September 24, 2006

The Fall Of Rome

by Bryan Ward-Perkins

As he watched the monks walking amidst the ruins of the Capitoline, Gibbon saw a tale of decline and fall. Recent historical fashion has tried instead to visualize a continuous process, a gradual transformation from late Roman Antiquity to Germanic rule and the early Middle Ages.

Ward-Perkins makes an elegant and convincing argument that the new fashion is fundamentally wrong. This was no gradual transformation where things changed, sometimes for the better and perhaps sometimes not. Things fell apart. The transition was, for almost everyone in the West, a prolonged misery. Fourth century Roman peasants, from Spain to Syria, lived in solidly-built stone houses with good tile roofs. Even poor folk cooked with imported olive oil, drank imported wine, and ate off well-made, imported tableware. A few centuries later, few kings could say as much, and tech didn't get back to Roman-era standards for nearly a thousand years.