The Key Question in the Fall of the Roman Empire
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

The Key Question in the Fall of the Roman Empire

a chart of a proxy for the height of men and women buried in the Roman empire with a dep dip from 150 BCE to 400 CE and then a dramatic rise after 400 CE
Trends in the height of men and women buried in what became, and then ceased to be, the western Roman empire. Heights are lowest in the time when Rome dominated the Mediterranean world, then as Roman power west of the Adriatic collapses heights rise farther than before. Until a 2022 blog post by Bret Devereaux, i had never encountered an ancient historian who had seen the evidence of human remains and denied that something went terribly wrong with human health in the Roman empire at the same time as humans acquired unprecedented amounts of stuff. For the technical details see W.M. Jongman, et al., “Health and wealth in the Roman Empire”, Econ. Hum. Biol. (2019), Image added 13 February 2022

A conversation with Nathan Ross inspired me to track down two essays by Steve Muhlberger on what I think is the key issue in the fall of the western Roman empire. (The debate “were foreign invasions or civil wars more destructive?” is a bit of a semantic issue, since soldiers tried to be as Germanic as possible and wealthy Germans in the Imperium tried to become as Roman as possible: its never going to be easy to define figures like Stilicho as either Roman or barbarian). It has long been obvious that the fifth century saw light beautiful pottery, stone houses, roofs with leak-proof terracotta tiles, and philosophers who could do original work vanish from Europe north of the Alps, but recently archaeologists have noticed that people buried in Post-Roman Europe seem to be living longer and eating better than their ancestors who bore the Roman yoke.

My second reflection is on the current debate about the fall of the Roman Empire (the fifth-century fall) between people who equate it with “the End of Civilization” (Bryan Ward-Perkins) and people who don’t think it was an ending of unprecedented significance (say, Peter Brown and Walter Goffart). I really think that the unresolved and maybe unresolvable debate is about what civilization is. Is it a situation where a leisured minority sit around in the palace library, enjoying bread made from Egyptian wheat and dipping it in Syrian olive oil or Spanish fish sauce, and debating the great ideas of the ages, while other people dig minerals from the earth in dirty, dangerous mines, or harvest cotton in the hot sun, and die young? If that’s it, then there was probably a lot less “civilization” in large parts of the formerly Roman world after AD 400 than there had been for some centuries, in that it was far more difficult to assemble a large variety of enviable luxuries in one spot through the routine operations of centralized imperial power. And there is more civilization now, because here I sit, not even close to being rich by Canadian standards, but able to read, think and then speak to a privileged minority around the world while hundreds of millions sweat profusely (and all too often, die young).

But it might be worth considering whether the height of luxury — whatever luxury you prefer — is the only measure of civilization.

I say, bring on those resilient decentralized networks and extend them as far as we can. The only alternative is slavery for somebody.

– Steve Muhlberger, “Brave New War, The Upside of Down, and the fall of the Roman Empire,” 22 April 2007

One of the strengths of the Late Republic and early Roman empire was civil engineering projects: roads, aqueducts, baths. Muhlberger has personal experience of how important those are.

For years now I have been taking part in a large medieval re-creation event in August. The event itself features mock medieval combat, archery, singing, dancing and partying, some of it not particularly medieval in inspiration. Most people who take part camp for a week or two at the site, and I have often found that situation inspires interesting thoughts. Living essentially outdoors for two weeks, with little communication with the outside world (though it is available if you need or like) is a fascinating and perspective-restoring exercise. Me, I’m basically illiterate for the whole period.

Since I and my friends camp together every year, we’ve acquired portable versions of what we consider necessities: a back-up water filter, a hot water heater scavenged from an old RV, a camp shower, and a kitchen sink with hot and cold taps. These are set up and taken down every summer.

Note that my necessities all come down to safe, easily available water? The year we got the shower setup my campmates were delirious with joy. I sure appreciated it, too, but the kitchen sink and taps meant more to me. The first time I turned on a kitchen tap and got good water I knew, instantly, that this was the difference between barbarism and civilization. Nice to have a shower. Far more important to be able to clean one’s hands any time, and to be sure that kitchen utensils and dishes were always clean.

