Monday, July 27, 2009

The End of Civilisation

During the past couple of weeks I have been reading up on the 'continuity vs catastrophe' debate concerning the fall of the Western Roman Empire. There are some interesting articles online, including this dialogue between Bryan Ward-Perkins of Oxford University and Peter Heather of King's College London. Both of them are sceptical of attempts to portray the fall of the Western empire as a quiet transformation. Peter Heather's conclusion is that:

'the central Empire did not pass away quietly but was fought to extinction over a 70 year period of intense struggle. As the power of the imperial centre collapsed, local Romans had no choice but to make their peace with the new immigrant powers in the land, and their survival made it possible for some (but not all) of the successor states to use some Roman governmental mechanisms. But this kind of post de facto negotiation process absolutely does not mean that the Empire went peacefully. As all the recent evidence for fourth-century economic, cultural, and political vigour might lead us to suspect, the fifth-century Empire fought a long and determined, if ultimately unavailing, struggle for survival.'

Ward Perkins who wrote 'The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation' agrees with Heather on this point:

'neither of us have much time for the theory that the empire was quietly ‘transformed’, by the peaceful ‘accommodation’ into it of some Germanic barbarians. We both believe in invasions that were violent and unpleasant, rather than what I have termed the ‘tea party at the Roman vicarage’ theory of settlement by invitation. I probably share Peter’s views, because I have heard him lecture on the subject many times, always with great conviction! Anyway, the idea that the fifth century was more peaceful than violent, just doesn’t fit the facts. Some degree of accommodation between invaders and invaded was possible, particularly over time. But I argue that the horrors of invasion are undeniable, and were often protracted, and that adjusting to rule under Germanic masters was painful and difficult for the Romans, used as they were to lording it over the known world.'

The second part of this interview is available here. I also came across a fascinating podcast by Ward-Perkins here in which he endeavours -by reference to archaeological findings - to describe the changes that took place in this period (with particular reference to Anglo-Saxon Britain).

The lifestyle of the Barbarians can’t have been so far below that of the Romans can it?

No it’s not that far below. And in fact the barbarians when they come in and find flourishing ways of Roman life, they very, very rapidly adapt. And for instance, people like the Ostrogoths in Italy happily live in marble palaces. It’s not that they are culturally ill attuned to using the Roman ways. But the collapse of the Roman state with its taxation system, which did redistribute wealth within the empire, and the disruptions caused by military invasion radically interrupt economic life; and basically economic life unravels. It’s a difficult process to understand because we are used to things growing all the time and we are used to economies becoming more and more complex so that, every single year, new bits are added on. But, I think what happens at the end of the Roman world is that economies start to unravel, and in fact it’s a very salutory thing to study because it makes one realise that things like this can happen. Our assumption that things are going to get more and more complicated, more and more sophisticated, and in a sense perpetually better, might be wrong.

How do you chart these incremental changes when there is not very much evidence for them?

Well, the best evidence certainly comes from archaeology because we don’t have, for the immediately post-Roman period, the great runs of documentation you might have for late medieval times or early modern times. We don’t have any data on population or the longevity of life. Archaeology can provide some of that data. It will go on providing better and better data. For example, as more and more skeletons are studied we will get better ideas about the health of population, size of population and the longevity of population. At the moment that’s all quite difficult, partly because people can’t quite agree how you actually age bones. The archaeological data will keep getting more and more all the time.

What I have worked with mainly is pottery. Pottery fortunately has two huge advantages. Firstly, everybody uses pots and secondly pottery survives extraordinarily well in the soil. It breaks very easily but once it’s in the soil it is almost indestructible. A vast mass of pottery have been excavated by archaeologists all over the Roman and post Roman worlds and that shows an extraordinary change. In the Roman period, even at a low level, a peasant might have access to a whole range of pots from a widely different set of kilns, and of very good quality. In the post Roman period, almost all pottery is very local, rather badly made and porous. There is just a huge contrast, most marked in places like Britain but also very noticeable in places like Italy.

So - I’ve argued, and I think I’m right – that if you can see this sort of change in pottery, it probably also happens in all sorts of industries where thinks don’t survive that well, like clothing industries, footwear, metal tools, domestic building; virtually everything.

Presumably that’s not because of a lack of skill. Was it because people were pre-occupied with living more basically?.

To be honest it’s a bit of a mystery....I mean I can show you that a pot made in Britain in 500AD is very different to a pot made in Britain in 400AD, but the pot of course isn’t telling you why. One has to hypothesise. Actually quite a number of technologies do disappear. For example in Britain in 500AD, nobody was making wheel turned pottery. The use of the wheel – which is a very basic technology – completely disappears from the whole British Isles during the 5th century. Equally, for example, the burning of lime to make mortar. There is no mortared building, no new mortared building in 500AD. It’s re-introduced at the very end of the sixth century, particularly from the continent with the return of Christianity. Another technology if you think of it is writing. Writing disappears in Anglo-Saxon Britain in the fifth century. Again this comes back in with Christianity in the sixth century. I find it very puzzling, particularly with something as basic as the use of the wheel for making pottery.
It has to be really that the market has collapsed. The market doesn’t exist for people to be specialised enough to invest in the basic things like a potter’s wheel which would enable them to make more pots, because in order to do that they would have to be able to sell more pots. Apparently the market just implodes so that everyone is effectively just making their own. Technologies do depend on a market in order for people to put the investment into buying the tools to make things in a specialised ways and also the investment to train themselves to make them that much better. It is puzzling, and I wouldn’t like to say I am very happy with this explanation, but that’s what it looks like.

Is it accurate to say that when the Western Roman Empire fell we moved into ‘The Dark Ages?’

I think so. Although it’s not necessarily a very fashionable view. The term Dark ages has gone out of fashion, and in many ways rightly so because the problem about it is that it is in many ways morally loaded. The idea that people were in many ways nastier and more brutal, and I think that is in many ways straightforwardly wrong. Not because I think they were terribly nice, but just because I think people have always been extremely unpleasant, and one only has to look at twentieth century to realise that people with more complex technologies can be even more unpleasant to each other than people with basic technologies. So in that sense I think Dark Ages needs to go. I don’t actually use it myself. But in terms of a) availability of evidence - which is one of the reasons they are ‘dark’- yes, definitely. The evidence just disappears, or virtually disappears. In places like Britain you do literally return to pre-history. There is no history. There are no dates for the part of Britain taken over by the Anglo Saxons from about 410 and the return of Christian missionaries in 597. So for 200 years we really don’t know from written records what is going on. So in that sense it’s very dark. And, in cultural and economic terms there is a remarkable simplification. Simplification is a neutral term, but if you want to call it a regression, I don’t think that’s being too judgemental. So yes, I think Dark Ages do happen, although I think the term is too loaded.

According to Ward-Perkins, recovery in Britain was very slow, but by the late eight century AD we begin to see the re-emergence of towns, particularly coastal settlements such as Hamwich (Saxon Southampton) and London as a trading centre. Complex native industries gradually begin to re-emerge, particularly in East Anglia and coinage was slowly re-established from the 7th to 8th centuries. By 800 Britain was roughly similar to what it had been in 1AD in the immediately pre-Roman period.

I would also recommend Tim O Neill's review of Chris Wickman's 'The Inheritance of Rome' and James's short post 'How Dark were the Dark Ages?' for a synopsis of the debate. It's great to see that, despite everyone agreeing that the term 'Dark Ages' is no longer appropriate, no-one can quite bring themselves to stop using it. Unfortunately the unfair, loaded and derogatory terms for historical epochs are usually the most catchy.

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