This is the third and final part (I, II, III) of our series tackling the complicated and still debated question of ‘how bad was the fall of Rome (in the West)?’ In our first part, we looked at the question through the prism of ‘words’ – language, culture, religion and literature. There we found a lot of evidence for continuity, supporting the position advanced by the ‘change and continuity’ school that the collapse of Roman political authority didn’t have catastrophic effects in other parts of society. In the second part, we looked at ‘institutions’ – politics, cities and organized religion. Here the picture was far more complex. On the one hand, the states that emerged in the West were successors of the Western Roman Empire and carried with them some of its traditions, but on the other hand they were much weaker, less effective and more fragmented states, with vastly reduced state capacity. While the institutional Church, a distinctly Roman institution by the early fifth century, survived and even thrived after the collapse of Roman political authority, the cities and vibrant urban culture which had defined not merely Roman but the broader sweep of Mediterranean antiquity collapsed. At the same time, we noted that in the East, there was far more continuity and for far longer.
This week then, we’re going to turn to ‘things’ – economics and demographics (which is also going to include a brief discussion of popular literacy). In my own view, this is the decisive part of the ‘fall of Rome’ question, because these are the areas in which we can get a sense of what the experience of the collapse of Roman authority was like for the vast majority of people in the Roman world who do not write to us, who were not rich or powerful and who are thus very difficult to see historically. After all, even if the collapse of Roman political authority was a neutral or even potentially beneficial experience for the elite stratum at the top of society – and it is not clear that it was, mind you; those elites themselves that write to us certainly did not think so – if it was catastrophically bad for the non-elite population, their experience utterly swamps the elite experience by sheer dint of numbers.
And as those of you who have noticed the trend in how this series is organized may have already guessed, it was catastrophically bad. Buckle up folks, it is all downhill from here.
But first, at the most awkward possible moment – 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.
The Revenge of the Archaeologists
Before we dive into the evidence, I want to speak briefly to the nature of the evidence for these topics. ‘Historian’ is often an odd sort of field because while there is a core discipline and skill set that basically all historians are going to have (focused on reading texts critically and assessing arguments and evidence), beyond this almost all historians end up acquiring other skill sets, often from other fields, depending on what they are investigating. I, for instance, work on military history and so I need to have some mastery of military theory, whereas an intellectual historian might instead have some training in philosophy.
It is thus relevant that over the past half-century or so, it has so happened that effectively all ancient historians have had to develop a strong grasp of archaeological data; we don’t all necessarily learn to do the excavation work, of course (that’s what archaeologists do), but pretty much all ancient historians at this point are going to have to be able to read a site or artifact report as well as have a good theoretical grasp of what kinds of questions archaeology can be used to answer and how it can be used to answer those questions. This happened in ancient history in particular for two reasons: first, archaeology was a field effectively invented to better understand the classical past (which is now of course also used to understand the past in other periods and places) so it has been at work the longest there, but also because the sources for ancient history are so few. As I like to say, the problem for the modern historian is taking a sip of meaning from the fire-hose of evidence they have; but the challenge of an ancient historian is finding water in the desert. Archaeological data was a sudden, working well in that desert and much of the last two decades of ancient history has been built around it. Other fields of history are still processing their much larger quantity of texts; why dig so deep a well when you live next to a running river?
The result, in ancient history, has been what I tend to refer to as ‘the revenge of the archaeologists.’ Not, mind you, revenge on medievalists, but in fact revenge on a very specific ancient historian and classicist, Moses Finley. Moses Finley was, from the 1950s to the 1980s, one of the most prominent classicists and his work touched on many fields, including the study of the ancient economy. Finley, writing in the 1960s was generally skeptical of the ability of archaeology to provide useful answers about the ancient economy (he preferred to understand the question by probing the mentalities1 of the Greek and Roman elite). Archaeology, Finley thought, was frequently over-interpreted and could never give a representative sample anyway; as he quipped in his 1965 article “Technical Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World,” “we are too often victims of that great curse of archaeology, the indestructibility of pots,” a line for which, as far as I can tell, he is still quite unforgiven by some archaeologists.
As if in response, the archaeologists have spent the subsequent almost-six-decades proving again and again the tremendous value of their discipline by, among other things, utterly burying Finley’s The Ancient Economy (1973) under a mountain of archaeological data. It turns out the mentalités of aristocrats who largely hated merchants were not a good barometer of the activities of those merchants.
But you may now guess how this is going to play out in the discussion of Late Antiquity. The ancient historians come to the question ready to think in archaeological terms and ask what archaeological data can do to clear up these questions. Scholars of Late Antiquity trained as medievalists on the other hand, may or may not be well versed in archaeological methods or data (to be clear, some medievalists very much are versed, including prominent voices on the ‘change and continuity’ side of this debate! But it is also very possible to be a ‘pure text’ medievalist in a way that I don’t think I know a ‘pure text’ ancient historian younger than sixty) because their field has not been forced, by dint of the paucity of sources, to revolve so heavily around archaeological data and because the archaeological data on the Middle Ages is not yet as voluminous as that on Classical Antiquity.
As I noted in the first post, beginning in the 1970s, what James O’Donnell calls the ‘reformation in Late Antique studies’ launched a long overdue reassessment of Late Antiquity and the impact of the Fall of Rome – what we’ve called the ‘change and continuity’ argument. I bring up all of this to note that the ‘counter-reformation’ – what we’re calling the ‘decline and fall’ argument – that really emerges beginning in the 90s is in many ways an extension of the ‘revenge of the archaeologists’ in Classical studies (and especially the ancient economy) into the field of Late Antiquity. Indeed some of the scholars are the same (e.g. Willem Jongman) and many of them enter the debate on Late Antiquity as an extension of the debate about the Roman economy (in part demanding that ‘change and continuity’ Late Antique scholars acknowledge things now generally considered ‘proved’ by ancient historians about the earlier Roman economy).
