I remember a snatch of a film I saw in junior high school on the history of Europe. The Roman Empire was represented by an imposing pile of columns and domes. Then – smash! – the whole assemblage imploded into rubble, to be swept up by a tonsured monk.
We all know it didn’t happen that way. Still… how did it happen? What was it like? I’ve posted here a number of short essays on important new books about Rome’s decline and fall. Chris Wickham’s important new synthesis tries to offer a narrative history of Rome’s aftermath: the 500 years after the final collapse of imperial power in the west.
Suppose you were born in, say, the year 430 or so in one of the western provinces – meaning that the overthrow of the last Roman emperor in the West occurred about midway through your life. What would you see and experience if you lived through “the fall of Rome”?
Wickham introduces us to just such a person.
Sidonius Apollinaris … was the from the richest family of Clermont in Gaul, son and grandson of praetorian prefects, and son-in-law of the Emperor Eparchius Avitus (455-6). … [H]e ended up as bishop of Clermont, enthusiastically supporting local loyalties in his letters, including city-dwelling; and his brother-in-law Ecdicius, Avitus’ son, defended the city with a private army.
The western Roman government had collapsed. Local elites had to make new arrangements. If the emperor in Rome could no longer offer protection, then perhaps a bargain could be struck with the king of the Franks – or the Ostrogoths – or the Vandals.
The new dispensation might be shabbier and poorer than the old. But things had been getting shabbier and poorer for a long time already. Between 200 and 400 the population of the city of Rome had already shrunk by half, from an estimated 1 million to maybe 500,000, and archaeology attests similar or starker declines in urban populations throughout the western empire.
The disappearance of the western empire as a political and military force between 440 and 480 must surely have accelerated the impoverishment of western Europe. And yet the continent did not immediately plunge into utter ruin. The Germanic kings who assumed power in Italy, Spain, and Gaul maintained many of the practices and forms of Roman government. The Senate met in Rome, magistrates patrolled for two generations after the last emperor in the West was packed off in 476. Joe Scarborough’s joke book title, “Rome Wasn’t Burnt in a Day,” actually contains much historical truth:
Despite the removal of many of Rome’s treasures to Constantinople in the 300s, despite Alaric’s sack of 410 and the much more destructive rampage of the Vandals in 455, despite two centuries of impoverishment and depopulation, despite the displacement of imperial government by Gothic monarchy in the 470s, there still remained quite a lot of Rome to be wrecked by the last of the city’s terrible calamities: the emperor Justinian’s attempted reconquest in the 540s. In the fighting, the Goths cut the city’s aqueducts. Deprived of water, what remained of the Roman population exited the old city to settle lower ground. The Rome of 550 had shrunk to a town of maybe 30,000 people, concentrated in the bends of the Tiber River we now know as Trastevere and the Campo Marzio.
Wickham mines the (very thin) documentary record to show us how the survivors of these disasters coped with the new political environment. Sidonius Apollinaris was the son-in-law of an emperor. His own son bore arms for a Visigothic king; his later descendants would show up in the service of the Merovingian kings. Two centuries later, one of them would regain the bishopric of Clermont. That later descendent was canonized, which preserved his biography. He still remembered his noble Roman ancestry, but he had acculturated as a Frank.
Traditional Roman aristocracies … were … still in place in most parts of the West; they existed alongside newer families, rising in the church or the army, and of course the new “barbarian” elites, but these latter groups were still copying Roman aristocratic culture. Still that culture itself was changing…
[T]o know Virgil and the other secular classics by heart, to be able to write poetry and complex prose, which Sidonius still regarded as essential, ceased to be important; swordsmanship, or the Bible, were far more relevant sources of cultural capital.
The upper class might still speak Latin and could almost always still read it. (Wickham contends that aristocracies could still read until the end of the 9th century.) But Latin no longer meant what it had.
Aristocracies were becoming more localized, drifting apart from each other. In the end – by 650, in every one of the post-Roman kingdoms – they would cease to think of themselves as Roman, but, rather, as Frankish or Visigothic or Lombard…
A Roman empire continued to exist in the east Mediterranean: in the Balkans, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Indeed, the archaeology suggests that the 400s and 500s – the death throes of the western empire – were a remarkably prosperous time in these regions. But the eastern Roman empire would also evolve into a post-Roman society: the Greek-speaking world of Byzantium. The emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565) was probably the last eastern emperor to speak Latin.
