Almost exactly three years ago, I reviewed Walter Scheidel’s book on historic cycles of inequality, ‘The Great Leveler.’ I am pleased to be able to now review the more recent ‘Escape From Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity’ by the same author.
While my review for the last book of his on here was uniformly positive, this one will be more critical for reasons I will get to later. I will, however, start with the positives. I do insist that it is a very good read and I am glad I read it, personally.
- Why ‘Escape From Rome’ is a work of serious scholarship and worth reading:
Despite the title, Scheidel is not primarily focused on Rome itself so much as its absence after it fell. Talking about Rome specifically is restricted to the very first chapters and the epilogue. In these sections, Scheidel makes a very strong case as to why Rome was so successful in a region where hegemonic empires are a rarity. No other state controlled such a large proportion of Europe’s territory and population directly save in ephemeral conquest periods like Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany. By showing that Rome faced no truly dangerous long term challengers to its north or west and a unique mass mobilization system, he makes the case that Rome’s singular commitment to mass armies and to long term expansion, coupled with the durable staying power of its alliance system, was something not seen before in European history and would not be seen again until revolutionary France-a state that would not arise until polycentrism (multiple unfriendly states in one region) was long established as the European normal. Polycentrism prevents one government from quashing innovation and allows dissident thinkers to migrate elsewhere if home turns into a sour environment. This in turn increases the contractual and mercantile orientation of a state, perhaps leading to constitutionalism.
Following this is a case for why, in the long run, polycentrism is preferable to technological and economic advancement. This includes other parts of the world who often saw such periods, though they did not have the persistence that Europe’s polycentrism did. In International Relations speak the term for this is multipolarity, by the way. Geography naturally starts the calculation with the broken terrain of Europe playing a massive role in both facilitating naval power as a utility and reducing the effectiveness of land power.
Scheidel then gives us a comparison of the other regions and how large scale hegemonic empires were far more common an occurrence. Rightly ceding the Western Hemisphere and its enormous divergence from the Eurasian experience to Jared Diamond, he focuses entirely on Eurasia and predominantly on China. In the end, his case can be simplified to ‘Rome may have given Europe a common educated language and religion after its fall, but it was keeping Europe in a hegemonic trap and its full potential as a region could not be unleashed until centuries and centuries of polycentrism established themselves.’ This case is both rigorously made and lucid. It is worth reading and it will make you think about macro historic trends.
2. Questions I had:
Before getting to my criticisms of Scheidel, I want to pose the questions I have that aren’t critical so much as ‘why is this the way this text was done?’ Namely, Scheidel and I both love historical counter-factuals so long as they are neither sloppy nor over-simplified. They help us question our assumptions and show what moments actually were decisive in the world we have today. Yet Carthaginian victory over Rome is given quite a short shrift despite being more probable than some of the speculations he engages with in the book. While it is obvious that Rome had a massive manpower and logistical advantage in total war over Carthage, it could not have exercised that power outside of Italy without first winning some improbable victories over Carthage at sea. A theater it started out in with far less experience and many losses.
It seems to me that the ultimate counter-factual in discussing Rome’s impact (or lack thereof) on long term Roman history would be Carthage confining Rome to Italy through naval victories and subsequent alliances with Celtic tribes north of the Alps. A predominant Carthage would have played to Europe’s geographic strengths more than Rome. This is not to say that Carthage ever could have replaced Rome at all, a scenario Scheidel rightly dismisses given its societal model, but that by thwarting Roman hegemony and setting up urban mercantile enclaves throughout the coastal areas of Europe, Carthage could have strengthened the Celts in terms of both technology and institutions-not so much through direct policy but gradually by cross-pollination. It becomes plausible to see a medieval Europe of small states in the west but with a Gaulic-Punic-Germanic culture and Hellenistic Greek-Slavic states in the east, with Italy as a weird Latin outlier in-between.
This brings me to another question: Africa outside of the northern coast is barely mentioned at all. I get that its trajectory diverges from that of Eurasia pretty strongly, but nowhere near as strongly as the Americas. The Sahel was connected to the north through trade routes and the east coast strongly integrated into the Indian Ocean network (itself barely covered in the book despite its immense historical economic importance). Why is this? I feel some words on Sub-Saharan Africa are needed to round out the text.
3. My criticisms of Scheidel’s Thesis:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering my Central Asia focused historical background, but I didn’t take kindly to Scheidel joining the ranks of the many historians who have effectively dumped on the steppe for retarding the growth of more littoral civilizations. If I thought this thesis was true I would admit it, however. Nomadism is still cool even if its overall impact is being the cool loser guitar playing boyfriend who makes your sister drop out of high school to move to Reno. But its really not. Using Scheidel’s own examples only, in fact, I can prove it is not. How? Because he specifically cites the Song period and the Yuan (Mongolian) dynasty as examples of China-centered governments who were into technological experimentation and pushing the envelope. Indeed, his favorable treatment of Song history is admirable but is missing the vital ingredient of just how much of a multi-state system it is, with both the Liao and Jin successively providing counter-hegemonic multipolarity and the Tangut Xi Xia state clinging on throughout it all for good measure. The Liao barely gets mentioned at all for being a state far smaller in population and economic power but that equaled the Song in military and diplomatic power. Like a western European state in the modern era, it punched far above its weight, largely due to the contractual nature of its dual-system governing structure between nomads and farmers and its ruling elite’s interesting in poaching talent from the Song through brain drain.