In my own experience, particularly in more informal conversations, the methodological difference that interaction creates between ancient historians – for whom it has long been almost entirely settled that in a ‘fight’ between archaeological evidence and effectively any other kind, the archaeological evidence ‘wins’2 – and medievalists for whom archaeology is a much less central part of their method (in part because their textual sources are more extensive) can lead to situations where the two sides of the debate talk past each other.
But when it comes to questions of demographics, economics and the conditions of life for the sort of people who rarely figure in our sources, archaeological evidence – although it is often incomplete and hard to interpret – offers the possibility of decisive answers to questions that otherwise would have to live entirely within the realm of speculation.3
We can start with the question of population. As we’ve seen, the evidence – largely archaeological evidence, by the by (Liebeschuetz thus fits with many other historians in the ‘decline and fall’ counter-reformation in relying heavily on archaeological data) – suggests that urban centers declined markedly beginning in the fourth century, with that decline accelerating as the empire crumbled. That of course raises the fairly obvious question: where did all of the people go? One possible theory is that the population mostly ruralized, moving out of the city and into the countryside. That might even suggest a positive change, if one accepts the view that ancient cities were mostly ‘consumer’ cities which didn’t produce much value but instead survived off of taxes and rents extracted from the countryside.4 In that view, the decline of cities could simply be a product of the collapse of systems of exploitation as the political order which maintained them weakened.
It’s a plausible theory and the only problem with it is that it doesn’t appear to have actually happened.
Here the key archaeological method is what is called ‘field survey.’ While readers are probably more familiar with the intensive excavation work done at famous sites like Pompeii or Vindolanda, one tool archaeologists have to study the past is to survey large areas, sometimes by air, sometimes by on foot, sometimes with ground penetrating radar, in an effort to map out larger scale settlement patterns in the past than would be possible by labor-intensive single-site excavation work. Dateable remains (pottery most often) allow for archaeologists to get a rough sense of the dates in which sites were inhabited and in some cases building remains and the like can give some sense of what kind of settlement was present. The ‘error-bars’ on some of this data can of course be large, but they offer a tool for tracking long-term changes in land use patterns. On the flip side, these sorts of studies really become valuable only when you have a lot of them to create a robust data-set over a fairly large area that lets you adjust for purely local patterns and distortions. Fortunately in much of the former Western Roman Empire and especially in Roman Italy (where these studies are very important for the study of Roman demography and agriculture) we’ve hit the tipping point where there is enough archaeological data to begin reaching for conclusions.
Now there is an immediate difficulty with using this kind of evidence, which is that for reasons we’ll get to in a moment (though they are reasons that tend to also be bad for the ‘change and continuity’ argument), we have a major confounding variable here: site visibility. Our ability to see a site, archaeologically, is heavily dependent on factors like building material and the quantity of imperishable goods (especially pottery) that people are using. For reasons we’ll get to, compared to, say, second century AD communities, sixth century AD communities tended to build their buildings in far more perishable (and thus less visible) materials (like wood) and also tended to use a lot less imperishable household goods. Consequently, it is substantially harder to see a sixth century village than it is to see a second century villa.
Nevertheless, the decline is so marked and so consistent as to strongly suggest there is something real here. R.P. Duncan Jones (in “Economic Change and the Transition to Late Antiquity” in Swain and Edwards (eds) Approaching Late Antiquity (2006)) assembles some of the site data from around the empire; there is unsurprisingly a lot of regional variation (with some regions, like Syria, actually moving against trend), but in the western Empire (except N. Africa; decline there comes later) the trend is fairly clear, with site numbers declining (often drastically by half or more) beginning in the late third or fourth centuries. Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome notes a field study outside of Rome in which the number of sites declines by three quarters. Site data accumulated like this isn’t often very chronologically precise, so we’re dealing with centuries, not decades, but the clear trend suggests rural population decline, not an urban population ruralizing. To be visible to us in this way, the decline must have been quite severe.
To give a sense of the scale of the decline, here is an abbreviated version of a chart from Bruce Friar’s “Demography” chapter in the second edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, which breaks down the estimated population of the Roman Empire by region and adds the dates when each of those regions got back to their Roman era population:
|Region:||Population in 164AD (in millions):||% Increase from 14 to 164 AD||Year When Roman Population Reattained:|
|Sardinia & Corsica||0.5||–||1250|
|Gaul & Germany||9.0||55.2||1200|
Note that the decline in the East was, as noted last time, both later and generally slower. The reason for the later times to reattain Roman population here in many cases is that the major medieval Islamic population centers were further East (e.g. Baghdad under the Abbasids) placing them outside the traditional bounds of the Roman Empire, but also that the Roman East was much more urbanized and densely populated compared to its land area than the Roman West in the second century (or at any time during the Roman Period) so the ‘population to attain’ bar on the East was much higher. After all, the cities of places like Syria or Egypt were in many cases centuries or even millennia old when the Romans showed up.
Now the long times there to regain the Roman population can be a bit deceiving (and are very approximate). For reasons we’ll get into shortly, population growth from 600 to 900 or so in Europe was very low, so the issue here isn’t that the decline was so steep that it took many centuries to recover from, but rather that the decline was from a high population equilibrium to a low population equilibrium, both of which were, under their own conditions, stable (if that is confusing, don’t worry, we’ll delve more into it in a moment). Second, the apparent gap between places that ‘caught up’ before 1300 and those that ‘caught up’ after it is smaller than it looks, because of course the mid-1300s represent a massive population discontinuity over the entire broader Mediterranean world due to the Black Death such that a lot of those places ‘catching up’ in the 1200s probably fell behind again due to the plague and then caught up again in the 1400s or early 1500s.
