‘Escape From Rome’: A Book Review

roman ruins

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.

  1. 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?

4. Conclusion:

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.

‘The Great Leveler’: A Review

four horsemen

‘You could listen to the endless promises of scientists, engineers, and politicians and believe we lived in a golden age that would last forever and a day, where all men were free from want. But those men and women were arrogant, and we swallowed their hubris and made it our own. {…} They didn’t talk about the working conditions in the mines and factories, or the Red Indian reservations, the people who suffered and died so that a few of us could live our lives of plenty. Most of all, though, they didn’t talk about how nothing lasts forever-not coal, not wood, not oil or peat-and how one nation turns against another when it starts to run out of the resources it needs to power the engines of progress.’

~Kailtyn R. Kiernan, ‘Goggles (c 1910).’

It is not Kiernan’s excellent short story that parodies the euphoria of much of modern steampunk fiction that brings me to you this night, though the quote above is eminently apt, but rather something of the nonfiction variety which overlaps with the sentiment of that passage. I wish to give full justice to a book I just finished, Walter Scheidel’s ‘The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality.’ If you don’t want something elaborate I can give you the short version: This is what Piketty would have been like had he the courage of the historian who can set aside their era specific values to look at long term trends in a truly dispassionate and realistic way.

The more elaborate take of this book follows.

Scheidel is a historian of the classical world, with prior studies in the Roman Empire as well as its opposite-Eurasia counterpart the Han Dynasty in China. It was apt that with these two examples of early continent straddling superpowers that he opens a quite large and dense study of civilization’s cycles of boom and bust. Not economically speaking, but rather of class. The boom and bust cycles of the elite and the commons, as one makes relative gains at the expense of the other, only to concede to an eventual reversal. Usually, this comes in the form of technology enabling the rise of an aristocracy which is at first a patron (herding, agriculture, industry, possibly electronic information), which then rapidly outpaces its once modest accumulations and becomes parasitic on its own order, leading to either revolt or overreach which causes ‘leveling’, or some re-assertion of some economic fairness in reset, and eventually starts the process over again. The events that can cause these seismic shifts which partially undo the gradualism of the growth of the ruling class in any stable order are varied. They can be large scale warfare, state collapse, internal revolution, or pandemic. Obviously, there are many instances in history where more than one of these factors meet, sometimes one touching off another.

The conclusions he draws are stark. So far, leveling is an inevitable reaction to either the complacency, hoarding, or misrule of the rulers. It is also often a devastating process leaving mixed results. To live in such times is undesirable for most, but often necessary for a future where problems do not simply accelerate ad inifintum. He comes down on neither ‘side’, admonishing either who might be too partisan on these questions to be careful what they wish for. I would somewhat quibble with this final note of caution, however, as I feel that the present environmental calamity we find ourselves in strongly tops this balance towards one side more than the other. Despite this, I find this book to be a remarkably robust addition to non-doctrinaire materialist history, and thus utterly necessary for our time. It makes a case with historically reconstructed data from the classical era to the present day, tying in events that fit with the ‘four horsemen’ of leveling and showing success stories, failures, and everything in between in a list which includes numerous governments of the most varied geographic, cultural, and ideological persuasions-which further strengthens the case of circumstantial materialism above that of both intent and innate inheritance. Issues of class as well as epidemiology and both domestic and foreign power politics weave together to create a story of the costs and benefits of civilization itself.

Naturally, I realize this makes me sound like a broken record here, but I would have liked to have seen a shout out to my boy Ibn Khaldun. After all, he came up with the cyclic civilizational analysis working in material factors all the way back in the Fourteenth Century, including the necessity for new governments to have large amounts of group solidarity before the inevitable rot set in if they were successful bringing stability and prosperity to the land, leading to the gradual weakening of their society and the resurgence of new outsiders who resembled what the current ruling class once was. Despite not seeing one of my favorite historians mentioned in this very topic relevant piece, I must give Scheidel a massive amount of credit for not indulging in typical ideological pique when looking at modern history. He speaks of the positives and negatives of all kinds of governing orders, from early modern transition economies to capitalist and communist orders alike. In an era where economic idealism is treated as sectarian dogma, this is a great thing to see. When one’s central thesis is crisis leading to opportunity-at great risk-it makes sense to consider all the variables. Naturally, in a study of this scope, many interesting case studies are left out. The early Turkish Republic compared to the late Ottoman Empire, for instance, would have been welcome. As could the turbulent post-WW2 history of rapid economic policy change shown at multiple stages in Chilean history. But obviously, and I know this personally myself, to work in big picture requires parsing ones examples down to the bare necessities to make the point lest one drag into repetition.

An extremely important and heavily recommended book.