Home Books, Arts, StageHistory Radioscopy of the empire (6) Rome’s legacy

Radioscopy of the empire (6) Rome’s legacy

by Jacques Trauman

We have endeavored, in five chapters highlighting aspects of ancient Roman civilization, to show how much we are indebted to Rome and how important the events that have marked its long history have been and are to our civilization. In this last chapter we will try to demonstrate exactly the opposite.

Great and eccentric economist John Maynard Keynes once said, “If everyone thinks like you, change your mind.” He was what in financial markets is called a “contrarian,” someone who goes exactly against common opinion, someone who tells you to buy when everyone else is selling and sell when. everyone is buying.

Of his kind, Walter Scheidel, historian and professor at Stanford University in California, is a “contrarian” of Roman history. His book (*), published in 2019, is a sum of 550 pages written in small characters; the style is complicated, the demonstrations circumvolutive, but it flies over brilliantly, as American historians know how to do, entire swathes of history.

It is obviously absolutely impossible to summarize such a book, of which Francis Fukuyama, who in his time had revived the theory of the “end of history“, tells us that it presents a fascinating picture showing why the modernity first appeared in Western Europe – it was precisely the failure of the Roman Empire, and not its legacy, that allowed the emergence of a decentralized and competitive system, which became the ultimate platform for economic growth. modern”.

What does tell us Walter Scheidel ?

The great Escape

What is the Great Escape? This is what made it possible for me to write this book, and possible for you to read it – which we could not do if we were busy working the land, or if we were illiterate, or if we were dead in our young age. It has transformed the human condition by enriching many of us, allowing us to be healthy, and better educated than our ancestors ever were, ”he begins. Production and consumption shifted from the most populous regions of the world that is, Asia, to Europe, North America and later Japan.

Mosaîque byzantine Sant’Apollinare Nuovo – Ravenne

Byzantine mosaic. Sant’Apollinare Nuovo – Ravenne

Of course, the empires contributed to economic growth: the Roman Empire helped Europe, the Tang and Song empires helped China, until the Mongol invasion of China and the Black Death in Europe. But different mechanisms were required to allow a real and massive economic takeoff, which was only possible from the 19th century. The great American historian David Saul Landes wrote moreover “that an Englishman in 1750 was materially closer to Caesar’s legionaries than to his great-great-grandchildren“.

The use of charcoal made it possible to harness fossil energy and allowed us to improve our lot considerably. The men lived longer, were healthier, their height increased, so did the literacy rate. It is only recently that information technology has taken over from fossil fuels for growth. Of course, we know all of this. But why did this revolution in human history take place in that obscure corner of the world that nothing was preparing to rule the world, Western Europe?

Too big to succeed

Large empires that are monopolistic in nature are not conducive to economic expansion. This does not mean that the empire did nothing for the Romans at the time, on the contrary. it allowed the development of medicine, education, the maintenance of public order; it developed irrigation, drinking water supply systems, health system, etc, etc … and above all, it brought peace in the empire over a long period of time, allowing the densification of populations .

The Mediterranean was pacified, trade developed, several hundred thousand tons of grain were shipped each year from Egypt or North Africa to supply Rome, spices were imported from India, the monetary system and institutions of credit were generalized.

But economic development was based only on refining existing technologies, and this limited GDP growth. Roman rule simply did not allow major technological developments, the techniques used and refined coming mainly from the Hellenic world. The notion that Rome could have industrialized is not a serious one, and in this respect, Rome resembles Imperial China.

Travelers by streams and mountains. Fan Kuan 范寬. (990-1030)
Musée national du Palais  國立故宮博物院 . Taipei. Taiwan.

So Rome’s tax revenues were certainly sufficient to fuel the army and the court, but not much else, especially since the public debt did not exist.

And, furthermore, corruption, as we have seen in the chapter on Andrianople, was endemic in the Roman Empire.

The great Asian empires, like the Roman Empire, excluded economic elites from the realm of power. The instruments for rapid economic expansion did not exist: no joint-stock company to promote industry, no public debt, no financial markets, no scientific culture promoting innovation, no economic competition. In the Roman Empire, tradition was the norm.

What would have happened if Rome had survived in Europe longer? We do not know anything. Or rather if, we know, since we have an example in front of us: Byzantium.

Venice in the time of Marco Polo

Trying to imagine what Europe might have become if the Western empire, like that of the East, had survived a thousand more years, one can easily imagine a type of monarchical and military government, of elites adhering to the classical traditions, and a Caesarean fusion of politics and ideology. The state, under Byzantium, remained dominant in economic affairs: the elites did not pay taxes and crushed the peasantry. So none of the innovations to come, be it free municipalities, universities, parliaments, the concept of public debt, none of that is associated with Byzantium. In this regard, tiny city-states such as Venice or Genoa, particularly innovative, stood up to Byzantium, and with success.

