Friday, May 25, 2012

De Nobis Fabula Narratur

Absolutely fascinating article on BBC news today from historian Michael Wood on the similarities between the fall of Roman Britain and the decline of the Western Roman Empire and today. A must-read. First he gives a historical overview of what collapse was like in Roman Britain:
If people were still there they weren't using coins, or wheel-made pottery, and they certainly weren't shopping for luxuries. As Dr Carenza Lewis of Cambridge University puts it: "It's almost wiped out - as far as the pottery goes you could hold post-Roman Long Melford in your hand - with a bag of chips!" By the early 5th Century in Britain, currency stopped being used altogether. "It became a century of make do and mend," says archaeologist Peter Liddle on Burrough Hill in Leicestershire.

Some towns survived - Carlisle for example still had a town council and a working aqueduct in the 7th Century - but in most of them, with the rubbish piled up in the streets and the civic buildings left to decay, eventually the people left.

The British went back to an Iron Age rural farming economy. The population declined from its four million peak to maybe only a million, devastated by the great plagues, famines and climate crises of the 500s. In the countryside life went on, but with barter and self-sufficiency, out of which, building from the bottom, our medieval and modern societies eventually emerged.

... history tells us that complex societies do collapse. And the great constant, along with climate and economic forces, is human nature. Societies, then and now, are made by people, and they are often brought down by people. Rome in the 4th Century had been a great power defended by a huge army. A century later the power and the army had gone. Instead the West was ruled by new barbarian elites, Angles and Saxons, Visigoths and Franks. And nowhere were these changes more dramatic than on the very fringe of the Roman world in Britain.  
Then he goes on to draw similarities to today:
Modern historians, though, see it differently, and some of their ideas seem startlingly relevant to us now.

First was the widening gulf between the social classes, rich and poor. When rich and poor start to live completely different lives this leads (then as now) to the poor opting out of the state. All studies today show that society is happier when the gap between rich and poor is reduced. Widen it and you affect the group ethos of society, and also the ability to get things done through tax.

In the Roman West real wealth lay more in land and property than in finance (though there were banks) - but in the 300s the big land-owning aristocrats who often had fantastic wealth, contributed much less money than they had in the past to defence and government. That in turn led as it has today to a "credibility gap" between ordinary people and the bureaucrats and rich people at the top. Not surprisingly then, many people - especially religious groups - tried to opt out altogether.

Other strands in the collapse of the Roman West are more difficult to quantify, but they centre on "group feeling", the glue that keeps society working together towards common goals. Lose that and you get a kind of nervous breakdown in the social order, which leads to what archaeologists call "systems collapse". The British historian Gildas (c 500-570) in his diatribe against contemporary rulers in the early 500s, looking back over the story of the Fall of Roman Britain, lists the military failures, but behind them he speaks bitterly of a loss of nerve and direction, a failure of "group feeling".

Gildas talks about right-wing politicians advocating glibly attractive solutions that appealed to the populace while "any leader who seemed more soft, or who was more inclined to actually tell things as they are, was painted as ruinous to the country and everyone directed their contempt towards him". Gildas also singles out his leaders' sheer ineptitude and bad judgement, recalling some governments and financiers in today's banking crisis.

"Everything our leaders did to try to save the situation ended up having the opposite effect. Society became prey to corrosive quarrels and dissensions, anger towards the rich, and political opportunism was rife that made no distinction between right and wrong."

Another element Gildas saw as being crucial was the major influx of newcomers from the continent - Angles, Saxons and Jutes who had already been employed in the country as security guards, mercenaries, field workers and street cleaners. These people now took advantage of the lack of central order to create small regional sub-Roman kingdoms in eastern Britain. Only ever a minority, nonetheless they would have a tremendous effect on our culture as they were the ancestors of the English and most of us in Britain speak their language today.
And a terrific conclusion:
So, the Roman Empire didn't fall everywhere or all at one time. Indeed you could argue that the last part of the Roman Empire to fall anywhere was Gwynedd in the English conquest of 1282. Standing in Llantwit, the Dark Age stones testify to the long, slow, almost imperceptible process of change in history, by which one world becomes another. Rome wasn't built in a day and it didn't fall in a day either. Its shadow still falls on us, a memory imprinted almost like genetic information, a memory to which we all belong.
Viewpoint: The time Britain slid into chaos (BBC)

I love everything Michael Wood does. He has my dream job. I remember watching his In Search of Alexander The Great as a little kid; I'm sure it influenced my love of history and far-away exotic places (if only I ever get to see them...)