That moment of insight was a decade or so ago, and its rightness has become clearer to me as time has passed. Clean water available to everyone in a community is civilization; it means the community has certain technical capabilities, and is devoting its resources to the common good in a basic way. Furthermore, the predators and parasites who in so many places and times have prevented that allocation of resources are not in control.

We human beings of planet Earth have the capability to be civilized now. There can be no doubt that we are smart enough and rich enough. But we have yet to attain civilization.

– Steve Muhlberger, “The difference between barbarism and civilization,” 16 August 2007

About ten years after he wrote that, the Canadian federal government chose to spend about as much money as it would cost to deliver clean water to every First Nations community buying rights to build an oil pipeline just before its price collapsed.

Further Reading:

  • Benjamin Isaacs, The Limits of Empire: The Roman Army in the East
  • James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed
  • Rob Wiseman, Benjamin Neil, and Francesca Mazzilli “Extreme Justice: Decapitations and Prone Burials in Three Late Roman Cemeteries at Knobb’s Farm, Cambridgeshire.” Britannia, Volume 52 (November 2021) pp. 119-173 “To flesh out these national figures, we compiled a database of excavated Roman era burials in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, identifying 891 burials from 49 Roman era cemeteries … Approximately 5 per cent of local burials (five of 105 assessable skeletons) dating to the first and second centuries a.d. had been decapitated. This rose to nearly 10 per cent (!) (27 of 288) in cemeteries dating between the third and fifth centuries.

On the evidence from human bones and teeth, compare papers by Geoffrey Kron and papers by Walter Scheidel such as:

  • Geoffrey Kron, “Anthropometry, Physical Anthropology, and the Reconstruction of Ancient Health, Nutrition, and Living Standards,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 54, H. 1 (2005), pp. 68-83 {he thinks that small farms and classical civilization could deliver the good life as long as kings and aristocrats didn’t steal too much of it}
  • Walter Scheidel, “Physical wellbeing in the Roman world,” Version 2.0 September 2010. Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics “A recent study of 1,021 skeletons from seventy-four sites in central Italy reveals that mean stature in the Roman period was lower than both before (during the Iron Age) and after (in the Middle Ages). In the same vein, an alternative survey of 2,609 skeletons from twenty-six Italian sites ranging from the Roman period to the late Middle Ages shows a strong increase in body height in the late Roman and early medieval periods. An unpublished survey of 1,867 skeletons from sixty-one sites in Britain likewise documents an increase in body height after the end of Roman rule.”
  • Nicholas Koepke and Joerg Baten, “The biological standard of living in Europe during the last two millennia,” European Review of Economic History 9 (2005) pp. 61-95 “We find that heights stagnated in Central, Western and Southern Europe during the Roman imperial period, while astonishingly increasing in the fifth and sixth centuries. Noteworthy also is the similarity of height development in the three large regions of Europe.”

Edit 2019-07-06: Tip of the Scythian cap to Brad Delong: Willem Jongman, Jan Jacobs, and Geertje Goldewijk, “Health and wealth in the Roman Empire,” Economics and Human Biology (2019), “Almost all other indicators of standard of living that we have for the Roman world show the opposite pattern from the two health indicators of biological standard of living and life expectancy. … We conclude that Romans paid a health price for their material wealth.” In other words, as the amount and quality of durable goods which the average family had increased, stature and life expectancy decreased, and then as the complex economy which produced and distributed those goods collapsed, stature and health were increasing.

Edit 2020-01-23: And thanks to Alexiares for the response in Supposed Civilization (2019-12-02)

Edit 2022-02-12: fixed formatting broken when WordPress introduced the block editor

Edit 2022-02-13: added the chart from Jongman et al. after reading a blog post by Dr. Bret Devereaux who has a very different understanding of health in late antiquity than the scholars I have talked to. I am an Achaemenid historian not Kristina Killgrove so my authorities could be wrong or I could misunderstand them! Dug around in my folder of articles and found and added article by Koepke and Baten and article by Wiseman et al.

Edit 2022-03-29: See also Josho Brouwers, “Confronting ‘Collapse’: An Anarchist Perspective on the end of the Bronze Age,” Ancient World Magazine, 18 February 2021 (archived on

8 thoughts on “The Key Question in the Fall of the Roman Empire

  1. russell1200 says:

    If you don’t have some idea that civilization mean healthy living (for rich or poor) you eliminate some of your puzzle.