So the question is not what Rome did for its people at the time, but rather what Rome did for us?


In fact, Rome has done a lot for us, as we will see it at the end of this chapter.
Okay, there is Latin, the writing system, Roman law, the structure of cities, architectural styles, Catholic and Orthodox churches, etc. The legacy seems pretty heavy.

But for Scheidel, this is not what made Europe so successful.

What counted for Europe was both polycentrism (the multiplicity of decision-making centers and therefore the absence of a centralized imperial state) combined with a common culture; success comes from there.
Without knowing it perhaps, Scheidel adopts something that resembles the Gaullian vision of Europe, a Europe of nations, which pools its resources on specific subjects, like the European Coal-Steel Community, or Airbus, but who does not give up his sovereignties.

Scheidel then asks himself the question: Did the Church prevent the constitution of a temporal empire which would have reconstituted a sort of Roman empire and prevented a system of independent nations from being established? For example by promoting the sacred nature of the clergy, more sacred than royal or imperial power, and therefore by controlling the power of despots. There were therefore two powers at work in Europe and it was appropriate to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God”.

The Paradis (1588). Le Tintoret. Louvre museum

The Catholic Church successfully controlled the Germanic emperors until Frederick II. But for Scheidel, the role of the Church in this area was not dominant, polycentrism would have triumphed anyway. Therefore, neither Rome nor the Church played a central role in shaping a fragmented Europe, where competition between states greatly fostered innovation.

Brueghel l’Ancien, Construction de la tour de Babel, 1563,
peinture sur bois, 114 x 155 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienne, Autriche).

Another question is that of the cultural unity of Europe. As Eric Jones, an Anglo-Australian historian who graduated from Oxford, professor at numerous universities and consultant for the World Bank, “unity in diversity has given Europe the best of both worlds“; or as Joël Mokyr, an Israeli-American historian, Yale graduate and professor at Northwestern University, says, “Europe has combined the best of fragmentation and consolidation“; or again, as Jean Baerchler, a French sociologist and member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, writes, “development towards capitalism requires sovereign political units coexisting with a culturally homogeneous area“. We could cite many other authors who point in this direction.

For Scheidel, the emergence of a European culture of knowledge and science is what ensured cultural homogeneity and therefore the development of transnational exchanges and competition.
Is the cultural unity of Europe linked to a common language, Latin, and therefore to the Church? Certainly, Scheidel tells us, without the church the use of Latin would have disappeared by the 5th or 6th century, but the development of different versions of Latin took place anyway in France in the 9th century and in Spain in the 11th century.

As early as the 12th century, states favored the emergence of separate, albeit Romance, languages, a trend reinforced in the 13th century with the writing systems. At that time, most of the writing was no longer in Latin.

The fact remains that the Church acts as a force for cultural integration. Besides, Scheidel imagines a Roman Empire without Christianity as a real possibility. Could cultural integration have taken place? Scheidel does not decide.

And a world without Rome? Could the Greek language then have served as a force for cultural integration? Impossible to say … Not all questions have answers.

Thank you Goths

So what are the root causes of the emergence of Europe?
The perseverance of the followers of an obscure Jewish prophet who built a powerful network which evolved into a powerful transnational hierarchical organization after Constantine’s conversion?

Ultimately, Scheidel concludes, the competitive divide that has characterized Europe for centuries counted more than the cultural unity made possible by the Church. And so, when trying to understand the emergence of Europe, does it make any difference whether the Roman Empire existed or not?
And Scheidel to conclude that this competitive divide would not have been possible if the Roman Empire had existed longer, and therefore, he says, the greatest service, the immense service, that the Roman Empire rendered to Europe is simply to disappear !

 (*) Escape from Rome : The failure of the empire and the road to prosperity
Walter Scheidel
Princeton University Press, 2019 

Header: great mosaic from  Leptis magna, important Roman settlement in Lybia.

Radioscopy of the Empire
Check and read the 6 articles devoted to ROMA by Jacques Trauman
 – Déploiement stratégique. Offensive-défensive et diplomatie
2 – Un fabuleux voyage chez les Romains avec un sesterce en poche
3 – Quand notre monde est devenu chrétien
4 – La vie quotidienne à Rome
5 – Andrinople, le jour des barbares. 9 août 378
6 – L’héritage de Rome




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