I've drawn similar parallels in the past, most notably here and here, where I wrote:
Imagine life for an average citizen in the provinces during the sunset of the Roman Empire. One day the Roman soldiers are pulled back from the fort defending your town due to lack of manpower. The harvests are smaller due to soil exhaustion and lack of rain. The ceramic and metal goods are a little bit shoddier every year, and the quality of building bricks declines. The baths run out of wood for heating, and the arena shuts down for lack of funds. The ships fail to arrive on time with amphoras full of olive oil, and the only blacksmith has left town. Stone buildings crumble for lack of maintenance, replaced by cheaper wooden ones. Administrators stop doing their jobs, and people stopped listening to their edicts or paying taxes long ago anyway. Over time, the Empire slowly decays from the far-flung outer regions in towards the center. It's like watching ice freeze - it seems like nothing special is happening. Only when you compare the beginning and end states do you realize the drama of what has occurred. Eventually, the new state just becomes "the new normal."
De Nobis Fabula Narratur, indeed.


Courtesy The New York Times:
Greece may be on Europe’s periphery today, but in the 12th century Constantinople was the gateway to a lucrative trade in spices, silks and luxury goods coming from the east. This trade had made fortunes for men across Europe — as the economies of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy have done over the last two decades.

Traders from places like Venice, Genoa and Pisa in the late 12th century managed to win for themselves the sort of advantages and loopholes in Constantinople that bright young fund managers would kill for today: they negotiated positions that allowed them to undercut local traders, alongside smart commercial treaties that let them minimize or even sidestep their taxes. As with modern Greece, this led to a flow of cheap foreign capital into the markets.

Around 1200, though, things went sour. A sharp contraction of trade in the Byzantine Empire was exacerbated by wild overspending by Venice, the medieval equivalent of a European central bank.

Almost overnight there was a switch from the easy money, where everyone was a winner, to the dark arts of debt collecting. As with Athens since the financial crisis took hold, it became clear that no one would take responsibility for lending too much, for basing forecasts on only best-case scenarios.

Someone would have to cover the losses, and Venetian merchants were adamant that it would not be them. Constantinople and the Greek-speaking empire, riven by internal divisions, was the obvious mark.

Eventually, one of the rival factions in Constantinople offered a deal with Venice: in exchange for covering the Most Serene Republic’s losses, the faction would receive Venetian military muscle to secure its claim on the Byzantine throne. Venice jumped at the deal.

But Constantinople had vastly underestimated the size of its new debt obligations — and overestimated the stabilizing effect of Venetian arms. Financial obligations mounted abroad, while political paralysis deepened at home.

Everyone from the pope to the kings of Europe knew about the pressure building against Constantinople. One Western delegation after another told the Greeks to get their act together — or, to put it more bluntly, to pay up. The crusaders, under the sway of Venice, lay siege to the city.

Eventually, the Westerners had enough of the procrastination. Seizing their chance, the knights stormed Constantinople. What happened next was a disgrace: the prize assets of the empire were looted at will, seized as collateral by a mob that behaved with no concern for the city’s inhabitants, its culture or its history.

According to one account, prostitutes danced on the altar of St. Sophia, the most beautiful church in the whole of Christendom. Palaces, gardens and holy places were ransacked, with treasures taken off by the cartload. The great collections of relics held in the imperial capital were seized by the Westerners to adorn cathedrals and churches across Western Europe; to this day four bronze horses, stolen from the hippodrome of Constantinople, stand atop the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice.

Judging the Greeks fiscally and politically incompetent, the conquerors appointed a regent. Baldwin of Flanders, crowned emperor of Constantinople in 1204, was a classic I.M.F.-style appointee: a safe pair of hands, someone with whom other Western leaders could do business.

Meanwhile, the noblemen leading the Crusade, many of whom had brought ruin in the first place with their reckless promises, took control of whole areas of the city and empire for themselves — a classic case of getting in at rock bottom. (So keep an eye on those bankers and their villas in the Aegean; you don’t need to be a historian to know it is a buyers’ market.) The new Latin Empire of Constantinople lasted just 50 years before the Greeks returned to power.


  1. This is a fine intellectual port to find some reason and reasoning in the torrential downpour of collapse porn.


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