Addendum on Roman Cities

10 May 2012


The city plan of Timgad clearly shows the rationality of Roman town planning. The organic medieval cities that were eventually to house the successor populations of the former territories of the Roman Empire represent a very different approach to urbanism.

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.

An aerial photography of Timgad clearly showing the town plan as the most striking feature that remains of the city.

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.

View of Timgad with arch, colonnade, and theater clearly visible.

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.

Henri Pirenne (23 December 1862 – 25 October 1935) formulated the eponymously known Pirenne Thesis.

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.

Pirenne’s formulation of the Pirenne Thesis grew out of his analysis of medieval cities.

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.

Coulanges studied the ancient city prior to the model of iterated Roman civilization that transformed the Hellenistic cities of the ancient Mediterranean.

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.

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, 18 March 1830 – 12 September 1889

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.

Gordon Childe gained renown as a prehistorian, but in his later work his scope expanded to include the ancient world up to its dissolution.

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.

V.(ere) Gordon Childe, 14 April 1892 – 19 October 1957

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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Grand Strategy Annex

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6 Responses to “Addendum on Roman Cities”

  1. xcalibur said

    I greatly respect the Romans and their accomplishments. They achieved a sophisticated level of pre-industrial civilization. However, there were major flaws in Rome. It was based too much on Raubwirtschaft (exploitation economy) of conquest and slavery. As long as Rome was expanding, that was fine, but when they reached their territorial limits, the crisis of the third century followed shortly after.

    There also wasn’t enough focus on innovation and industry due to the deadening effect of slavery. Why build watermills and windmills when you’ve got slaves on latifundias? And since slaves are unpaid, naturally they can’t become a consumptive middle class.

    With a lack of industry and innovation, precious metals flowed out of Rome in exchange for silks and other goods from the east. When the mines couldn’t keep up, that led to debased coinage, inflation, and economic instability.
    And of course, the politics. The Romans lost their Republic in favor of despotism – which works if you’ve got a good despot, like during the Antonines, but more than not people abuse their power. So, you had Elagabalus, Nero, Commodus, and the like, and the only check on Imperial power was assassination. So there was tyranny as well as internal strife over who gets the throne. All this political volatility and weakness also took its toll on Rome.

    Overall, the machinery of Western Rome broke down, and out of its ruins came a newer and ultimately better West. I’ll go ahead and quote Origins of the Medieval World again:

    “Rome only reaped what Rome had sown, and one cannot be sure that, if the tottering structure had not fallen before the frail assaults of barbarian tribesmen, it would not have toppled of its own weight. To what end should the Western Roman world have been “regenerated”? so that civilization could run the same circuit again, all the glories and grandeurs but also the old games and circuses, the heartless oppression, the dullness and pomposity, the stifling of originality and invention, the arrogance, the iniquities of the fiscal system, the Pax Romana bought with violence and maintained by despotism? Admittedly the Roman breakdown and the barbarian invasions led to barbarism and superstition; the successors of Rome in the West started with almost nothing and had much to learn. The test of their merit as creators of a civilization was whether they could learn, and learn better than their predecessors had learned. It is because they proved to possess this capacity to learn, and ultimately, after long and difficult centuries, to create a civilization that was richer than the Roman, more humane, more conducive to individual dignity and responsibility, that one cannot accept the end of classical civilization in the West as an unmitigated catastrophe”

    Origins of the Medieval World, William Carroll Bark, p.88.

    Ok, I’ve said enough about this book. there are lots of other quality books. I just wanted that text to be floating around on the internet and now it is.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Roman civilization was remarkable for what it was at the time, and in many respects an individual from the present age would feel more at home in a Roman city than at a medieval manor. But there are other respects in which the medieval world, for all its differences from us, would be more familiar. One historian (I can’t remember who it was) has noted that it was one of the greatest achievements of the medieval west to create a civilization without slavery. The pervasive slavery of classical antiquity would be difficult for most people today to swallow, but in the medieval world one would recognize some of the first glimmerings of the world that was to come — our world.

      The slavery argument against labor-saving technology has been made a number of times; the same argument has been used to explain why the steam turbine of Hero of Alexandria did not spur an industrial revolution in antiquity, but a similar turbine design by Taqi al-Din in the Islamic world also failed to spark an industrial revolution; the conditions were not yet right for the harnessing of fuels to transcend a world of muscle power.

      That same world was also not prepared for political revolution, although political revolution, when it did come, came first, before the industrial revolution (but after the scientific revolution). In our own time, we have the technology to exploit large-scale industrialization in space, but there is neither the political will, the popular groundswell, nor the willingness of investors to make this technological possibility a reality. The extraterrestrial revolution has yet to come, and what other revolutions it will bring in its wake we can only guess.

      Best wishes,


      • xcalibur said

        I agree that there are many factors which determine the development and use of technology. The institution of slavery is not the only factor by any means, but it’s significant.

      • geopolicraticus said

        Slave labor and its analogues — forced labor of POWs during war, serfdom, labor tax (corvée), military draft, etc. — seems to be what we might call a “cognitive bias of civilization,” a civilizational bias, if you will, which appears to promise short term benefits, but long term leads to a high level equilibrium trap and eventually stagnation. In other words, slave labor is an existential risk.

        Best wishes,


      • xcalibur said

        That’s exactly the point I was aiming towards. It seems to me that slavery can become a crutch for higher classes to lean on, ultimately with the effect of limitation and stagnation throughout society.

        The high level equilibrium trap is an interesting concept. The article focuses on China, but I think this could also apply to Western Rome and Byzantium. I think stagnation is dangerous in the long term, which is supported by the histories of each of those societies.

      • geopolicraticus said

        To date the scholarship on the high level equilibrium trap is focused on China, but I would like to see the argument generalized to cover many historical cases in which a stable equilibrium functioned so well that it prevented (more or less) other developments from coming about.

        The current state of my thought on the emergence of industrial-technological civilization (which came about in stages) is that western civilization’s connection to its traditions was interrupted or preempted by three revolutions: the scientific revolution, political revolutions (1776 and 1789), and the industrial revolution. None of these revolutions occurred independently in any other tradition of civilization (unlike civilization itself, which emerged independently many times). Perhaps all three revolutions are necessary (although possibly in any order) in order to break the grip of traditional equilibrium and launch civilization on a new course.

        Hopefully I will write a blog post on this. I think that equilibria can form at any level of civilizational development and evolution. The Neolithic world had a high level equilibrium for hunter-gatherer nomads, but in this case the beginning of the present interglacial (i.e., the Holocene) can be used to explain the sudden and simultaneous emergence of civilization in widely separated geographical regions.

        Best wishes,


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