SPONSORED

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Today, I’m speaking with Bryan Ward-Perkins, author of The Fall of Rome, and the End of Civilization

It has become fashionable to argue that Roman civilization never collapsed, but was merely transformed by Germanic culture. Although this counter-narrative can illuminate intellectual developments of Late Antiquity, it verges on cultural relativism that threatens to obscure real differences in how people flourish or suffer. Ward-Perkins' book is a welcome reality check of how dark the post-Roman age really was.

For bonus content and ad-free episodes, visit my Patreon page.

For more information, visit my website.

English
United States

TRANSCRIPT

00:00:13Welcome to context This is brad harris today I'm speaking with brian ward perkins author of the fall of rome and the end of civilization As supporters of the show will know i've been making an effort to release more of these conversations with authors through my bonus feed on
00:00:32patri on But today i'd like to invite everyone to listen in on this one If you like this format let me know and i'll try to get more of this content on the main feed You can hear all the rest of these conversations plus some additional bonus content
00:00:47pulled from my own work on patri on dot com Forward slash context in today's book the fall of rome and the end of civilization brian ward perkins has done a superb job documenting the horrors that accompanied the collapse of roman commerce industry and culture when the empire disintegrated
00:01:09in the four hundred eighty Now most of us probably have a conventional version of this history rolling around in our heads The roman empire was one of antiquities Greatest civilizations and then barbarian invasions eventually overwhelmed it and triggered the dark ages of europe that lasted for centuries not
00:01:31until the renaissance a thousand years later would western civilisation begin to really regain its footing Some historians on the other hand have tried to cultivate a very different interpretation of what happened Since the nineteen seventies a growing number of them have been motivated to rewrite that history Toe
00:01:53argue that roman civilization never really collapsed at all but was merely transformed over time as germanic tribes moved into roman territories and new cultural constructions evolved As a result the entire language they used to describe these events has been completely changed Words like decline and crisis have been
00:02:17expunged and more neutral terms like transition change and transformation have been emphasized instead Although this kind of counter narrative can stimulate fresh perspectives on the past and can remind us that dark ages don't extinguish all of the lights of human achievement the acute cultural sensitivity inherent in these
00:02:41counter narratives verges on a kind of cultural relativism that threatens to obscure riel differences in how people flourish or suffer The fact of the matter as ward perkins documents so well is that the fall of rome led to the death of tens of millions of westerners and reduced
00:03:01survivors in many regions too near stone age levels of subsistence for centuries A dark age did follow the fall of rome and his book is in large part a welcome response to more fashionable scholarship that overlooks that suffering for the sake of highlighting the more spiritually cultural developments
00:03:21of late antiquity Before we begin though i have an exciting announcement in order to keep growing and improving this show I've partnered with a new audio network called him elijah I think him a lion will not only offer me the best network support to help make context bigger
00:03:39and better but they'll offer you the best way to engage my content through their innovative podcast app There are a million podcast player aps out there but him ally a is developing something unique The himal eye a app has a clean and intuitive design and curate shows in
00:03:57playlist in a more thoughtful way than most other podcast apse making it easier to discover the content you like and they're improving it all the time For example i'm told that you should soon be ableto access all of my bonus content directly through the app which would be
00:04:13super convenient So i encourage you to head to the app store or the google play store and search for him Elijah That's h i m a l a Why a and download it It's free Once you're in himmel ia search for context with brad harris and tap follow
00:04:30I think it'll make for a great new home base for me and you confide all of your other favorite shows in him Ally as well I'll see you there In the meantime you can always access my bonus content along with all regular episodes Ad free through patri on
00:04:45dot com Forward slash context and to learn more visit my website brad harris dot com Follow me on twitter at brad cole harris or on facebook at context with brad harris And now for my conversation with bryan ward perkins about his book the fall of rome on the
00:05:03end of civilization Brian ward perkins Thank you so much for joining me on context That's a pleasure I'm a really big fan of your work the fall of rome and the end of civilization And perhaps you could just start by first introducing yourself giving us a little bit
00:05:22of your background and then letting us know how you came to write this book I was born in rome My dad was a classical archaeologists and a great expert on roman architecture So rome's very much in my blood I then studied history in oxford and i now teach
00:05:42history at oxford university I'm actually coming up for return mint but i've been teaching history for some forty years My background is partly as a historian therefore working with texts but also as an archaeologist I've actually excavated various sites in italy from the immediately post roman period in