But this now raises two related questions: first, why did population decline so sharply and second, what was the impact on quality of life that resulted? The old answer to the first question was of course ‘the barbarians killed everyone’ but as we’ve seen, while the fifth century was a violent time, the violent discontinuities were not that extreme. Surely the violence of the period has something to do with some of this declining population, but as noted, the underlying population (with their language and religion) didn’t much change (and the raw number of ‘barbarians’ coming over the frontier was, in demographic terms, fairly small). Most of those Roman cities decayed, rather than being burned. But if the ‘barbarians’ didn’t kill everyone, what did and why did that somehow have a negative impact on the survivors? The answers to these two questions are actually linked in that they depend on the same evidence, so that is where we will go next.
And we can start with another fairly common theory about this period – ‘perhaps the decline in exploitative cities and population causes life to get better.’ This isn’t as crazy as it seems! The Black Death, which we’ve just mentioned, is an obvious (and of course for any medievalist, readily available) analogy. The Black Death may have killed something like a third of the population of medieval Europe in the mid-1300s. Of course that is very bad! But one of the paradoxes of the Black Death is that in the aftermath of it, living conditions for the survivors clearly improved! The population growth of the previous centuries had meant bringing more marginal, less productive land under cultivation to support that population, which had reduced the per-farmer efficiency of agriculture even as total production grew, which had in turn meant that most farmers lived closer to the subsistence line and thus were poorer, their labor less valued. Killing a third of them thus made the labor of the remaining two-thirds much more valuable. Marginal land fell out of production as farmers focused on the best land, which improved production per-farmer (even as total, aggregate production fell) resulting in higher standards of living for the survivors. This is a classic ‘Malthusian’ interaction and the evidence for the period is robust enough that we can be quite sure it happened.
So it was perfectly reasonable for some Late Antique scholars to suppose that the same thing, in some form, might have happened in Late Antiquity, especially after the collapse of the Roman Empire. After all, the collapse of state power meant that the increasingly heavy burden of Roman taxation will have vanished too, replaced by the less effective and thus less extractive polities that followed. And the cities, with their urban elite extracting rents and – in that ‘consumer city’ model of the economy – providing not much of value in return were sharply reduced in number, reducing the burden on the peasantry to support them.
It is, again, a charming and seductively plausible argument marred only by the regrettable flaw that it doesn’t seem to have happened.
Instead, to jump to the end, what the evidence – again, here mostly archaeological evidence used in a statistics-driven way – suggests is that what we are seeing is that average, per-capita production declined, resulting in a real decline in living standards including nutrition, which resulted in population decline. That population decline was thus the physical expression of a lot of real misery: starvation perhaps, but in most cases more likely heightened infant and maternal mortality as a result of malnourishment. This is, by the by, an example of a simple Malthusian interaction breaking, because the classic Malthusian logic assumes that agricultural production is primarily a function of land – but as it turns out, a lot about how you farm that land, even without major changes in farming technology, can substantially change the efficiency of your agricultural economy and thus the population it could support. In essence, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire caused the carrying capacity of the Mediterranean World, and especially western Europe, to decline, leading to the population declining to follow in step – which is to be clear, an incredibly bloodless way to describe a period of real, sharp human misery.
The evidence for this decline, initially slow in coming, is now quite substantial; Willem Jongman assembles perhaps the most complete set of it in “Gibbon was Right: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Economy” in Crisis and the Roman Empire (2007)5. Jongman considers evidence for coin minting (through atmospheric lead records contained in ice cores), trade (via dated shipwrecks), meat consumption (via bone assemblages) and basic nutrition (via height calculated through femur length in dated human remains), inter alia and finds the same or similar patterns in each indicator. To take the most direct indicator of nutrition effect son people, mean femur length rises over the early Roman Empire, falls slightly in the late second and early third century, rises again but not quite so high over the fourth century, and then utterly collapses in the fifth:
(Post-publication note: It turns out the evidence for biological health is a lot more complex. For those looking to see the latest on that, check out W.M. Jongman, J.P.A.M. Jacobs, and G.M. Klein Goldewijk, “Health and wealth in the Roman Empire” in Economics and Human Biology (2019). The upshot is that with a larger dataset and a more sophisticated approach to it, they show that in fact the ‘biological standard of living’ in the Roman Empire does seem to have declined as the population grew and then improved as the population declined, the reverse of the pattern of the data above. That said, they note that this is despite all of the other indicators of well-being, including diet indicators, moving the other way, meaning that even as diet improved, height fell. They attribute the shift to a ‘health cost’ mostly due to disease prevalence from the denser population and greater degree of trade, a direct tradeoff for the greater material wealth of the Roman world. One factor they consider but dismiss is the possibility that the data is being shaped by changing burial customs, because elite Romans tended to cremate (which would remove their bones from the sample) but that pre-Roman populations and later Christians, including elites, inhumed. That might mean that our Roman period sample is depressed because the wealthier parts of society have been systematically removed. They dismiss this on the grounds that it would require assuming that the impact of social class was greater than that of period, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t have been given that we’re talking about baseline nutrition impacts and the basic math of subsistence doesn’t change that much over time. I’d assume that a wealthy Roman elite or 9th century noble probably ate more meat than a peasant at any point in pre-modern history, so the possibility that elite burials have been systematically excluded from the same is a serious one and potentially confounds the entire dataset.)
