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Best Thing The Roman Empire Ever Did For Us? Collapse, One Author Says

Rome's City Hall by an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)
Rome's City Hall by an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

A big rethink of the fall of the Roman Empire. Was it actually an opportunity, rather than a tragedy? Our guest says Rome’s demise cleared the economic path for Europe and the creation of the modern age.


Walter Scheidel, professor of classics and history at Stanford University. Author of the new book “Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity,” among others. (@WalterScheidel)

James Fallows, staff writer at The Atlantic. Co-author of “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.” (@JamesFallows)

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Escape from Rome” by Walter Scheidel

Excerpted from ESCAPE FROM ROME. © 2019 Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

The Atlantic: “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad” — “It’s time to think about the Roman empire again. But not the part of its history that usually commands attention in the United States: the long, sad path of Decline and Fall. It’s what happened later that deserves our curiosity.

“As a reminder, in 476 a.d., a barbarian general named Odoacer overthrew the legitimate emperor of the Western empire, Romulus Augustulus, who thus became the last of the emperors to rule from Italy.

“The Eastern empire, ruled from Constantinople, chugged along for many more centuries. But the Roman progression—from republic to empire to ruin—has played an outsize role in tragic imagination about the United States. If a civilization could descend from Cicero and Cato to Caligula and Nero in scarcely a century, how long could the brave experiment launched by Madison, Jefferson, and company hope to endure?

“The era that began with Rome’s collapse—’late antiquity,’ as scholars call it—holds a hazier place in America’s imagination and makes only rare cameo appearances in speeches or essays about the national prospect. Before, we have the familiar characters in togas; sometime after, knights in armor. But in between? And specifically: How did the diverse terrain that had been the Roman empire in the West respond when central authority gave way? When the last emperor was gone, how did that register in Hispania and Gaul? How did people manage without the imperial system that had built roads and aqueducts, and brought its laws and language to so much of the world?”

The Spectator: “What did the Romans ever do for us?” — “In 2006, as British Euroskepticism was gathering steam, Boris Johnson published a book called The Dream of Rome, in which he held up the Roman Empire as a successful model of European integration and as a foil to the unlovable European Union. That was a rather peculiar choice. You would hardly have expected the future Brexiteer to yearn for a time when Britain was but a marginal province of a ‘European super-state’, a label that Margaret Thatcher had once applied to the EU, yet which is a much better fit for imperial Rome. But Johnson also failed to realize that it had actually been the end of Roman power that launched Europe’s long, tortuous and unique journey toward modernity — a journey in which the sovereign United Kingdom came to play such an outsized role.

“To be sure, he was in good company: we have long been taken in by Edward Gibbon’s famous lament that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was the ‘most awful scene in the history of mankind’. Back in what used to be called the Dark Ages that followed Rome’s unraveling in Western Europe, this might have made some sense, even if most people simply traded old burdens (say, Roman tax collectors) for new ones, such as greedy knights. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can tell what a huge difference the end of empire really made.

“In other parts of the world, from the Sahel and the Middle East to India, China and the Andes, empires came and went: those that failed were soon replaced by others. State-building moved in grand cycles of growth and decline, of intensification and abatement of centralized power. In most of Europe, by contrast, large-scale empire never returned. That was not for want of trying: history is littered with abortive attempts, from Charlemagne to Napoleon.”

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