Tell me if you think this sounds familiar: In its latter years (500-700 ACE), the Roman Empire faced a formidable challenge from two devastating environmental forces — dramatic climate change and massive epidemic. As Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
During our own bout of climate change and ravaging disease, I’ve been reading Kyle Harper’s book The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of Empire. The whole time, rhymes were running through my head. We all know that things did not turn out well for Rome, whose civilization went through the most devastating collapse in world history. The state disintegrated, population fell in half, and the European standard of living did not recover the level it had in 500 until a thousand years later.
So Rome ended badly, but what about us? The American empire may be eclipsing, but it’s not like the end is near. Rome was dependent on animal power and a fragile agricultural base, and its medical “system” did more harm than good. All in all we seem much better equipped to deal with climate change and disease than they were. As a result, I’m not suggesting that we’re headed for the same calamitous fall that faced Roman civilization, but I do think we can learn something important by observing how they handled their own situation.
What’s so interesting about the fall of Rome is that it took so long. The empire held on for 500 years, even under circumstances where its fall was thoroughly overdetermined. The traditional story of the fall is about fraying political institutions in an overextended empire, surrounded by surging “barbarian” states that were prodded into existence by Rome’s looming threat.
To this political account, Harper adds the environment. The climate was originally very kind to Rome, supporting growth during a long period of warm and wet weather known as the Roman Climate Optimum (200 BCE to 150 ACE). But then conditions grew increasingly unstable, leading to the Late Antique Little Ice Age (450-700), with massive crop failures brought on by a drop in solar energy and massive volcanic eruptions. In the midst of this arose a series of epidemics, fostered (like our own) by the opening up of trade routes, which culminated in the bubonic plague (541-749) that killed off half of the populace.
Here is how Harper describes the institutional framework of this empire:
Rome was ruled by a monarch in all but name, who administered a far-flung empire with the aid, first and foremost, of the senatorial aristocracy. It was an aristocracy of wealth, with property requirements for entry, and it was a competitive aristocracy of service. Low rates of intergenerational succession meant that most aristocrats “came from families that sent representatives into politics for only one generation.”
The emperor was the commander-in-chief, but senators jealously guarded the right to the high posts of legionary command and prestigious governorships. The imperial aristocracy was able to control the empire with a remarkably thin layer of administrators. This light skein was only successful because it was cast over a foundational layer of civic aristocracies across the empire. The cities have been called the “load-bearing” pillars of the empire, and their elites were afforded special inducements, including Roman citizenship and pathways into the imperial aristocracy. The low rates of central taxation left ample room for peculation by the civic aristocracy. The enormous success of the “grand bargain” between the military monarchy and the local elites allowed imperial society to absorb profound but gradual changes—like the provincialization of the aristocracy and bureaucracy—without jolting the social order.
The Roman frontier system epitomized the resilience of the empire; it was designed to bend but not break, to bide time for the vast logistical superiority of the empire to overwhelm Rome’s adversaries. Even the most developed rival in the orbit of Rome would melt before the advance of the legionary columns. The Roman peace, then, was not the prolonged absence of war, but its dispersion outward along the edges of empire.
The grand and decisive imperial bargain, which defined the imperial regime in the first two centuries, was the implicit accord between the empire and “the cities.” The Romans ruled through cities and their noble families. The Romans coaxed the civic aristocracies of the Mediterranean world into their imperial project. By leaving tax collection in the hands of the local gentry, and bestowing citizenship liberally, the Romans co-opted elites across three continents into the governing class and thereby managed to command a vast empire with only a few hundred high-ranking Roman officials. In retrospect, it is surprising how quickly the empire ceased to be a mechanism of naked extraction, and became a sort of commonwealth.
Note that last part: Rome “became a sort of commonwealth.” It conquered much of the Western world and incorporated one-quarter of the earth’s population, but the conquered territories were generally better off under Rome than they had been before — benefiting from citizenship, expanded trade, and growing standards of living. It was a remarkably stratified society, but its benefits extended even to the lower orders. (For more on this issue, see my earlier post about Walter Scheidel’s book on the social benefits of war.)
At the heart of the Roman system were three cultural norms that guided civic life: self sufficiency, reciprocity, and patronage. Let me focus on the latter, which seems to be dangerously absent in our own society at the moment.
The expectation of paternalistic generosity lay heavily on the rich, ensuring that less exalted members of society had an emergency lien on their stores of wealth. Of course, the rich charged for this insurance, in the form of respect and loyalty, and in the Roman Empire there was a constant need to monitor the fine line between clientage and dependence.
A key part of the grand bargain engineered by Rome was the state’s responsibility to feed its citizens.
The grain dole was the political entitlement of an imperial people, under the patronage of the emperor.
Preparation for famine — a chronic threat to premodern agricultural societies — was at the center of the system’s institutional resilience. This was particularly important in an empire as thoroughly city-centered as Rome. Keep in mind that Rome during the empire was the first city in the world to have 1 million residents; the second was London 1500 year later.
These strategies of resilience, writ large, were engrained in the practices of the ancient city. Diversification and storage were adapted to scale. Urban food storage was the first line of redundancy. Under the Roman Empire, the monumental dimensions of storage facilities attest the political priority of food security. Moreover, cities grew organically along the waters, where they were not confined to dependence on a single hinterland.
When food crisis did unfold, the Roman government stood ready to intervene, sometimes through direct provision but more often simply by the suppression of unseemly venality.
The most familiar system of resilience was the food supply of Rome. The remnants of the monumental public granaries that stored the food supply of the metropolis are still breathtaking.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we in the U.S. could face the challenges of climate change and pandemic as a commonwealth? If so, we would be working to increase the resilience of our system: by sharing the burden and spreading the wealth: by building up redundancy to store up for future challenges; by freeing ourselves from the ideology of economic efficiency in the service of social effectiveness. Wouldn’t that be nice.
David F. Labaree is Lee L. Jacks Professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and a professor (by courtesy) in history. His research focuses on the historical sociology of American schooling, including topics such as the evolution of high schools, the growth of consumerism, the origins and nature of education schools, and the role of schools in promoting access and advantage more than subject-matter learning. He was president of the History of Education Society and member of the executive board of the American Educational Research Association. His books include: The Making of an American High School (Yale, 1988); How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (Yale, 1997); The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale University Press, 2004); Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Harvard, 2010); and A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (Chicago, 2017).
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