Why did Roman cities fail?

9 May 2012


Jerash in modern Jordan

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.)

Aphrodisias in modern Turkey

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.

Heliopolis, or Baalbek, in modern Lebanon.

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.

Leptis Magna in modern Libya

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.

Volubilis in modern Morocco

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.

Rome itself, the Eternal City.

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.

Perge in modern Turkey

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.

Timgad in modern Algeria.

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.

Serjilla in modern Syria

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.”

Dougga in modern Tunisia

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.

The Porta Nigra (Black Gate) of Trier in modern Germany

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.

Emerita Augusta in modern Spain.

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.

Conimbriga in modern Portugal

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.

Serjilla in modern Syria

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.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

12 Responses to “Why did Roman cities fail?”

  1. An excellent post. I find myself haunted by Rome due to both its beauty and its tragedy. As I articulated in your recent post on American declinism, I am worried that America faces a similar, though clearly very distinct fate.

    Civilizations can fail. The whole Anglo-Saxon tradition is not ordained to be successful despite its history of seemingly infinite adaptability. Our past capacity is no guarantee of our future capacity.

    Interestingly, Byzantium survived a millenium longer than the Western Rome, were they not more adaptable and, perhaps, shrewder as time went passed?

    We can survive, if we jettison old models that don’t work while tempering our headlong rush into amorphous “Progress for Progress” sake. We can survive if we balance our Nietzsche, our creativity, our inner Ubermensch, with an inner Burkean sense that tradition is a brake to be applied not to stop movement and growth but to calibrate growth while our morals and ethics catch up.

    It is a perennial tension Success means, as you allude to, equilibrium. Disequilibrium, by contrast, guarantees failure and likely, in an ever more networked world, a systemic failure that spreads more rapidly than in the past.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Lawson,

      Thanks for your comment!

      I hadn’t thought about the fact that contemporary technology and telecommunications could actually speed the rate of a collapse, but this is a very good point.

      Certainly if a society could synthesize elements as diverse as Nietzsche and Burke this would embody a high level of diversity. The next challenge is to keep that diversity in equilibrium, without also allowing it to slide into stasis.

      The Byzantine example is a fascinating one, but I do not think that a contemporary analogue of the static Byzantine experience would be possible, though it might well be possible under changed conditions in the future. It could be argued that the Byzantine Empire would not have been possible during the apogee of the Hellenistic cities, but only became possible as failure spread over the West.

      Hopefully I will have a chance in the near future to address your point regarding tradition as a brake to progress, which is a topic of great intrinsic interest.

      Best wishes,


  2. xcalibur said

    Roman ruins put me in a reflective mood. All that was, all that passed away never to return, unless you count its legacy.

    It also makes me consider how dependent every individual is on countless other individuals and the society as a whole. The institutions and supporting structures we live off of are often taken for granted, but seeing the husk of extinct institutions brings them to light, at least for me.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I share your appreciation of ruins. I have often quoted the poem Ozymandias, as it seems to me to summarize an entire implicit philosophy of civilization in a few lines.

      The dependency of all on everyone else in highly integrated societies is an important point, one that I have emphasized in several blog posts (e.g., in The Prescriptive Fallacy), and one that I have intended to treat in depth on its own (but I haven’t gotten to that yet). Our present social institutions make it possible to support seven billion of our own species, but in the event of those institutions being compromised the dependency of everyone on everyone else will have a multiplier effect in the event of realized global catastrophic risks or existential risks.

      Also, “the husk of extinct institutions” is a very nice turn of phrase. I may borrow it in the future.

      Best wishes,


  3. Lochlan said

    I think that cycle of failure you mention in the final paragraphs was only really appropriate to the Western Roman Empire.

    The Eastern (Greek-speaking) empire was always much wealthier and had more resources available than it’s western half and archaeology demonstrates that it continued to flourish until the mid-7th century. This period is now called Late Antiquity.

    Gibbon did not distinguish the different economic realities between the 2 sides of the empire as well as he could of. That’s not to blame Gibbon though.

