Escape from Rome:
The Failure of Empire
and the Road to Prosperity
A few extracts
Overview (cover page)
The fall of the Roman Empire has long been considered one of the greatest disasters in history. But in this groundbreaking book, Walter Scheidel argues that Rome’s dramatic collapse was actually the best thing that ever happened, clearing the path for Europe’s economic rise and the creation of the modern age. Ranging across the entire premodern world, Escape from Rome offers new answers to some of the biggest questions in history: Why did the Roman Empire appear? Why did nothing like it ever return to Europe? And, above all, why did Europeans come to dominate the world?
In an absorbing narrative that begins with ancient Rome but stretches far beyond it, from Byzantium to China and from Genghis Khan to Napoleon, Scheidel shows how the demise of Rome and the enduring failure of empire-building on European soil ensured competitive fragmentation between and within states. This rich diversity encouraged political, economic, scientific, and technological breakthroughs that allowed Europe to surge ahead while other parts of the world lagged behind, burdened as they were by traditional empires and predatory regimes that lived by conquest. It wasn’t until Europe “escaped” from Rome that it launched an economic transformation that changed the continent and ultimately the world.
What has the Roman Empire ever done for us? Fall and go away.
Page 15 -- Introduction (p.1-30)
My book stands in a long tradition of scholarship that has invoked fragmentation and competition as an important precondition or source of European development. If differs from existing work in that for the first time, it develops a much more comprehensive line of reasoning to establish once and for all a fundamental axiom: without polycentrism, no modernity (19).
[Note from webmaster: In fact, this is what I already demonstrated, in much detail, for the 4 main civilizations, from 2000 to +2000, in my book LSO (1997, 2007, 2008).]
page 19 -- (Introduction, followed)
(…) Empires in general did tend to win, at least for a while, before they fell apart, only to be succeeded by others. In that sense, they were indeed without end. For untold generations, they imposed tributary rule
[note from webmaster: It should be said, more precisely, that an empire falling apart could be followed by another empire or... by a period of chaos. In some cases, chaos reigned supreme between two empires for such a long time that it can be considered as a period in its own right. As for the progress of civilization, both configurations (chaos or empire) were equally nocive, i.e. were far away from the optimal situation (the stable state system).]
and prevented stable systems from forming and building a different world [no! stable systems appered, but much less long time in other regions]. Our lives today are different only because in the end the “Romans” the empire builders did not, as it happens, **always** win, even if they came close (25).
[Note from webmaster: illusory feeling and oversimplification; as if no empires could have formed sometimes inbetween; example: ottoman, Chinese, mogul. Forgetting that nothing has changed: an empire this time the world over could still form...]
Their failure to do so may well have been our biggest lucky break since an errant asteroid cleared away the dinosaurs 66 million years earlier:
[Note from webmaster: a typical overstatement: maybe the evolution of the human species might be of importance as well... maybe the dinosaurs would have disappeared anyway... etc...]
there was no way to get to Denmark to build societies that enjoy freedom, prosperity and general welfare without escaping from Rome first (26).
How can we substantiate this argument? The search for the causes of the (modern, economic) “Great Divergence” is of immense importance for our understanding of how the world came to be the way it is,
[Note from webmaster: a typically too heavy sentence: a tautology in fact]
yet it has largely been abandoned by professional historians. In an informal but hardly unrepresentative sample drawn from my own bibliography only one in five of some forty-odd scholars who have made significant contributions to this grand debate have earned an advanced degree in history. Social scientists have been at the forefront of this (...) (27)
page 259 -- CHAPTER 8: NATURE
Geography imposes basic constraints on the scope and scale of human social interactions. State formation is no exception. Going back at least to Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, observers have sought to explain European fragmentation and Chinese unity with reference to the nature of the terrain. Back in the middle of the 18th century, the baron declared:
"In Asia, they have always had great empires; in Europe, those could never subsist (?) Asia has larger plains; it is cut out into much more extensive divisions by mountains and seas; and as it lies more to the south, its springs are more easily dried up; the mountains are less covered with snow; and the rivers being not so large, form smaller barriers" (1).
