Steve Muhlberger

The Key Question in the Fall of the Roman Empire

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
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