Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome is one of those books that should be measured by the kilogram rather than the number of pages were it not for the academic brilliance of his arguments, his central thesis and the support he provides to affirm his bizarre thesis. Bizarre was the view I held until I engaged with his conclusions and found myself a long way upon the road to believing.
I have not read any of Walter Scheidel’s work before this, a situation I will endeavour to change. He is Professor in the Humanities (whatever that means!), Professor of Classics and History, and a Kennedy-Grosman Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford University. The dust cover of the present publication reveals that he is the author of many books (but names only one). I can understand why that might be so; in fact, the author would be a very odd individual indeed if he had not a substantial trail of academic publication behind the present book.
Professor Scheidel writes in a fashion that I find not only readable but also crisp and business-like. He clarifies in sparse, clinical language what his thesis is, how the evidence came to direct him in certain ways, and why there can be no other truthful explanation. Not many would find fault with the cover of the book, although I’m an exception. I prefer my Romans less twenty-first century commercialised, and on a cover less overwhelming.
Academic written expression and enjoyment in reading generally do not lie next to each other in a state of accord. I found nothing in the early chapters to distress my immediate understanding. So crisp and focused was the information laid out that I allowed the dreich mood of envy to creep in and send me onward, checking passages at random and often, until I reached the end. Professor Scheidel’s writing style remains consistent throughout. The checking and re-checking alerted me in a very short time to a weakness in the book production process – the page numbers are infuriatingly small and fine, almost impossible to read at night.
Let’s step back a bit, and think a lot! Scheidel states categorically that, if the Roman Empire had not ended, the path for Europe’s economic rise would have been more difficult to traverse, and the creation of the modern age would not have happened. He labels the fall of Rome as our Great Escape. This escape from sickness, ignorance, oppression, and want was a radical break from the practices and life experiences of tradition. Simply put, a solitary act (complex and taking a few hundred years to work its way through), happening more than two thousand years ago, has created the markers that define civilization today. In the careful, analytical mind of Professor Scheidel, “a single condition was essential in making the initial breakthroughs possible: competitive fragmentation of power…set[ting] Europe on a trajectory away from the default pattern of serial imperial state formation” (9).
That’s a very bold argument, but Scheidel expected debate. Without challenge, he was not. However, before addressing these, Professor Scheidel raises a series of four questions, the answers to which clarify the rise to power of Rome, its essence as a state, how its power could have been derailed but was not, and why with the fall, the empire never came back. When arguing his way to the fall of the Roman Empire, Scheidel is firmly in the area he knows best. Few would sustain an argument that runs counter to his views. From all this discussion, “I conclude that post-Roman polycentrism in Europe was a perennially robust phenomenon” (12). Scheidel states how his book differs from existing work “in that for the first time, it develops a much more comprehensive line of reasoning to establish once and for all a fundamental axiom: without polycentrism, no modernity” (15). Only the persistent absence of empire allowed polycentrism and its corollaries to flourish (17).
How can this argument be substantiated is a question to which the book turns. Nine to ten pages later, through disciplines of almost very academic persuasion, Scheidel comments that for any number of reasons, the book is bound to irritate. (I love the deftness of the understatement, just as I applaud the sentiment that we’re here “to forgo business as usual and to experiment” (26)).
Yet I hold lingering doubts that a cataclysmic series of events, which is the fall of the Empire, was sufficient on its own, to produce the Europe we know today. I’m reminded of Brexit and the mess the United Kingdom wallows in, unable to take a firm stance. While the youth of Hong Kong riot every weekend on the streets and refuse to accept their civilization as Communist China would have them do, when the people of the United States of America can elect a president who continues in irrational decision-making, we are not seeing a quiescent world population that suddenly grew a brain in the nineteenth century with the result that a watershed moment occurred. There has always been information for those with the wherewithal to access it. Is there any evidence that Martin Luther blamed the fall of Rome for the mess in which his world currently wallowed? What influence did Henry VIII and his daughters wield in the areas of religion and human rights? Was oral communication insufficient to spread information among local peoples?
The massive swing that graphs produce by Walter Scheidel in the early pages of his book are undoubtedly accurate and, used by an expert, can appear to promote a particular point of view. There is the old axiom that graphical representations can be shown to prove any statistic that supports a premise. It’s the prove part that bothers me. I think ‘indicate’ is a better word than prove.
Be all that as it may, Scheidel’s arguments are not easily dismissed. His opponents have trotted out opinions probably more thoroughly researched than I can provide. Yet Scheidel continues to produce evidence that, on the surface, (as far as I can comment), polycentrism survives. When discussing the period from Genghis Khan to Napoleon, Scheidel reports on the Magyar raids into Germany, France and Italy in the ninth and tenth centuries. Only decisive defeat in 955 ended their incursions, but ever so disruptive as they were, there was no challenge to European polycentrism (188). Having made that point, Scheidel writes a number of counter-factual scenarios, the sort of ‘what-if’ situations he has promoted as an active component of his initial arguments, that bolster his theory. In the Section ‘Understanding’, Scheidel argues from an inexhaustible fund of knowledge. He reviews the arguments of a plenitude of other scholars, demonstrating thereby the outstanding quality of his writing to assert that “none of them [ostensibly non-political explanations] propose anything even remotely approaching an alternative chain of causation independent of the effects of variegated fragmentation” (500). In subsequent pages, the author provides an excellent summary of what he has been arguing and what he has not.
While the specific arguments advanced and monitored in this publication Escape from Rome are beyond my brief, I have to advance the view that it is a very thoughtful tome that requires expert analysis. I put forward the view that the future of the contents of this book is to be a platform assailed by scholarly activity for decades to come.
By Walter Scheidel