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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 https://smuhlberger.blogspot.com/2007/04/brave-new-war-upside-of-down-and-fall.htm

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 https://smuhlberger.blogspot.com/2007/08/difference-between-barbarism-and.htm

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

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 https://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/091001.pdf “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.”

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), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ehb.2019.01.005 “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.” 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.