If Scheidel thinks the steppe has a retarding influence on state innovation why does he admit that the Yuan was far ahead of the game in future oriented policy than the native Chinese and southern-born Ming Dynasty? He correctly points to the Ming as the true era where China began to fall behind, but seems to ignore that for most of Chinese history it was technologically more advanced the Europe. If vulnerability to steppe predation was such a long term problem than why did it only become a problem when the steppe began losing out to the littoral regions due to the rise of gunpowder and the greater levels of trade being conducted at sea? We can see how the steppe and pastoralist conquerors aided technological development in the African Sahel as well.
And there we have an alternative answer to Scheidel’s: technological change favoring the ocean as the primary trade conduit to the steppe. Before the massive improvement of shipbuilding and navigational techniques, it was the steppe that was the sea. The ultimate realm of trade, exchange, and military competitiveness. Thus, a case could be made that the steppe was once a formative engine of innovation, but due to the material factors of technological change eventually coming to favor ocean-born cargo this went away. Regions with well established naval traditions took the mantle. The nature of maritime exchange also lends itself to bureaucratization, considering the technicalities of running trade through a harbor system. So, most of the institutional uniqueness of European early modern history once again stems from a geographic and technological impetus. And a maritime culture, of course, would be the first to get to the Americas, infect it with Eurasian diseases, and exploit its vast resources-growing the trend to exponential levels.
Another criticism I have is putting the primary poles of comparison between macro-regions into a mostly Europe vs East Asia comparison. This is not to say it doesn’t make sense, those are the two areas with the most durable states and the most surviving records for pre-modern history overall. East Asia belongs in any comparison here. But, South Asia strikes me as a far closer analogue to the European experience. While hegemonic powers were more common in South Asia, they were less common than in East Asia and the proportion of their reach was often limited once you hit the Deccan. Southern Indian states like the maritime Chollas and the militarized Vijayanagar are mentioned by Scheidel but never elaborated on. One could argue that the classical Mauryas, while not lasting as long as Rome did, had a similar foundational impact on India and disseminated en elite language (Sanskrit) and a new religion (Buddhism) widely enough to have a comparable legacy. Furthermore, during the breakup of the closest thing to a post-Maurya hegemony and pre-British hegemony was the Mughal Empire. This empire’s decline caused many of the smaller states to enter into a dedicated arms race quite similar to early modern Europe in the same period. Could the military innovations of the Marathas and the mercantile expansion of the Bengal region have set off something akin to the industrial revolution a bit later in history had not the East India Company got in there first to run roughshod over the place? Its very possible. Ergo, I do not believe that something akin to the modern world could only have come from Europe.
Going further east, into Southeast Asia, Scheidel specifically brings the region up as the only other heavily populated section of Eurasia where balanced and anti-hegemonic state systems were the norm… but then never uses it as a thorough compare/contrast with Europe. I feel like this is a lost opportunity as this region, rather than the more northerly East Asia, is the best center-point for any compare/contrast. It is perhaps here that he could have best made his case that Rome at least gave a common intellectual language to Europe-something lacking in Southeast Asia. Still, as I showed in my Carthage Uber Alles scenario, I am no convinced that a once-off hegemony is necessary. Perhaps if India had really taken off Southeast Asia would have succeeded even more. Think of how the urbanization and renaissance in Northern Italy was the start of Europe’s breakout but it wasn’t these states but rather the North Sea powers of the Netherlands and England who really took it to the next level. I can see something similar going from south and east India to Southeast Asia, especially considering the mercantile capabilities of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Burma then gets to play the role of France as a semi-continental and semi-maritime hybrid country whose influence on the globe is somewhat thwarted but whose regional land dominance in the core region is hard to dispute.
My final and most substantial point of criticism builds off these prior points. And that is presentism. Where you to go back in time before the enlightenment or the takeover of the New World and the harnessing of it to Europe, not only would Europe not have been out in front, it would be lagging behind. Not just South and East Asia but the Middle East and potentially parts of western Africa too. No one then would have seen any kind of ‘European Divergence’ if they were somehow able to experience much of the globe. Marco Polo himself would write about how much more advanced the cities he traveled to in Asia (notably then under Mongol rule, ahem) were to most places he had experienced in Europe-and coming from Venice he was arguably from the most advanced city in the region of that era. But sure, if we are going to talk about the modern era from the benefit of hindsight that is all well and good.
