This post is a brief commentary on historian Walter Scheidel’s latest book, Escape from Rome. It’s a stunningly original analysis of a topic that has long fascinated scholars like me: How did Europe come to create the modern world? His answer is this: Europe became the cauldron of modernity and the dominant power in the world because of the collapse of the Roman empire — coupled with the fact that no other power was able to replace it for the next millennium. The secret of European success was the absence of central control. This is what led to the extraordinary inventions that characterized modernity — in technology, energy, war, finance, governance, science, and economy.
Below I lay out central elements of his argument, providing a series of salient quotes from the text to flesh out the story. In the last few years I’ve come to read books exclusively on Kindle and Epub, which allows me to copy passages that catch my interest into Evernote for future reference. So that’s were these quotes come from and why they don’t include page numbers.
At the end, I connect Scheidel’s analysis with my own take on the peculiar history of US higher education, as spelled out in my book A Perfect Mess. My argument parallels his, showing how the US system arose in the absence of a strong state and dominant church, which fostered creative competition among colleges for students and money. Out of this unpromising mess of institutions emerged a system of higher ed that came to dominate the academic world.
Here’s how Scheidel describes the consequences for Europe that arose from the fall of Rome and the long-time failure of efforts to impose a new empire there.
I argue that a single condition was essential in making the initial breakthroughs possible: competitive fragmentation of power. The nursery of modernity was riven by numerous fractures, not only by those between the warring states of medieval and early modern Europe but also by others within society: between state and church, rulers and lords, cities and magnates, knights and merchants, and, most recently, Catholics and Protestants. This often violent history of conflict and compromise was long but had a clear beginning: the fall of the Roman empire that had lorded it over most of Europe, much as successive Chinese dynasties lorded it over most of East Asia. Yet in contrast to China, nothing like the Roman empire ever returned to Europe.
Recurrent empire on European soil would have interfered with the creation and flourishing of a stable state system that sustained productive competition and diversity in design and outcome. This made the fall and lasting disappearance of hegemonic empire an indispensable precondition for later European exceptionalism and thus, ultimately, for the making of the modern world we now inhabit.
From this developmental perspective, the death of the Roman empire had a much greater impact than its prior existence and the legacy it bequeathed to later European civilization.
Contrast this with China, where dynasties rose and fell but where empire was a constant until the start of the 20th century. It’s an extension of an argument that others, such as David Landes, have developed about the creative possibilities unleashed by a competitive state system in comparison to the stability and stasis of an imperial power. Think about the relative stagnation of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires in 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries compared with the dynamic emerging nation states of Western Europe. Think also of the paradox within Western Europe, in which the drivers of modernization came not from the richest and strongest imperial powers — Spain, France, and Austria — but from the marginal kingdom of England and the tiny Dutch republic.
The comparison between Europe in China during the second half of the first millennium is telling:
Two things matter most. One is the unidirectional character of European developments compared to the back and forth in China. The other is the level of state capacity and scale from and to which these shifts occurred. If we look at the notional endpoints of around 500 and 1000 CE, the dominant trends moved toward imperial restoration in China and toward inter-and intrastate fragmentation in Europe.
Scheidel shows how social power fragmented after the fall of Rome in such a way that made it impossible for a new hegemonic power to emerge.
After Rome’s collapse, the four principal sources of social power became increasingly unbundled. Political power was claimed by monarchs who gradually lost their grip on material resources and thence on their subordinates. Military power devolved upon lords and knights. Ideological power resided in the Catholic Church, which fiercely guarded its long-standing autonomy even as its leadership was deeply immersed in secular governance and the management of capital and labor. Economic power was contested between feudal lords and urban merchants and entrepreneurs, with the latter slowly gaining the upper hand. In the heyday of these fractures, in the High Middle Ages, weak kings, powerful lords, belligerent knights, the pope and his bishops and abbots, and autonomous capitalists all controlled different levers of social power. Locked in unceasing struggle, they were compelled to cooperate and compromise to make collective action possible.
He points out that “The Christian church was the most powerful and enduring legacy of the Roman empire,” becoming “Europe’s only functioning international organization.” But in the realms of politics, war, and economy the local element was critical, which produced a situation where local innovation could emerge without interference from higher authority.
The rise of estates and the communal movement shared one crucial characteristic: they produced bodies such as citizen communes, scholarly establishments, merchant guilds, and councils of nobles and commoners that were, by necessity, relatively democratic in the sense that they involved formalized deliberative and consensus-building interactions. Over the long run, these bodies gave Latin Europe an edge in the development of institutions for impersonal exchange that operated under the rule of law and could be scaled up in response to technological change.