00:06:03particular site called luna Up in the north of italy which where i excavated a wooden houses built over the forum of the roman city i got interested I've been instant this topic always but increasingly i found myself a little bit frustrated with modern trends which tend to play
00:06:22down the drama of the end of the roman empire on the consequences of what happened when rome disappeared on dh I thought i needed to write a book on the subject which is the book i've written originally wrote It is a very scholarly book but an editor rightly
00:06:40pointed out to me that they could be of wider interest And so without in any way dumbing down the conclusions or the evidence i rewrote it in a way that was slightly more accessible And that's the origins of the book In a sense it's deliberately slightly polemical against
00:07:01current trends in how the end of the roman empire's viewed It's my impression that many people that are not historians they're not reading very deeply in this subject persist with the conventional view that you know the fall of rome was cataclysmic This was a disaster and it was
00:07:20followed by the dark ages of europe I think that that kind of conventional narrative is still very present in a lot of people's minds Once you get into the community of scholars i think that this counter narrative that you're identifying here is more common So set us up
00:07:38with this His story Ah graffiti There's this conventional view of the fall of of roman civilisation and that was sort of professionalized as it were by some historians in the seventeen hundreds I think you mentioned edward gibbon was one He wrote a masterpiece called the history of the
00:07:54decline and fall of the roman empire But then there's been this shift more lately especially in the nineteen seventies with peter brown's work that challenged this view on dh reinterpreted the end of the roman empire So where did this counter narrative come from And what are some of
00:08:13its main claims Yes it's very good summary that you've given of it on It is quite true that actually for most of the world the view of the end of the roman empire hasn't changed In other words it wass a cataclysm on a violent disaster It's really is
00:08:28only in the scholarly world people have been rethinking It mean much of that Rethinking i'm entirely behind a particularly a view of the late roman empire was a very very interesting period of cultural change The most obvious thing that happens in it is the rise of christianity which
00:08:46starts in the fourth century with the conversion of constantine and of the m part of christianity on very interesting things do happen through the fourth fifth sixth seventh centuries that historians have become in my view slightly obsessed with the positive interesting intellectual and spiritual changes that happened You
00:09:09mentioned peter brown who's a fantastic historian writes beautifully lectures superbly and has been enormously influential So i'm not actually against many of these things But i think what's happened is that people have got swept away a little bit too far with this and they've forgotten that as well
00:09:31as all these interesting intellectual and religious and spiritual changes there were dramatic political and military changes Hand also a very substantial change in the actual style of life as demonstrated by archaeology on my book seeks to slightly push the pendulum back somewhat from a rather rosy picture of
00:09:57thie end of the empire So peter brown from the nineteen seventies he's along with many other historians in the nineteen seventies eighties and persisting through this day As you say they've reinterpreted the fall of rome or as a transformation of the culture of the western empire And i
00:10:15mean it goes so far you pointed out one historian by the name of walter got far too in the nineteen eighties actually once so far as to say that you know germanic peoples that were moving into rome this was more of up of a result of roman military
00:10:33policy changing to be a more accommodating policy And you kind of pointed out he wrote something like what we call the fall of the western roman empire was an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand And i'm sure there are a lot of other sound bites
00:10:49like that What do you think is driving this reinterpretation besides wanting to shine a light on some aspects that were less well known for example that the thriving persistence of the eastern part of the empire that's all fine and good But what do you think motivated some of
00:11:06this other reinterpretation of the end of the western part of the empire Interesting question Not an easy one to answer I think i mean is partly scholarly fashion in the scholars Ah rethink the attitudes of the previous generation So they moved It was reaffirmed in one direction There
00:11:29really are two sightly separate strands in what's happened in recent historical writing when one is to play down the military disaster that was the end of the roman empire on that's where water golfer comes in when he argues that really what happened is the romans invited in the
00:11:49germanic people on the germanic people in a partly peaceful process or gradually took over power so that it was a slow slide which didn't involve much military art activity from roman part two germanic per on Then the other strand is this cultural strand which stresses particularly at the
00:12:12work of churchman have been writing cultural history on inventing a new way of looking at the human condition which definitely wass based on the classical past but arguably is also quite different on dh What both of these strands totally ignore is thie archaeological picture of what happened to
