Friday, December 16, 2011

The Fall of Rome
A Note on Britain

Late Roman British Villa

The Fall of Rome is considered one of the great mysteries of history. In fact Edward Gibbon wrote one of the great masterpieces of historical literature in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.1 In it Edward Gibbon says remarkably little about "big causes" of the decline and instead gives, in very great detail, a narrative of events regarding the fall.2

Perhaps it would be useful to divide theories regarding the fall of Rome into two over arching explanations.

The first is the fall of Rome as a result of accidental factors, such as disease, barbarian invasions bad luck etc.3

The second is internal factors related to deep underlying causes, such as the decline of trade, over administration, institutional corruption the decay of the economy etc.4

Now the problem with the "accidental" approach are rather obvious. For example the book The Fall of The Roman Empire claims that Rome fell because of the increased pressure of barbarians on its social structure, army etc., were to much to bear. Further this study contends that the Roman empire was administratively and economically healthy. Of course this approach then faces the problem that given that the Roman empire had a population of c. 40-70 million and a defence force that was at least 200,000 raised later to well over 400,000 just how did it succumb to barbarian "hordes" numbering at best 30,000, (armed men). In fact the total number of the barbarian hordes invading the Roman Empire, including women, children, slaves old people etc., numbered almost certainly all together under one million.5

Finally the "accidental" approach completely fails to provide any explanation for the decay of Ancient Civilization. The "Barbarian Hordes". wanted to reap the benefits of Ancient Civilization not destroy it and yet in the west it decayed and collapsed. Cities were abandoned, trade decayed, the whole civic life created by the Roman empire fell apart. The road system for example fell apart and was allowed to decay. Learning fell off and life became distinctly more primitive. If Roman society / economy was so "healthy" how could the mere taking over of political power by a new set of overlords produce such decay? This is especially noteworthy given the abundant evidence of "Barbarian" desire to participate and take over Roman forms and culture.6

The "accidental" idea makes the Fall of Rome  inexplicable. The idea that a strong, socially and economically, culture would experience such a drastic decline simply from being taken over by a relatively small number of invaders, who were by the way anxious to preserve the goose that was laying golden eggs for them, is unbelievable. The solution is that there was something deeply wrong with Roman society and economy. 

A test example of this is perhaps Britain. It is known that Britain was basically abandoned to its own local resources of defence after the last of the legions stationed there left c. 410 C.E.7 So what was the state of Britain in the two generations before the legions left?

Let us start with the state of the towns. In a study published a little over ten years ago that surveyed rooms in 1361 buildings in those towns during the period that Britain was part of the Roman Empire reveals a rather interesting pattern. The remains found can give a very good indication of if a room was occupied and thus tell us something about the use or lack of use of a structure.

Thus we have the following.8

C.E.  60  -   350 Rooms Occupied.
  "      75  -   210     "             "
  "    100  -   610                                                      
  "    125  -   650     
  "    150  -   850     
  "    175  -   900    
  "    200  - 1000     "             "
  "    225  - 1225     
  "    250  - 1250     
  "    275  - 1230    
  "    300  - 1225     
  "    325  - 1050     
  "    350  -  900      
  "    375  -  575      "             "
  "    400  -  175     

The above table shows a clear pattern of decline in the urban part of life in late Roman Britain. So that it appears that by 400 C.E. even before the Romans abandoned Britain to its own devices urban life had collapsed. Evidence also indicates a decline in the amount of construction.9 

In rural areas there was a similar contraction. Thus we get the following table of occupied in rural sites during the period of Roman rule.10

C.E. 50 -   95  Sites    Occupied
  "     90 - 110      "             "
  "   120 - 155
  "   150 - 153
  "   190 - 150
  "   220 - 140      "             "
  "   250 - 138
  "   290 - 140
  "   320 - 120
  "   350 - 105
  "   390 -   95       "            "
  "   420 -   15

A similar table showing the rooms occupied in rural Roman Villas in Britain shows a similar decline.11

C.E.  60  -     5 Occupied Rooms
  "      75  -   35         "           "
  "    100  - 120
  "    125  - 220
  "    150  - 375
  "    175  - 420          "          "
  "    200  - 490
  "    225  - 530
  "    250  - 550
  "    275  - 640
  "    300  - 820
  "    325 -  880          "          "
  "    350 -  770
  "    375 -  560
  "    400 -  260
  "    425 -    50

This data provides good evidence for the long held belief that during late 3rd century C.E. and well into the 4th century C.E. the rural villas of Roman Britain experienced a sort of golden age. However the data also indicates that in the second half of the 4th century C.E., the villas went into serious terminal decline.

What these bits of data indicate is that even before the last of the legions left in 410 C.E., called home to defend Italy from barbarian invaders, there were serious intractable problems with the Roman economy / society in Britain. Blaming barbarian raids and invasion can only go so far because it does not explain the lack of recovery if the social and economic system had been in the best of health. 

What the above indicates is a system suffering from serious systemic failings that were undermining the whole socio-political system. It was not barbarian pressure that destroyed Roman Britain but fundamental weaknesses that that undermined the system even before the last of the legions left.

Urban life seems to have almost completely collapsed by 400 C.E., and urbanism was one of the defining features of Roman rule. The villas, another defining feature of Roman rule were in precipitous decline after a period of substantial late growth. Even the number of rurally occupied sites shows evidence of contraction.12

These are not the signs of a healthy political / economic system but the signs of one in serious trouble.

Thus it appears that the idea that the fall of Rome was "accidental"  is not supported by the evidence which at least in the case of Roman Britain indicates serious structural problems. These serious structural problems would also explain not just how the "Barbarian Hordes", were able to overwhelm the Romans and supplant them but also why they were unable to prevent the rot from continuing until Greco-Roman antiquity was but a faded memory in the west.

In another posting I may explore some of the structural reasons for the fall of Rome.

Mosaic From Late Roman British Villa

1. The complete work can be found at the Gutenberg website Here.

2. IBID.

3. A good modern restatement of the "Accidental" position is Heather, Peter, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Pan Books, London, 2006.

4. See the essays in Kagan, Donald, Editor, The End of the Roman Empire, Second Edition, D.C. Heath and Co, Toronto, 1978. For an overview of the collapse of the Roman Empire as a systemic failure see Tainter, Joseph A., The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, pp. 128-151. 

5. See Heather, Footnote 3, Grant, Michael, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Annenberg School Press, London, 1976, pp. 15-58. 

6. Grant, pp. 203-230, Tainter, pp. 128-151. See also Ward-Perkins, Bryan, The Fall of Rome, Walbank, F. W, The Awful Revolution, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1969.

7. Faulkner, Neil, The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain, Second Edition,Tempus, 2004, pp. 242-248, Mattingly, David, An Imperial Possession, Penguin Books, London, 2006, pp. 529-530.

8. Table is from graph from Faulkner, Neil & Reece, Richard, The Debate About the End: A Review of Evidence and Methods, The Archaeological Journal, v. 159, 2002, pp. 59-76, at p. 66. The numbers I give are approximations and not exact. 

9. IBID, Faulkner,  et al, 2002. See also Faulkner, 2004, pp. 169-220. 

10. Table is from graph from Faulkner, 2004, p. 71. The numbers I give are approximations and not exact.

11. IBID, p. 69. The numbers I give are approximations and not exact.

12. See Faulkner, pp. 169-185, Mattingly, pp. 325-350.

Pierre Cloutier

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