The Greatest Thing the Roman Empire Ever Did Was Go Away

Review of Walter Scheidel, Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019)

The Roman Empire is often presented as the fabric of Western civilization. The languages, laws, religion, mores, and implements of the Western political imaginary come in large part, in one way or another, from Rome. The Roman Empire has been rebooted time and again by invaders and latecomers, from the Ostrogoths to Charlemagne to Mussolini; transferred (in reality or in rhetoric) to Byzantine, to Moscow, to the Habsburgs, and even to Washington, DC; and recycled endlessly through books, art, movies, and plays. Whenever Westerners think of civilizational wellsprings, they usually think of togas and parapets and conquering legions and gladiators and mad emperors. The West, in nub, is Rome.

But, as Stanford history professor and prolific researcher of imperial and global history Walter Scheidel provocatively asks, “What has Rome ever done for us?” Americans in the late imperial present look around at a fractured polity and a fraying system of alliances and shift uneasily, wondering if we really are going to fall like Rome did. Scheidel’s book gives hope in just such an age as ours. Rome fell, Scheidel argues, and it was the best thing that could have happened. Scheidel’s reason is that the fall of Rome precipitated the kind of competition-driven innovation and small-government freedom that made modernity possible in the first place. Rome’s greatest gift to posterity, Scheidel says, is not that it made the West, but that, in disappearing, it made room for the West to rise.

Going even further, and refusing the almost wistful regard in which the white-marble world of classical senatus populusque Romanus is held by many Westernophiles, Scheidel offers a decidedly unenthusiastic verdict on precollapse Rome, too. It was the imperial project itself that was the problem, he concludes. We didn’t need Rome. We just needed it to go away. “By turning to Christianity,” Scheidel argues, the Romans “laid some crucial foundations for much later development,” but even that is not entirely a given, he qualifies, and it may very well be that they “may not have contributed anything essential at all” to the eventual outcome of modernity (p. 527). In other words, Rome fell, and that was, as far as we in the modern West are concerned, the only really salient thing about it.

Scheidel’s book is about much more than Rome. This is what makes it, in my view, especially worthy of note. Across twelve detail-rich chapters in five parts, Scheidel seeks to explain what he calls “the European anomaly,” or the number and diversity of European states after the fall of Rome contrasted with the durability of empire, falling and then usually somehow reconstituted, in the rest of Eurasia. One of Scheidel’s earlier edited volumes, the splendid Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires (2009), exemplifies the kind of cross-civilizational work in which Scheidel specializes. Escape from Rome is a continuation of Scheidel’s career project of looking at world history to find answers to research questions about the past.

When seen in a world-historical light, Rome, and Europe more broadly, really was anomalous. “On one stylized count,” Scheidel writes, “the number of effectively independent polities in Latin Europe grew from about three dozen at the end of late antiquity to more than a hundred by 1300, compared to between just one and a handful in China proper, and this gap would be even larger if we included vassal states” (p. 48). Escape from Rome is, at heart, a comparison between Rome and many other empires to understand why Rome rose, how it was maintained (basically on “the logic of continuous war” [p. 72]), why it fell, and why it stayed down for the count.

Ranging far beyond the usual Roman story as told by Edward Gibbon and other historians before and since, Scheidel sees Rome and other empires not just as historical subjects but also as sites for data analysis. He abstracts essential factors from Rome, Chinese dynasties, Persian empires, Arabian empires, Mongolian and other steppe empires, the Ottoman Empire, South Asian empires, and the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas to get to the root of why Rome could not be brought back—mercifully, Scheidel emphasizes—once it had died.

Scheidel sees the key to understanding Rome’s one-and-done imperial legacy in what he calls the “first great divergence” (p. 219), which was both “a break between Roman and post-Roman modes of state formation in Europe” and “a genuine divergence, as trajectories of state formation began to separate between post-Roman Europe and other parts of the Old World” (p. 219). The reason for this, Scheidel argues, has to do with geography, ecology, and culture. Following Montesquieu in part, although consciously nuancing many of Montesquieu’s sweeping generalizations, Scheidel says that Europe’s “highly indented coastline” (p. 260, borrowing from Jared Diamond), rugged mountain ranges (p. 261), and network of rivers (pp. 261–64) combined to keep Europe fragmented. This was the “first great divergence,” the stymying of a reintegrated Rome which turned out to be a tremendous boon for Europe.