00:12:37economic life on dh two standards of living a t end of the roman empire You've got a foot in both camps I thank you're an archaeologist as well as a historian and it seems to me that that really does give you an advantage here because so much of
00:12:52the evidence from this far back has to be physical That cannot be textual And the textual evidence as you point out is to some degree it can be misleading you know for example christian writers might have been motivated to play down the pre christian success of roman civilisation
00:13:12on dh It could also go the other way Certain writers as some of these later historians have pointed out maybe exaggerated the disaster of the fall of rome just because it made for good reading Good drama So the archaeological evidence here is so important and i think really
00:13:29does help us understand the material culture in a way that we wouldn't otherwise be able Tio Oh yes no absolutely I mean if you want to understand the material circumstances there is no substitute for archaeology that the texts are superb on religious attitudes or attitudes to saints on
00:13:49things of the kind I mean they're indispensable for that But if you actually want to understand how life changed in terms of nature of buildings the nature of material objects of people had their is no subs shoot We do not have texture on evidence that deals with things
00:14:07of that kind Is only the archaeology that khun tell you about that there's there's a lot of artifacts that you dwell on in this book that i think are symbolic of the larger material culture off the empire and its hyatt for example pottery Um and these all of
00:14:25oil jars and there are literally mountains of discarded jars that you've dug through monte test Accio apparently is one of the most famous Perhaps you could say a little about that Yes i haven't personally don't croon onto to such a monitor Such a is an amazing monument It's
00:14:45right by the type for in rhyme and it's where the oil am free from the south of spain and free were these pottery containers in which the oil was transported in roman times They transported their oil and there wine in these big pottery containers called am free And
00:15:04they were arrived in rome of the bank banks the type er on then bizarrely rather than actually send back the empty poetry containers the empty out fridges spain They actually broke them on site putting the oil into big containers which was then transported through the city on dh
00:15:21There are literally millions off and free broken up constituting a sizable hill by the type er If one goes wrong it's not It's not a place that many people visit but it is a very very striking monument just to the scale that the transport of goods in roman
00:15:40times i find pottery fascinating Some reviewers have said i was a bit obsessed in poetry that i think absolutely rightly It's a wonderful indicator off the nature of an economy because scott's a never valuable you have to make a lot of parts to make a living And in
00:16:04the roman period pots were well made The clay was very carefully selected Their fart in industrial kills there then decorated their very very standardized Their extremely good on the touch They're light They're smooth Easy to wash is a clean on dh Very very functional items on the romans
00:16:31I mean may poetry in vast quantities and distributed it very widely on I would argue and i think i'm absolutely correct that if you have a pottery industry and pottery happens to survive remarkably well in the soil so that we know and awful lot about it you almost
00:16:49certainly had many many other industries producing things like close foot where furniture tools which don't survive sir well in saw But they must also have existed to the same very very high levels on dh I think the most interesting thing about things that potts is that there accessible
00:17:10right the way down the social scale You find them in peasant households as well as in aristocratic houses There are very good index of the broad specialization of an economy There's so much interesting there with pottery First of all the critic criticism that you've received to me is
00:17:28a little too convenient because it's important to remember As you say pottery persists These artifacts endure the two thousand years or the fifteen hundred years that has elapsed whereas leather would other kinds of material artifacts usually do not I mean even medals khun rust beyond recognition in the
00:17:50ground Certainly iron artifacts do cem Bronze will will persist But pottery is so convenient so method logically it makes sense for you to focus on pottery But pottery itself just there's so many layers here that you go into I mean these pots were not just perfect and i
00:18:07would imagine if you were a person you know from today beheld a roman pot they wouldn't really be able to tell that it was two thousand years old because of how sophisticated it's manufacturing you know really Wass thes pots were branded there was quality control And there's another
00:18:23pit i think you identified containing you know the countless discarded pots that just didn't match the quality control Yes says that's from a wonderful sight in this in the south of france It's a sight that was making I'm very high quality roman pots on They discovered this pit
00:18:43full of intact roman pot just slightly defective In other words they're seconds They're the ones that didn't quite make it up to the quality which they were throwing into his pit And in some cases they actually put They were the pic They've made a little hole in the
00:19:02base the pot to make absolutely certain that it isn't going to enter circulation I mean this is a man an industry with very very careful quality control But it's also true that many of these roman manufacturers were stamping their stuff with their names So it's exactly like could
