Clifford Ando | The Long Defeat: The Fall of the Roman Empire

Clifford Ando | The Long Defeat: The Fall of the Roman Empire

August 30, 2019 65 By Stanley Isaacs


The trouble, as I’ve sometimes said in this
role with introducing somebody, reminds me, it reminds me of a rather famous
writer whom I used to be acquainted with, who said that the problem with speaking
in praise of somebody else is that you risk distracting valuable attention from
yourself. So, in order to avoid that pitfall, let me begin by telling you that
when I was in college, I went to a movie called “The Fall of the Roman Empire.” And
I know you’re thinking, “Oh, surely, when you were in college, they did not have
moving pictures.” But they did. They did, and it was called “The Fall of the Roman
Empire.” And it began with Marcus Aurelius, standing with his back to the camera,
conversing with his daughter, Debbie Aurelius, or something, also with her back
to the camera. And they were standing in a dark evening in a dark forest in a
windswept part of Germany. And Marcus Aurelius was saying Marcus Aurelius type,
philosophical things about empire and how foreboding it all was. And then they
both turned around and faced the camera. And Marcus Aurelius turned out to be
Alec Guinness. And so we learned that this was a foreshadowing of Obi-Wan
Kenobi and an empire of an entirely different sort. But when
Aurelius’s daughter turned around, she was the young and remarkable, especially
when she turned around, Sophia Loren. So, today, fifty years later or
so, half a century or so later, I find myself standing on the podium once again,
introducing something on the fall of the Roman Empire. And this time, instead of
the remarkable Sophia Loren, it’s the remarkable Clifford Ando. Now, when I
think about this, of course, it tends to confirm my hypothesis that at the level
of individual experience, progress is a delusion. Nevertheless, I can tell you
that although Clifford Ando is not remarkable in the same way as Sophia
Loren he is remarkable, nevertheless. I have here his vita, and were I to share
even a fraction of the detail of this with you, I would do more than risk
distracting valuable attention from myself.
The comparison would be so invidious that I would have to shrink
from the platform in shame. So I will tell you only a little bit about what
makes him remarkable. He is the author of, well, four published books, and according
to this vita, there are three more in progress, I presume one with each hand
and one with one of his feet, leaving the other free to hop over here from dinner
and share some of his thoughts on the fall of the Roman Empire with them. He
has held fellowships and received prizes from august institutions in many
civilized countries, including France, and Germany, and Great Britain, and even
California. Too numerous to mention, so I won’t mention. He is an authority, both local and international, on Roman law, on Roman religion, and of
course, what goes with both of those, Roman order. And he has written on many
of these topics at more length than I can begin to tell you about. All of this
has happened since he received his PhD from the University of Michigan, where by
the way, I also received my PhD, in case your attention is wandering to tonight’s
speaker. He received it in 1996, and he is now, among other things, the David B. and
Clara Stern Professor of Humanities, here, at the University of Chicago. And I take
enormous pleasure in presenting to you the pleasure of hearing tonight’s
speaker, Clifford Ando. Thank you. [Applause] Well, thanks, man. I have absolutely no
idea how to follow that up. It’s a great, great pleasure to be back at the OI.
I’ve spoken here, I think, three times before, and I’d have to say that, you know,
speaking before the OI membership is just one of the distinct pleasures of
having come here from California to find an, you know, an educated, intelligent,
inquiring, occasionally aggressive audience outside, as it were, faculty
meetings. It’s just a, it’s just a distinct pleasure. So, I’m very pleased to be here and to participate once again in the OI Membership Lecture Series. Can you fix the microphone? Thank you.
But then I risk focusing on this the whole evening. So, what I’d like to do today is to talk
to you briefly about the historiography on the fall of the Roman Empire, to talk
to you a bit about how people have gone about explaining the fall of the Roman
Empire. Before turning–so first, I will, I will open with a section which I talk
ever so briefly to try and put in stark terms of what it was that fell, to try
and basically be a map, to try and explain why it is that people are
concerned with the fall of the Roman Empire. Before turning to a moment to
talk about the diversity of explanations people have given, and for that matter
why have people given so many different explanations to the fall of the Roman
Empire, and why do they care? I will then ever so briefly talk about,
as it were, a correlate, that is to say something like a recent disinterest, if
not un-interest, in the problem of decline and fall. Before I will take up the
question of: Have we got any accurate way of measuring what it was
that fell? And for a brief moment, and I suppose it’s just as well that the AI is
co-sponsoring, I will talk ever so briefly about various kinds of indices,
or measurements, that we might use to discuss the problem of decline
and fall. How it is we might think that something like the collapse of a
basically, super-ordinate political form might, in fact, have mattered. I mean, if
you were to listen, if you were to compare the Roman Empire to a
contemporary federal structure, and you were to imagine yourselves in the shoes
of a contemporary member of the Tea Party, you might say that the collapse of
the federal government would bring nothing but good to your lives. So then
there’s an open question, right? Would the citizens or residents of the various
population groups of the Roman Empire, would they in fact have noticed? If very,
very, very far away, perhaps on the German border, with effects echoing in
Constantinople, the Roman Empire happen to have fall? Or would it have
basically no meaning at the local level? Or might it in fact amount to an
improvement? So the question is, what kinds of measurements might we have to
assess this question? I will then finally, at last, turn to a problem, to a comparing
of the situation of the Roman Empire in the third century to the situation of
the Roman Empire in the fifth. As I will lay out then, in the third century, the
Roman Empire suffered an immense number of attacks from beyond its borders. As it
did once again in the fifth. And at a sort of structural level, the response of
the Roman Empire in the third century bares many resemblances to the response,
as it were, of the Roman Empire in the fifth. But the story of how the third
century ended and the story of how the fifth century ended are, of course,
extremely different. And, in conclusion, I’ll try to offer some thoughts on why
that happened. Although, given the number of slides I have, if we haven’t got time
for that, um, you know, I’ll just I’ll be very cruel and just leave you without
explanation, we’ll break to wine. I think, I was supposed to add that there’s,
there’s a fee to collect the wine at the reception. You can only have
a glass of wine if you hand in your new AIA membership application. This was
something Petro was not authorized to disclose. But, um, okay.