But presentist bias does not just apply to the past, it applies to the future. And if Scheidel’s ‘great divergence’ is true than it represents not a permanent reorienting of the planet but rather a specific epoch that already belongs to the past. The last gasp of western Europe being in the drivers seat of world affairs ended in the First World War for everyone save Britain, and Britain was an empire continental in scope if not in shape, its crown jewel being India whose population outlclassed any European state. Britain too would exit the world’s relevance with the crushing losses to its colonial empire in the Second World War, paving the way for the continental empires of the United States and the Soviet Union to cannibalize the fates of many of its old colonies between them. This in turn would be followed by a brief period of American global hegemony which is now fading into something more akin to a high Byzantine period where America probably retains its overall top dog spot but as part of a multipolar system divided between other big powers like China and India. No European state matters outside of Europe anymore save for its economic trade influence and the French informal empire in parts of Africa. Only one of the major powers is a cultural descendant of the age of European expansion and it is not based in Europe and appears to be diverging, rather than merging, with its allies there. The continental empire is back and has been since long before anyone reading this was born. Scheidel does not see this and opts instead for a clean break of premodern to modern with nothing new after that. I think we should instead see continuity from predmodern, modern, on through now and the future. If no other time in history was set aside for being absolutely special, why should this one be?
So, multipolarity/polycentrism is back. But theres nothing at all European about it. In fact, for us to once again see the benefits of polycentrism in technology and civil society, its best to divorce from the era of Europe entirely and embrace a new era of new institutions reflecting new global-scale power poles. This is an era where the continental empire has become maritime-and the world has become small enough that they can no longer be complacent in their own specific regions but must compete, like early modern nation states, on a smaller planet. One doubts this is what Thomas Friedman meant when he said ‘the world is flat’, but the actual result of globalization turns out to be the super-state getting all Westphalian.
That does, however, leave plenty of regions between the major power poles that can make use of the polycentrism that Scheidel rightly praises. You can turn your diplomacy further afield than even before even as a small country now. You can always recruit technocrats and appeal to scientists by offering an alternative to the increasingly invasive surveillance states of America, India, and China. Only time will tell if the resources of smaller states could again outperform big ones, but they can always offer refuge to the dissident and the misfit. If there is one real lesson of European history (after the utility of naval power) it has to be that such states offer immense cultural and economic value to human development.
P.S. Someone tell Scheidel that as a fan of Hellenistic successor kingdoms and not a huge Roman fanboy, I am always grateful for more ammunition for my case that Rome replacing Pontus, Ptolmaic Egypt, and Seleucia was a net negative trend in history. He even at one point mentions that they were more technologically innovative than Rome as a point in his cases favor.
3 thoughts on “‘Escape From Rome’: A Book Review”
“I am always grateful for more ammunition for my case that Rome replacing Pontus, Ptolmaic Egypt, and Seleucia was a net negative trend in history.” LOL priorities
Great read as always. My understanding of Rome always came more from the marxist tradition: roman as a big slave society held back history by defeating feudal kings which are more efficient. I still hold to that reading somewhat but I think combining it with that switch from steepe to sea trade as enabled by technology as well as multipolar competition in general has allowed me a more well rounded understanding.
I still question weather the species can continue on like this though without destroying itself or transforming into some hive mind eventually. After all competitions eventually have winners, but that could just be my sci-fi brain talking.
One of the reasons I am not a Marxist, despite it (ostensibly) being a materialist philosophy which I am all about and sharing most of the same enemies they have, is that it-like the liberals-seems to postulate a theory of linear development that human society is going somewhere. Me, I dont see it going anywhere but responding like any other dumb animal species. It just so happens that our most effective method for responding to stimuli is technological development and certain policies can either accelerate or retard this process for a time. Considering the far lower rates or urban population and smaller armies, its hard to see feudalism as a more efficient economic system than Roman central authority. It strikes me more as a crisis response to the collapse of a larger state. Silicon Valley Libertarianism will probably pioneer its return for ours should we keep up the neoliberal experiment.
Generally the rules of the game seem to be that winning one game just starts another different game. If you are lucky you get some advantages from winning the last one. If you arent, you get disadvantages through complacency and victor’s disease. On a species level I think the game goes that the ‘winner’ breaks the natural balance and gets culled in a population collapse due to the creation of a top heavy resource use pyramid.This is good in the long run as it preserves biodiversity. Many societies may not believe in a balance of power, but Mother Nature sure does. The only way out of this trap would be a technological energy production revolution that blows away our current dependencies.
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Oh certainly there are tons of marxist for whom this is the case, in the west this is the majority but I don’t think that’s true of all of them. This video by Paul Cockshott basically sums up my view on historical progress with a few divergences here and there (tldw it’s a theormodynamic probability situation): https://youtu.be/rec1DfWMjGQ
As for the slavery vs feudalism thing I always understood it as a motivational situation- a slave has little to no incentive to produce surplus or be particularly loyal whereas a serf does. Silicon Libertarianism is super gross tho 🤢
I’m actually reading a book on finite vs infinite games right now but it’s a bitch to read cause the guy talks like a fucking robot T T. I’ll let you know when I finish it tho and get back to ya on that last point