00:19:21be picking up a modern park looking at the base of it and see who's made it I mean these people are identifying themselves as the people who made this and incense saying you know this is a i was pot in a very high quality piece of of ceramics
00:19:37There are other artifacts like this to that do persist coins or another one on dh coinage is interesting because that's obviously an indicator of a more complicated economy on dh the sort of trade networks and and market ability that you unleash with some kind of money system that
00:19:56that's similar as well Coins fall away and there's really very little if any new coin minting going on for centuries What does that do to constrict economies Yes i mean carnage is fascinating and we now know an enormous amount about carnage particularly actually from britain because in britain
00:20:15there's a scheme called the portable antiquities scheme Oppa's metal detecting is actually legal in britain except on protected sites But people are encouraged to report their fines to antiquities officers who are based in museums So if you find a coin with a metal detector you go along You
00:20:35report it three officer will record the coin photograph it weigh it and probably give it back to you Actually it's yours if it's a very special object that they will see to buy it for a public collection So we known enormous amount about the distribution of coins and
00:20:53copper coins in the roman period are phenomenally common in europe You can buy a very beautiful little fourth century coin for you know around five dollars They're just so common they're not special items on That's an index of an economy where small change was circulating very widely on
00:21:18again We actually find it even in sort of a peasant contexts as well as in aristocratic context It's an index and economy where people needed a medium of exchange as you mentioned that completely disappears in the post In immediate post roman centuries some coins persist in gold on
00:21:43that's not a great surprise but copper coinage completely disappears in the in the west and people must have reverted to barter No daughter can be sophisticated It's not the case that you have to go along with your object and then immediately exchange it for another object you could
00:22:06go along with a cow on you could negotiate with somebody that they would then give you one hundred chickens over the next two years You don't have to do it Absolutely You know one object for another of the moment You can You can come to enquire complex arrangements
00:22:24but you do have to know the person on dh trust the person or you have to do it absolutely immediately The advantage of coin is that coin holds value and you can then spend it When you want to go along with your cow you get a lot of
00:22:41coins for it You keep the coins and then you use them exactly as you like Barter is a far more restricted form of exchange on when you've got coins Circulating widely is definitely definitely facilitating the sophistication of exchange in production The liquidity that is enhanced in any economy
00:23:02with some kind of money supply is i think something that's also under appreciated When people look at these very humble artifacts a coin a piece of pottery these are some of the first things people just take for granted They overlook them So the basics of life the comforts
00:23:19the basic material objects that facilitate day to day clothing You know roof tiles jar in a pottery coinage All of these things these air just the rudiments of a civilized life that i think a lot of people are willing to overlook for the sake of looking at other
00:23:38higher aspects of culture Andi i think that as you've done here you've really helped excavate the loss of some of those basics that it seems like too many modern scholars today or just either taking for granted are overlooking all together I would agree I think there is a
00:23:54problem I mean historians are sometimes a little bit blind I mean they're very very very good with their texts But for instance they're just not used to you know going to museum looking at it apartment thinking what does this actually mean in terms of the basics of life
00:24:11And i do think there is a problem there and that's one of the things that my book very explicitly seeks to address I mean namely that just objects Things that one uses all the time are fundamental to comfort on dh civilization writ large I mean cause of civilization
00:24:33is a difficult word because it tends to imply your moral superiority as well as greater comfort than I certainly wouldn't want to attribute moral superiority to people who make good pots That i would say that making good parts is pretty helpful to facilitating a slightly better lifestyle And
00:24:56that's not really I mean they're instances where you can look att differences in production styles as as cultural differences But there are certain facets of production and technology that are not necessarily cultural I mean there are ways of making pots for example that are better than other ways
00:25:14or at least more productive or efficient than making other then making pots using other means So for example in britain it looks like the art of making pottery on a wheel as you say just disappeared in the early fifth century And it took something like three hundred years
00:25:30for the potter's wheel to come back to britain And this does not This doesn't seem like a cultural shift This seems like a loss to the technological capacity of brits Yes it it is very extraordinary but it is a fact nobody would dispute the use of the potter's
00:25:49wheel which is probably the most basic But technology and making pots in terms of speeding up the production and and also in improving the quality of what you make just disappears in the post room appeared in the roman period There are number of india Esther is producing high