So, just as a brief illustration of the broadest possible kind. Oh. I think I’m–sorry, right. So, as a illustration of the broadest possible level of what it was
we’re talking about, in, when we talk about the fall of the Roman Empire–not
telling anything you do not know. Here’s a map of the Roman Empire in the age of
Septimius Severus, which is to say circa 200 C.E. And here is one possible map. I
will show you several others, because the maps, at some level, are merely
imaginings of one of several different possible ways of thinking about the
organizations of populations, and the stability of states in the 6th century.
But here’s one possible map of the Roman Empire in 526 C.E. Why 526, rather than a
quartile like 525? Well, 526 is the year that Theodoric, the Ostrogoth
emperor of–the Ostrogoth ruler of Italy died, and historians need something
like dates, to hang something on. You might accuse historians of just being
sort of servile slaves of particular kinds of political or biographical
narratives. I think it’s rather that’s it’s actually just easier to hang dates or
hang, hang, hang information onto specific points in time. This is an image of the
Mediterranean world in the 6th century, C.E. And, as you can see, what was once,
at least, gave the appearance of an enormously unified structure, has
fragmented not only into a bunch of blotches of color, which you might
imagine as being something like successor states. I wouldn’t encourage
you to do that but you could think of them as successor states to the Roman
Empire. So, at least if you had the luck to live in a colored blotch, like, your
Social Security check would still arrive, it would just come from a different
government. Imagine the horror of ending up in a white blotch, where there was
something like no state structure. And, this, this
gap, however we measure it, between something like an enormous world-encompassing state, with pretensions both to being a world empire and, frankly, also
to being eternal. This gap, between the one state and this highly fragmented,
diversified world of the sixth century, is essentially the gap that motivates
the enormous amount of attention and historical and intellectual energy
that’s been devoted to the problem of decline and fall since at least the 15th
century. The reason to come back to the problem of this world as unified is
because from the perspective of the early modern world, this world of the
Roman Empire, at the end of the 2nd century CE, looked to have, and as it
turns out, did in fact have, a higher population than Europe would again
achieve for at least another eleven hundred years. It was also something like
a state–well, I won’t exactly call it a state, but it was certainly something
like a state–that encompassed at the level of diversity, of language, religion,
culture, cuisine, dress, what-have-you that encompassed an extraordinarily diverse
population, more diverse, certainly, than any European state, say, since the 15th
century. Since people began to problematize the question of decline and
fall. And because this state, the Roman Empire of the second century, cut across
a whole series of divisions, geographic and otherwise, that seemed from the
perspective of the early modern world, to essentially be ontological divisions,
that is to say, massive huge cultural divisions which surely went, at least in
their imagination, all the way back in time and might as well be eternal. The
division between Europe and Asia, Christian and Muslim,
Europe and North Africa, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, and so on. Hence, in
what was the perhaps the most famous piece of historical writing, not only on
this subject, but I think actually in my experience, the greatest piece of
historical writing in something like the modern scholarly tradition, in any
language. In the words of Edward Gibbon, at the opening of his “History of the Decline and Fall,” the first volume of which was published in 1776, he writes, “In the
second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest
part of the earth and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that
extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The
gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the
union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the
advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was
preserved with decent reverence. The Roman Senate appeared to possess the
sovereign authority and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of
government. During a happy period of more than four-score years, the public
administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan,
Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It was the design of this and the two succeeding–”
sorry, “It is the design of this and the two succeeding chapters to describe the
prosperous condition of the Empire, and afterwards, from the death of Marcus
Aurelius, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall, a
revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the
earth.” Note how, right, as I talk about the gap
between the one world and the other, note how the theme of the praise of empire
and the problematic, as we might call it, of decline and fall are intertwined. That
is to say that the fall of Rome matters because of the height that we attribute
to the Roman Empire from which it fell. That is, the Roman Empire, the Roman–
the fall of the Roman Empire matters because we attribute to the Roman Empire,
to use the kind of language of Peter Brown, a solidity. Or to use a sort of
modern sociological terms, we think of the Roman Empire more like a unified
state, in which case its fall matters because it’s, the Roman Empire represents
to modern, represented to modern Europe, and in a way still represents to a whole
body of modern theory, an earlier version of ourselves. And its success or failure
in unifying and pacifying a remarkably diverse world represents, as it were, some
better, ghostly, haunting, ancient version of our own possibilities. So it is for
these reasons–probably not totally legible, but I wanted to put up there
Alexander Demandt’s name. There have been recent years been two quite remarkable,
remarkably interesting studies of the history of histories of decline and fall.
