Book review – Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

7-minute read

I will happily shoehorn a Monty Python reference into any conversation, but in this case historian Walter Scheidel beat me to it. What did the Roman Empire ever do for us? It fell and never returned – and with it, it paved the way for modernity. That, in one sentence, is the bold idea Scheidel puts forth here. And rather than ask why Rome fell, he has far more interesting questions for you. Why did nothing like it arise ever again in Europe? Why did it arise in the first place? And how did this influence the way Europe came to dominate the world much later? Escape from Rome is a brilliantly subversive book that offers a refreshingly novel look at how Europe got to where it is now.

Escape from Rome

Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity, written by Walter Scheidel, published by Princeton University Press in October 2019 (hardback, 670 pages)

Now, I have to start with a disclaimer. As the name of this blog implies, I am not a trained historian – I am just a biologist with way too many interests, history being one of them. That, and I have reviewed and enjoyed two of Scheidel’s previous books. It is therefore all the more to his credit that I had no trouble reading this book: Escape from Rome is very well written and structured – do not let the heft of this 670-page tome intimidate you.

Methodologically, Scheidel relies on two approaches to make his argument: historical comparisons and counterfactuals. The former involves looking for bigger patterns outside of your narrow speciality. Here this means looking at what happened in Europe after the fall of the Roman empire, but also at empire building in other parts of the world. In Scheidel’s words: “Comparison […] helps us transcend peculiarities of evidence for a particular case or the dominant academic tradition thereon” (p. 22). Counterfactuals, the “what would have happened if…” stories, are perhaps more controversial and he is at pains to point why they are needed and how to properly use them. Scheidel again: “The key question must be this: How little change would have been enough for history to have taken an alternative path […] this question calls for adherence to what has been called the “minimal-rewrite rule”: the least amount of tweaking of actual history and avoidance of arbitrary intervention.” (p. 24).

Taking the above questions and methods as a starting point, Scheidel’s argument runs roughly something like this. (And I apologise in advance if I skip over subtleties as I attempt to cram 500 pages worth of material into four paragraphs.) When it comes to empire building over the last two millennia, Europe is an exception compared to East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East & North Africa (other areas are briefly considered but do not add much). While the latter three all show varying degrees of repeated empire formation with short breaks in between, Europe had a one-shot empire followed by enduring “polycentrism”. Polycentrism is a core term in this book and refers to competitive fragmentation. Rather than a monopoly on power, a polycentric system has multiple centres of power competing with each other for control. Something that, Scheidel hopes to show here, spurs innovation.

“When it comes to empire building over the last two millennia, Europe is an exception compared to East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East & North Africa”

To explore this contrast further, Scheidel first charts how the Roman empire rose to power and if there was ever any time where its formation might have been prevented. He sees only one counterfactual as likely: the Macedonians under the leadership of Alexander the Great could have prevented Roman hegemony towards the end of the 4th century. But when they did not, Roman expansion became almost impossible to halt, and the counterfactuals required become increasingly unlikely. Next up is the question of why nothing like Rome ever rose again in Europe. Scheidel discusses eight examples where Europe came close to a new empire but, for various reasons explained here, did not. This includes, amongst others, the surviving East Roman empire, Arab expansion in the 7th and 8th centuries, Mongol invasion in the mid-13th century, the 16th-century Habsburg empire, and the Ottomans in 16th and 17th centuries.

Having explored the dimension of time, Scheidel then turns his comparative approach to space. What about empire building outside of Europe? The focus is specifically on ancient China where the imperial tradition was so resilient as to be almost the polar opposite of what happened in Europe (plus, Scheidel has explored this comparison before). After considering, for example, differences in tax regimes, geographical and ecological conditions, religious belief systems, and other cultural factors, he concludes that conditions in East Asia were very conducive to repeated empire-building, while South Asia and the Middle East & North Africa fall somewhere between the two.

Finally, Scheidel considers the rise of the West, which is an incredibly popular topic. From Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules – for Now and Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth, to Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence or Philip T. Hoffman’s Why Did Europe Conquer the World? (to name just a few) – there is a veritable cottage industry of scholars probing this question. Scheidel discusses these and many other books here, considering a wide range of factors: political institutions, the exploitation of external resources through colonialism and mercantilism, scientific and technological advances, and many others besides. What these have in common, argues Scheidel, is that their contribution to the rise of the West relies on polycentrism, on there not being a Roman-scale empire to suppress competition and invention.

“Finally, Scheidel considers the rise of the West […] there is a veritable cottage industry of scholars probing this question […] Scheidel [argues that] the rise of the West [relied] on polycentrism, on there not being a Roman-scale empire to suppress competition and invention.”

That, in a nutshell, is the scope of the material covered here. Despite its length, the book’s excellent structure meant I never got lost (even if the history of fiscal systems in chapter 7 made my eyes glaze over ever so slightly). And though the tone is academic, the jargon is never impenetrable: Scheidel manages to walk the fine line between precisely articulating himself while not coming off pedantic. Rather, I found his arguments insightful and convincingly argued. The text is meticulously annotated and the notes frequently offer welcome commentary on which references, in particular, give a good overview of certain ideas or historical periods. Furthermore, the included graphs and maps have been properly designed for grayscale printing.

At a time where decolonisation of academic disciplines has become a hot-button topic, it is only appropriate that in closing Scheidel is careful to ward off accusations of Eurocentrism: “Had comparable conditions surfaced in some other parts of the world, they might very well have produced similar results” (p. 501-2). And similarly, China not conquering the world despite its powerful empire is not be interpreted as inferiority on their part: “the Chinese experience was merely a particularly intense manifestation of a much broader pattern. Other large empires faced similar constraints.” (p. 446).

Scheidel’s take on this topic is highly original and the questions he poses delighted me on multiple occasions. On page 26, he predicts that the variation in content and perspective are bound to irritate both historians and social scientists, but he hopes that they will nevertheless engage with his work. I cannot see how they could not: this is a monumental work that will be impossible to ignore. But beyond fellow scholars, the book’s excellent writing and structure will please any serious history buff.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Escape from Rome

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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