Walter Scheidel – Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

Walter ScheidelEscape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

Since Rome fell, there has never been another empire so large, so dominating, and so enduring. Scheidel asks, why is that? His short answer is polycentrism. In post-Rome Europe, squabbling among kings and nobles prevented unitary states of any significant size from emerging. The rise of the Catholic church added church-vs.-state competition to the mix. The church itself had numerous internal splits leading to the Reformation, adding intra-church competition to the mix. As the economy slowly recovered from the Dark Ages, transportation and trade added economic competition to the mix.

A bit of context: Rome was founded in 753 B.C., at least according to mythical lore. Though Rome itself fell in 476 A.D., its government remained the de facto political system in much of Western Europe for another two centuries until Arab conquerors ringed three quarters of the Mediterranean and cut Europe off from long-distance trade. The Empire’s  Eastern half, the Byzantine Empire, continued until 1453 A.D. In all, the same state held sway over significant territory for more than 2,000 years—as much as a hundred generations. Nothing like that breadth or length has been approached before or since.

This is not for lack of trying. Europe alone had Merovingian and then Carolingian France; post-Columbian empires by the Netherlands, Spain, England, France, and Belgium; the Habsburgs; Napoleon; and America’s own efforts in Latin American and the Phillipines. Asia had Attila the Hun; Post-Mohammed Arab conquerors; Genghis Khan and his descendants’ four empires; Tamerlane; Imperial Russia; Chinese dynasties from the Zhou, Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing; Japan’s Imperial Period; and more. None of these empires stuck around the way Rome did.

Scheidel’s answer to why Rome has never repeated is essentially a broader-ranging, but less sophisticated version of Harold J. Berman’s thesis in Law and Revolution, which applies polycentric frameworks to the evolution of law. Berman does not appear anywhere in the notes; Scheidel would likely find a lot to like in Berman. Berman also argued that his narrow polycentrism thesis applied much more widely. But as a specialist in the law, he intentionally confined himself to that, leaving a natural opening for someone like Scheidel. Nor does Scheidel cite Henri Pirenne, who not only dates the fall of Rome differently than Scheidel, but emphasized decentralized economic and political institutions as important engines of openness and progress. It would be a short step for Scheidel to add that such decentralization and polycentrism is also an important check against a re-emerging empire.

He also leans on economic historian Joel Mokyr’s arguments about a “culture of technology” leading to change and progress. Scheidel argues that dynamism prevents power concentrating in one set of hands for too long. Near the end, he also cites Deirdre McCloskey’s emphasis on values—when people hold roughly liberal cultural values, empire cannot emerge.

On the minus side, Scheidel relies too heavily on counterfactuals. Historians and social scientists use them sometimes to ask “what if?” some event or policy had turned out differently. For example, how would history have changed if the Nazis had won World War II? There is no way to know for sure. There is some value in these thought experiments, but they should not be treated as serious evidence. Initially defending them as an edgy alternative to traditional analysis, he leans on them throughout the book, shoehorning them into his narrative where they do not fit, and where they neither help nor hurt his polycentrism thesis. Most bizarre is his “what if Europe and East Asia switched places on the map?” What is London faced the Pacific, and China faced the Atlantic? It is never clear how this relates to Scheidel’s thesis about empires and polycentrism.

Escape from Rome is a good read. Scheidel’s polycentrism thesis is compelling and, in my estimation, largely correct. The best defense against a monopoly is competition. As with markets, so with geopolitics. Excising most of his counterfactual nonsense would have made this lengthy book shorter while improving its quality of argumentation.

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