The first, from the early 1980s, is a book by a German named Alexander Demandt, who
wrote a book on the fall of Rome. But it is in fact a typology and a history
of histories of decline and fall. Now, unfortunately, it was never translated, so
to the extent that any Americans have ever heard of it, it is because of the QT
appendix he throws in as something like a joke on the very last page, page 695. In
which he tries to reduce to a single word all the 210 causes that have been
attributed to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. If anybody, rather than
reading Alexander Demandt’s work, wants to read either page 695, or, here I supply
for you a translation made, the only bit of the work that was translated–which, as I say, is terribly unfair, and I’ll come back to why it’s unfair in just a second–
a translation made of the appendix by the classicist Karl Galinski
in an appendix to an article of his on the historiography of decline and fall.
Which includes, as you can see, everything from abolition of gods, abolition of
rights, absolutism, you know, bobhevization, bureaucracy, Byzantinism,
complacency, excessive foreign infiltration, earthquakes, division of
labor, god forbid. Irrationality and Jewish influence, which are not the same
thing. Lack of orderly military succession, lack
of religious, lack of seriousness. I think if there’s one thing we can
agree on, it’s that the Romans of the second century were a deeply serious
people. Hypothermia. I mean, I have read a great deal about the fall of the Roman–but I cannot identify for you now who has advanced hypothermia as a cause
of the fall of the Roman Empire. It was, it was either racial degeneration or
racial discrimination, I actually don’t know which. Either they were sleeping
around or they weren’t, but either way it was a bad thing. I like a vainglorious-ness. So. Now, somewhat more seriously. Somewhat more seriously. One thing
I would like to take away from this enormous range of material–which
obviously range from explanations that are at some level structural, and at some
level cultural, and who knows what–is that in the huge range of books
you could now find, and there probably are at least 20 books you could buy
today in the Seminary Co-Op bookstore, and which of course you should buy
tomorrow in the Seminary Co-Op bookstore. How you tell the story of the fall of
the Roman Empire, and for that matter when that story begins, and at some level
when the story ends, very much depends on the cause that you
identify. Apart from very obvious landmarks, like say the sack of Rome in
the end of the first decade of the fifth century, or the deposition of the last of
the Roman emperors towards the end of the fifth century, if you even take that
event seriously, which becomes an event more or less because we need an event to
mark the end of the Roman Empire in the West. The story depends on the cause, and
the beginnings, and the ends, and so forth. One of the perhaps most interesting
things about the legacy of Edward Gibbon is, although I think everyone would
concede that his has been by far the most influential of all explanations of
decline and fall in any language, and perhaps one of the most influential
works of historiography in any field of historical study, is that I know of
virtually no one who has ever followed Edward Gibbon in identifying the fall of
Constantinople in 1453 as the end of the Roman Empire. And I’ll come back to that problem in just a moment. Just to be fair to Alexander Demandt, let me just
say that Demandt’s analysis does a great deal more, that is in if you are willing
to look at the material between the title page and page 695. Demandt
identifies a whole range of types of explanation for the fall of the Roman
Empire. There are religious explanations. There are socio-economic explanations.
There are natural scientific explanations–lead poisoning, I’m sure
everybody’s heard the Romans died because they had lead pipes. There are
sort of endogenous, political explanations–there was some sort of
failure of the political culture. There are morphological or structural
explanations, that have to do with something like the cyclical rise and
fall of states, it was a sort of time for it to fall. And there are exogenous
explanations, meaning from the outside, barbarians came in, and that was just the
end. What is more, and this perhaps worth saying, is that there is, I take it
for us now, an unsurprising but nonetheless very interesting correlation
between something like contemporary, intellectual currents and social
anxieties and the kinds of explanations that were produced. So for example, in the
late 17th and early 18th century, in the aftermath of the Wars of Religion, the
fall of the Roman Empire was attributed to the rise of something like
Christian monotheism and therefore Christian tolerance. That the Roman
Empire, having been very tolerant in a way that Europe of the 17th century had not been, the moment the Romans became intolerant, they fell, which
is why Europe deserved the wars that it got in the 17th century. Economic factors
were particularly important in explanations given between the wars in
the 20th century, at a time, of course, when economic issues were on the minds
of nearly every intellectual and probably every person in the
world. And naturally, immigration–or what we, in the Roman context, we call
invasions of barbarians, or what the contemporary British call the invasion
of Bulgarian workers under EU worker treaties–immigration or invasion of
barbarians has been a prominent explanation at a whole series of
repeated heated moments in European history. Since Demandt’s work, there has
been, now close to ten years ago, a really spectacular piece of historiography by
John Pocock, the great New Zealand intellectual historian of the 20th
century, who in contrast to Demandt– this why I put the two–Alexandre
Pocock attempts no catalog. But what Pocock does, which is really I think,
terribly important, is begin the story of the history of histories of decline and
fall in the second century BCE. That is, one of the things that come out comes
out of Pocock’s work, which is sort of like a chronological preface to Demandt’s
book, is the the incredible obsession of the Romans themselves on the eventual
fall of the Roman Empire. The first account of which we have is actually a
story of the great General Scipio. Scipio Aemilianus, Scipio the Second, Scipio not the winner of the Second Punic War but the
winner of the Third Punic War, who is reported by a Greek contemporary who was
his companion during the final sack of Carthage to have sat down and cried
watching Carthage burn because he said, “As Carthage burned, so must Rome
eventually fall.” That is to say that all states fall, and so will Rome. One of the
things that, one of the things that Pocock’s work then highlights is the
intersection between claims to eternity and the arrival of monarchy at Rome.
