Specialization and Decline
Years ago, when the West entered onto a path of decadence, it became fashionable to deny the historical consequences of permissiveness and bad behavior. As the old standards fell away, new standards of “tolerance” and “acceptance” took hold. With the fall of colonial empires and the upsurge of student radicalism in the sixties, the notion of “barbarians at the gates” became outdated. Heaven forbid that anyone should be described as a “barbarian” or as “uncivilized.” The idea that some peoples were more advanced, that some civilizations had more to offer, was no longer an acceptable way to talk. The fall of the Roman Empire, therefore, had to be billed as a “transition.” The barbarians were not the bad guys, civilization did not collapse, and the Romans were hardly degenerate. One should not use words like “decline” or “fall.” Perhaps such words hit too close to home. Better to deny the very history of decadence. Consequently, Edward Gibbon’s magisterial History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is no longer entirely respectable. In James J. O’Donnell’s expertly crafted, politically corrected version of the fifth and sixth centuries, The Ruin of the Roman Empire, we find Gibbon’s work described as the “long shadow of a short, fat man” darkening our understanding of the Roman world. It is not the fall of Rome that is dark, but Gibbon himself!
The American Heritage Dictionary defines decadence as: “A process, condition, or period of deterioration or decline, as in morals or art.” The fall of the Roman Empire involved an across-the-board decline. This included, as in our own time, a decline in population. Sizeable military defeats shrugged off by the Roman Republic were crippling to the Roman Empire. In the centuries between the battles of Cannae and Hadrianopolis there occurred a loss of vitality. Sophisticated manufactures in the west Roman world largely disappeared within a period of three lifetimes. Literacy, comfort and trade also collapsed. This was the greatest economic downturn in the history of mankind. According to the historian and archaeologist Bryan Ward-Perkins, “In the post-Roman west, almost all this material sophistication [created by the Roman civilization] disappeared. Specialized production … became rare, unless for luxury goods; and the impressive range and quantity of high-quality goods, which had characterized the Roman period, vanished, or, at the very least, were drastically reduced.”
Civilization doesn’t always move in an upward direction. Decline and fall is more than possible; such has actually happened. Over the last five hundred years we have come to think of civilization as barreling forward, plowing the ground for further progress. Nothing can stop the machine-like advance, the steady rate of accumulation. Today we take civilization’s continuance for granted. In this regard, the history of Rome is an irksome reminder.
But we’re smarter than the Romans, right?
The Roman economy began to move downhill around the fourth century. There was widespread enervation, a loss of intellectual acuity within the elite. Effeminacy had taken hold at a time when warfare was hand-to-hand. Incredible as it seems, the Roman Empire became vulnerable to a relatively small number of barbarian tribesmen. After penetrating the empire’s frontier, these tribesmen found easy pickings within a defenseless interior. When the legions were lost or decoyed, entire regional economies were plundered and ruined. In the fifth century, when the western half of the Roman Empire was invaded by barbarians, the city of Rome lost three quarters of its population. That is to say, Rome lost 600,000 out of 800,000 inhabitants. Such was the magnitude of the massive de-urbanization that occurred.
What led to Rome’s weakening? In describing the city of Rome in the middle of the fourth century, Ammianus Marcellinus wrote of the vanity and materialism of his contemporaries. Rome became great through virtue, he argued, and virtue had given way to vice. Decades before the barbarians broke into the empire, causing the economy to unravel, the Romans were focused on entertainment and self-gratification. “In this state of things,” wrote Marcellinus, “the few houses which once had the reputation of being centers of serious culture are now given over to the trivial pursuits of passive idleness…. Men put themselves to school to the singer instead of the philosopher, to the theatrical producer rather than the teacher of oratory. The libraries are like tombs, permanently shut; men manufacture water-organs and lutes the size of carriages and flutes and heavy properties for theatrical performances.”
To borrow a phrase from Neil Postman, the Romans were “entertaining themselves to death.” A great and prosperous civilization was about to disappear. Who aside from Marcellinus was worried about it? From every indication, the good citizen, the concerned citizen, was increasingly isolated and irrelevant. The Roman Empire lost the ability, the willpower and the inner toughness to confront the shabby little barbarian tribes that collapsed its delicate economic mechanism. According to Ward-Perkins, “The dismembering of the Roman state, and the ending of centuries of security, were the crucial factors in destroying the sophisticated economy of ancient times….”
You do not need atomic bombs to depopulate cities or empires. A foreign enemy, admitted inside an empire, can disrupt trade and stop the flow of revenue. Legions cannot be paid, cities cannot be sustained, civilized life disappears. The resulting economic downturn lasted for centuries. According to Ward-Perkins, “The economic change that I have outlined was an extraordinary one. What we observe at the end of the Roman world is not a ‘recession’ or – to use a term that has already been suggested – an ‘abatement,’ with an essentially similar economy continuing to work at a reduced pace. Instead what we see is a remarkable qualitative change, with the disappearance of entire industries and commercial networks.”
Civilization is fragile. Trade can be interrupted and peaceful industry can be knocked out of operation. It doesn’t take as much interference as you think. In his book, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Ward-Perkins describes the fragility of sophisticated economies: “to understand the full and unexpected scale of the decline – turning sophisticated regions into underdeveloped backwaters – we need to appreciate that economic sophistication has a negative side. If the ancient economy had consisted of a series of simple and essentially autonomous local units, with little specialization of labor within them and very little exchange between them, then parts of it would certainly have survived the troubles of post-Roman times…. However, because the ancient economy was in fact a complicated and interlocked system, its very sophistication rendered it fragile and less adaptable to change.”
Our modern economy is more complicated, more interlocked, and more fragile than the economy of the Roman Empire. Specialization has made our society wealthy. If the latter-day barbarians can accomplish what the Goths and Vandals accomplished in the fifth century, the descent into darkness could be rapid and last many centuries. “Comparison with the contemporary western world is obvious and important,” noted Ward-Perkins. “We would be quite incapable of meeting our needs locally, even in an emergency. The ancient world had not come as far down the road of specialization and helplessness as we have….”
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