00:26:09quality pots in britain on distributing them very widely All of that just goes on As you say the potter's wheel disappears It's very hard to explain even because it's not a It's not an enormously sophisticated technology and it is so basic to improving production in burr turns equality
00:26:32on quantity But it is a fact it does go on It does point to an economic regression which admittedly in britain is extreme I mean the potter's wheel does persist in most parts of the western roman empire although the quality of poetry does fall off almost everywhere And
00:26:51certainly the quantities of poetry do fall off everywhere But yes it's striking It is striking and i mean in that case it's a zoo Say may not be so much of ah technology push as a demand pull function going on They're so the economy of britain on the
00:27:08fringe of the roman empire may have sunk so low that the that the market for pots may have just collapsed so people were making these things by themselves and becoming much more self sufficient So on both sides of that kind of economic equation i think you see that
00:27:24kind of disintegration And the potter's wheel is just another fantastic index to really see how that lived Experience manifested Yes i completely agree I mean the other that i mean are there are other things I mean for instance the manufacture of bricks or tiles when tiles are everywhere
00:27:43in the roman period on tiles do make for solid roofs You can have a good roof in thatch but it doesn't last a cz well in the roman period Again even a peasant household might have a tiled roof The manufacturer tiles pretty much completely disappears on tiles again
00:28:04A quite a good indicator because you don't make a vast amount of money from making an individual tile It's only if you've got a very good distribution system and you can sell a lot of them that you can as it were have a tile making industry The romans
00:28:21had that that all goes in the post roman period and some of these artifacts is kind of archaeological evidence for declining living standards And the simplification of economies mean these have really serious implications for the health and well being in population levels of europe I mean i think
00:28:40there's ah there's one particular part in your book where you look at population levels in the levant for example And i believe that you tracked this population as having collapsed in the beginning in the fifth and sixth century And this population did not get back to what had
00:28:58had been in the late roman era until something like the nineteenth century there was such a dramatic drop in population And you know it seems to me that this was pretty widespread throughout most of you know the western empire most of europe Yes it's very difficult to be
00:29:14absolutely certain because one of the problems is that archaeologists our track population by the objects that it that the population produces we can't We don't have figures for actual people living on the ground but we find them through Their material remains on The problem is in the post
00:29:36room and period they have far fewer material remains so in a sense they disappear off the archaeological radar So it would be possible to argue there are a lot of people They just haven't got stuff that leaves a trace them But most people would agree that there was
00:29:53a very large drop in the population in the immediate post Roe and such is very very difficult to prove But it is likely yeah it's ah lot of circumstantial evidence It seems there's i remember encountering a lot of literature teacher when i was writing years ago on resource
00:30:12natural resource consumption from the you know medieval era Through the modern era there seems to be a complete shift in people's attitudes toward forests so around the air a thousand little bit earlier than that in europe you have fear of the forest the forces a dark mysterious place
00:30:30You occasionally come on ruined walls in the middle of forests But there is this perception among europeans that the forest is sort of there to swallow you up But then as we get into the early modern period people's value of the forest and resource is like would shift
00:30:47And of course then they begin to value The forest is something that needs there protection But a lot of the early medieval scholars secondary worst I've looked at talkabout this shift So for whatever evidence there is textual evidence there is there seems to be this fear of the
00:31:05forest kind of coming to swallow you up And that would to me indicate a massive decrease in population a massive decrease in the number of fairly urbanized areas or suburban areas and just towns generally disappearing Andi i think you've tracked not only rural populations going down but also
00:31:24more town populations are falling as well Oh yes turn Population certainly does fall off in the post room appeared are Nobody's going to dispute that in some places in britain again the most extreme case in britain towns disappear There are no towns in around five hundred impression The
00:31:44only place that might have some continuity of life is can't breathe any case really where it's been found but one might dispute whether it is really even a town by five hundred eighty on it All right the way across the west i mean tones definitely shrink in size
00:32:02And this isn't just restricted to human beings I mean there's good evidence to teo show that livestock animals decreased in population and in size Apparently there have been some some skeletons of livestock like european cows that have been excavated showing that leading up to the height of rome
00:32:21through the iron age Let's say the average shoulder height of european cow i think has been documented to be in the range of one hundred and sixteen centimeters During the height of rome that looked like these cows had gotten bigger gotten healthier and bones were thicker and longer