That evidence is in turn largely consistent (with some noise, because data of this sort is always noisy) with our evidence for diet. Jongman presents graphs, for instance, of animal bone deposits, a good indication of the degree to which people were eating meat in a society. Meat is, of course, very high in protein (and also delicious) but it is also expensive – you can feed a lot more people on grain than meat, so the level of meat consumption in a pre-modern society is a good indicator of living standards (especially meat consumption among non-elites). In Italy, Jongman notes, animal bone assemblages become progressively more common from 450 BC until reaching a peak around 50 AD. They then decline a bit (but still well elevated from the pre-Roman norm) to a low in the mid-third century (which you will recall was not a great time for the Roman Empire) before rising again to another peak in the fourth and early fifth century, high but lower than the early imperial peak, before collapsing to almost nothing by 650 AD; the decline from 450 AD to 550 AD is the sharpest change in the data at any point. The data for the provinces also fits expectations – in that graph, assemblages sharply rise beginning in 150 BC, peak in 150 AD, fall down to a lower-but-still-high plateau in the fourth century, and then collapse down to nearly pre-Roman levels by 450.
If anything, this may understate the problem because the animals here are not all the same either. As Bryan Ward-Perkins notes (op cit), based on archaeological remains, the average height of an iron-age (pre-Roman) cow was 115.5cm. In the Roman period, this rises to 120cm, but in the early Middle Ages, collapses down to 112cm. Now that is of course both bad for the people eating the cows, but it is also bad for what it says about the farmers raising the cows – chances are you are shortchanging the nutrition of your (very valuable) cows because you yourself are experiencing significant food shortfalls. The cows are getting smaller because this society is getting poorer – and not merely the elites are getting poorer; everyone is getting poorer. At this point the evidence is fairly clear on this point: living standards declines across the entire spectrum of Late Roman and early medieval society. Not only were the elites of 600 AD poorer than the elites of 400 AD (and much poorer than the elites of 200AD), so too were the peasants.
But if it wasn’t because the ‘barbarians’ burned everything – because again, they didn’t – how could this happen?
From High Equilibrium to Low Equilibrium
And here it is important to understand how you can have economic growth happen in a system where the basic inputs of production – in this case land and farming technology – haven’t really changed much. I should note of course that farming technology was improving over this period (albeit slowly; a good summary on this here), but the change here isn’t due to farming technology and in any event farming technology doesn’t seem to have declined in the transition to the Middle Ages. The issue is changes in efficiency.
We’ve actually talked about how agricultural systems can operate at multiple different equilibria for a given set of land and technology inputs before. Peasant farmers operating in isolation from effective markets tend to diversity their farming, sacrificing efficiency for a greater margin of safety. But if those same farmers produced for the market, either because they were rich and thus basic survival was less a concern or because the tax man forced them to to pay taxes or simply because markets were reliable and efficient enough to make it a safe enough bet, they could specialize on the crops that were most productive in their area. That would be likely to produce regional centers of production, but of course that can only work if long distance trade in bulk staples is possible and cheap enough so that excess production in one region can be moved to the next.
And because basic capital scarcity, typically in things like draft animals and manure, are factors in all of this, its possible to create a virtuous cycle where these newly more efficient, market oriented-farms benefiting from capital advantage can invest more in things like draft animals and manure (because the agricultural surplus to feed the animals exists), realizing improvements in production. So long as the system works, a society like that could operate at a higher stable equilibrium, with a higher quality of life, and a larger per-capita agricultural surplus which would enable more non-farmers (some of whom might be idle elites but many of whom would be productive workers – like artisans – whose labors might feed back into the living quality of the peasantry).
A system like that, where the gains in per-capita production were the product of trade networks leveraging competitive advantage and the accumulation of agricultural capital (animals, but also potentially mills, olive presses, that sort of thing) could potentially be very fragile. Disruptions to trade or a failure to maintain that agricultural capital through a crisis could lead a society to fall back down to a lower equilibrium. Essentially, because the growth of this system is reliant primarily on institutions rather than technologies, should those institutions decline – as institutions do – the system will decline with them.
In practice that means that the conclusions one draws about how bad the economic decline of the fourth and fifth centuries depend largely on how one understands the economic situation of the earlier Roman imperial period. And so it is perhaps unsurprising that the ‘change and continuity’ argument tends to assume a fairly unimpressive Roman economy. As Peter Brown puts it, the extent of the poverty of sixth and seventh century western Europe “implies, furthermore, that we may have exaggerated the overall wealth and sophistication of western Europe under the Roman empire. It was not as highly developed a society as we might conclude from its surviving monuments…there had never been a commercial unity to be destroyed.”6
This is largely a pre-Revenge of the Archaeologists vision, consistent with Finley’s reaction to earlier writing on the Roman economy (he was reacting against a yet older scholar, M. Rostovtzeff) and his later defenders (a school of thought about the Roman economy called ‘primitivism’ because it holds that the Roman economy was relatively primitive in structure). Indeed, Brown’s description of the Late Roman economy as a “crude but vigorous pump which had ensured the circulation of goods in an otherwise primitive economy” is a direct and colorful description of the model of the Roman economy set out by Keith Hopkins in the 1980s and 1990s, which expressly set out to set out a model of the Roman economy that could accommodate the growth that was, by then, increasingly archaeologically obvious, without wholly abandoning the primitivist model of the economy.7
The problem, of course, is that this is precisely the view of the ancient economy that the Revenge of the Archaeologists has largely overturned. The primitivist view assumes most trade is in luxuries, but in fact we have evidence for high volume trade (mostly by sea, of course) in bulk staples, much of it apparently outside of state action. Seaborne trade, especially during the two first centuries and the second century, turns out to have taken place at a much larger scale (in particular using lots of much larger ships). Most importantly, to judge by shipwreck data (on the assumption that merchant ship design, which changed little over this period, meant that the odds of ships sinking remained relatively constant), the volume of ships on the sea changed massively (the thing to read here is A. Wilson, “Developments in Mediterranean shipping and maritime trade from the Hellenistic period to AD 1000” in Maritime Archaeology and Ancient Trade in the Mediterranean (2011)).
