Walter Scheidel


On his book Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

Cover Interview of March 04, 2020

In a nutshell

Escape from Rome offers an answer to a very big question: Why has the world become modern instead of remaining stuck in the agrarian age, when hunger, disease, illiteracy, and despotism were the norm? We know that the transition to greater affluence, much better health, and vastly expanded knowledge began in Western Europe. Yet the reasons behind this take-off remain fiercely debated. Did Europeans come up with unique political and economic institutions that favored transformative development? Did they benefit from overseas trade, colonization, slavery and ruthless exploitation? Did they find ways of fostering a culture of knowledge that opened up new vistas, and did they embrace novel norms and values that liberated entrepreneurs and eventually the masses?

I make the case that while all these factors contributed to modernization, every single one of them was rooted in a single cause that has not been properly recognized: the fact that ever since the fall of ancient Rome, Europe housed many different states that were fought over by rival groups from kings and aristocrats to priests and merchants. For 1,500 years, enduring competition and pluralism shaped this environment in ways that encouraged modern breakthroughs. This fragmentation caused a lot of suffering both within Europe and around the world but also created the space that was required for sustained innovation to take hold.

In other parts of the globe, by contrast, large empires continued to rise and fall and rise again. This closed off comparable pathways to modernity. Had the Roman Empire survived or been replaced by similarly powerful entities, Europe would most likely have shared this fate. In that sense, the collapse of Rome may well have been the best thing that ever happened to humanity.