Reflections on the Fall of Rome

This is quite informative, readers. Check it out!

Collections: Rome: Decline and Fall? Part III: Things

February 11, 2022 42

This is the third and final part (III) of our series tackling the complicated and still debated question of ‘how bad was the fall of Rome (in the West)?’ In our first part, we looked at the question through the prism of ‘words’ – language, culture, religion and literature. There we found a lot of evidence for continuity, supporting the position advanced by the ‘change and continuity’ school that the collapse of Roman political authority didn’t have catastrophic effects in other parts of society. In the second part, we looked at ‘institutions’ – politics, cities and organized religion. Here the picture was far more complex. On the one hand, the states that emerged in the West were successors of the Western Roman Empire and carried with them some of its traditions, but on the other hand they were much weaker, less effective and more fragmented states, with vastly reduced state capacity. While the institutional Church, a distinctly Roman institution by the early fifth century, survived and even thrived after the collapse of Roman political authority, the cities and vibrant urban culture which had defined not merely Roman but the broader sweep of Mediterranean antiquity collapsed. At the same time, we noted that in the East, there was far more continuity and for far longer.

This week then, we’re going to turn to ‘things’ – economics and demographics (which is also going to include a brief discussion of popular literacy). In my own view, this is the decisive part of the ‘fall of Rome’ question, because these are the areas in which we can get a sense of what the experience of the collapse of Roman authority was like for the vast majority of people in the Roman world who do not write to us, who were not rich or powerful and who are thus very difficult to see historically. After all, even if the collapse of Roman political authority was a neutral or even potentially beneficial experience for the elite stratum at the top of society – and it is not clear that it was, mind you; those elites themselves that write to us certainly did not think so – if it was catastrophically bad for the non-elite population, their experience utterly swamps the elite experience by sheer dint of numbers.

And as those of you who have noticed the trend in how this series is organized may have already guessed, it was catastrophically bad. Buckle up folks, it is all downhill from here.

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