The fall of the civilization of Rome—and the fragility of our own

Posted September 01, 2006

Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution pointed me recently to a fascinating and very well-written book entitled ”The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization” . I don’t intend to review the book per se (but here are two good reviews, 1 and 2) but instead comment on some interesting points the author made.

First was the level of economic sophistication the Romans reached. Archaeologists evacuating Roman-era sites are consistently overwhelmed by the vast quantity and quality of the pottery they find. Not only is the quantity impressive but there is strong evidence for the existence of large ‘industrial’ producers of pottery that dominating the trade. Pottery from one large producer of tableware in southern France active around 100 A.D. has been found throughout the western Roman empire, past the Hadrian wall into Scotland, and as far east as present-day Moscow.

On another site on the left bank of the Tiber in Rome, there stands a hill some 150 feet high. It is made up entirely of broken oil amphorae from southern Spain. It is estimated that the hill has the remains of some 53 million amphorae, in which around six billion liters (1.56 billion gallons or around 2500 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of oil were transported. Obviously, the Romans could move impressive quantities over long distances!

With the beginning of the barbarian invasions, the economic complexity ended. The confusion broke continent-wide trade routes and millions were thrust into the dark ages. The author contrasts the remains of two sites, one a tiny farmstead on a difficult upland spot in Italy occupied from 200 BC to 100 A.D., and the other a sixth and seventh-century rural palace of the Anglo-Saxon kings of Northumbria. On the Roman farmstead, evacuation produced an impressive range of pottery vessels: huge storage jars, kitchen wares, some locally produced others imported from the West coast of Italy, amphorae from the same area, and finally, glossy tablewares imported from another pottery in Italy near Naples. Contrast this with the pottery found in post-Roman England as the author, Ward-Perkins describes it, “The vessels were hand-shaped, out of poorly processed clay, and were only lightly fired (so they are very friable).”

It’s shocking in a way to see how fragile economies are. Within the span of the lifetime of a Roman born around 400 A.D. much of the prosperity, peace, and security they enjoyed at birth was lost and stayed at pre-Roman levels for nearly 1000 years. Skills as mundane as creating fine pottery or stone buildings were lost in Britain for hundreds of years. The majority of people alive have never seen a real dip in prosperity. In American since the end of WW2, we have seen extremely steady upward growth, the most incredible period of economic growth in history. Virtually everyone alive is richer materially then there parents were and whose parents were richer then there parents were and expects there children to become even richer still.

Though the US has the strongest, most diverse, most steady economy in the world, one wanders all the same if it could fall. It was by no means inevitable that we’ve reached this point. Nor is it a sure thing that we will continue to enjoy our present prosperity.

I don’t know what the future will bring but I do know I enjoyed my book. It made me think.

Tagged with history

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Kyle's profile picKyle Mathews lives and works in Seattle building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter. Currently exploring what's next and open to consulting.