The Greatest Thing the Roman Empire Ever Did Was Go Away
Review of Walter Scheidel, Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019)
The Roman Empire is often presented as the fabric of Western civilization. The languages, laws, religion, mores, and implements of the Western political imaginary come in large part, in one way or another, from Rome. The Roman Empire has been rebooted time and again by invaders and latecomers, from the Ostrogoths to Charlemagne to Mussolini; transferred (in reality or in rhetoric) to Byzantine, to Moscow, to the Habsburgs, and even to Washington, DC; and recycled endlessly through books, art, movies, and plays. Whenever Westerners think of civilizational wellsprings, they usually think of togas and parapets and conquering legions and gladiators and mad emperors. The West, in nub, is Rome.
But, as Stanford history professor and prolific researcher of imperial and global history Walter Scheidel provocatively asks, “What has Rome ever done for us?” Americans in the late imperial present look around at a fractured polity and a fraying system of alliances and shift uneasily, wondering if we really are going to fall like Rome did. Scheidel’s book gives hope in just such an age as ours. Rome fell, Scheidel argues, and it was the best thing that could have happened. Scheidel’s reason is that the fall of Rome precipitated the kind of competition-driven innovation and small-government freedom that made modernity possible in the first place. Rome’s greatest gift to posterity, Scheidel says, is not that it made the West, but that, in disappearing, it made room for the West to rise.
Going even further, and refusing the almost wistful regard in which the white-marble world of classical senatus populusque Romanus is held by many Westernophiles, Scheidel offers a decidedly unenthusiastic verdict on precollapse Rome, too. It was the imperial project itself that was the problem, he concludes. We didn’t need Rome. We just needed it to go away. “By turning to Christianity,” Scheidel argues, the Romans “laid some crucial foundations for much later development,” but even that is not entirely a given, he qualifies, and it may very well be that they “may not have contributed anything essential at all” to the eventual outcome of modernity (p. 527). In other words, Rome fell, and that was, as far as we in the modern West are concerned, the only really salient thing about it.
Scheidel’s book is about much more than Rome. This is what makes it, in my view, especially worthy of note. Across twelve detail-rich chapters in five parts, Scheidel seeks to explain what he calls “the European anomaly,” or the number and diversity of European states after the fall of Rome contrasted with the durability of empire, falling and then usually somehow reconstituted, in the rest of Eurasia. One of Scheidel’s earlier edited volumes, the splendid Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires (2009), exemplifies the kind of cross-civilizational work in w
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