Why did Roman cities fail?
9 May 2012
Throughout Europe, North Africa, and West Asia you will find the ruins of ancient Roman cities. These abandoned ruins haunt the Western historical imagination, and not only the modern imagination. The Middle Ages were possibly even more haunted by the vanished Roman Empire than are we. There is a remarkable early poem in Anglo-Saxon — one of the earliest of all surviving poems in Anglo-Saxon — that communicates the sense of loss and mystery that abandoned Roman structures had for the peoples of the Middle Ages, who imagined them as the work of giants. Here are the first few lines of The Ruin (in a modern English rendering):
This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen,
the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations
of people have departed. Often this wall,
lichen-grey and stained with red, experienced one reign after another,
remained standing under storms; the high wide gate has collapsed.
The Fall of the Roman Empire remains still one of the central points of reference in Western historiography. Italian historian Aldo Schiavone called it, “…the greatest catastrophe ever experienced in the history of civilization.” (The End of the Past, p. 2) The ruined cities that dot the landscape of the Old World offer mute testimony to this catastrophe. (On a personal note, here I am, a Westerner on the far western edge of the New World, where no ancient cities dot the landscape, and there is scarcely a day that passes that I don’t think of the Romans and their accomplishments.)
We cannot make a clear and unambiguous distinction between Roman cities and Roman civilization when we ask why Roman cities failed. It has been said that Mediterranean civilization is essentially urban, centered in its cities, so that the failure of Roman cities was the failure of Roman civilization, and vice versa. We could even take a term from economics to express this, and say that the fall of the Roman Empire in the west involved the co-movement of failure across Rome’s western cities.
When I previously wrote about Failed Cities I realized later that I had failed to make any basic distinctions between classes of failure suffered by cities. Some instances that I cited couldn’t even be called “failure” in the strict since, as these cities were destroyed by natural disasters (here I am thinking of San Juan Parangaricutiro in Mexico, which was covered by lava and volcanic ash, but any city destroyed by a natural disaster and not subsequently rebuilt and repopulated would serve equally well as an example, such as Pompeii). Even among destroyed cities we ought to distinguish between those destroyed by natural disasters, those destroyed purposefully in war, and those destroyed by their inhabitants. Once these distinctions are made, it can be observed that there will be no clear and unambiguous distinction between some cases of failure sensu stricto and some cases of the destruction of a city by its own inhabitants.
This last observation, which may seem a bit overly-subtle (and, believe me, I could go into in a much greater detail if I cared to do so), is germane to the present concern of why Roman cities failed. If Roman civilization may be identified with the network of Roman cities, then the failure of Roman civilization in the West may be identified with the systemic failure of Roman cities. Since a natural disaster may destroy a few cities but it not likely to cause the failure of many diverse cities over a wide geographical range of distribution (unless that natural disaster is global climate change), the across-the-board failure of Roman cities would not seem to be due to natural disaster. Similarly, cities destroyed in war tend to be localized to the theater of war, and this leaves definite signs that archaeologists can uncover. Similarly, again, cities intentionally destroyed by their own inhabitants is a measure of considerable desperation and is not likely to have occurred on a large scale, and it would moreover leave traces for archaeologists. This leaves us with the failure of Roman cities ambiguously related to the unintentional self-destruction of cities by their own inhabitants.
In the most famous case of a Roman city — the city of Rome itself, the Eternal City — its fall was as slow and as gradual as its rise. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, Rome didn’t fall in a day. And the “failure” of Rome was not complete, although at its nadir Rome had gone from being a cosmopolitan city of more than a million souls, and the largest megalopolis if the ancient world (possibly the only megalopolis of classical antiquity) to being a city of fewer than 50,000, stripped of its population, its power, its wealth, its public art, and its central place on the world stage. Domestic animals grazed in the Forum Romanum as the great temples and public structures were looted as quarries for stone to build ramshackle huts nestled in among the interstices of the ruins.
It was in the Eternal City itself that Gibbon was inspired to write his justly famous account of the fall of the Roman Empire, as he recounted in a beautiful passage from his Autobiography:
“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind. But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the city rather than of the empire…”
Gibbon’s literary ambition grew as he worked, and he eventually would write the entire history of the fall of the Roman Empire, not excepting the history of Byzantium until that Second Rome had fallen to the Grand Turk in AD 1453. There have been others who have taken a more tightly circumscribed focus in recounting the fall of Rome itself, the city, but it would be another project again to retain Gibbon’s original concrete and particular interest in writing the fall of Rome, and iterating this to all the Roman cities, recounting their joint and cumulative decline.
