Decline and Fall

I gave a lecture today about the fall of the Roman empire that preceded the medieval period and was struck by how weirdly resonant it seemed. Jacques le Goff’s great book “Medieval Civilization 400-1500” points to two key factors that led to the fragmentation and eventual disappearance of the empire. First, he argues, Roman civilisation was essentially parasitical. The Romans didn’t create wealth, they just expanded their territory and stole it from other people, building an empire on the precious resources and enslaved bodies of the cultures they conquered. All their strengths, le Goff argues, were conservative: they were very good at war and at elaborate legal systems, but they didn’t invent anything new, and once they’d spent all the gold they took from their defeated enemies on importing luxury goods from more innovative cultures, the economy more or less collapsed. People forgot how to work stone and began instead to rely on materials stolen from the dismantled roads, viaducts and public buildings the Romans had left behind.

The other important factor was the ‘barbarian invasions’; except the barbarians weren’t so much invading Europe as fleeing from a combination of violence and climate change. Where they were cruel it was out of desperation in the face of Roman refusal to give them sanctuary; the Romans were happy to occasionally let the barbarians in – especially when there was a shortage of labour for agricultural work, or a need for more soldiers – but generally viewed them with disdain, as closer to animals than to human beings. ‘If the Goths took up arms against the Romans in 378’, le Goff argues, ‘it was because they had been quartered on a tiny piece of territory without resources, where the Romans sold them the flesh of dogs and of unclean animals at an exorbitant price, making them exchange their sons as slaves for a bit of food. It was famine that armed them against the Romans.’

A dying empire that has run out of new regions to expand into in order to revive its struggling economy; beseiged at its borders by refugees of despised races, fleeing political violence and the ravages of a changing climate, hastening its own decline by cannibalising its own infrastructure….it all sounds strangely familiar. Fortunately there is hope in this historical analogy, because not long after the final dissipation of what remained of the Roman Empire came the dramatic flourishing of literary, economic and scientific culture that took place in the new ‘ornament of the world’: Al-Andalus, Europe under Muslim rule.