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.