For Rome, the Eternal City itself, was not the first or the only Roman city to have animals grazing in the marketplace where once the business of an empire was transacted. Here, from Dio Chrysostom, is an account of haw far and how quickly some cities had already declined in classical times:
“ ‘At the present moment even the land just outside the city gates is quite wild and terribly unattractive, as though it were in the depths of a wilderness and not in the suburbs of a city, while most the land inside the walls is sown or grazed. It is therefore surprising that orators trump up charges against the industrious people of Caphereus in the remote parts of Euboea, and yet hold that the men farming the gymnasium and grazing cattle in the market-place are doing nothing out of the way. You can doubtless see for yourselves that they have made your gymnasium into a ploughed field, so that the Heracles and numerous other statues are hidden by the corn, some those of heroes and other those of gods. You see too, day after day, the sheep belonging to this orator invade the market-place at dawn and graze about the council chamber and the executive buildings. Therefore when strangers first come to our city, they either laugh at it or pity it.’”
Dio Chrysostom, this is taken from a long passage which Dio quotes in the Seventh, or Eoboean, Discourse, 38-39, pp. 307-309 in the Loeb volume. The Original is in Greek.
Many cities, Rome and Caphereus among them, experienced depopulation, declining industry, declining trade, failing infrastructure, failing institutions, and the whole panoply of problems that simultaneously exacerbate each other when systematic failure compounds local failures in a vicious circle.
But it was not always thus. The Hellenistic period was a time of bustling, wealthy cities surrounding the Mediterranean, and it was this network of cities (connected by a transportation network) that made the civilization of this period vital. Townspeople took pride in the status and beauty of their cities, their local gods and festivals, and the famous men who hailed from them. Here is a description of ancient Taras, modern Taranto, from Strabo’s Geography:
“…at the city there is a very large and beautiful harbor, which is enclosed by a large bridge and is one hundred stadia in circumference. In that part of the harbor which lies towards the innermost recess, the harbor, with the outer sea, forms an isthmus, and therefore the city is situated on a peninsula; and since the neck of land is low-lying, the ships are easily hauled overland from either side. The ground of the city, too, is low-lying, but still it is slightly elevated where the acropolis is. The old wall has a large circuit, but at the present time the greater part of the city — the part that is near the isthmus — has been forsaken, but the part that is near the mouth of the harbor, where the acropolis is, still endures and makes up a city of noteworthy size. And it has a very beautiful gymnasium, and also a spacious market-place, in which is situated the bronze colossus of Zeus, the largest in the world except the one that belongs to the Rhodians. Between the marketplace and the mouth of the harbor is the acropolis, which has but few remnants of the dedicated objects that in early times adorned it, for most of them were either destroyed by the Carthaginians when they took the city or carried off as booty by the Romans when they took the place by storm. Among this booty is the Heracles in the Capitol, a colossal bronze statue, the work of Lysippus, dedicated by Maximus Fabius, who captured the city.”
The booty that Strabo mentions was a symbol of civic status, and it true that when Rome or any other empire conquered a famous city they often took the most famous monuments and moved them to their capital. While this transfer of status represented a form of honoring tradition, this already points to a fundamental problem in the ancient political system, in which the strong did as they pleased and the weak suffered what they must — the famous formulation of Athenian hubris in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.
The renowned prehistorian Gordon Childe painted a compelling picture of the prosperity and comfortable circumstances of ancient cities in his What Happened in History:
“For all Roman cities, like the Hellenistic poleis, enjoyed the amenities of a public water supply, now often laid on to every block, handsome public buildings, baths, theatres, colonnades, market halls, and assembly places adorned with statues and fountains. The private dwellings were tasteful and commodious. In a provincial watering place like Pompeii with at most 30,000 inhabitants archaeologists have uncovered street upon street of mansions with mosaic pavements, frescoed walls, colonnaded courts, glazed windows, running water, bathrooms, and latrines.”
And to account for this relative wealth:
“Trade circulated freely throughout the Empire. The cities were united by a network of superb roads. Harbours were everywhere improved or constructed, and the seaways were now free from pirates.”
This is a picture that rivals our best cities today. I encourage the reader to read the entire last chapter of Childe’s book (i.e., What Happened in History, the last chapter of which is, “The Decline and Fall of the Ancient World”), as Childe gives in a few pages a summary of his own views on the collapse of Western civilization, as seen from the perspective of a non-dogmatic Marxism. Childe emphasizes the continuity of arts, industry, and institutions, and says that, “Progress is real if discontinuous.”
To speak in terms of historical “discontinuity” is a polite way to speak of failure followed by subsequent recovery, and if the recovery surpasses the former peak of civilization, then we have “progress.” But the ruined cities that still stand vacant today never recovered. Civilization continued elsewhere in other modes, but it abandoned the dead cities that had once been prosperous and comfortable. And the wealth was not incidental. The failed cities of Roman Hellenism that surround the Mediterranean basin are only there because they were first built and grew and thrived, only later to fail systematically and catastrophically. The prior success of Hellenistic cities is the conditio sine qua non of the collapse of an entire civilization, for without the civilization there is nothing to collapse. It was, then, at least in part, the scope and success of Roman civilization that contributed to scope and ignominy of the failure. There is a sense in which it was not merely an institution that failed, or a political system that failed, but that it was civilization itself that failed.
