Walter Scheidel

 

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

Cover Interview of March 04, 2020

A close-up

It is always a good idea to start at the end. The epilogue of my book takes its cue from the famous question in the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” It is true that the standard answer—that the Roman Empire brought peace alongside various material fruits of civilization from roads to wine—holds up well: never again would so much of Europe be at peace for such a long time.

But that peace was bought a price. Stable empire ushered in conservatism and stagnation. As impressive as Roman ruins still look to us today, the Roman economy failed to deliver sustainable growth. After accelerating among the ancient Greeks, scientific discovery and technological advances stalled under Roman rule. Democracy, another Greek experiment, was snuffed out. Later on, the Roman authorities sought first to suppress and then to co-opt Christianity, which had emerged independently from established power structures.

It was only by falling apart during the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries AD that the Roman Empire finally performed its most important service to human development: to go away for good. By setting Europe free from the conventional strictures of imperial control, Rome’s demise ushered in an age of fracture and experimentation that would eventually change the whole world.

At the very end I return one more time to counterfactuals by asking, what if there had never been a Roman Empire to begin with? How would that have affected Europe’s journey toward modernity? Rome’s cultural legacy lent some degree of unity of medieval and early modern Europe that would otherwise have been missing. This promoted the flow of people, goods, capital, and ideas across borders.

I argue that Christianity was probably the single most influential legacy of Rome. While it helped pull medieval societies together, it deepened divisions later on. The Protestant societies of northwestern Europe were the main beneficiaries and played a key role in bringing about unprecedented change.