Now there are some caveats that this graph needs too – as always, archaeological data is tricky. In this case, as Wilson notes, there is a major impact in our graph in the second century when barrels begin to displace amphora for moving liquid goods. Amphorae, being pots, survive to be found on the ocean floor while wooden barrels often decay away. Wilson attempts to control for this by looking at only shipwrecks with stone cargoes; that graph shows shipping remaining steady at first century levels out through roughly 400 AD before dropping off then. We should also note that there is a regional bias in this data; the Western Mediterranean is both shallower (so easier to find wrecks) and sees a lot more divers (both archaeological and recreational). Justin Leidwanger breaks up the Eastern and Western Mediterranean graphs in his book Roman Seas: A Maritime Archaeology of Eastern Mediterranean Economies (2020). What that effort shows is that in the Eastern Mediterranean, the shipwreck numbers decline modestly in the fourth and fifth century, but recover in the sixth before declining more strongly after 650.
What is notable then here in both the Eastern and Western Mediterranean is that the scale of trade seems to follow the territorial integrity of the Roman Empire – where it stayed intact longer in the East, trade continued longer in the East, but the disruption of the loss of Egypt and Syria, while not as extreme as the decline in the West, still has a notable impact.
Meanwhile, evidence for long distance trade based on the movement of the goods themselves or containers has also improved dramatically in the last several decades. As Ward-Perkins notes (op. cit., 97-8) pottery is both very durable but also frequently traceable back to its point of origin either by style, composition or – for bulk storage vessels – tituli picti, stamped or inscribed production labels. So we can, for instance, note that a production center at la Graufesenque, in Aveyron in the south of France, which made ceramic tableware, sent products as far north as Scotland, as far south as Libya, east into Italy and west all the way to the Atlantic coast of Portugal. These sorts of products co-existed with more locally produced versions and imported pottery is not restricted only to elite contexts either; at least some of this was available to regular people.
All of that trade demanded new coinage to facilitate it and indeed we can be fairly certain that the money supply expanded dramatically in this period. Silver smelting – to produce coinage (or other silver goods) – releases small amounts of lead into the atmosphere which can be detected and measured when trapped in the ice in places like Greenland. You can thus take the atmospheric lead content as a fairly direct barometer of how many new coins are being minted from freshly mined silver (rather than remelted coins) at any given time). And the graph looks like this:
It also seems like the Roman Empire saw heightened amounts and quality of construction. Jongman (op. cit.) notes a study of dated timber remains in western Germany and the clear boom during the principate and then subsequent fall was readily visible in the data (though by 500 or so, things are moving again, but at less than half the level of 100). Meanwhile, the precise reason that it is so much easier to find Roman period sites than early medieval sites in field surveys is because Roman sites both have more pottery but especially are more likely to have buildings constructed in less perishable materials, particularly with ceramic roof tiles rather than something perishable like wood slats or thatch. And we have of course already noted the explosion of expensive public civic building under the early Roman Empire, the slow decay of those buildings in the late Empire and their near-complete disappearance after 450.
It is worth briefly returning to the topic of literacy again in light of all of this because one might reasonable also ask what both the surge in economic well-being meant for literacy and what its collapse meant as well. If the Revenge of the Archaeologists on the Roman economy is in some ways complete or at least mature, it seems like the same process when it comes to literacy is only in its early stages. Nevertheless, the emerging volume of evidence for what Wallace-Hadrill8 refers to as the “trivialization of writing” is beginning to suggest that literacy rates may have been rather higher in the Roman Empire than we normally thought, at least in the urban population. Now we shouldn’t overstate this; we are still at best talking about a fairly small minority of the population and the level of individual proficiency could be very low among the common folk who had no formal training. A good example of this ‘trivilization’ are a selection of graffiti shopping lists from Pompeii discussed here by Kim Bowes; what’s striking about them is that the goods listed are not prestige goods but rather appear to reflect the diet of a not-quite-poor but certainly-not-rich Roman family: mostly bread, but with a bit of ‘splurge’ foods, but nothing exotic. As Bowes notes, scratching these lists into a wall implies two audiences, a writer and a reader and assumes that both could understand what was written there.
Comparing medieval literacy can be difficult, in part because what our sources consider literacy may vary: is a king that can read in French but not in Latin literate in the mind of a clerical writer? Nevertheless, it seems clear that the Western Europe that emerged from the collapse of the Roman Empire was substantially less literate than the Roman world implied by our Pompeii graffiti. Even low literacy estimates for the Roman Empire9 suggest rates somewhere between 10 and 30%, quite a bit higher at the top end of the range than similar estimates for the early Middle Ages, which tend to use 20% as an upper-bound. Far from being ‘trivialized’ by common possession, literacy in the early Middle Ages was to a significantly degree sacralized by its strong association with the Church (much as some of the earliest Bronze Age writing systems seem to have been, for a time, functionally sacred – though it is possible to overstate this and we certainly have Bronze Age writing of non-sacred nature, especially but not exclusively, in the Late Bronze Age). At the same time, it seems fairly clear that literacy among the elite and the urban classes wasn’t stagnant for the whole of the Middle Ages but began rising again, seemingly in lockstep with improving economic conditions and the growth of towns. Cross-period comparisons here are impossible to make with any precision, but if I had to guess, I would suppose that popular literacy by 1200 was as high as it had been in 100 and by 1500 was substantially higher in most of Western Europe (even excepting out the Low Countries and Britain which seem to have been, by the early modern period, somewhat elevated in literacy rates compared to the rest of Europe).