In Complex Systems and Complex Failure I wrote the following:
“Complex systems fail in complex ways. Moreover, the scope of a catastrophic failure of a complex system is commensurate with the scope of the complex system. This is easy to see intuitively since a catastrophic cascading failure in a complex system must penetrate through all levels of the system and encompass both core and periphery.”
This is what happened in the Roman world. Each city is a complex system, and the network of cities that constituted the Roman Empire was an even more complex system. Moreover, each city is a micro-center of civilization, with its hinterlands as its periphery; and the clusters of cities tightly connected by roads and shipping networks were in turn larger centers of civilization, with the outlying networks of further cities as their periphery.
There is a systematic way to discuss these complexities, and that is in terms of metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality, though here, in the present context, I will not ascend to metaphysical concerns, leaving the idea of the ancient city aside for the time being. Simply employing the bio-ecological levels of Bronfenbrenner without further extension, we can see that the city is a meso-system, or, rather, that the city is at the center of a meso-system which also includes a peripheral region. A network of cities constitutes an exo-system, with further meso-systems at its periphery.
These bio-ecological and bio-social systems collapse in reverse order as they emerged and grew. As the growth of complexity is attended by expansion, differentiation, and dynamic equilibrium, their collapse involved contraction, homogenization, and disequilibrium. Now, exactly what accounts for the ability of a complex social whole to achieve both internal differentiation and equilibrium is a problem that is widely recognized, but also unsolved. One would easily suppose that greater differentiation (as in craft specialization, division of labor, and social stratification) would lead to disequilibrium, but in a healthy and growing ecological system the opposite is the case. The healthiest ecosystems embody biodiversity, as the healthiest societies embody social diversity. Somehow it works, but no one quite knows now it works. But the very fact that it is not fully understand how complex and internally differentiated systems maintain an equilibrium is as much as to admit that the equilibrium is a balance, and a balance can be thrown out of balance and into disequilibrium.
The impressive world of the Hellenistic cities of Rome’s Mediterranean empire somehow passed beyond the point of balance and into disequilibrium. The apparent stability of the Roman world began to change, and it did not change for the better. The center could not hold. Things fell apart. Perhaps the interconnected ancient cities were drawn into a vicious spiral of a failure cycle. When I discussed The Failure Cycle recently I identified criminal exaptation of institutional weaknesses as a crucial part of this cycle. However, in the failure of the Roman cities, criminal exaptation does not seem to have played a major role. Perhaps I could re-formulate the failure cycle in order to account for the circumstances of Roman urbanism. when I wrote The Failure Cycle I was thinking of contemporary nation-states and their institutions, but I realize now that there is a fundamentally different relationship between center and periphery in the case of ancient cities and contemporary nation-states. In classical antiquity, failing institutions were exploited by elements in the external periphery rather than by elements internal to the center; and whereas the contemporary failed state may receive assistance from the external periphery, the ancient city was helped, if it was helped at all, by its internal core. Thus, when the core failed, there was nothing else upon which the ancient city could fall back.
Thus I previously laid out the failure cycle as follows:
1. A state with weak institutions begins to fail.
2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by criminal enterprises, exacerbating state failure.
3. Failure becomes so acute that outside powers intervene.
4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a state with weak institutions vulnerable to failure.
Whereas the institutional failure of classical antiquity looks more like this:
1. A city with weak institutions begins to fail.
2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by external elements (e.g., barbarians), exacerbating city failure.
3. Failure becomes so acute that traditional powers intervene, seeking to restore rule and order from the center.
4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a city with weak institutions vulnerable to failure.
In either case, the iterated failure cycle can become a vicious spiral that grows beyond the ability of traditional guardians of traditional order to contain.
This way of looking at the problem suggests that the interconnected nation-states of today (which interconnection is often referred to as “globalization”) are analogous to the interconnected cities of classical antiquity. And given that the Roman world of classical antiquity grew out of the earlier world of city-states, with the expanded possibilities of today, the nation-state stands in a relation to other nation-states today that the city-state stood in relation to other city-states in classical antiquity.
Fustel de Coulanges, in his classic study The Ancient City, argued that the expansion of Rome destroyed the municipal institutions of the city-state, and replaced it universally with something Roman that was not the city-state as it was known in earlier antiquity. This would be an interesting thread to pursue in analogy to the present day, and as an extension of the thoughts above, but this inquiry will need to wait for another day.
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