REG: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
XERXES: Brought peace.
REG: Oh. Peace? Shut up!
So … what have the EU ever done for us? Remainers like to pose this question (google it, they really do) because it is supposed to remind us of that famous scene from Life of Brian. And, as with that scene, they imagine a long list of basic things that we have taken for granted and which we really ought to be grateful for.
But a new book coming out later this month tells a different story. And it turns out that Reg may have been right all along. The best thing the Roman empire ever did for us was to collapse. For without the fall of Rome, European culture would not have flourished.
This is the thesis of Walter Scheidel’s new book, out later this month, called ‘Escape from Rome: the failure of empire and the road to prosperity’.
Now, to be fair, I haven’t read the book yet. It’s not out. But someone who has is the writer James Fallows, and he has kicked up quite a hornet’s nest with a challenging article in the Atlantic magazine titled: “The end of the Roman Empire wasn’t that bad” and so “maybe the end of the American one won’t be either.”
The argument is that just as the collapse of centralised Roman authority in the 5thcentury made possible a renaissance in local and community flourishing, “duchy by duchy and monastery by monastery”, so too the collapse of faith in centralised authority in the US may lead to a re-birth of small-scale and semi-independent forms of governance in which richer patterns of civic life may develop. The same argument can be readily applied to the beginnings of the collapse of the European Empire.
Fallows makes the point that although the Roman Empire has often provided the Pax Americana with a whole range of positive political images, the world of Cicero and togas and deliberative democracy amongst a limited elite had to pass away for the new world to be born. Gibbon in his famous “Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire” described Rome’s end as “the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene, in the history of mankind.” But was it really so awful?
“It is only too easy to write about the Late Antique world as if it were merely a melancholy tale,” writes the scholar Peter Brown in his influential 1971 book, The World of Late Antiquity. But, he continued, “we are increasingly aware of the astounding new beginnings associated with this period.” Creative destruction, as we might now call it.
In other words, the dark ages weren’t really so dark. In Escape From Rome, Walter Scheidel describes the collapse of the Roman Empire as the beginnings of new opportunity. “The dawn of the university and private business organizations; the idea of personal rights and freedoms—on these and other fronts, what had been Roman territories moved forward as imperial control disappeared.”
Fallows argues that policy making at the national level in the US has become dominated by ideologues, whereas, on the local level, is increasingly led by practical problem solvers. This is why local forms of self-government are working in a way that national government is not.
The argument works just the same when applied to the current travails in the UK. Small is beautiful. In his Confessions with me the other week, Sir Larry Siedentop made the point that so much of the European culture we value came into being with the rise of the university. These great centres of learning flourished because they declared a degree of independence from both the church and the state. European culture was born out of the ashes of centralised control.
There may be a lesson here for those who lament the collapse of the authority of Brussels. The end of Empire is inevitably messy and chaotic. And there are those who will bewail these ‘end times’ as “the most awful scene in the history of humankind”. But the death of one world is the birth of another.