The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Current Reading

September 21, 2005

I’ve updated my “current reading” on the sidebar, which had gotten horribly out of date. I’m particularly enjoying Bryan Ward-Perkin’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, which was recommended to me by Vivek Sharma during a long discussion at APSA about the need to do more comparative-historical work in International Relations.

Ward-Perkin’s book is mostly a critique of certain trajectories of the “Late Antiquity” literature, which he believes downplay the general pain and suffering attending the collapse of the western Roman Empire. There really was a dark ages, Perkin’s argues, and he has a lot of evidence to prove it.

What I found particularly interesting was his very simple explanation for the collapse of the western Roman Empire.

Rome was, more or less, a Hobbesian Leviathan; its citizens and subjects didn’t have to worry about protecting themselves, so they specialized in various forms of economic and knowledge production. This relatively advanced division of labor created much wealth, which the Empire taxed to field its armies and provide protection to its citizens and subjects. In fact, Rome proved to be overspecialized.

Civil conflict eroded the tax base, as did the barbarian invasions. Indeed, Rome faced a deadly spiral of invasion, loss of tax revenues to field a military to stop invasion, more invasion, further loss of tax revenues and military capability, more invasion…. Throw in civil wars and a couple of badly bungled military campaigns, and the western Empire couldn’t protect itself against the rather unspecialized Germanic tribal warriors fleeing from their own foes into the Empire.

The eastern Empire survived because of the Dardanelles and the fortifications of Constantinople. They protected the tax base of Asia Minor and the Near East, preventing the cycle that plagued the western Empire from kicking in.

There’s been a lot of talk about Jared Diamond’s Collapse recently (and more on the supposed racism of Guns, Germs, and Steel), but here we have a case of institutional dynamics, rather than ecological forces, bringing down a complex society. Indeed, it was the very complexity of Rome’s social, economic, and political interdependencies that made it vulnerable to the barbarians on its periphery.

I’m skeptical of attempts to draw lessons from Rome for the putative American Empire. Still, one has to stop and think.

Filed as:, , ,

website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.