high a cliff to fall off. Still a hard fall for many but nothing like modern times.

  23. I’m very interested in that discussion of state capacity and the centralisation of the Roman state. Why did the empire centralise when the earlier system seemed to work? What are the benefits of either systems? (Centralised vs. local administrations)
    I’d love a future post entirely focused on different systems of states and governance, perhaps looking at Roman, Greek/Persian and perhaps even Indian and Chinese empires.

    1. The Crisis of the Third century shows the problems with the earlier systems: They were terribly prone to coups and local provincial governors launching rebellions. The centralization reforms (as is talked about above) mitigated this problem.

      So it’s a matter of “In trying to fix a serious problem you end up creating a different kind of problem”.

  24. >Bishops ended up taking up some of the tasks that in the past would have fallen to a Roman governor and since they had their seats in the embattled Roman cities, many of those cities survived the difficult fifth and sixth centuries precisely because they were the seat of a bishop.

    >And so the Church had to train them itself, setting up episcopal and monastic schools which trained theology, but also law and administration

    In Polish, the word “zakon” means “monastic order”. In Czech, it literally means “law”. And YES, this time I’ve double checked with a dictionary.

    1. The outside-of-Rome perspective is interesting and (and unfortunately so spotty…) Scandinavia seems to go through an entire boom-and-bust cycle (with Vendel-age enclosed space construction and impressive burials, to then what looks like less impressive stuff before we start seeing signs of new kingdoms during the Viking Age) but it’s all extrmely patchy since we don’t have any kind of narrative sources at all, just archeology.

      1. Florin Curta has written an entire huge tome about Eastern Europe in the 6th and adjacent centuries, with tons of (mostly) archaeological data. Many areas underwent drastic and interesting changes during that period, e.g. Masuria, Estonia or the Middle Volga region. No narrative sources either outside the shrinking Eastern Roman Empire… I read it when it was freely available online and the author responded to comments, but now it is behind a paywall:

        The most interesting part in my opinion is the complete collapse of state structure and writing and thorough depopulation of the whole Balkan peninsula outside the immediate vicinity of Constantinople, Thessalonike, Athens and Corinth.

  25. It is a great article, thanks !

    “when actually performing a regular census proved difficult, Constantine responded by mandating that coloni – the tenant farmers and sharecroppers of the empire – must stay on the land they had been farming so that their landlords would be able to pay the taxes, casually abrogating a traditional freedom of Roman citizens for millions of farmers out of administrative convenience.”

    I’m currently researching this topic for a book, could you share what is your source (book or other) for this ? It would help me tremendously 🙂

    1. Here is an excerpt from the book “The Lessons of History” that I think will be of interest to you :

      “Rome had its socialist interlude under Diocletian.

      Faced with increasing poverty and restlessness among the masses, and with imminent danger of barbarian invasion, invasion, he issued in A.D. 301 an Edictum de pretiis, which denounced monopolists for keeping goods from the market to raise prices, and set maximum prices and wages for all important articles and services.

      Extensive public works were undertaken to put the unemployed to work, and food was distributed gratis, or at reduced prices, to the poor.

      The government—which already owned most mines, quarries, and salt deposits—brought nearly all major industries and guilds under detailed control. “In every large town,” we are told, “the state became a powerful employer,… standing head and shoulders above the private industrialists, who were in any case crushed by taxation.”

      When businessmen predicted ruin, Diocletian explained that the barbarians were at the gate, and that individual liberty had to be shelved until collective liberty could be made secure.

      The socialism of Diocletian was a war economy, made possible possible by fear of foreign attack. Other factors equal, internal liberty varies inversely as external danger. The task of controlling men in economic detail proved too much for Diocletian’s expanding, expensive, and corrupt bureaucracy.

      To support this officialdom—the army, the court, public works, and the dole—taxation rose to such heights that men lost incentive to work or earn, and an erosive contest began between lawyers finding devices to evade taxes and lawyers formulating laws to prevent evasion.

      Thousands of Romans, to escape the tax gatherer, fled over the frontiers to seek refuge among the barbarians. Seeking to check this elusive mobility, and to facilitate regulation and taxation, the government issued decrees binding the peasant to his field and the worker to his shop until all his debts and taxes had been paid. In this and other ways medieval serfdom began.”

  26. Hello Professor,

    have you seen this study
    about cities close to Roman roads prospered, even centuries later, over other cities? I thought of how you mentioned in several essaies how Rome was unusual in wealth production because of Roads and institutions.

    Also, about the importance of institutions, did you read this:

    He’s arguing that for indepence to work (from existing states), institutions must come first, then identity, otherwise, it won’t work long enough.

  27. Your description of what happened in Arles makes me think of Diamond City in Fallout 4. Turns out that is historically plausible in that situation!

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