Under the republican government, no one claimed that Rome was going to last
forever. Rome was continuously imagined itself as engaged in the sort of
zero-sum game for hegemony in the Mediterranean. And for people engaged in
that kind of game, you win until you lose. It was really with the arrival of
monarchy, and the first claim that we ever have in Roman literature that Rome
would last forever, is– coeval with the arrival of an
emperor, with the Emperor Augustus. The second thing, second theme that Pocock
brings out which is terribly useful, is is something like Christian denial of
Roman eternity. Right? This is, of course, a terribly important problem that
will bring us back to–which I will come back to later today. Which is to say that
when Rome fell, or when the city of Rome was sacked, even though that wasn’t the
end of the Roman Empire. When the city of Rome was sacked, this produced something
like a heated political argument between a still extant pagan population and a
set of Christians, having to do with whether Christianity was to blame for
the fall of Rome. That is to say, for so long as Rome had been pagan, the city had
remained untouched–or so went the claim. But only 80 years, or 90 years, or
depending on when you date something like the conversion of the Roman Empire.
Perhaps if you date it to the notional conversion of Constantine, only
a hundred years after the conversion of the emperor, Rome had been sacked for the
first time in in a thousand years. The response on the Christian part was
essentially to say, “The fall of Rome is no big deal.
Rome doesn’t matter.” Right? Harkening back in part to earlier readings of
the Book of Daniel, but also to other kinds of myths of the rise and fall of
empires, and perhaps the notions of the succession of empire, of translatio imperii, in the Near Eastern Hellenistic and Roman tradition. The
Christians were happy to say that earthly empires end.
That’s just what earthly structures do. The Christians lost this battle, but it’s
important to remember that the background, say–I mean the most famous
work of literature generated by this controversy is Augustine’s “City of God.” But
Augustin’s “City of God” was itself preceded by a huge series of polemics, delivered
by Augustine mostly in the form of sermons in which
he said, “The fall of Rome or the sack of Rome just doesn’t matter.
It’s just a city, and cities are no big deal.” A third theme highlighted by Pocock
that I want to mention now, because it’s important to intellectual life if it
doesn’t become important later, is the problem of what we would might now call
ethnogenesis. That is to say, coming back to this map. Sorry. That the emergence of
Europe–oops. The emergence of Europe, as they knew it
in, say, the 17th and 18th century. Europe cannot have come out of this without
passing through this. That the emergence of a series of different nation-states,
ideally according to early modern theory, organized around ethnic and culturally
unified populations. That the emergence of European nation-states cannot have
happened, right. Modern Europe could not exist without imperial structures fading
away, whether through violence or simple self-effacement. And the final theme that
Pocock draws out there, and a lot of other work he produced, had to do, has to
do with whether the fall of Rome was preordained by features internal to the
nature of states. Let us say here Pocock turns to a particular reading of
Machiavelli, who argued, particularly in his reading of the Roman historian Livy,
that Rome, that all states are either built for expansion or survival. States
that are built for expansion, he thought, were better, because they will simply
swallow up all states built for survival. Machiavelli’s interest in this
process lay in the collapse of democracy. That is, Machiavelli argued that Rome had
been successful while it was a democratic empire, but it eventually
became so big that it had to make a choice between giving up its empire and
remaining a democracy, or giving up its
democracy and remaining an empire. But there are a series of hints in the
discourses on Livy that the same sort of dynamic was true at the level of the
larger imperial structure itself. That the greater, essentially like a
totalitarian order, or hegemonic argument, that the larger that the imperial
structure becomes and the more successful it becomes, the more it
necessarily will build into itself the structure of the structural requirement
of its own decay. Now over the last two generations, historiography in the
contemporary. particularly Anglo-American academy, has taken a somewhat surprising
turn. That can more or less be indexed to the publication of two books within
about seven years of each other, in 1964 and 1971 or two or so. The
first was a book by a Cambridge historian, Hugo Jones, called “The Later
Roman Empire,” whose subtitle was, “A Social, Economic, and Administrative
Survey.” And in contrast to ancient historians, or what I think of as true
ancient historians, which is to say people like myself, who have in the
shadow of the German academy, spent an enormous portion of our lives
cataloging stuff about the Roman Empire– do we know where every legionary base
was, do we know where every tax collecting station was, can we identify
every census taker that ever lived under the Roman Empire?