In short, across a wide range of indicators, the world of 550 was meaningfully poorer than the world of 350 and substantially poorer than the world of 150. People had less access to imported goods, less access to household durables, they built fewer buildings and had less to eat and as a result population fell. We chafe at periods of relative economic stagnation, but this appears by all measures to have been a period of profound and substantial economic decline, a decline which then persisted for generations.
When looking at this sort of data, there is a lot of noise, but a set of basic trends emerge that repeat across all sorts of different archaeological data-sets: a peak of economic activity in the two first centuries that extends into the second century AD, followed by a significant but not catastrophic decline in the third century to a new, apparently stable but lower plateau in the fourth century that is still substantially elevated above the pre- or post-Roman norms, followed by a sharp collapse in the fifth century and a period of apparent depression extending, in the West, from the sixth century to the eighth.
And while it has long been supposed that all of that Roman prosperity was captured by the Roman elite – who to be clear did capture a lot of it and became truly absurdly wealthy in the process as Rome was a terribly unequal society – it is clear from the archaeological evidence we have now that it seems like a fairly broad cut of Roman social classes, reaching down into the peasantry, experienced at least some meaningful elevation in standards of living during this period. Until it didn’t and living standards collapsed down near to – and in some cases below (though in most cases, it seems to me, slightly above) – pre-Roman iron age norms.
In light of that evidence, it seems to me that the insistence that the Roman Empire “had never done as much for its citizens as our exalted image of Rome might lead us to expect” (Brown, op. cit., third edition, in Year of Our Lord 2013) has to be abandoned or at the very least substantially modified.
So what happened? Discussing causes is always a matter of interpretation, but a number of causes for the rise in quality of life under the Roman Empire have been proposed and many of them could also explain the collapse of that improvement. The Roman Empire, quite apart from any intentionally official policy, was good for trade. Rome established what was effectively a customs union (albeit with multiple tariff zones) across the Mediterranean, making it easier to move goods long distances over the sea. The Romans also engaged in piracy suppression and perhaps most importantly, substantially reduced the amount of large scale warfare on the sea. One official policy which probably mattered here was the currency; the pre-Roman Mediterranean was a mess of different currency systems along with societies not yet extensively using coinage. The Romans standardized this, subsuming all of those local currencies into a single Roman currency system and at the same time Roman taxation fairly clearly had the effect of monetizing much of the Roman economy (that is, forcing the adoption of coinage) all of which will have lowered transaction costs.
Those lower transaction costs could, of course, reduce deadweight loss on the economy, but they also enabled a lot of interprovincial trade in bulk staples, enabling a limited (and we must stress that word) degree of agricultural regional specialization. And it is clear that happened! It is at this point clear that regions – like Baetica in Spain – or towns (like Leptiminus in North Africa) specialized in this new economy (in both cases in olives and olive oil). It’s also clear in some areas (this is very clear in Roman Britain, for instance) that small scale production of manufactured goods (e.g. pottery) moved into the cities and occurred on a substantially larger scale, likely experiencing economies of scale in the process. At the same time, the Roman economy, we are learning, was more financially sophisticated (particularly at its higher reaches) and allowed for more mobility not merely of goods but also of labor, though we should be careful here not to get carried away (and we do need to remember that a good portion of that labor mobility, though not, apparently, all of it, was accompanied by a lot of real human suffering through the institution of slavery). At the same time, interconnectedness did allow new technological innovations – watermills, new olive presses, etc. – to spread through the empire more rapidly than they might otherwise have done.
All of these factors, trade, coinage, specialization, etc., were probably working together at the same time to one degree or another; many of them depend on each other. All of that functioned to raise per capita production, allowing for both the quality of life and the population to rise in defiance of the normal Malthusian logic whereby if population rises, quality of life (particularly diet) ought to fall. But this system of improvement was fragile, based on the durability of the Roman political systems which created this imperfectly connected market.
And we should note that nearly all of the blows which brought this system down were self-inflicted by the Romans who for their part never seem to have understood the marvelous thing they had created. The Crisis of the Third Century shattered the political unity of that market and disrupted the limited degree of public peace that created it. Rival emperors both before the crisis but increasingly in it also devalued the currency and extracted supplies directly in kind rather than in cash, leading to weakness in the currency system and a progressive demonitization of the economy. This free-fall was to a degree arrested in the fourth century by Diocletian and Constantine, but the top-heavy, bureaucratic administration they created was probably itself a drag on the economy; Diocletian’s currency meddling and price fixing were disasters and Constantine’s efforts to actively reduce labor mobility to aid in collecting taxes couldn’t have helped. That leads to the lower-but-still-elevated fourth century plateau: elevated by the continued existence of semi-unified10 market and the fact that at least the wars of rival emperors tended to be geographically limited and less destructive than the pre-Roman (or post-Roman) norm of endemic warfare. Finally, there is something to the notion that the state-run systems of extraction and redistribution – taxing the farmers in grain to be shipped to the soldiers – may have continued to encourage a degree of specialization and trade; the “crude but vigorous pump” worked to a degree to elevate living standards over the pre-modern agricultural norm.
But that very cycle of usurpers and civil wars – and the decision of those rival emperors to (in Peter Brown’s phrasing, which I love), “bus in” ‘barbarian’ armies to fight each other – led to the slow but steady disintegration of that united political order, the shift to more and more endemic violence and the final collapse both of that semi-unified market and the “crude but vigorous pump” that had in part replaced it. Living standards thus declined back down to the pre-Roman Iron Age norm while at the same time the carrying capacity of the empire also declined down to that norm, leading to what must have been decades of brutal misery as food ran short, malnourished infants died before their time, cities shrank and the world grew poor.
