Thursday, September 15, 2005

Judicial Notice

With a resounding title like the Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Bryan Ward-Perkins’ new book figures to be a magisterial brick. In fact it is more accurate to call it an extended pamphlet—it’s barely more than 200 pages. Written for a polemical purpose, it is a move in the on-going debate about the advent of the Dark Ages. Over the last twenty or thirty years, several influential historians have tried to re-imagine the era between 200 and 800 AD as “a quite decisive period of history that stands on its own” rather than a depressing coda to a glorious antiquity. Ward-Perkins is not entirely hostile to some of this work. He obviously respects Peter Brown, for example, though he points out that such books as the World of Late Antiquity and the Rise of Western Christendom focus on the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of the era rather than its economics and politics. But Ward-Perkins dissents when revisionist historians attempt to downplay the gravity and violence of the fall of the Empire in favor of an irenic vision in which the Romans and barbarians gradually accommodate to one another. In the West, at least, there was indeed a catastrophe in the 5th Century, a comprehensive crash comparable to the collapses of civilizations documented by Jared Diamond.

Mentalities are fine, but Ward-Perkins concerns himself with piles of broken pottery, the remains of old villages, and the bones of ancient cattle to address realities. The contrast in material conditions before and after the 5th Century is startling. One easily forgets how wealthy and comfortable the Empire had become, not only for a tiny elite but also for farmers and tradesmen who lived in well-build houses with tile roofs and emptied the wine and oil from mountains of amphora. Literally mountains. A view of Rome from 1625 shows Monte Testaccio, a 50-meter high hill made of some 53 million amphora imported from southern Spain.

Before the Barbarian invasions, the prosperity of the Western Empire depended on the long-distance exchange of cash crops and other goods. When first Gaul and Spain and then Africa fell to invaders, the dismembered parts could not sustain themselves either economically or demographically. The enormous manufacturing industries that used standardized methods to gin out good quality clothing, pottery, and weapons failed. As Ward-Perkins documents, domestic animals became smaller as farmers reverted to less efficient subsistence agriculture. Though the book doesn’t address the issue directly, one can only assume that people were similarly stunted. Things really, genuinely, no fooling, went to Hell.

I think Ward-Perkins makes his case effectively, but it’s telling that he needs so few pages to do so. The point of view he combats was never very strong in arguments and evidence. Its appeal was and is extrinsic. Ward-Perkins claims that it has become convenient to find nice things to say about the barbarians since most of the E.U. nations are heirs to the barbarian kingdoms; but I think there is something else at work besides multicultural sweetness and light, though the fetching picture of the barbarian couple he reproduces from a recent French book suggests he’s got a point. I note that, as it did in late antiquity, much of our intellectual life has turned inward—Derrida and Lacan are highly reminiscent of Plotinus and Proclus—so that the mental life of the Church fathers and Neoplatonics seems more interesting to many scholars than the noise and numbers of economics and demography. Writers who obsess about what people think and feel instead of what they do and make have become idealists in practice if not in theory. They just aren’t interested in what used to be quaintly called the external world.

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