00:32:37Average height of a shoulder increased around one hundred twenty centimeters And then it fell back in the early medieval era to below what it had been in the earlier iron age something like one hundred twelve centimeters So this is a pervasive phenomenon of deprivation that is affecting even
00:32:53the animals that humans were living with Yes i'm not an expert on this on I'm impressed by your grasp of the figures But there is evidence to suggest that livestock production became more sophisticated The roman period on that of course requires specialization like for instance having passed jurij
00:33:18which you khun then cultivate for hay for over wintering animals on that sort of sophistication does seem to have developed in the roman period and to have fallen back I mean dramatically in the past ron appeared It's an area though i think that modern research will reveal more
00:33:37about I mean the other thing that it would be very nice to nerva is what actually happened to human skeletons Were romans larger than post roman people Did they live longer on dh possibly in the future with mohr were done on human skeletons we might be able to
00:34:01tell something about that at the moment Really the research isn't quite advanced enough It's interesting The amount of different evidence is really does come together here i think one of the most fascinating pieces of evidence i've ever ever encountered What you also present here was pollution levels So
00:34:19there is Ah there's this recent research done and ice course especially like the ice cap of greenland for example that metal working which is tracked according to the levels of pollution given off by smelting in the atmosphere so lead and copper and so forth that levels of pollution
00:34:39just plummeted at the end of the roman empire and did not reach the same levels again until the you know sixteenth and seventeenth centuries now pollution doesn't sound like a very good thing But when it tracks with industry and you see it collapse that's another pretty good piece
00:34:55of evidence that life globally i mean the level of industry globally did take a tremendous hit Yes no i mean it's quite true I mean there is a downside obviously to all economic development only its impact on the natural environment on the romans did have quite a big
00:35:11impact on the natural environment and certainly the natural environment Fights back in the immediately post room appeared on obviously viewed from the twenty first century levels of pollution are worrying Andi you know there is There is that downside But it is also an index of sophistication and of
00:35:33productivity on dh Obviously what were now seeking to achieve his product emitting without pollution The romans didn't have to worry about that so much because obviously the scale of what they're doing it's probably matched by the early modern period Sixteenth seventeenth century And really it's only with heavy
00:35:54industrialization in the nineteenth twentieth century that pollution becomes a a global problem rather than just a local one I mean in the roman times certainly there would have been local pollution Ah very unpleasant kind on dh Certainly roman towns for instance Well no You know particularly salubrious in
00:36:18terms of smells and in terms of industrial production likes of tanning works you know very close to domestic houses What was going on in the world toward the fifth century that caused all of these germanic tribes to encroach I mean i i think i was wondering you know
00:36:36was there something outside of the empire's borders that was causing rome to experience a lot of you know unprecedented external pressure Or was this pressure kind of always there But rome's ability to withstand it is what changed Well there's always pressure on arguably that's reasonably easy to understand
00:36:59The roman empire was very developed economically It's got all this carnage all these fine buildings or this pottery living standard which was considerably higher than that of its immediate neighbors outside the empire The people who were east of the rhine on dh north of the danube They don't
00:37:24have that same high level of sophistication in their economy So there's always going to be a pull factor into the empire of people from outside on that will include a military pull factor a dessert to enjoy the benefits of roman life on dh Take it over So there
00:37:49was a constant equilibrium between forces outside on the power of rome and rome always had to maintain a large army on the frontiers are in order to keep people out further more The balance of power was always quite delicate because the romans although they're much better organized on
00:38:17They have for instance ah factories that produce mass produced weapons so they're better equipped They're better organized They've got roman roads which bring provisions to the front here when needed They've got faults Stone built forts which again princes don't exist outside the ramen amber so they are better
00:38:40equipped and they're better organized But nonetheless it's not like the nineteenth century where western powers had the gap ning gun that could literally mow down large numbers of people there who didn't have the gardening got The romans didn't have a vast technological superiority over the people outside so
00:39:05it's always quite delicately balanced What happens at the end of the empire is disputed possibly roman power declines possibly because their economies already in decline on dh that would have an impact on their military might because the romans like us have a professional army so it depends on
00:39:31money You need to have the money to pay for the soldiers Maybe their economy is in slightly Nobody would argue in a major way but possibly slightly The thing is most controversial is whether the forces outside the empower the various germanic people are stimulated into becoming more forceful
