Walter Scheidel on Escape from Rome

Walter Scheidel on Escape from Rome

By Walter Scheidel

The fall of the Roman Empire has long been considered one of the greatest disasters in history. But in this groundbreaking book, Walter Scheidel argues that Rome’s dramatic collapse was actually the best thing that ever happened, clearing the path for Europe’s economic rise and the creation of the Enlightenment modern age. Ranging across the entire pre-modern world, Escape from Rome offers new answers to some of the biggest questions in history: Why did the Roman Empire appear? Why did nothing like it ever return to Europe? And, above all, why did European empires come to dominate the world in the centuries after Rome’s fall?

What’s the big idea behind your book?

WS: Throughout history, power monopolies stifled human development: large empires brought peace but also stagnation. In medieval and early modern Europe, by contrast, intense fragmentation caused a lot of suffering – through wars and colonialism – but also fostered productive competition and innovation that eventually led to political reforms, industrialization and growing scientific advances. These breakthroughs radically transformed our way of life by making us much richer, healthier, longer-lived and better educated than our ancestors could ever hope to be. Whereas scholars have proposed many different reasons for this dramatic change, in my book I trace it to a single root cause: the prominence of pluralism and competition in post-Roman Europe.

Can you explain the reference in your title? (I hear it’s an allusion to Escape from New York, the 1981 sci-fi film.) How does it relate to the collapse of the Roman empire?

WS: The motif of escape runs like a red thread through my book: humankind had to escape from what had held us back in the past in order to build the modern world. In that sense my title is an inversion of the movie’s theme – we have escaped to something like New York, a potent symbol of modernity. In the movie’s 1996 sequel, Escape from L.A., a character insists that “the days of empire are finished.” And that’s a good thing: empires had to lose their grip so we could begin to flourish. I borrow the title of another movie, the 1963 WWII POW drama The Great Escape, to capture this process of liberation. For good measure, I also throw in some TV, offering my take on the Monty Python’s famous question, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” My answer will disappoint admirers of the classical tradition – as I see it, the best thing the Romans ever did was to go away for good and never come back.

Why did this “great escape” originate in Europe rather than somewhere else?

WS: Because large-scale empire disappeared only from Europe whereas it was much more persistent in the Middle East and in South and East Asia. I spend a lot of time in my book making the case that this did not happen by chance: Europe was simply less hospitable to empires than many other regions. Geography and ecology played a key role in creating this difference. I test this premise against the historical record by developing “what-if” scenarios to see whether Europe might ever have become unified in the 1,500 years since the fall of Rome – and it turns out that the odds were always poor. This serves as a reminder that history isn’t just one damn fact after another: there are meaningful patterns to be found that help us understand why things turned out the way they did. There was nothing special about Europeans as such: in the end, they benefited from circumstances beyond their control. Had Europe looked differently, or had something like the Roman empire returned, we would not be debating the rise of the West because it most likely wouldn’t have happened at all.

Globalization and capitalism seem to have made the world more interconnected, but does that actually make the hegemonic West more vulnerable?

WS: Definitely. For a long time European history played out at a fairly safe distance from large empires and from disruptions that emanated from the great Eurasian steppe. This gave European societies the space to experiment with unusual forms of government and economic organization that might well have doomed them if they had faced greater outside threats. It was this relative isolation that allowed Europeans to compete amongst themselves, to colonize and exploit much of the world, and to build up ever larger stocks of capital and know-how. This lopsided advantage has finally come to an end as other parts of the world, most notably in Asia, have been catching up with European innovation. For most of history, Asian societies were the big economic powerhouses, and they are in the process of reclaiming that position. The United States, which is arguably the most important product of Europe’s previous hegemony, moderates and slows this shift, but won’t be able to stop it.

What factors do you think would ultimately cause civilizational collapse?

WS: The biggest threat to our way of life arises from unwelcome side effects of modernization that degrade the environment on a global scale, most notably man-made climate change. One thing that ought to give us hope is that modern technology and science not only create these problems but also provide us with the tools to address them: like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, we may be forced to keep running just to stay in place, but we have certainly learned how to run really fast. Unfortunately, it is much more doubtful whether the political and economic institutions that have evolved in a very different environment – at a time when rivalries among nations mattered much more than global cooperation – are capable of implementing the changes that we now need. The legacies of historical modes of pluralism and competition may yet come back to haunt us.

Walter Scheidel is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Classics and History, and a Kennedy-Grossman Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford University. His many books include The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton). He lives in Palo Alto, California. Twitter @WalterScheidel