The nature of government, and the kinds of things that the study of government,
and social and economic issues, patterns in landholding, and so on had received
virtually no attention. Not none, but virtually no attention of this kind, in
the later Roman Empire until Hugo Jones’s book. It would just, it would be completely fair to say that it put a huge range of historical
issues on the map for the very first time. But it was almost immediately succeeded.
Seven years is a–seven years is a reasonably long time, but I’m not going to
try to collapse that gap for you, but I won’t do it here. It was almost
immediately succeeded, and was in fact, even as it was published, overtaken by
another movement, now associated with the very famous figure of Peter Brown. This
is perhaps his most famous book, “The World of Late Antiquity,” in which he
advanced a claim that Late Antiquity–a period that might stretch from 200 to
700, or 300 to 600, or something like this– amounted to an historical period of its
own. Rather than separating the world at some division between the
Classical and the medieval, we were now to make a distinction between the
Classical the late antique, and the medieval. And a whole set of historical
issues, a series of polities, you know, including for instance, the
Sasanian Empire, a whole set of social issues having to do with, say, migration
across certain kinds of boundaries within these polities, would emerge to
salience, would become perceptible to historians the minute that they stopped
looking at the Emperor Augustus as one sort of nodal point and, say, the
coronation of Charlemagne as another point, in between which was a valley
which seemed terribly dim and obscure. But of course, one effect of charting out
some new historical terrain whose beginning was something like 200 and
whose ending was something like 700 was that you had, you kind of had to efface
or elide the sack of Rome, or even the fall of Roman power in the West, as a
turning point of any kind. I mean, how can you have an historical period which
stretches from A to B with a massive turning point in the middle? Why not make
the turning point the turning point in historical epochs? And in order to
accomplish this move, in order somehow to persuade people that
the fall of the Roman Empire had mattered, Peter Brown and his coevals
had to persuade people that the questions that motivated Hugo Jones had
somehow been unimportant. That one could not speak of public politics or political
culture in an old-fashioned way, and still say that the fall of Rome had not
mattered. Hence, in sort of the opening move that
created the field of Late Antiquity as a distinct field of historical inquiry,
which now has its own graduate programs, it’s had its own journals, and its own
book series–in order to do this, Brown somehow had to persuade people,
since they were coevals, that Hugo Jones’s book, which covered
exactly the same time period, somehow belonged to a different
discipline. And you can watch this happen in a very famous and actually a
spectacularly interesting book review that Peter Brown wrote of Hugo Jones’s
book, which offers as a summation that Hugo Jones had offered not, and here I
quote, “A complete social history of the later Roman Empire, but the first,
irreplaceable chapter in the history of the Byzantine state.” Which was simply to
take Hugo Jones’s massive effort, which frankly covered, to the best that any
human being possibly could have done, the entire western Mediterranean, as well.
There’s a problematic claim, but we could talk about it in the question-answer
period. He had to take all of that effort on the part of Hugo Jones, simply forget
at least a third of the book, and say, “No, no, no. Jones was writing the history of the
Byzantine Empire. That’s a different field of historical inquiry.” Now what’s
important, and here I’ll come back to two more maps. Brown’s ideological effort, that
is the reason why Brown was doing this, pushing Jones off the map, as it were, may
not have been new. I mean sort of may have been new. The reasons why he did it
may have been new, but Brown’s action bears resemblance to a long-standing
effort to label the Roman Empire as it existed in new Rome, which is to say
Constantinople, as something other than Roman. With a problem that continues
today. And by way of of affirmation of this, I offer you here
and in the next slide two other maps that I sort of came across while I was trying
to put together the PowerPoint display for this lecture, in which as you can see,
the one thing this author does not wish to do is label the empire in the eastern
Mediterranean the Roman Empire. No, no, no. It’s the Eastern Roman Empire. Or here, is
the Byzantine Empire. And in fact, it’s here merged with another blotch of
yellow, which is the Slavic peoples. Now, one of these sort of interesting claims
that you could make about work in the field of Late Antiquity, which makes it
in fact in a sort of structural way, look like our old-fashioned history of
declines and fall, is that the concerns of the “new field” of Late Antiquity
across the last 40 years have more or less been the abiding preoccupations of
contemporary cultural studies. That is, as I said before, you could read a lot of
histories of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and come away with some
kind of measurement of what were the contemporary preoccupations of
intellectual culture? Immigration, economic collapse, blah blah blah blah
blah. And all people did was project this onto the Roman Empire. And sometimes very
fine historical work was done in this vein. The fall of the Roman Empire is a
very complicated phenomenon, it bears many, many explanations. All I would wish
to point out is that the field of Late Antiquity and its preoccupations have
very much mirrored this other process. Whereas all of the major trends that
Peter Brown and his students have identified as somehow central to life in
the third, fourth, and fifth century Mediterranean are very much the
preoccupations of something like 1970s Berkeley, that is sexuality, gender in the
body, self-fashioning, aesthetics, and ethnicity. Whether these in fact turn out
to be the major motivating polarities of discourse in the fifth century is
another question. Now if I could just make one final aside about something
like the last ten years. Empire studies have been going through
something like a revolution in the last 10 years, or at least a renaissance in
the last 10 years. We have, there have been published in the last, say 10 years,
at least six books, even just in English, explaining the decline and fall of the
Roman Empire. By people like Peter Heather, Bryan Ward-Perkins, Christopher
Kelly, Guy Halsall, and so on. And as a correlate, as many of you may know, an
enormous number of books have been published in American English–and
here I will draw a distinction–about how to acquire an empire, and how empires are
stable. And it’s a very serious matter. I mean, as a, I have a–not only am I a Roman
historian, I have a sort of vaguely, loose courtesy affiliation with a law school.
