The Roman empire made modern development possible by going away and never coming back.” — Walter Scheidel, Historian, Standford University.
The contemporary view prevalent among the public today is that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was a terrible event. So catastrophic that it sent Europe into a period of unrest, regression and backwardness for centuries to come. Yet, I would argue that its collapse was the critical juncture that facilitated Europe’s rise and helped paved the way for technological and institutional progress in western societies. Things that define the modern world today such as the scientific method, nation-state and industrialization would not have been possible had an overextended empire continued to burden the continent.
Here I will explain why, at least as far as Western history goes, the end of the Roman empire was not only beneficial for progress but also quite necessary.
Institutions and incentives
Before we explain exactly why, here’s a short lesson from institutional economics. Why do some nations grow rich while others remain poor? It is not due to culture, geography or race as some on the political fringe may claim. The biggest example of this the two states in Korea – same culture, same geography and same ethnicity.
Yet, today South Korea is rich while the North is poor. The critical factor here is of course institutions – the set of rules and norms that influence people behavior. Think of it likes a football game; players have to follow a set of rules which influence what they can and cannot do during plays. These set of rules are the institutions of the football game.
Going back to our example of Korea, South Korea has institutions like private property, democracy and human rights. These institutions are favorable to prosperity as they give incentives to individuals to innovate and work hard. South Koreans know well that their labor won’t be appropriated nor will they find their lives threatened by political instability or arbitrary justice. This incentivizes long term planning, collaboration and risk-taking; factors needed for innovation and economic growth.
Meanwhile, North Korea remains one of the poorest and most corrupt nations on the planet. A highly centralized and unstable authoritarian rule and lack of freedom hinder the incentives towards productivity and innovation. Instead, such institutions favor distrust, nepotism, adherence to hierarchies and pursuit of short-term rewards.
Of course, just as institutions can change incentives among people, incentives among people can change institutions. This usually happens in the face of an outside threat or competition to those with the ability to create (or hinder) change. Think of the management of a large company. For them bringing change is a risky and costly affair so if the company has a monopoly, they would resist any reform being implemented. But what if a more efficient competitor was to come on the scene? The old company has two options, either try to create changes in how the company is run or risk being put out of business. The similar case is with countries and empires.
Historically, large and powerful empires have tended to stagnate and decline. This is because lack of competition gave no incentives for the comforted elite to bring reforms that would compromise their welfare. Rather the incentives were to hinder efforts towards reform. In face of political crisis, empires tended to double down on suppression of dissent rather than revoke elite privileges. This has been the fate of all empires and the Roman Empire was no different. Had It allowed to remain, the West would have remained a stagnant and highly unequal society.
Recommended Read: Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson
Innovation and progress
The collapse of the Western Roman Empire caused Europe to devolve into a continent of a great many fiefdoms and petty states. With the breakdown of international trade, societies transitioned to self-sufficient economies. While this meant a period of anarchy and decline in prosperity in the short term, in the long term this paved the way for unprecedented progress.
States and kingdoms were in permanent competition and war with each other. This created incentives for reforms and innovation and vast sums were invested to this effect. Kings and Princes who resisted reforms and implementation of new technology risked losing their realm to those who were open to it.
Far from the dark ages, we saw in this period many great innovations emerge in the continent. In agriculture, inventions such as crop rotation and the wheeled plow paved the way for the rise in food production in an otherwise unproductive continent. In learning, we saw the emergence of the first true university (A higher institution committed to secular learning). In military aspects, we see many advances in armor, gunpowder and siege technology. Blast furnaces, mechanical clocks, disease quarantine, magnets and among many other advance inventions were a product of this ‘barbaric’ time in Europe.
It should be of no surprise that the greatest level of innovation happened in two regions, North Italy and Germany. Both places were the most politically fragmented and hence more open to competition. This happened in the backdrop of a time where resources were scares.
When international trade and commerce began thriving again, Europe experienced an even faster rate of innovation and growth. This period is what we today term as the renaissance. Of course, this isn’t to discredit the Roman Empire entirely. It was in many fields such as mining, architecture, sanitation and logistics, was far ahead of the later medieval societies. But it should be noted that such technologies were absorbed and improved upon rather than be a something new borne out of innovation.
The West and the East
To take into perspective how history would have transpired if the Roman Empire remained intact, let us look at the examples of Imperial China and the Ottoman Empire. Like Europe, they had all the necessary quirks for an industrial revolution – an urbanized coastal region, a sizable literate population, an efficient state system. Yet while Europe pushed forward, the powers of Asia lagged behind. Why is it that Asian empires did not colonize, industrialize or kickstart the scientific revolution?
The answer is incentives. A large centralized empire had no incentives to take unnecessary and costly risks like establishing colonies in faraway places or risk social upheaval from the adoption of new technology. The elite of the country could sustain themselves on the labor of the countless millions that made up the imperial domain. Thus there were no incentives to adopt new technology when human labor was sufficient.
The entrepreneurial and intellectual class was kept highly restricted in these Asian empires on the pretext of religious or social harmony. Pursuits that threatened political stability were undermined, often on the penalty of death.
In contrast, the many competing states that made up Europe encouraged the pursuit of risky ventures as the payoff was higher for the elites.
If one country suppressed its intellectual and entrepreneurial class, they could move elsewhere, When Columbus couldn’t find support for his radical idea from Portugal, he simply tried elsewhere and eventually after many rejections, received funding from the King Ferdinand of Spain. The rapid adoption of the printing press which paved the way for mass communication could not be hindered by the old church authorities due to the decentralized nature of European societies.
Meanwhile, in the more centralized Ottoman Empire, religious clerics lobbied the Sultan to prohibit its adoption on penalty of death. China as a result of isolation and restriction of international trade too suffered greatly. Without greater access to raw resources, industries did not take off and the economy remained labor-intensive.
One of the most ignored yet greatest political revolutions that gave rise to modernity was the advent of the nation-state. Before kings could claim to rule by right of conquest or divine mandate and people tied their identity to their local village or religion. Nationalism completely revamped this old order by tying legitimacy to the will of the ‘people’ the state now represented. Thus, people’s identity too became associated with the state.
Following the rise of nationalism, first starting in Revolutionary France and then spreading throughout Europe, we see an unprecedented push towards modernization. This is when we see great rise in literacy, living standards or in the less glorious cases, capacity to wage violence.
The nation-state allowed the mobilization of people and resources on an unprecedented scale and the nation-state triumphed the old order of empires and kingdoms. This first happened in Europe and allowed it dominion over the rest of the world. But as it spread outside the continent it also undid the empire it had helped create. Nationalism was a powerful tool to facilitate the emergence of independence movements. It shifting the international order from that of a hierarchy of states to that of pluralism of nation-states.
The rise of nation-states could only occur in the context of a very divided continent where the rule of the ancien régimes was being increasingly questioned. Had there been an empire instead, nationalism, like in the rest of Eurasia then controlled by large multi-ethnic empire would not have arisen a movement and thus, the rapid expansion of citizen rights and welfare would not have occurred and the world would have been a far more primitive and socially unequal environment.
Nationalism was a distinct movement arising out of social upheaval brought by competition between European states. Under the mantle of a united Roman empire, Europe like Imperial China of our own history would have sought to enforce a clear hierarchy and remain stagnant in civil and social institutions.
Of course, in regards to this subject, a distinction must be emphasized. Nationalism should be not be conflated with the more pathological ultra-nationalism. Nationalism sees a plurality of nations and of asserting autonomy when it comes to the rights of a given people while ultra-nationalism sees a hierarchy of nations and thus is inherently imperialist.
We today see the great ruins of the Roman period and lament of what history could have been. I would say history would have been no better if not worse. The Roman world was already showing signs of stagnation and turmoil in the late Republic period. The instability that brought its demise could not be halted. The Roman Empire under a reign of strong despots only delayed what was inevitable and, in the end, its collapse brought new vigor to the lethargic continent.