Under these circumstances, the states that started to emerge in Europe in the middle ages built on the base of distributed power and local initiative that developed in the vacuum left by the Roman Empire.
As state power recoalesced in Latin Europe, it did so restrained by the peculiar institutional evolution and attendant entitlements and liberties that this acutely fractured environment had engendered and that—not for want of rulers’ trying—could not be fully undone. These powerful medieval legacies nurtured the growth of a more “organic” version of the state—as opposed to the traditional imperial “capstone” state—in close engagement with organized representatives of civil society.
Two features were thus critical: strong local government and its routinized integration into polity-wide institutions, which constrained both despotic power and aristocratic autonomy, and sustained interstate conflict. Both were direct consequences of the fading of late Roman institutions and the competitive polycentrism born of the failure of hegemonic empire. And both were particularly prominent in medieval England: the least Roman of Western Europe’s former Roman provinces, it experienced what with the benefit of hindsight turned out to be the most propitious initial conditions for future transformative development.
The Pax Romana was replaced by a nearly constant state of war, with the proliferation of castle building and the dispersion of military capacity at the local level. These wars were devastating for the participants but became primary spur for technological, political, and economic innovation. Everyone needed to develop an edge to help with the inevitable coming conflict.
After the reformation, the small marginal and Protestant states on the North Sea enjoyed a paradoxical advantage in the early modern period, when Catholic Spain, France, and Austria were developing increasingly strong centralized states. Their marginality allowed them to build most effectively on the inherited medieval model.
…it made a difference that the North Sea region was alone in preserving medieval decentralized political structures and communitarian legacies and building on them during the Reformation while more authoritarian monarchies rose across much of the continent—what Jan Luiten van Zanden deems “an unbroken democratic tradition” from the communal movement of the High Middle Ages to the Dutch Revolt and England’s Glorious Revolution.
England in particular benefited from the differential process of development in Europe.
Yet even as a comprehensive balance sheet remains beyond our reach, there is a case to be made that the British economy expanded and modernized in part because of rather than in spite of the tremendous burdens of war, taxation, and protectionism. By focusing on trade and manufacture as a means of strengthening the state, Britain’s elites came to pursue developmental policies geared toward the production of “goods with high(er) added value, that were (more) knowledge and capital intensive and that were better than those of foreign competitors so they could be sold abroad for a good price.”
Thanks to a combination of historical legacies and geography, England and then Britain happened to make the most of their pricey membership in the European state system. Economic growth had set in early; medieval integrative institutions and bargaining mechanisms were preserved and adapted to govern a more cohesive state; elite commitments facilitated high levels of taxation and public debt; and the wars that mattered most were won.
Reduced to its essentials, the story of institutional development followed a clear arc. In the Middle Ages, the dispersion of power within polities constrained the intensity of interstate competition by depriving rulers of the means to engage in sustained conflict. In the early modern period, these conditions were reversed. Interstate conflict escalated as diversity within states diminished and state capacity increased. Enduring differences between rival polities shaped and were in turn shaped by the ways in which elements of earlier domestic heterogeneity, bargaining and balancing survived and influenced centralization to varying degrees. The key to success was to capitalize on these medieval legacies in maximizing internal cohesion and state capacity later. This alone made it possible to prevail in interstate conflict without adopting authoritarian governance that stifled innovation. The closest approximations of this “Goldilocks scenario” could be found in the North Sea region, first in the Netherlands and then in England.
As maritime European states (England, Spain, Portugal, and the Dutch Republic) spread out across the globe, the competition increased exponentially — which then provided even stronger incentives for innovation at all levels of state and society.
Polycentrism was key. Interstate conflict did not merely foster technological innovation in areas such as ship design and weaponry that proved vital for global expansion, it also raised the stakes by amplifying both the benefits of overseas conquest and its inverse, the costs of opportunities forgone: successful ventures deprived rivals from rewards they might otherwise have reaped, and vice versa. States played a zero-sum game: their involvements overseas have been aptly described as “a competitive process driven as much by anxiety over loss as by hope of gain.”
In conclusion, Scheidel argues that bloody and costly conflict among competing states was the the source of rapid modernization and the rise of European domination of the globe.
I am advocating a perspective that steers clear of old-fashioned triumphalist narratives of “Western” exceptionalism and opposing denunciations of colonialist victimization. The question is not who did what to whom: precisely because competitive fragmentation proved so persistent, Europeans inflicted horrors on each other just as liberally as they meted them out to others around the globe. Humanity paid a staggering price for modernity. In the end, although this may seem perverse to those of us who would prefer to think that progress can be attained in peace and harmony, it was ceaseless struggle that ushered in the most dramatic and exhilaratingly open-ended transformation in the history of our species: the “Great Escape.” Long may it last.