But what this has meant in my life, in the very early years of the last decade, is
that an enormous number of people ran around asking themselves the question, “Is
America an empire? Do we have an empire? Are we getting an empire? Has somebody
got a recipe for making empires last? We don’t want to fall.” And then, all these
people–American law schools, American history departments–held conferences of
this kind. And unsurprisingly, and I, it was never the Persians, the
Babylonians they want to talk. Everyone said, “We should have somebody talk about
Rome!” So at least 10 times immediately after our invasion of Iraq, I was sort of
trotted in to conferences to talk about, you know, like, “How did the Roman Empire
get so big?” And, you know. And of course, you know, you can imagine the kind of
ideologues who ran these things. So they were like, “So Rome was big because of
low taxation, right?” And either way– So that–and as you may now guess from
what I said about American English, virtually everyone who is now writing
about the fall of the Roman Empire is actually speaking British English. Peter,
Bryan, Guy, and Christopher–well, Christopher is an Australian, import back to the UK.
But they’re all writing about, they’re all writing about not only the fall of
empire, but they’re particularly obsessed with immigration. Every single one of
them is writing about barbarians, and particularly, the Huns. There is a serious
component to this, and I should mention this, particularly, as my friend Richard
Payne is in the audience. That it is now possible that collapse of the Soviet
Union and the rise of a sort of more serious form of archeology in Central
Asia means that our knowledge of what we might now call loosely Hunnic peoples,
and for that matter of the response to the Huns on the part of other
territorial empires in Late Antiquity, is vastly more robust than it was at any
time in the past. So apart from making fun of the British
and their obsession with EU immigration, I should say that there is a serious
component that underlies this trend in historiography. So if I might
now, I’d like to turn to the question, and some classicists, some classes in the
audience will be familiar with all of the data I’m now going to present to you.
But I’d like now to return to the question that I mentioned earlier, which
is: “At some level, did the fall of Rome matter?” And the question, the issue
here is: Can we develop, as I said before, a set of measurements by which to talk
about the fall of Rome that bypass the issue of whether we admire empire,
or think large states are better than small states, and so on? So very, very
quickly. I’m going to just point out that here are a whole series of measurements.
Almost all of my charts will have a timeline on the bottom, and some other
index. Something is being indexed. Here, lead in Greenland ice cores, which is to
say, a measurement of the volume of a particular kind of metal smelting
taking place. And as you can see, there is an enormous peak in the high point of
something like the Roman Empire. Or, here’s a famous chart. And here, this is
by century. And here is a slightly more misleading–it looks more precise, but it’s
also slightly more misleading, because our ability to date some of these
shipwrecks is problematic. But shipwrecks to be found in the
Mediterranean by 20 and 25 year period, where you can see there’s just a massive
fall off that more or less correlates with the decline of Roman power in the
West. These are a set of charts produced by the Archaeological Institute at the
University of Trier of archaeological finds by century, with again, a fall off
as Roman power collapses. Oh, sorry, the archaeological labs here are wood
remains, by which, wood remains I mean remains of wooden buildings that they’ve
been able to date. And here are bone assemblages in the wider Roman Empire.
And lest you think that the point of bone assemblages is simply that it has
something to do with the sacrificing of animals, the larger point is the issue of
diet, that is to say, to what extent did people have access to meat, and so, as the
best we can do to get this. Here is a measure of femur lengths
from osteopathic analysis, right, where of course at some level the size of human
beings correlates to a good deal with the quality of their diet. So to suggest
that as the Roman Empire collapsed, and not only did bone assemblages go down, so
it’s not just as it were, Christianization and they were just
eating non sacrificial meat. The actual size of human being seems to have gone
down. And here, by way of a–oops. I don’t know why that repeated. Um. I know why it
repeated, I made a mistake, but. Here, then, are two pictures of–this one
and this one. Are at some level, huge upticks in coin hoards in the
middle of the 5th century in Roman gold. Why are coin hoards important? Because
there is a belief. It’s actually based on a theory with very little sort of
evidence, except it sounds good. Which is to say that people, when they felt that
their polity was under siege, or they had to flee, buried their coins in the hopes
they could dig them up again later. And there seems to be a massive uptick.