00:39:55and more united by an external pressure which is the coming of the huns The huns were a nomadic people who originated in east asia They're almost certainly the same people who had been attacking the chinese and power in in roughly the same period They unquestionably arrive in the
00:40:19west in the at the end of the fourth century We know that for certain because they're very well recorded But then whether it's them that drive the germanic people into the empower In other words giving a new cannon impetus to invasion is disputed I think it's quite likely
00:40:42that it wass the trouble is we'll never know for certain because what's going on outside the empire is not recorded in any in writing The people up there are prehistoric They don't have written texts So everything that's going on east of the danube so east of the rhine
00:41:04the north of the danube is very obscure I think probably the hunts were important in stimulating the germanic people Teo A renewed invasion of rome it's interesting to imagine the larger kind of macro historical forces that are taking place on the super continent of eurasia during the one
00:41:29hundreds and two hundreds You know the han dynasty of china was growing in sophistication quite rapidly as well And it seems to be that this flourishing of the very first kind of pan eurasian trade networks during these centuries could have been very disruptive for a lot of people
00:41:49and dislocated a lot of different communities especially when it comes to disease You know william mcneil's plagues and people's was a great book documenting some of these terrible epidemics that swept through the roman empire during you know the one sixty zadie and then another one a century later
00:42:09killing huge fractions of roman citizens Something like five thousand people died every single day and rome during the first of these plagues and then something like which is hard to believe ten thousand people every day died in constantinople during the worst of the plague and the two sixties
00:42:29This has got to be a factor in the in the collapse of tax revenue which in turn as you say is totally crippling to rome's military power and ability to withstand incursions Yes that that is actually disputable because we know I mean the fourteenth century has the black
00:42:52death And we know for certain because we have reasonably good figures on the fourteenth century that between a third and a half of the population die in the course of two three decades Now that's a really dramatic for hole in population But oddly enough it doesn't necessarily have
00:43:15quite the terrible economic impact that one might expect The reason is that arguably a very large population that is using all the resources available to survive doesn't have the resources to turn production into wealth Whereas a slightly smaller population has more resources per capita on is therefore actually
00:43:46able to generate a slightly more prosperous economy It's no absolutely straightforward that large numbers of people mean a wealthy economy can be the opposite So i'm not sure I think it's possible that plague was very very important but i'm not absolutely certain It's an interesting observation You're right
00:44:08I mean a lot of scholarship has made it clear how well certain echelon nse of laborers for example did in the wake of the black death clearing out a lot of positions of power essentially allowed for a more social mobility in the generations after the black death of
00:44:23the thirteen hundred So there are those those indications that there were some benefits Ironically you're right If you look a western europe in thirteen hundred on then you look at it in fourteen hundred with the black death in between I don't think you would actually certain notice if
00:44:44you just looked at thirty hundred forty hundred That's something cataclysmic happened in between which it did In terms of population size you'd actually think that europe was on roughly the same trajectory I mean there is economic disruption as a result of all that death but it's not It's
00:45:05not as nearly as great as you'd expect given the cataclysmic nature of the black death Now that comparative history is ah probably more attractive than too attractive for its own good I would love to compare the resiliency of the roman empire to plague you know through the one
00:45:23hundred and two hundred zadie versus the you know europe's you know resilience to play again the thirteen hundreds and see just how different their responses are what the kind of social mobility opportunities are But i think you're right It's it's quite complicated There's probably some conflicting factors They're
00:45:40you know one of the questions i think your book brings up That's ah tough question It's hard to answer and has to some extent become a bit taboo on and i know that we are you know very sensitive to this question But how do we judge civilisations Comparatively
00:45:57I mean the word civilization itself is almost becoming taboo among historians and archeologists But you know you can use a replacement like culture When we look at what happened after the fall of rome How do we judge what was better or worse their can we judge what was
00:46:15better or worse there I mean clearly as we've been discussing their was a total collapse in the material culture the material comforts of day to day life from the material used to roof your house to prevent getting rained on to the kind of containers you used to transport
00:46:31your foods and beverages too The techniques you're using to facilitate exchange to the livestock you have around you to feed you and clothe you These things absolutely were diminished But at the same time you know life goes on How are we to judge different kinds of cultural paradigms