    We need to remember that he lived in the 18th century and there wasn’t the same amount of archaeological knowledge that there is now. And the educational tradition that he grew up in was very pro-western. German scholars for instance coined the term ‘byzantine’ to discredit Constantinople’s right to being the Roman empire so they could glorify the ‘Holy Roman Empire’
    So the scholarship of that period wasn’t quite as rigorous as it could have been.

    The collapse and abandonment of dozens of cities in that century wasn’t due to poor economic management either. To look more closely at events we can see that the cities of the Eastern empire were flourishing at the beginning of the 6th century. The Theodossian Walls made Constantinople impregnable so it would not suffer the same fate that Rome did. Indeed many citizens of Rome’s professional class traveled to Constantinople during this period to find work so the city was booming at the same time that Rome was decaying. I guess you could probably say middle-class flight.

    The emperor Anastasius (491-518) was a brilliant administrator who avoided costly military campaigns, reformed the coinage system, cut unpopular taxes and built up the treasury. The revival of the economy of the Eastern empire under his reign was what allowed the Empire to enter the so called Byzantine golden age under Justinian who inherited a treasury surplus of 400,000 pounds of gold.

    However things start to take a turn for the worse in the mid 6th century.

    -Firstly we have the bubonic plague which decimated the population of Asia Minor and Europe. The trade cities on the Mediterranean were hit worst. It’s estimated that about half the population in urban cities was killed. It is likely that the loss of skills and labor from this disaster would have contributed greatly to society becoming more fragile and weaker.

    -Secondly we have multiple severe earthquakes in the period that damaged many cities even as Emperors like Justinian tried to rebuild. In the end the frequency of earthquakes just made it too difficult to restore damaged cities to their past splendor. It also contributed to the silting up of harbors such as at Antioch and Ephesus.

    -Thirdly we have a major war between Sassanian Persia and the Romans in the early 7th century. This was a total war on the same scale as the Punic wars. The economy, materials & manpower of both empires was depleted and left vulnerable to new threats and the aftermath ironically did nothing to change the borders between the 2 empires.

    However at the aftermath of this war – the year 628 the economic structure of the Roman Empire was still intact. The Mediterranean was still open to trade, there was still a interconnection between cities; Constantinople, Ephesus, Alexandria, Carthage, Antioch, Thessaloniki etc….

    Thus if an extended period of peace continued than these cities would have undoubtedly recovered to their former glory. However what happened immediately after was the invasion of the arab caliphate which defeated the Roman armies and conquered/raided the surviving Graeco/Roman cities along the Mediterranean. The byzantine army was unable to counter this new threat and so remaining cities that couldn’t be defended were abandoned and the inhabitants fled to forts, secluded monasteries or to Constantinople.

    This is really where the dark ages begin. Once the Saracens conquered Egypt, Muslim pirates scoured the Mediterranean for slaves and booty. Thus trade become non-existent and the West even lost access to papyrus. Just about any settlement within range of the coast from Britain to Spain to Rome to Greece was raided and with the end of trade those cities of classical antiquity simply disappeared. Henri Pirenne was the historian who goes into this subject in quite a bit of detail.

    So it’s a sad story of natural disasters, plague, war and incessant piracy of a level that had never been seen before in the Mediterranean that ended those Roman cities.

    • xcalibur said

      It’s true that Byzantium carried on the Roman tradition in a modified form, and that this is too often overlooked. However, you seem to be glossing over the Crisis of the Third Century, which led to an irreversible decline.

      • Lochlan said

        I will admit I’m not as well read on the third century crisis but I’d like to hear what others have to say about this – That event occurred 2 centuries before Marcian (evidence in his time does show that the economy was improving, and this seemed to be the trend up until 542).

        I can also make the observation that Theodosius permanently split the Empire in 393 which many historians would argue accelerated the decline of the Western half. The East was undoubtedly more technologically advanced and had more population – so more taxes, larger armies and conveniently had stronger borders.
        The West on the other hand was deprived of the economic support from the East so it was ultimately unable to pay for its mounting expenses.
        The treasury of the Eastern empire did very well under Anastasius (491-518) as I mentioned and was even able to cut taxes.
        Justinian was able to take advantage of this and initiated a construction boom probably unprecedented since Trajan as well as funding overseas military expeditions. I think to be able to accomplish such programs meant the economy was doing reasonably well to begin with.