That much of this is dubious – what about the Himalayas, or the Yellow and Yangzi rivers; and don’t rivers connect rather than divide? ought not deter us from developing this line of inquiry. One does not have to be a geographical “determinist” to acknowledge that the physical environment matters and by now we can do better than Montesquieu.
page 260 -- Articulation: coastlines
In much of Europe – especially in its Latine western parts – land and sea are entangled in complex ways. Jared Diamond was not the first to consider its “highly indented coastline”, coupled with multiple peninsulas, conducive to political fragmentation. These features are simply the inverse of Montesquieu’s “much more extensive divisions” of Asia. East Asia’s coastline is smooth, with Korea as its only significant regional peninsula. Islands in close proximity to the mainland- Hainan and Taiwan are much smaller even than Ireland, and Japan and the Philippines, each of them larger than the British Isles are farther away (2).
Even though critics of geographical perspectives on history cannot deny that this is true, they doubt its relevance. Thus in his account of “why Europe conquered the wolrd”, Philipp Hofmann notes that Europe’s islands were not immune to naval invasion, and its peninsulas did not develop into coherent states earlier than other regions. However, his reference to Italy as an example of intense fragmentation during much of the post-Roman period is [DIS-]qualified not only by the stability of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies (???) in the more isolated south, but more importantly by the precocious unity of Roman Italy. Moreover, the key issue is not so much unity within peninsulas as their relationship to larger imperial formations: it is worth noting that with the partial exceptions of the Mongol period, Korea, the only major peninsula in East Asia, was never fully ruled by China. More generally, coastlines did have a discernible effect on state formation: Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Italy, Sweden and even France [and Spain!!] are all well delimited by the sea (3).
But these are just details [no!!]. Cherry-picking is not helpful. Once we address this question in systematic quantitative fashion, Europe does indeed emerge as a serious outlier within the Old World. In this respect, David Cosandey’s work has produced striking results. Almost half of the area of what he labels “Western Europe” generously defined as Europe west of what used to be the Soviet Union is located on peninsulas and another tenth on islands. Conversely, the aggregated peninsular and insular shares of China, India and the Middle East and North Africa region range from 1 percent to 3,6 percent (4).
page 261 -- Because of this, Europe’s coastline is much longer than that of East and South Asia: 33,700 kilometers for “Western Europe” as opposed to 6,600 kilometers for China and 7,300 kilometers in India. This in turn means that Mandelbrot’s fractal dimension – an index of complexity bounded at 1 (lowest) and 2 (highest) is higher for “Western Europe” (1.24 and 1.42 without and with islands, respectively) than for China (1.13 and 1.26) and India (1.11 and 1.19). [and Middle East??] The latter tow are overall more compact than Europe west of Eastern Europe – a landlocked region eventually subsumed within a single very large land empire, Russia. Even without factoring in other features, Western – Latin [and Germanic??] Europe relative physical complexity should have made it more likely for stable and smaller polities to emerge there than elsewhere (5).
Integration: Mountains and rivers
Mountain ranges likewise contribute to physical segmentation. And ruggedness more generally impose additional costs on communication. Although it has been claimed that Europe Is not overall more rugged than China, it is the relative intensity of compartimentalization that matters most. The Alps, Pyraneans and Carpathians are relatively high compared to mountains that can be found in China east of Tibet: the first two generally rise above 1,500 meters. Moreover, well less than half of Western Europe lies less than 300 meters aboe sea level, mostly England, Ireland, northern France, northern Germany, Poland as well as the Po valley.
By contrast, core China (excluding Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria enjoys conditions that favors greater connectivity. Much of that area lies less than 300 meters above sea level, and elevations of 1,500 meter are rare, confined in the first instance to the northwest where the state of Qin developed sheltered “within the passes” (figure 8.2). Core China Is an excellent illustration of Montesquieu’s “much more extensive divisions by mountains” (6).
Mountains helped define the territorial features of European state formation, not only for the aforemonentioned islands and peninsulas, but also for Frnace, whose Pyranee borders have been quite stable since
Pages 538-539 (05Feb2021)
Notes from the INTRODUCTION
Note 19 (p.538) With no claim to completeness: among the chief proponents [of such theories] are J. Hall 1985: 111-44 and J. Hall 1988: 33-38; Landes 1998: 37-39, E. Jones 2003: 104-126, 225-233; Mokyr 2007: 23-26 and Mokyr 2017: 165-178; Cosandey 2008: 175-316; van Zanden 2009a: 32-68, 295; (...)