At the same time, it is possible that both disease and climate change were factors here too. The Antonine Plague (c. 165-180) was lethal and disruptive although if plague was the only issue we’d expect a pattern looking more like the Black Death – population decline but living standard improvement. Climate – a shift to a colder, drier climate – may have also been a more major factor and there’s a fair bit of evidence to suggest that the climate became less favorable beginning in the last third century. That could have pressed down farming yields, worsening the both living standards but also driving Roman authorities to tax harder to sustain military operations in the face of declining production.
This also explains why the experiences of different regions of the empire could end up so different. In the East, the loss of connection to the West wasn’t nearly so catastrophic because the Eastern Mediterranean remained connected (in the somewhat weak, Late Roman way). By contrast, an area that was both only recently urbanized and on the periphery of the empire and thus relied on that interconnectedness to sustain its urban centers – like Britain – was hit much harder by the collapse. It is hard not to notice that a fair number of the strongest voices in the ‘decline and fall’ camp are British and one wonders how much it influences their view that Roman Britain was, above and away the worst hit part of the empire in the immediate aftermath (for more on this, Robin Fleming, Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise 400 to 1070 (2010))
Now at the same time we need to be clear about what this does not mean: it does not mean that the Roman world was on the verge of beginning that heady, nearly vertical upward trend in human prosperity that launches violently out of the end of the early modern period. The collapse of this Roman system was a real tragedy for the people living at the time and for a considerable time thereafter, but what was elevating this system above the pre-modern agricultural norm was not the unrush of technological change but an unusual period of political unity which enabled greater interconnectedness. Moreover, the disintegration of Roman political authority was hardly a sui generis event; interconnected state systems had collapsed before and would collapse later, some of them quite a bit more completely than the Roman one did.
So our knights have dueled and where have we ended up?
Clearly there are some popular notions of this period which have to be rejected outright. The ‘nitwit’ of our duel – the notion that the Middle Ages was some general collapse of ‘progress’ which delayed the course of human development – doesn’t accord with the evidence. The popular perception is that many Roman technologies were lost, but in fact these were fairly few, the most notable being Roman concrete. As noted, what is remarkable about Greek and Roman literature and learning is not how much of it was lost, but how much of it survives to the present. Moreover, the Roman economy was not the durable foundation for a lost early industrial revolution;11 instead it was a delicate clockwork mechanism which could, for a time, haul itself modestly – and only modestly – above pre-modern agrarian norms. When the gears broke, the clockwork stopped and it fell back down.
At the same time, ‘falling back down’ is not the only story of the Middle Ages. I cannot stress this enough, the European Middle Ages were not a stagnant time in Europe or anywhere else. Older scholars, like Rostovtzeff and Gibbon supposed that Europe only reached a Roman level of prosperity in the early modern period, perhaps in the 1500s or 1600s, reasoning from the grandeur of Roman buildings and literature. But a fair look at the economic and demographic history suggests, I think, quite clearly that the ‘crossover’ point is much earlier, well into the Middle Ages. My own rough estimate would be generally around 1100 in most places; state capacity remains lower for longer because the states of Europe were small and fragmented, but one can argue that was a good thing for their long-term development. Moreover, not everything between 476 and 1100 was just ‘recovery’ – some things were new! Speaking of my own expertise, medieval steel-making, especially at its upper end, tends to be quite a bit better than Roman steel-making. Water-mills (which the Romans had) and windmills (which they didn’t) were, by 1100 apparently far more common in Europe than they had been under the Romans.
The collapse of Roman political authority doesn’t represent any sort of clear break in anything we might call ‘Roman civilization’ – on this, Ward-Perkins seems to me to be quite clearly wrong when he terms the fall of the Roman Empire in the West as the ‘Death of a Civilization.’ Latin persisted; Christianity persisted; Roman literature persisted; Roman law persisted; the Roman Empire itself persisted in the East. The claims of Frankish and Gothic kings to be heirs to the legacy of Rome was not an empty one from a cultural standpoint – if Gallo-Romans or Greek-speaking Eastern Romans could be heirs of Rome, why not Latin-speaking Franko-Romans?
At the same time, what we might call the ‘strong’ form of the ‘change and continuity’ position – that essentially nothing of value was lost as the Roman Empire crumbled in the west – doesn’t seem sustainable in light of the evidence either. One understands the impulse for medievalists in particular to defend their field against the nitwit position above by taking this strong version. But it is quite clear that, on the one hand, the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West represented a substantial decline in state capacity, borne out by smaller churches, fewer public buildings, smaller armies, and smaller, less centralized, more fragmented polities and a greater degree of endemic warfare (although those wars were often on a smaller scale). Resource mobilizations that were casual accomplishments for the Romans – the construction of the infrastructure of Roman cities essentially ex nihilo through much of Gaul and Spain – would be flatly out of reach for western European states until the High Middle Ages.
At the same time, it seems fairly clear from the evidence that the collapse of Roman connectedness took a slow economic decline and turned it into a collapse. As I’ve said, what you see here depends on where you look and what you think is the most important; for me – as I’ve noted before – my focus is drawn to the living conditions of the people in a society. From that perspective, the fall of Rome was an unmitigated disaster, a clear (but not total) break with the economic patterns of antiquity which had enabled a measure of prosperity in the Mediterranean world. The world that emerged in the sixth century was one that was substantially poorer, its population brought back in line with its reduced production by decades of grinding misery and shortage.
The ‘Fall of Rome’ has of course become a touchstone in political discourse and that has produced responses to this question which are politically freighted. Peter Brown in the preface to the revised third edition of The Rise of Western Christendom (2013), notes this expressly and it is hard not to feel at least a bit that the desire to push back on, as he puts it, “conventional images of the fall of Rome from which, as we have seen, extremist politicians and demagogues in contemporary Europe had conjured up a toxic discourse based on prejudice and fear” (xxxi). But I don’t think the way to push back on that notion is to play down the economic complexity and success of the Roman Empire – even the Late Roman Empire – in increasing defiance of the fairly clear archaeological evidence so as to pretend that nothing much of value was lost when the empire disappeared.