And these are two different moments, depending on when you, you know, how you,
what kind of invasion was taking place in Gaul at this time of invasions in the
3rd century. By way of, in this is, as it were, I don’t know, like a measure of
panic. It’s how many people in Gaul were, thought like, the world was coming to an
end. Now, when I say coin hoards in the middle
of the 3rd century, I’m obviously pointing to a moment well before
something like the fall of Rome. So what, what was going on in the 3rd century
that would cause people to take all the money in their wallet, put it in a
ziplock bag, and bury it in the basement before getting in their car and driving
away? Here, then, this one is a better map. I mean. they’re better maps. but they’re
kind of too small. The 3rd century actually bears in some sort of
interesting relations, sort of interesting structural relation, to the
events of the fifth. That is to say, there were an enormous number of invasions of
the Roman Empire in the 3rd century, primarily coming through Germany and
across the Danube, and then across the Euphrates frontier. Now, I’d like to
stress to you–I don’t know how well you can see some of these dots–that the
invasions as they took place in the 3rd, and for that matter of the 5th, century
were not a surprise. I mean, any particular arrival of some guy yelling
at you and throwing, like, a spear, dressed in skins or…
I mean, that could be a surprise. But the fact that somebody came running at you
from across the Rhine, that was not a surprise. If you look at the distribution
of the Roman legions in the Roman Empire at the dawn of the period of barbarian
invasions, they were laid out down the Rhine, across the Danube, and along the
Euphrates frontier. The Romans knew they were coming. The problem was not
something like surprise. The volume of barbarian movements, the volume of
population migrations may have been. But it was not a surprise. What it produced,
in the Roman case, is a military crisis that in turn provoked a political crisis.
This is a chart. It’s not actually important that you be able to read
this. What it is is a series, is the names of the Roman Empires running
on the left in various colors, right. With the means of their death on the right,
and various kind of other things being indexed–did they manage to raise their
children to the Emperor, and so on, and so on. And all it’s really intended to
convey is that the political system of the Roman Empire was sufficiently
fragile that political threat, I mean sort of that military threats, pressure
on the frontier, induced a massive crisis of legitimacy in the political sphere.
Right? I mean, nowadays, I suppose what we say is that the–you know, very, very few
presidents, Obama is an exception right, become get re-elected when unemployment
is above, oh I don’t know, choose your figure, seven percent. Roman emperors
didn’t stay on the throne if Germans were pouring across the Rhine. And the
the problem of the Roman political system is then indexed here by the fact
that, I mean I can’t remember, it depends on– there’s so many figures you
could possibly call emperors, that we actually have a whole bunch of ancient
jokes about how to recognize an emperor. I mean, if some guy–you know, if a guy
walks into a bar, says, “Excuse mex I’m the emperor of the
Roman Empire.” So one of the jokes goes, “If the guy, if a guy has a coin in his
pocket, you know, that he produced with his name on it, he just might be an
emperor.” They wrestled with the question, how do we know? What mechanisms do we
have for producing political legitimacy, or a social consensus about who emperors
are? It didn’t occur to them that he might have, you know, wheeled it out in
some sort of fair the day before, on one of those coin-pressing machines. But
that was, you know–the problem here, then, is that the the
political system was unable to withstand the crisis legitimacy produced by
military defeat. A further index of this– and here I point you to the two bodies
of emperors that appear on the left in red–is that under pressure from outside,
two regions of the empire more or less split off and said, “If the
central government isn’t going to take care of us, we’ll do it for ourselves.”
It’s, you know, not unlike a state saying, “We’ll set up a state exchange,
thank you very much, right. We don’t trust the federal government to do this kind
of crap, we’ll do it for ourselves.” And the most extreme example being Vermont, which
is more or less setting up a one-payer health system. Well in Gaul, the first
four red names, and in Palmyra, the two names that follow, they more or less
chose to go it alone. And the result was, and you could make an argument about to
what extent these were truly autonomous polities, that the Roman Empire broke
apart. I mean, in the most fundamental terms, there was no longer one empire in
the Mediterranean, there were three. Now, of course, very rapidly. Here’s
another kind of rendering of it. And one of the reasons for the difference here
in the attribution of Spain is that not only are our sources so bad, but frankly
political communication in the period was so bad in a period of military
crisis that we actually are not entirely sure where the borders of the Gallic
Empire were. I could tell you a little story about recent discoveries in epigraphy in Moesia, but I’ll spare you that. But the end result was–oh, I’d forgotten
this had so many colors in it, but in any event. The end result was that after
a series of emperors starting in around the year 270 were, through a period of
gradual reconquest, having something to do with the withdrawal of Sasanian power
in the east, were able to reunify the Empire. That somehow, the political,
economic, and otherwise social structures that caused these people to adhere more
than to disintegrate were stronger and were sufficient to enable something like
reconstitution by the year 285, 290. There are various ways in which you
might date it. If you just dated it by death of emperors, it would be the
earlier in the 280s. The fifth century mirrors this in that, of course, and I’m
ignoring some invasions in the fourth century. The fifth century mirrors, and
there were a series of invasions in the fifth century. So here is a map that,
about, as it were, the series of rapid invasions that took place in the years
immediately before the sack of Rome in 405 to 408. Here is a broad and somewhat
terrifying representation of barbarian invasions in the 5th century. I apologize
that it’s so dark. And here again is a map of something like population
movements and fragmentation by the year 445. Now I’m basically, I’m really out of time.
