Addendum on Roman Cities
10 May 2012
In Yesterday’s Why did Roman cities fail?, among several other assertions, I made the following claim:
“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.”
I have no doubt that the dissolution of the Roman Empire will be discussed as long as human civilization endures, and because the discussion unquestionably endures in our own time, there is a lively debate over almost every aspect of Roman power and its eventual dissolution. It is a question that is endlessly fascinating, and that is one reason that I find myself returning to it.
Moreover, a focus on cities in the ancient world can lend both clarity and focus to the discussion of Roman failure in the west, given the canonical status of city-states in classical antiquity. And it would add further clarity and focus to continue this concentration on urbanism into the medieval period in order to compare the ancient urban experience with the medieval urban experience. As I will sketch briefly below, there were some abandoned medieval cities, but most medieval cities of western Europe continued to grow and develop and were eventually transformed by this development rather than being abandoned.
The decline of Roman cities was at the same time the rise of manorial estates, and with this transition from the city of the countryside, the socio-economic system of the city slowly gave way to the socio-economic system of the manorial estate. If we had good statistics from this period, we could identify the particular year in which the changing Roman Empire (or its former dominions) shifted from being primarily urban to being primarily rural, as today we can identify the particular year that humanity became a primarily urban species, such the more people live in urban areas than live in rural areas.
Many distinct but interrelated process contributed to the failure of Roman cities and their institutions, which might also be called (if one would like to take a different perspective on the same historical events) the rise of the manorial system, which was already well underway (though not fully consolidated) in the later Roman Empire. With the diminution of Mediterranean trade, fewer and fewer grain ships came from Egypt to feed the urban masses; the country estates of the Roman aristocrats were forced to become productive farms in order to replace the other lost sources of food; the urban masses began to abandon the city for the sources of food in the countryside; small holders had to attach themselves to larger aristocratic households; and all the while the culture of the aristocrats and the former urban masses were becoming progressively more Christian, with genuine expressions of popular piety that broke the connections to traditional Roman festivals, which were often civic and urban events. When these several processes achieved near totality, the feudal system was complete, but it was already implicit in the socio-economic developments of the late Roman Empire.
In yesterday’s discussion of Roman cities I didn’t make any attempt even to review the theories of Roman collapse. There are many such theories, most famously Gibbon’s contention that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire represented, “the triumph of barbarism and religion” — presumably a triumph over civilization and secularism — and the Pirenne Thesis, according to which it was the rise of Islam that signaled the end of classical antiquity. Recent thought focuses much more on the continuities than the discontinuities between the late Roman Empire and early medieval Europe, and I alluded to this yesterday when I quoted Gordon Childe’s account, which was an early example of emphasizing historical continuity.
The Pirenne Thesis is particularly interesting in the present context, because Pirenne’s thesis, despite making the rise of Islam central to the ultimate collapse of Roman power, emerged from Pirenne’s study of medieval cities. I remarked yesterday that it would be interesting to take up the failure of Roman cities from the perspective of Fustel de Coulanges’ famous book The Ancient City. Such a project would consider Roman cities in their formative stage. If the inquiry were extended to include Pirenne’s Medieval Cities, we could close the parentheses on Roman cities, as it were, by also considering the medieval urbanism that was the successor institution to Roman urbanism.
The expansion of medieval cities recounted by Pirenne, and of medieval civilization generally, which certainly as much as ancient civilization exemplified what Gordon Childe called…
“…the result of the superficial expansion of civilization and the suspension of attritional warfare…” (What Happened in History, p. 281)
…experienced a crisis nearly equal to the failure of the Western Roman Empire with the Black Death. By the middle of the fourteenth century, when the Black Death struck Western Europe, medieval civilization had been steadily expanding for several centuries — economically, demographically, socially, politically, intellectually — and it was devastated by a crisis unlike any other in Western history. Medieval civilization survived (unlike Roman civilization, which did not survive its catastrophe), but it was diminished and altered.
Medieval civilization was quite literally diminished, since the Black Death resulted in a dramatic contraction of the population of Europe, which led in turn to a contraction of the farming that was the basis of the medieval European economy, and this in turn meant that many medieval villages were abandoned. Some survive today as place names with no remaining structures, while others disappeared without a trace.
The expansion of medieval villages, and the organic nature — both in terms of structure and material — of medieval urbanism meant that most medieval villages founded during the period or Europe’s medieval expansion consisted of timber-framed, wattle-and-daub structures, which when abandoned during the Black Death were rapidly re-absorbed into the damp, rain-soaked landscape of Western Europe. The Robust towns built of durable stone were among those that survived. Even if abandoned, squatters could return to inhabit the most permanent dwellings, which I expect happened with some frequency in the aftermath of the plague.
Regardless of the relative merits of continuity theories and discontinuity theories of the transition from antiquity to medievalism, one point that can be made more clearly than debating the decline and fall (or, if you like, transformation) of an entire civilization, is this: Roman urbanism failed. Even if we maintain that Roman civilization continued on in altered forms, Roman cities failed.
The tradition of Roman town planning was lost; the new cities that eventually emerged after the abandonment of so many Roman cities emerged centered on a monastery or a cathedral. As I have observed on several occasions, these medieval cities were organic in composition and conception. The medieval successor institution to Roman urbanism simply happened; it was not designed and it was not planned. New social and political institutions meant that the cities functioned differently from Roman cities. The way of life of Roman cities was lost and it was not recovered. There were no more great public baths, or sacred prostitution at ancient temples, or syncretistic religious pluralism. For all the analogies between Roman cities and medieval cities, the central institutions of public life were distinct.
Thus whatever we may say of Roman civilization, Roman urbanism failed, and the urbanism that replaced it when medieval Europe returned to the building of cities (after a period of several centuries in Western Europe that saw almost no urban construction at all) was an urbanism based on different principles and different institutions. (Again, as Gordon Childe put it, “…old Mediterranean towns were replaced by new cathedral cities.” What Happened in History, p. 291) This fact alone makes the study of the failure of Roman cities singularly interesting. However, I must also point out the Roman urbanism only “failed” after having endured for more than a millennium, which means that Roman urbanism was also one of the most successful institutions in human history.
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