00:46:51And can we ever say one one is better than another How do you think about this question You've put it very well that it is problematic on there is there are really kind of two years is of the word civilisation I mean one which is the use It's
00:47:09a i'm using in My book is about just levels of complexity particularly so the economic complexity although with that would also go social complexity with people having connections across wide regions which otherwise you know wouldn't be happening on the other Use of course is to sort of see
00:47:36it as somehow or other a moral good I would reject the laughter definition absolutely And just concentrate on thinking about civilizations as complex societies on dh one could have said in my book could have been called the fall of rome on the end of a complex economic society
00:48:02Itjust would sound quite a good really wouldn't sell quite so well But there is that there is a problem I mean there is a problem but whether one sees a civilization of sort of morally by better um i think though and this is a major argument in my
00:48:21book Did it We all rely heavily own the levels of complexity and comfort that that complexity gives us You know are sitting in a very nice solid room with good heating I'm talking to you on skype Well a laptop on all of this is really very basic to
00:48:50my existence on very basic to everything i do We just take that for granted Ah no I think it is very interesting to look at the end of the roman world Well their world was nothing like his complex and sophisticated desires but it was complex and sophisticated on
00:49:11very large parts Of that disappear I mean in my book i had She also argue that it is the very complexity that is precarious on dh Dangerous because romans came to be used to buying their pots from people who made them maybe even hundreds of kilometers away possibly
00:49:39even across the sea on dh That is precarious Our world the complexities justice precarious on we shouldn't take it for granted I think there was a passage in your book where you write that all of the things you just mentioned from your nicely heated room to your computer
00:50:00takes hundreds of thousands You know theoretically hundreds of thousands of people are involved in your well being and in my well being today which is just mind boggling in rome obviously ancient rome It wasn't anywhere near that high but it was is dozens hundreds I mean this kind
00:50:17of network of specialization of socioeconomic specialization presents so many strengths in enriching the complexity of society and the capabilities of every individual You know once you have the basic rudimentary sze of life you can learn to read You can learn to understand other cultures You can understand the
00:50:36past but at the same time you lose so many of the skills necessary for basic survival So their strengths and weaknesses built into that specialization And you're right That's an irony But i thinkyou document quite well in this book Well thank you I couldn't agree more I mean
00:50:52i would be completely useless I've been doing anything Well not quite I could do some practical things but way we depend on these fast complex arrangements whereas you say hundreds of thousands maybe millions of people you know are required just for our ordinary daily life And in the
00:51:17roman empire it wass thousands It's nothing like the complexity of the modern world but it's getting there We depend on one another so much and as civilisation no becomes more complex We depend on each other more and more So i guess the question for people when they think
00:51:36about the fall of rome when they think about the transformation if they want to think about a different way into a sort of more germanic tribal culture is no not necessarily what's better or worse but just what kind of world they would want to live in for themselves
00:51:48You know what they would want to enjoy what kind of access they'd want Tohave They'd rather spend their days building the basics of life for learning about other cultures reading books building businesses and so forth So a sze yu say i agree with you totally It's not so
00:52:03much a moral calculation as it is just the kind of complexity of society and what we're striving for I think about that a lot you know as a historian is where is this all going What is the purpose And it seems to me that complexity is definitely a
00:52:17metric of progress on some level although it's very complicated and hard to define And i think you know a lot of different people define it in different ways Absolutely And of course it does have its disadvantages and particularly in the very modern period in terms of the impact
00:52:36on the natural environment which is a major problem Big problem Although it's ah maybe a little comforting if we want to finish on a high note that the more power for our technology becomes the more problems that causes But perhaps the more equipped we become to solve those
00:52:54problems or at least identify them Let's hope that is the case Well brian it's been a real pleasure chatting with you and thank you again for coming on context I really encourage everybody if you haven't already to read this book the fall of rome and the end of
00:53:11civilization to dig deep as you've done into the material culture and the dramatic changes in disruptions that occurred during the fourth and fifth and sixth centuries So thank you again brian Thank you broad We owe you

Transcribed by algorithms. Report Errata
Disclaimer: The podcast and artwork embedded on this page are from Brad Harris, Historian, which is the property of its owner and not affiliated with or endorsed by Listen Notes, Inc.

EDIT

Thank you for helping to keep the podcast database up to date.
SPONSORED

RECOMMENDATIONS