This transition helps us to understand the most powerful and fruitful idea in Wickham’s book.
As he tells it, the most important dividing line between “ancient” and “medieval” – the profoundest marker of the “fall of Rome” was not a matter of language or culture, of the shift from togas to tunics or from stuffed swan to roast meat. The most important dividing line was the loss of the power and capacity to tax.
The Roman emperors had imposed a wide variety of taxes on trade and land. The revenues from these taxes supported the army and provided the free grain ration to the populations of Rome and Constantinople.
After the breakup of the empire, the successor states tried to maintain the old Roman taxes. Some – like the Merovingian Franks – succeeded for a time. But sooner or later, all these tax systems broke down. The world had become too poor, trade and agriculture too unproductive, to yield a positive return on the effort invested in tax collection.
Instead, rulers began assigning lands to their supporters – on the understanding that the supporters and their tenants would follow the ruler to war when summoned. Land assignment was much less efficient than taxation, and the opportunity it presented for treachery was obvious, but as the world narrowed, what other choice was there?
Curiously, the state that maintained the old Roman tax system longest was not the eastern empire – its tax system broke down in the 610-650 period – but the Islamic caliphate! In the 700s and 800s, the Abbasid caliph was the richest ruler west of China, richer than the Constantinople emperor, vastly richer than Charlemagne. And the foundation of his wealth was the revenue he extracted from Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia using the old cadastral surveys of the Roman emperors.
Thomas Hobbes mockingly described the papacy as the “ghost of the deceased Roman empire, sitting throned on the grave thereof.” If Wickham is right, that title more properly belongs to the caliphate – in fiscal terms anyway.
As the Islamic discussion suggests, Wickham’s book – the second entry in the fabulous new Viking history of Europe – extends itself with amazing erudition over vast space and span, from 400 to 1000, from Spain and Scotland to Iraq and Egypt. Wickham rather ostentatiously abjures the use of any terms that might convey a value judgment. He talks of the “simplification” of material culture rather than impoverishment, of the “increasing militarization of society” rather than of war and violence.
Wickham would counter, however, that everything is a matter of point of view. The Roman world was a violent and unjust place. The 90% of the European population who toiled as peasants were heavily taxed, when not enslaved. For them, the collapse of Roman power may have meant armies marching over their fields, killing and burning. The end of Rome may have meant the loss of traded amenities: pottery, roof tiles, wine, fish sauce. But it also meant the contraction of aristocratic wealth and power and more village autonomy. Wickham contends that western European peasants in the 600s and 700s may have endured less external control and exploitation than at any time much before 1800. They participated in local assembly, ran their own primitive courts, bore arms in the kings’ armies.
But as European economies recovered from the wreck of Rome after 800 and especially after 1000, the peasant majority was subjugated and enserfed.
This subjugation came not only from above – the church, the king, his retainers – but from below. As individual peasants improved their condition, they would build strongholds in the countryside – and gradually separate themselves from their neighbors into the first tier of the medieval feudal landholding class. Peasants were excluded from the much smaller armies of the medieval period. Landlords asserted judicial rights over their neighbors, extinguishing local courts and village assemblies. Wickham calls this process the “caging” of the peasantry, and he asserts that as the process accelerated, a rising portion of the produce of the soil ended in the hands of lords, kings, and bishops.
The loss of autonomy of the peasantry and the increase in the complexity of exchange were thus two sides of the same coin. Historians tend to like exchange complexity, and they use value-laden words like prosperity, development, and (as I have done) dynamism to describe it. But complexity has costs, and the cost in this period was a decisive move to restrict the autonomy (and sometimes, indeed, the prosperity) of between 80 and 90 percent of the population.
Not until much later in the Middle Ages would exchange deliver improvements in living conditions to that broader peasant swathe of society.
Wickham’s study of the early middle ages cannot be described as easy reading. But it is exhilarating all the same to see a historian so splendidly meet Milton’s challenge: What is dark, illumine!