In eastern Eurasia, by contrast, plains and rivers created “cores” which eventually merged (p. 265), facilitating the rise of dynasty after dynasty in China. In addition, the steppe and the horses it nourished—and the nomadic cultures those horses in turn engendered—made sprawling empire a perennial possibility, and more often than not a reality, in Eurasia east of the steppe’s boundaries around the Carpathian Mountains (p. 271). Chinese dynasties were beset by steppe raiders, too, of course. But China did not have the nooks and crannies, the valleys and forest redoubts, in the same abundance as did Europe. China also did not have a natural barrier between the steppe and the settled world—hence the construction of a series of walls to regulate the movement of peoples (and goods) later on. A similar cycle of exposure to steppe-based raiding and constantly recycling imperial projects typified most of the rest of the huge Eurasian landmass, Scheidel shows. India to Siberia, Manchuria to Mesopotamia, there was always some imperialism brewing somewhere. But not in Europe post-Rome. Not enough to prevent the rise of alternative institutions, commerce, and individual liberty.

Christianity, above all, Scheidel argues, kept Europe from developing massive imperial structures after Rome. “The ascendance of Christianity marks the biggest watershed in Europe’s religious history,” he writes. “Its most canonical texts drew a line between obligations to secular rulers and to God,” and “most importantly, Christianity developed in latent conflict with the imperial state for the first 300 years of its existence” (p. 314). Christianity, once adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine in 312, would of course go on to cooperate, in the form of the Roman Catholic Church, with political power across Europe. But it was always in tension with it, too. And this ecclesial brake on the ambitions of would-be imperialists was enormously beneficial. “In 390,” Scheidel reminds us, “Ambrose, bishop of Milan, excommunicated Theodosius I … and imposed a lengthy penance before readmitting him to communion” (p. 315). Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury; Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII; Victor Emmanuel II and Pope Pius IX—and even, one might argue, Donald Trump and Pope Francis—all of these have been at odds, occasionally at war. There have been rivalries and clashes between religious and secular leaders in other places, to be sure. But Scheidel seems correct, in my view, to argue that Christianity has played at least as much a restraining role on the state as it has acted in concert with it.

Taking in religion, culture, geography, geopolitics, language, warfare, institutions, and technology, Escape from Rome is a sweeping work of scholarship covering a truly astonishing range of ancient, medieval, and modern history. Scheidel’s comparative approach is greatly strengthened by his focus on data, on making two disparate things as comparable as possible for the sake of working out the main question of why Rome fell and stayed fallen. Some of the passages are a bit wonky, and lay readers will have to do a little extra work to drill down into the deep numbers to understand the arguments that Scheidel is laying out. But it is worth it. And escaping from Rome is not done in a day, after all.

Scheidel also relies on a great deal of counterfactuals in Escape from Rome, which readers may find jarring at first, or tedious later on. Counterfactuals, as Scheidel readily acknowledges, are thought experiments and don’t prove anything. More “ifstory,” to coin a phrase, than history, counterfactuals are often eschewed by historians and left to the imaginations of historical novelists. But Scheidel uses counterfactuals advisedly and, to my mind, profitably, running through the range of possibilities in pursuit of the answer to why there was a “first great divergence” which facilitated the “second great divergence,” the one so famously investigated by China historian Kenneth Pomeranz in his 2001 book The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. We can never go back and stage set the Battle of Pharsalus or the Social War, can never have Hannibal recross the Alps or Constantine not conquer at Milvian Bridge. But we can imagine what might have happened had things played out differently. This is what Scheidel has done in Escape from Rome—agree with him or not, it makes for a great read.

I have one cavil. Scheidel does not spend more than a few moments discussing Japan. Now, Japan is not part of Eurasia, to be sure. But its sharp differences from not only Rome but also nearby dynasties and empires in Korea, Mongolia, Manchuria, China, and Tibet would have made for an even more compelling argument about the “first great divergence.” Or perhaps a comparison between, say, the Japanese archipelago and the Korean Peninsula, following Scheidel’s lead in Escape from Rome, would make for a book project in its own right. This is also a counterfactual, but it is within Scheidel’s power to make this one, at least, come true.

Escape from Rome runs 535 pages, followed by more than sixty pages of notes and a forty-two-page small-type bibliography. Don’t be intimidated. Scheidel’s book would be worth the price of admission for the bibliography alone, in this humble historian’s estimation, and the imaginative and yet historically responsible way in which Scheidel has pressed those sources to reveal more about the roads taken, and not, leading up to today, represented an innovation and engagement I wish we would see much more of. Scheidel is a thoughtful, bold, delightfully nonstatist historian. Start with Escape from Rome, and then work back through his many other compelling projects.

Americans are always fretting: Are we Rome? Scheidel’s response would be: Who cares? Mary Beard’s 2015 bestseller SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome features the famous quote by Gibbon about the period of the “good emperors,” Nerva to Lucius Verus, being the happiest in human history. Nonsense. Marcus Aurelius may have been a philosopher, Beard reminds us, but he was also capable of extraordinary violence in the name of the state. Statists gonna state—and Rome was the biggest and most statist state of them all. The main thing is to move past empire and get back to human freedom. Don’t emulate Rome. Escape from it.

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