Instead, I think the stronger point here (and one Peter Brown – lest anyone think I think his work is without merit, which is far from the truth – and also many others make well) is that the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West – while it was a catastrophe for those people living at the time – was less a product of ‘hordes of barbarians’ coming over the frontier (who again, were mostly invited in by Roman leaders looking for advantage in their endless struggles with each other) and instead a product of actors within the political system, within the empire, tearing it apart out of the pursuit of their own interests, deceived by the assumption that something so old could never simply vanish…until it did. The consequences of their decisions and of their failure to recognize the fragility of the clockwork machine that suspended them above the poverty to come (and that it was already damaged) were great and terrible.
If you will permit me an extended metaphor, Rome wasn’t so much demolished by invaders as it was burned down by Roman arsonists who set fire to their own house – and they had been setting those fires since at least 235, long before Adrianople. The emperors of the fourth century (particularly Diocletian and Constantine) may have put out some of the fires by collapsing a wing of the house to smother them, but this can hardly be regarded as improvement, not the least because neither of them did anything to deal with the arsonists (one of which, Constantine, at least, must be reckoned). The emperors of the late fourth and fifth centuries then proceeded to invite people into the house, promising its shelter, if only they would help them light one more fire – and then when the house was burned down and everyone was left on the cold ground, they tried to shift the blame onto the very guests they had invited.
The collapse of the Roman Empire in the West is a complex sequence of events and one that often resists easy answers, but it is a useful one to think about, particularly as we now sit atop our own fragile clockwork economic mechanism, suspended not a few feet but many miles above the grinding poverty of pre-industrial life and often with our own arsonists, who are convinced that the system is durable and stable because they cannot imagine it ever vanishing.
Until it does.
- A technical term from the Annales school: mentalités, the feelings and worldview people possess
- That is, it is possible for archaeological evidence, like say, the distribution of trade goods, to falsify a textual report, but generally not the other way around. If your textual source says that no one buys imported Gaulish wines, but you in fact find lots of wine amphorae from Gaul, your textual source is wrong and the amphorae are right.
- Of course the attentive reader will note here that this very statement puts me on a ‘side’ of how this evidence gets treated. Like most ancient historians, I tend to hold that archaeological data – particularly when you have a big, well-dated sample – can settle some debates decisively, proving one side right and one side wrong largely beyond questions of interpretation. In the past I have found medievalist colleagues skeptical of this approach and the conclusions it, at this point, practically necessitates, though I have not yet seen a systematic rebuttal of the method.
- This view of the pure ‘consumer city’ is at best under siege in the study of the ancient economy for reasons discussed below. For a direct assault on it, see N. Morley, Metropolis and Hinterland (1996)
- Frustratingly in a volume that I worry many scholars of Late Antiquity may not have read because it is mostly a volume about the third century crisis in a series – Brill’s Impact of Empire – that is generally of more interest to scholars studying the early and high Roman Empire than to those studying Late Antiquity.
- The Rise of Western Christendom (2003, 2nd ed.), p. 12). The preface of the third edition (2013) has a more extended discussion on this point, citing some more recent scholarship, but still concludes “the Roman empire had never done as much for its citizens as our exalted image of Rome might lead us to expect. It did not protect the Roman populations against barbarians…rather…it created the image of a barbarian threat so as to justify its fiscal demands” (xxiv). As a description of the late Roman Empire, there are shades of arguability here, but as a general description of the empire the Romans had beginning in the Middle Republic – implied by that word ‘never’ there – this statement seems difficult to sustain, unless one assumes a very ‘exalted image’ indeed.
- There are two articles of note here, K. Hopkins, “Taxes and trade in the Roman empire,” JRS 70 (1980): 101-125 and K. Hopkins, “Rome, taxes, rents and trade,” Kodai 6/7 (1995/6): 41-75.
- in “Scratching the surface: a case study of domestic graffiti at Pompeii” in L’écriture dans la maison romaine (2011)
- e.g. W.V. Harris in Ancient Literacy (1989). On the author, please note.
- Emphasis on semi – we must in all of these things not get carried away. The Roman Empire was never the EU.
- To expand on this point for a moment, many of the precursor technologies are simply not in place for anything like an industrial revolution at any point in Roman history. Roman crop rotations may, in some cases, have been closer to the late medieval three-field system than the early medieval two-field system (on this see K.D. White, “Fallowing, Crop Rotation, and Crop Yields in Roman Times” Agricultural History 44.3 (1970)), but what they weren’t was the four-course system of the early modern period. They also didn’t have key New World crops, of course. The Romans also didn’t have cheaper blister or crucible steel, nor did they make heavy use of mineral coal. For textiles – a crucial part of the industrial revolution – the Romans entirely lacked the key medieval precursor technology, the spinning wheel (industrialized into the spinning jenny), so even if you gave the Romans a 19th century steam engine they couldn’t use it to spin thread – one of the critical early uses that steam engines were put to which justified further development of more efficient steam engines. Moreover, a lot of what was motivating both the desire to machine out cylinders (for pistons or for cannon) and delve deeper into chemistry was the security interest in gunpowder, which of course was centuries away from being invented in China. And while the Roman Empire wasn’t technologically stagnant, these key precursor technologies were mostly not the direction the Romans were moving – I wouldn’t expect them to have arrived at any of these given a few more decades or even a couple of centuries at their prosperous height. No early industrial revolution was lost.