So let me just put up here a sort of aggregate picture of population
movements. I’ll stop calling them barbarians. So something like population
movements into the Roman Empire over the first to fifth centuries. And let me just
say a word about how to understand why the Roman Empire of the fifth century
was not able to withstand external pressure in the way that it had in the
third. And the explanation that I want to give is a reasonably simplistic one, and in a
way, it’s parasitic upon a really fascinating body of literature produced
by historical anthropologists writing about the border states of the Chinese
Empire. And it has to do with a theory particularly associated with a figure
named Thomas Barfield, of what he calls “shadow empires.” And what I want to try
to suggest to you about, in the Romans’ interactions with the people
beyond its borders, quite apart from something like: Were there more people
invading in one century, was the 3rd century worse than the second, and so on.
There are many things we might say about that. Is that across the across the 3rd,
and again across the 5th century, Rome faced a series of opponents who grew
gradually structurally–in spite of our terming some of them Romans and some of
them barbarians–who grew gradually structurally more similar to themselves. You might even say, as I’ve tried
to say somewhere else, that Rome had, Rome ultimately reaped what it had sown, Now
when I say “Rome reaped what it sowed,” I don’t want to invoke some kind of narrow model
of historical causation, or some concept of balance, or for that matter even
justice appropriate to long-term historical processes. I don’t want to say
that. say. the Sasanian Empire attacking Rome in the 3rd century was just payback
for completely gratuitous and unmotivated attacks by the Roman Empire
on the Sasanians in the 190s. Although that is at some level true. What I want, what rather to say, is that–
what I want rather to ask, well the question I want to pose is why did
Rome find foreign aggression in the third century more difficult to repel
than before? And why did it find foreign aggression in the fifth century even
more difficult to repair? Repel. And that is, that there’s a lot of reason to think
that the polities that exist–again, now I’m switching from the term barbarian–that the polities or peoples or states that exist on the borders of empire
gradually develop in something like homologous or homeomorphic relation to
the states on their borders, to the larger and more sophisticated empires on
their borders. And that is true, regardless whether the object of the
state on the other side of the imperial border is to resist or to attack, right.
Even if you’re trying–so there’s a sort of irony here, because one of the
ways we think of resistance is around contemporary notions of sort of
ideologies, of cultural autonomy, and so on. That the way to resist an empire is to
go on being yourself. And what I want to suggest to you is that, in fact, the
historical evidence suggests that one of the most successful ways, and in fact, inevitable consequence of bordering on a larger, more developmental–
more developed, more sophisticated state is that you develop a series of cultural
practices and institutions that exist in structural relation to those of the
more sophisticated state that you border. And it doesn’t even matter whether you
develop these in order to resist, or you develop these in a relation of mimesis,
or whatever. It doesn’t matter whether you develop them to resist, or to mimic,
or in order to invade. They could even be result from direct stimulus, right. The
Romans, themselves, in conducting various kinds of treaty and trade relations,
invited as it were–I could describe what I mean by that–but they invited the states
on their borders to develop institutional structures like themselves.
When they invited parties across the border to sign contracts, when they
invited them to sign treaties, they more or less invited those people
to identify who in their off–who in their state was the leader, who spoke for
the people, who had rights, did they census their population, how
would you conduct exchanges of prisoners of war, and so on. There are all sorts of
ways in which direct stimulus from Rome produced something like economic, social,
and infrastructural development on the other side of the border. But the result,
as I say, whatever the cause. The result were developments that enabled societies
on the borders of the Roman Empire not simply to resist imperial power, when you
think of the people who would actually settled on the other side of the border.
But they resisted by becoming more like it. And of course, these developments that
may also have ultimately enabled those people not simply to threaten the
imperial, not simply to resist the imperial power, but to threaten it. And in
that sense, right, I return to something like Demandt’s sets of structural causes
that had nothing to do with Christianity, or political changes internal to the
Empire. Of course there were changes in the social and cultural makeup, or the
social and cultural fabric of the Empire. All polities change. And moral evaluation,
like saying it decayed, or it fell away from some peak, are relatively little use in
explaining problems like the collapse of states. Rather, the political change
internal to the empire matters because it needs to be indexed alongside the
kinds of changes that we’re taking in the polities along its borders, which, in
becoming more and more like Rome–and they became even more like Rome once
they were inside–they became more and more capable of defeating Rome. And in
that sense, Roman success in making itself a model to other polities was, as
much as anything, the cause of its own decline. And I’ll stop
there. Thanks very much. [Applause]