        Although I will certainly say that Justinian’s policies were ultimately disastrous but the floor is open to debate over how much he is to blame. The bubonic plague was unprecedented and there was no way to foresee the population loss that caused. I get the impression that the Empire was holding together by a thread when Maurice assumed the throne in 582 due to a bankrupt treasury and failing borders.

        Nonetheless Maurice managed to stabilise Roman control in Italy and North Africa by appointing exarchates and he also ended a war with Persia on peaceful terms that ended the Roman policy of paying enormous sums of gold in tribute.
        The peace with Persia, allowed Maurice to move armies to the Balkans to manage the slavic invasions. Essentially I think that Maurice was repairing the damage done to the Eastern Empire by Justinian’s megalomania but his assassination in 602 ended the vision of a Roman Europe.
        Interestingly Maurice actually intended to place his younger son Tiberius as Emperor of Western Rome. It would have been fascinating to know if Italy would have accepted him as the Emperor of a new Western dynasty. We will never know!

      • xcalibur said

        My thoughts are that Justinian’s campaign to reconquer the Western Half of Rome was doomed from the start. His successes only prolonged Roman disintegration in Europe and came at too much cost.

        It seems that the Eastern half of Rome had more wealth and stability than the West even before the split. I believe the crisis of the third century was a turning point – while Rome continued after that, it was only a respite. Once there was a lack of growth and flexibility, there was bound to be a collapse.

        I think that Rome relied too much on exploitation and slavery, and did not focus enough on technology and industry. This was fine as long as Rome was expansionist, but as soon as it hit its natural limits of expansion, the fall was inevitable under that system.

        Cities are nexus centers of a society, their existence depends on linking other parts of society together. Once Western Rome collapsed, its cities had to go with it.

        Overall, I think the decline and fall of Rome was due to a number of factors, the main one being a breakdown in the social machinery and institutions that made it work. Splitting the Empire and securing Byzantium against the oncoming collapse was pragmatic in that situation.

        As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, Origins of the Medieval World by William Carroll Bark is an excellent read. It’s kind of dated, with a few inaccuracies (mainly the harness stuff) but overall it’s a very informative and well written account of Western Roman collapse and the rise of a new medieval culture.

  4. Lochlan said

    I wouldn’t necessarily say that Justinian’s “renovatio imperii” was doomed from the start, just very poorly managed.

    Let’s not forget that the re-establishment of Roman control in Carthage which ousted the Vandals was a success. There were problems with Berber raids, but that was managed over time.

    Italy was the real disaster for Justinian. I think a big part of that failure is Justinians poor leadership. His general Belisarius was not given adequate resources to reconquer the Peninsula. Belisarius had a much smaller army than he had in North Africa yet faced a much more powerful adversary and had to contend with the threat of the Franks intervening as well. Essentially what happened is that with such a small army Belisarius was unable to produce a quick, decisive resolution to this conflict. This gave time for the Goths to regroup and counter the Byzantine offensive. The prolonged campaign is what contributed to so much destruction of the peninsula’s infrastructure. A larger army and the Gothic wars would probably have ended quite quickly and the transition back to Roman authority would be quite seamless.

    Justinian’s style of leadership was also too centralist. Unlike many emperors of the past he did not lead his armies from the front but delegated that duty to his generals. That is fine except he seemed to have a strong mistrust of Belisarius and deliberately moved him to different campaigns or gave him inadequate resources – this also stalled the campaign.

    Justinian also did not seem to have a clear strategy for how he wanted Italy administrated – he seemed to want to rule every territory from Constantinople as Constantine did but the distance was too great for that administration to work effectively with multiple wars on multiple fronts. He should given Belisarius complete control to establish a joint military-administrative government in Italy to handle the administration until the situation was more stable. His lack of trust and probably ego & paranoia prevented this.