Note 27 (p.539) This imbalance [i.e. the fact that historians account for a mere ten percent of all top Grand Question scholars] was already noted more casually by Klein 2017:302. My sample, with due apologies for unconscionable omissions and idiosyncracies:
Economists (19): Daron Acemoglu, Robert Allen, Stephen Broadberry, Kent Deng, Ronald Findlay, Bishnupriya Gupta, Eric Jones, Cem Karayalcin, Mark Koyama, Timur Kuran, Deirdre McCloskey, Joel Mokyr, Patrick O'Brien, Kevin O'Rourke, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, Jared Rubin, Jan Luiten van Zanden, Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth.
Sociologists (9): Jean Baechler, Joseph Bryant, Ricardo Duchesne, Jack Goldstone, John Hall, Toby Huff, Eric Mielants, Immanuel Wallerstein and Dingxin Zhao.
Historians (8): Philipp Huang, Margaret Jacob, David Landes, Michael Mitterauer, Prasannan Parthasarathi, Kenneth Pomeranz, Peer Vries, and Bin Wong.
Political science is only marginally represented by Gary Cox, Erik Ringmar, and David Stasavage,
and the list is rounded off by the physicist David Cosandey, and Ian Morris, a classical archeologist turned world historian. One could have added Joseph Needham, trained as biochemist.
If one wanted even more idiosyncratically and thus anonymously to single out the dozen most influential scholars in this sample, ratios would change only a little, with two-thirds of the putative top spots held (mostly) by econmists and a couple of sociologists, and the remainder by historians. What is even more striking, of course, is that 95% percent of the full sample is (now) male: this is not by any means an inclusive domain of research.
Pages 565-566 (05Feb2021)
Notes from CHAPTER 8 (from pages 254-260)
1. Quote: Montesquieu 1750 : 384 (De l'esprit des Lois, book XVII, chap VI.
2. Adapted from Diamond 1997:414 (quote). The "peninsulat" portion of Korea is roughly three times the size of [the] Shandong [peninsula]. Cf also Keay 2000: xxiii constrasting Europe's mountains and coastlines with India, which lacks real barriers. Cosandey 2008: 499-581 considers the coastline critical for Europe's development, as will be discussed later.
3. Criticism: Hoffman 2015: 112-14. European coastline: Cosandey 2008: 509-33.
4. Cosandey 2008: 533-569, esp.558: Europe (46 percent peninsulas, 10.2 percent islands), Islamic zone (0.9 percent peninsulas and no islands), India (1.7 percent peninsulas and 1.9 percent islands) and China (1.1 percent peninsulas and 2 percent islands). (p.565).
Cosandey 2008: 561, 567-68. For him, European development is rooted in the resultant system of smaller states: 75-312.
6. Mountains: Montesquieu 1750 : 384 (De l'Esprit des lois, book XVII, ch VI) (quote); Diamond 1997: 414. Europe not more rugged: Hoffman 2015: 109-12.Elevation in China: Marks 2012: 17, map 2.4; Auyang 2014: 339 (terrain above 400 and 1,500 meters)
‘Escape From Rome’
A review published in the WSJ on 23 Oct 2019.
The pitiless tone is probably triggered more by W.Scheidel's blunt style than by the contents quality. The book indeed is of high quality.
Historian Walter Scheidel credits Western Europe and its offshoots for creating the conditions that “gave birth to modernity.”
By Felipe Fernández-Armesto
Oct. 23, 2019 7:07 pm ET
The robots are coming. They have displaced workers from factories, shops from malls, books from libraries, chess masters from esteem. Art and academia are among current targets, but we don’t have to await developments in artificial intelligence to find out what machine-generated scholarship will be like. Walter Scheidel is here already.
He works with robotic efficiency. In commanding data he rivals an iPhone. He crunches numbers with all the mordancy of which gears and cogs are capable. He will zoom you to high levels of analysis as smoothly as an electric elevator, or cook up an intellectual confection faster than a microwave. You want solutions to historical problems of baffling complexity? He has an app for that. The convictions of this professor of classics and history at Stanford—that progress is ineluctable and science indefeasible—seem perfectly fashioned for the computer age. He is as ruthless as a robot in cutting through the chaos of real life and dismissing its messiness. Nothing is wanting in his well-tooled circuitry, except intellectual humility and that unprogrammable virtue: hesitation in judgment.
In “Escape From Rome,” Mr. Scheidel’s purpose is to urge one of many existing theories of the West’s historical precocity—Westerners industrialized ahead of the rest. In his search for the “conditions that gave birth to modernity . . . only Western Europe and its offshoots fit the bill,” he writes, though at times he rocks his “cradle of modernity” toward “the North Sea” or “northern Britain.”
His argument, meanwhile, oscillates between mutually exclusive formulations. Sometimes he exalts the state system as the “single condition” that made “initial breakthroughs possible.” At others he proposes “fragmentation of social power,” with regions or communities in major roles—though he never says anything about these fragmentary communities: Empires and states are his only units of study. In any case, he asserts, industrialization was the eventual result of “the absence of Roman-scale empire” from the fifth century onward, which allowed smaller power centers to flourish. The time lag, of a millennium and more, does not bother him.
Mr. Scheidel seems indifferent to the role of empires as arenas for the exchange of knowledge, ideas, people and commodities. His values come from a 19th-century repertoire of dreariness: materialist, Social-Darwinian, utilitarian. He can track “human welfare” in a graph. He links “happiness” to gross domestic product. He talks of “evolution” when he means “change” and represents influences or conditions as “factors.” He proclaims the “applicability of Darwinian theory to the past and the long-term evolution of human inequality.” He tabulates the “matrix of critical preconditions of military success”—which he defines, in language that seems to come clicking out of a slot, as the “product of intensity times scale.”
People—other than fellow theorists—hardly appear among Mr. Scheidel’s generalizations, abstractions, tables, graphs and “macro-social scaling-up.” Occasional rulers and warlords make cameo appearances, but the evidence of ordinary individuals, whom the march of improvement trod underfoot, is beneath the author’s gaze. The reader endures until page 254 for the only vivid anecdote (of St. Eugippius advising Odoacer the Goth to go to Italy). Emphasis on “polycentrism” keeps the reader hoping for a minute examination of some real places—Birmingham or Barcelona, perhaps, or Milan or Manchester, or Leipzig, Lille or Liège—and the people who did the work of industrialization. The hopes are vain.
Vast stretches of this book house elaborate “counterfactual scenarios”—useful for spotting moments when decision-makers foreclose on alternative futures, but pointless when making analyses on Mr. Scheidel’s time scale. He speculates, for instance, on what might have happened if there had been no Roman Empire, or if Asians had conquered the Canary Islands in, “say, 1400,” or if continental drift had borne Africa to China’s coastline. There is no virtue in asking what would have occurred until one is reasonably sure of what did occur. Yet Mr. Scheidel cuts beguiling complexity out of his picture, like a sawbones chopping off dispensable limbs, or a cook making nail soup only of nails.
Culture, for him, consists only of language and religion. His understanding of European geography misses the continent’s most intriguing feature: the watershed of mountains and bogs that divides Mediterranean-side and Atlantic-side economic zones. In consequence, the author cannot see Europeans’ strivings for unity, or appreciate the achievements of the Roman Empire and European Union in nurturing wide-ranging exchange of goods and culture. His summation of English history—portraying a “nation of taxpayers” who “contrived to curb both royal power and aristocratic patrimonialism”—is whiggishly old-school.
Mr. Scheidel’s account of early-modern science leaves out the importance of long-range adventurism in gathering examples and specimens for examination in Europe. He finds that the state promoted Western science but was “associated” with scientific ossification in Islam. The admission seems to undermine his thesis, but Mr. Scheidel waves the contradiction aside. Islam, he thinks, was “of no particular relevance” in Europe. He never raises the paradox of industrialization: that it occurred in a world of multiplying human and animal muscle-power—which suggests that, beyond a certain level of demographic growth, rising demand strains available labor and prompts mechanization.
An underlying political agenda is detectable, but it is not clear how far Mr. Scheidel is committed to it. Success, in “Escape From Rome,” is measurable in wealth and might. The author disclaims Eurocentrism, but the implication is clear: The world is indebted to the West for “modernization.” On the “road to prosperity,” he writes, you need a “pro-business elite.” “Sovereignty was key.” The world may soon again have the chance to discover if tiny, insulated states are truly preferable to vast, multicultural collaborations.
Mr. Fernández-Armesto is the author of “Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States” and editor of “The Oxford Illustrated History of the World.”
Created: 07 Feb 2021 Completed: 07 Feb 2021