    Since it is pretty well known that hunter gatherers are often better fed and healthier than agriculturalists in total, and I don’t think anyone in their right mind calls hunter gatherers high civilization, than you can move on to other criteria.

    The whole is civilization civilized if it does spread the benefits seems rather cutely modern. Shouldn’t we be including some sort of metric for broad gender empowerment as well? Though I suspect the hunter gatherers probably would look better there as well.

    In the case of Northern Europe after the Romans, you could say that the people around ate better. But as it is a time period of huge depopulation, there were also a lot less people. If you could average in the calorie intake of the newly dead people (zero) than I suspect your number might be a little different.

    Arguably, you could call civilization the ability to keep large numbers of people alive and organized to do something.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Russell, that is one of the big issues: is the good society one where a few people control many resources and portion out some scraps for amazing buildings and clever-tongued thinkers, or one where people have the ability to direct their lives as they see best and organize themselves around projects which make sense to them? What does it tell us about Late Roman civilization beyond the Alps that without Caesar’s soldiers protecting Caesar’s taxmen and Caesar’s church and breaking some legs for Caesar’s landlords, the whole system collapsed?

      in the 17th, 18th, 19th century, a lot of settlers in the Americas looked at the indigenous societies which were emerging in the postapocalyptic wasteland of the eastern woodlands and voted with their feet to live in them. This made other settlers intensely anxious, producing a lot of captivity literature, whole ideologies (the whole black/white/red racial model was invented because European indentured servants were noticing they had a lot in common with African slaves and that joining an indigenous society was a way out), and even more genocide. At the beginning of the 20th century Emily Carr returned from her trip to France musing about how they had plenty of painters who could teach her things, but also whole provinces where the peasants were poorer than “our Indians.” So there is a long history of people looking at societies with a rich material culture and a thick infestation of human and nonhuman parasites, and small-scale societies with less of a parasite load, and choosing the later to live in.

      The sources from most cultures are full of traces of people who were resisting or just ignoring the people trying to force everyone to contribute to some grand scheme or bow to some beautiful abstraction, but until the 1970s historians often chose to erase them. Both Professor Muhlberger and I think that is a moral wrong and a professional failure.

    2. Sean Manning says:

      Another blogger, the anonymous witness2fashion, was reading a collection of excerpts from the diaries of Arthur J. Munby, a 19th century gentleman whose hobby was chatting with working women about their lives and writing the conversations up (occasionally he helped them find a job or charitable help and felt very virtuous).

      “almost all the women Munby interviews — from coal miners to clerks — mention casually that men are paid more for doing exactly the same work, even in an office where men and women copy legal manuscripts all day long. The woman copyist was paid a pound a week, and only worked 8 hours at a time. But, “Her view was that the firm liked the “ladyclerks” best: for they do the work as well as the ‘gentlemen,’ and are paid less.” The italics are Munby’s. Munby, Man of Two Words, p. 156, April 10, 1863.”

      Now you can chose to leave that kind of thing out of the histories you write, but if you do so you are imposing a modern ideology on the past.

  2. Tak Hallus says:

    Isn’t there an Engraved Inscription over one of the Athenian Silver Mines to the effect that the “Human Cattle”, that is enslaved miners, were the collective property of the city? Serfdom in Scottish Mines persisted until 1799. With the practice of “Clearing” barter economy peasants from Scottish Estates unemployed eviction refugees were sometimes legally convicted for vagrancy and sentenced to Serfdom in mines, for example. In the era of Might Makes Right controlling humans and confining them was not that different a concept from acquiring and controlling herds of animals. Life was much more pleasant at the top of the societal hierarchy than at the bottom. “Trojan Women” and others learned how quickly your position can be inverted by conflict, for example.

    The health and economic benefits of clean reliable water are out of all proportion to the cost of providing it, then and now. Bathing is just one of the benefits.

    Hot water on tap goes back at least as far as heated public baths, but having it in a home is a comparatively recent arrival. I remember my grandparents having a metal kitchen wood stove that was kept going all day long. There was a reservoir on one side that you filled form the hand pumped well on the back porch, with a tap on the front of the stove to draw hot water from for washing up utensils, clothes, faces and hands. Baths were taken in a portable metal tub kept in the porch.