    Maurice established the Exarchate which stabilised the borders and bought the Empire some more time but ultimately the mistakes of Justinian required a fresh military campaign which the Empire had not the funds for. As I said above if Maurice was not assassinated it is very well that he might have eventually sent an expeditionary force to Italy to reestablish Roman rule under his son as the new Western Emperor.

    But back to the general economics – Yes I think you’re right in saying that the East always had more wealth as it prospered from the time of Alexander; who’s generals built the great cities of Antioch and Alexandria. I think you’re also correct about slavery causing a stagnation in technology.
    From the 3rd century Philosophy hit a bit of a dead-end although there were still some scientific and mathematics advancements e.g. Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Trallus. But generally speaking the ideology of the empire was about stabilisation and control rather than advancement and ingenuity.

    • xcalibur said

      When I read about the Western Campaign of Byzantium, it seemed like a fool’s errand. The West was too far gone, there were too many hostile tribes, and the distances stretched logistics and supply lines too far. But you make a strong argument that a lasting Byzantine reconquest of the Italian Peninsula and other areas was feasible, but was not achieved due to weak execution. You may be right, but I maintain my stance that a full-scale Roman restoration was impossible at that point – the best success would’ve been partial reclamation of land near the Mediterranean.

      Rome was about control and stability, but that by itself isn’t necessarily unsustainable. China maintained their version of agrarian-ecclesiasticism until powerful modern forces shocked them out of it. I think Western Rome was not just stable, but on a decadent plateau. Once they ran out of resources (human and physical) to exploit, the situation was unsustainable and the crash was bound to happen.

      As fascinating as Rome is, ultimately the Medieval world and its innovations transcended Classical Antiquity.

      • Lochlan said

        Certainly much of Europe was too far gone and there is no reason that the Byzantines should have tried to reabsorb Gaul and Germany – Italy was hard enough itself to maintain. I still maintain that a better administrator than Justinian could have achieved it – Maurice had far fewer resources, and a bankrupt treasury but managed to salvage the situation. Although that the fact the things fell apart so quickly after he was deposed certainly reveals just how fragile the state was.

        The main problem in the end with all these far flung territories reconquered by Justinian is the the cost of guarding all these new borders – in the end it created the same problem that Western Empire proved unable to handle – More borders just requires a larger and larger military and government to administer which leads to a spiraling growth of government taxation, expense and corruption.

        It also in time revealed that the biggest danger to the Byzantines wasn’t the barbarians but the Persians – the Empire neglected to sufficiently guard its Eastern borders and it paid a very heavy price – the sacking of Antioch and Syria in 538. This event seemed to weaken Imperial control over the area and they lost the region later in 612 to the Persians and again to the Arabs.
        Those events contributed enormously to the decline in commerce and wealth as such goes some way to explain why these cities were abandoned.

        Yet it could also be argued that the reconquest of Carthage saved the Empire from complete destruction by the Persians and Avars as supplies and reinforcements led by Heraclius – who was the governor of Carthage allowed the Empire to enter reassert itself – certainly every other province of the Empire was sacked or lost, except Sicily and Carthage so those 2 territories possibly proved quite pivotal. Heraclius at one point even wanted to move the government to Carthage.

        But back on subject quickly – There is not doubt that at the time that the Western empire was decaying around the early 5th century, the Eastern cities were flourishing. This documentary below certainly attests to that. It shows the rise and fall of one such Graeco-Roman city called Sagalassos from its transition under Greek aristocracy to Roman rule and into the Byzantine era. One discovery the archaeologists made is that the city was actually damaged by an earthquake around 500 ad but was significantly wealthy enough to rebuild itself. So that suggests the Eastern Empire was still healthy and flourishing in 500ad when Western Europe had been under barbarian rule for over 25 years. Things take a turn for the worse with the bubonic plague and that seems to be the turning point leading to the city and the entire region declining and gradual abandonment.

        If you have the time I recommend watching the entire documentary – it really delves into the subject of this article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: