Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity by Walter Scheidel

There exist various species of the revisionist historian, ranging from the contrarian Oxbridge smoothie, for whom conviction and intellectual vanity inversely relate, to the lapel-grabbing radical, who detects in all previous scholarship vast conspiracies of ignorance and evil. In Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome, which seeks to revise the historical consensus on the fall of the Roman Empire and the ensuing “dark” millennium, I have discovered yet another type: the techno-revisionist. To this strange, declarative being, humans are so many data points. Rejecting Thomas Carlyle’s “great man” and fluid style, the techno-revisionist does things like run time-cost models and quote Kurt Russell movies. Instead of transporting me to ancient Rome, Scheidel’s epigraph—“The days of empire are finished,” from Escape from L.A. (1996)—took me to the dog days of summer 23 years ago, when my 7-year-old brother, Spike, insisted that we call him “Snake Plissken.”

The prevailing, decidedly dim view of the post-Roman order may be gleaned from the opening of Voltaire’s “Essay on the Manners of Nations” (1756): “You wish ultimately to overcome the disgust you feel at Modern history since the decline of the Roman Empire.” Rome, goes the accepted version, left us roads, comparatively robust political systems, and literary monuments, matching, and in some cases eclipsing, their Greek models. Then homicidal Visigoths spoiled everything, toppling the Western half of the empire and ushering in the brutal, backward “Middle Age” between antiquity and renaissance.

Back to the Future, Again

For Scheidel, Rome’s collapse and the succeeding “competitive fragmentation of power,” far from tragic, were the basic preconditions for modernity. His argument rests on proving that supremacy in the Mediterranean was anomalous and that its decline laid the ground for the flowering of Europe’s natural, polycentric state. While he resorts to slick counter-factuals, applying the “minimal rewrite rule”—“the least amount of tweaking of actual history and avoidance of arbitrary intervention,” in other words, the guiding logic of the Back to the Future series—his assertions are mostly grounded in convincing fact.

Rome’s relentless brand of pyramid-scheme coalition warfare, with conquest justifying—and largely paying for—itself, underpinned by high rates of mobilization, enabled its mastery over neighbors and far-flung mercenary armies, notably in the three Punic Wars (264–146 B.C.E.). The Romans also benefited from overwhelming cost advantages. By Scheidel’s reckoning, “in nominal terms, a Seleucid or Ptolemaic infantryman cost anywhere from three to six times as much per day as the average soldier on the Roman side.” As Joseph Schumpeter wrote of society as “war machine”: “To take the field was a matter of course, the reasons for doing so were of subordinate importance. Created by wars that required it, the machine now created the wars it required.” It must be added, as Scheidel does, that “the least invasive way of scaling up was to leave local structures intact and thereby reduce friction.” Adversaries duly became “respected partners” in future campaigns.

I have discovered yet another type of revisionist historian: the techno-revisionist.

Martial pacifism worked until it didn’t. Natural boundaries, diminishing economic returns, and complacency at the top, mixed with the cynical fear of delegation—each played its part in curbing the existential appetite for expansion. To Edward Gibbon, “instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.” In this vein, Scheidel cites German historian Alexander Demandt’s inventory of 210 separate causes for Rome’s demise.

Rising from the ashes: Giovanni Paolo Panini’s Ruins of Ancient Rome.

From the ruins of Roman primacy emerged competing city-states, languages, and religious beliefs. Rivals exchanged goods and ideas and fought constantly, waging nearly 500 wars between 1500 and 1800, which advanced rather than beggared their societies. “The expansion of warfare,” Scheidel observes, “raised both the scale and sophistication of credit markets…. The large scale of public borrowing provided the strongest impetus for innovation.”

Two “Great Divergences” resulted, with Europe splintering, innovating, and pulling ahead as power remained consolidated elsewhere. Whereas the Roman Empire is split today into at least 40 nations, Chinese authority—radiating from the Central Plain, framed by river basins, unified by Mandarin—was rarely divided. One calculation “shows that East Asia was characterized by a unipolar or hegemonic political system for 68 percent of the years between 220 B.C.E. and 1875.” Scheidel compares this outcome with the “prevalence of a balanced system in Europe for 98 percent of the years from 1500 to 2000.”

Invisible Men

Occasional references to Napoleon and Hitler notwithstanding, Scheidel keeps clear of history’s flesh-and-blood protagonists. A professor of classics and history at Stanford, he is shockingly quick to dismiss Rome’s influence: “What did they ever do for us before their empire fell apart?… [They] may not have contributed anything essential at all … and thus failed to shape the general appearance, if not some of the finer points, of the world we live in today.” Caesar, Cato, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Augustus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—who cares! In their place, Scheidel swoons over charts and often speculative numbers.

Scheidel keeps clear of history’s flesh-and-blood protagonists: “What did they ever do for us?”

Three spreadsheets to the wind, he lapses into prose most charitably described as robot-friendly: “This striking degree of congruence and thus overdetermination likely owes a lot to interaction effects between anthropogenic and environmental factors. Both this mutual reinforcement and the minimal sample size (N=2) make grudging acceptance of overdetermination instead of a weighing of individual variables seem a justifiable rather than merely an intellectually lazy compromise.” Alas, I will never get the precious moments I spent looking up “anthropogenic” back. On the other hand, I enjoyed the (I think) inadvertent aptness of this eye-glazing jumble to the plot of Escape from L.A.

The trouble with Scheidel’s learned, sweeping narrative lies in its impersonality. Marc Bloch warned in The Historian’s Craft (1949): “Behind the features of landscape, behind tools or machinery, behind what appear to be the most formalized written documents, and behind institutions, which seem almost entirely detached from their founders, there are men, and it is men that history seeks to grasp. Failing that, it will be at best but an exercise in erudition.” A provoking and clever exercise—but, finally, little more.

Max Carter is the head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie’s in New York