    Christians who assumed that the Garden of Eden, Great Flood and 1 day a week rest were a uniquely Judaeo Christian were astonished to find that all originated in the Tigris Euphrates region before being Culturally Assimilated by the Israelites. Didn’t those revelations come when Cuneiform texts were found and deciphered?

    The basis for the Garden of Eden Legend is probably the difference between farming and fixed location husbandry (as opposed to nomadic herding). Agriculture is generally more predicable than hunting and gathering, barring droughts, disastrous floods and locust or other insect calamities. On the other hand agriculture was a dawn to dusk 7 day a week life style, until the 1 day a week of Rest Religious Edict arrived, giving a respite, but also limiting agricultural productivity per person.

    The first settled agriculturalists probably had an oral history of the time when you could just go out and hunt wildlife for meat, and gather fruit, roots, seeds / grains and vegetables without having to work to produce them. That vanished with the larger populations. Goat and sheep herding wiped out the original Coastal Forests of the Mediterranean basin, and led to erosion of the soil. Once you go to intensive sedentary agriculture the population rises, the local ecosystem changes, and there is no quick way to revert to hunting and gathering. Farmers cull wildlife populations that might eat their crops and cut down forests to use for firewood, fields or lumber. Iceland used to have extensive forests before the Vikings settled the Island and began cutting them down. The Forest of the Eastern USA were quickly cut down, or died out when Contaminated Walnuts brought a killer fungus to the continent.

    Aren’t the earliest know fragments of Greek Writing from unintended pottery shards of agriculture related storage records, that accidentally ended up being exposed to fire?

    Today irrational people insist that Stone Ground Flour is a “Gold Standard” of Organic / etcetera food fads. Isn’t the use of stone ground grain evident in grit related tooth erosion of excavated skeletons, as well as in increased tooth decay from a diet based on baked goods that stick to teeth? Metal Filings associated with Steel Ground Flour can be removed using powerful magnets during the milling process.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I heard a talk in Calgary by a specialist in dental health in pharonic Egypt, it was harrowing! People could clean their teeth with twigs or picks or brushes but not everyone did and grit blew into the flour when it was being milled and came off the limestone millstones.

      Apparently a big change in the United States was conscripts being issued toothbrushes and ordered to use them during the World Wars.

      Yes, many Greek cities had slaves who did the things which city employees did today: collecting trash, maintaining buildings, acting as watchmen, unblocking drains and sewers. And some people with low and suspicious minds suspect that a lot of the glory of Periclean Athens comes from all those slaves worked to death in silver mines and Athenian armies collecting tribute at spear-point or landing on some isolated bit of coast, killing the youngest and the oldest and taking whoever could work for the slave markets (“Given the absence of classical Athenian transport amphoras for oil and wine, what was the nature of Athenian economic growth, if we cannot find any exports beyond silver and pottery? … Why not assume that it was the exploitation of thousands of slaves that allowed a larger percentage of the population to live beyond subsistence? Every time we observe Greek wealth, from the thousand slaves of Nicias through the workshop of Demosthenes to the farming of Ischomachus, it is slavery that is at the centre.”)

  3. Tak Hallus says:

    Large scale loss of healthy young members tends to tends to reduce the productivity of a culture and tends to create or accelerate a decline. Ending that hemorrhage of productive young people can let a culture flourish.

    That can occur in a number of ways, but slavery with the victims being transported to support another country’s economy and large scale slaughter of sacrificial victims in an attempt to buy good will from imaginary supernatural beings are some of the most common. Central and South American cultures tended to increase the rate of sacrifices when things got bad from drought or other natural disasters.

    For some time there has been a mass outflow of highly trained academics from South Asia, and now China. to North America. At the turn of the century Canadian PM Jean Chrétien assured us that we should not worry about newly Graduated Canadian Brains being Drained to the USA because Canada could simply drain brains from India, Pakistan, …

    It was such a widely recognized problem in many developing countries that anyone leaving for grad school had to have a landowner, or someone else with wealth, post a bond to be forfeited if they did not return. Profs from Iran and Egypt have both mentioned that, and having to repay their sponsors when they did not return.

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