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Another "Death of an Empire" Article

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During times of national stress (including economic, political, and pandemic fears), there seems to be the tendency to catastrophize  events and predict the impending collapse of Western civilization.

A recent thread reflected this tendency:

Here's a thought-provoking article from the left-leaning Mother Jones that also predicts the fall of another empire:



It took a long time, decades, for the true reality of the change to hit the Romans whose writings have survived to the present day. Aristocratic Roman officials in Italy maintained the same kind of administrative structure their fathers and grandfathers had, writing the same kinds of administrative letters for Ostrogothic kings of Italy that they had for emperors beforehand. The pull of the past is strong. The mental frameworks through which we understand the world are durable, far more so than its actual fabric. The new falls into the old, square pegs into round holes no matter how poor the fit, simply because the round holes are what we have available.

The author, Patrick Wyman, PhD, brings up some interesting points, but I might quibble with a few of the conclusions

His point about bureaucracies persisting (either out of necessity or out of habit) after the fall of the Roman Empire is insightful. (Some might cynically give the Catholic church and its bureaucratic framework as an example.)

There are a couple points I might disagree with, however.



Consider the city of Rome, no longer the capital as the empire wound down but still its symbolic heart. It suffered two dramatic sackings in the fifth century, the first at the hands of the Visigoths in 410, the second committed by the Vandals in 455. But neither of those famous plunderings did the city in. Rome probably still had hundreds of thousands of inhabitants at the beginning of the sixth century, well into the barbarian Ostrogoths’ period of rule. What shrank Rome down to a mere few tens of thousands by the year 550 was the end of the annona, the intricate state-subsidized grain shipments that brought food to the city first from North Africa and then from Sicily. The megacity of Rome was an artificial creation of the Roman state and its Roman-style successor. Rome suffered plagues and sieges in the 530s, but Rome had dealt with plagues and sieges before. What it could not survive was the cutting of its grain supply, and the end of the administrative apparatus that ensured its regular delivery. 


I find this statement debatable: "Rome probably still had hundreds of thousands of inhabitant at the beginning of the sixth century ..." 

I am sure he would agree that this number is only speculation, at best. 

By 500 AD the city of Rome was only a pale shadow of its previous self.

We can only guess but the city of Rome's population might have been under 100,000 by 500 AD. In 286 AD, Diocletian had already moved the capital of the Roman Empire from the city of Rome to Mediolanum (Milan).

The death spiral for the (Western) Roman Empire and especially the city of Rome had begun long before 500 AD. After a series of civil wars, devastating plagues, and economic instability during the third century,  the city of Rome was near collapse by 300 AD. The impact of regular malaria epidemics was to weaken an already debilitated city and empire. The loss of Northern Africa and control of the grain supplies to the city of Rome starting around 440 AD essentially assured the city's total downfall. 

I would, therefore, disagree with Dr. Wyman's conclusion, "What shrank Rome down to a mere few tens of thousands by the year 550 was the end of the annona, the intricate state-subsidized grain shipments..." 


I'm not sure we know for certain when the cura annonae ended or whether it could still have had any impact on alleviating hunger in the city that late in the Empire's history. The supply chain was probably too severely disrupted at this point of history. These societal breakdowns made the accumulation, storage, transportation, and distribution of food on a wide scale basis unreliable .

More likely, the Goths' blocking the vital aqueducts supplying Rome in about 537 AD was the final death knell of a city already fatally weakened over the previous two centuries.

I enjoyed this article, however. It made some interesting points and lends another perspective to history.


guy also known as gaius


(I want to thank Lapham's Quarterly for bringing this article to my attention.)

Edited by guy

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