Sunday, July 5, 2009

Ebb and Flow of Civilization

There have been over 200 theories as to why Rome declined. Some scholars today argue that Rome did not decline but was transformed from Roman to barbarian rule. But archaeological evidence suggests a significant decline in economic welfare during and after the fifth century, from which western Europe did not recover until the 13th century, and maybe later. The extent of trade was diminished, the quality of pottery was significantly reduced, construction materials became more local and were softer. Thatched roofs instead of tiled roofs were used. Barbarian violence against Romans was common in the fifth century. The Barbarians treated Romans as second class citizens. For example, under Frankish rule, a Roman life was decreed to be worth one half of what an Frankish life was worth (see discussion in Bryan Ward-Perkins' Fall of Rome).

There is debate as to whether there was economic decline in the third and fourth centuries that led to Rome's inability to defend itself in the fifth century. The claim that there were no economic and social changes in the third and fourth century seems incredible. The most powerful empire in western history that in the first through third centuries repeatedly conquered and defended itself against barbarian tribes fell to barbarian tribes in the fifth century. How could this be possible without some kind of failure of social organization, whether economic or social?

The construct of Rome's decline and fall may mask a more fundamental pattern, that Rome itself represented an eight century decline from Hellenic civilization, a decline that may have accelerated in the fourth and fifth centuries. In particular, Rome did not develop much beyond what the Hellenes had achieved. It did advance organizationally and in terms of civil engineering and law, but its technology was limited largely to what had been accomplished in Greece and the Hellenic colonies by the third century BC. Its economic methods reflected little or no progress over five centuries.

All large scale civilizations go through periods of innovation and imperialism. The periods of innovation are characteristic of times when the civilization is of smaller scale. The imperialism creates larger scale and so introduces homogeneity and consistency. Consistency limits experimentation, by definition, and so limits innovation. In Rome there was a degree of laissez faire, but a large portion of the economy was oriented toward state purposes. Taxes to support military and civil projects were significant. The Roman image of progress was largely one of conquest. Conquest involved imposing the Roman model, so that conquered countries became replicas of Rome. The larger scale was associated with homogeneity.

In the case of Athens, imperialism existed alongside experimentation. The Greek world was highly decentralized because it was organized along the lines of the polis or city state. There were radically different forms of organization of the polis. The two most important were Sparta, an oligarchy ruled by "ephors", and Athens, which evolved from oligarchy and aristocracy into democracy. There were also some tyrannies or monarchies. The experimentation of the Greek world led to Athenian democracy, which led to innovation. This was only possible because of decentralization.

Decentralization is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for innovation and progress. In the case of tribal societies, such as the Americas before 1492, other conditions for the evolution of progress are absent. However, if progress is to occur, a degree of experimentation would seem to be an important root. Without it the intelligence of a small group of central administrators would be the only potential source.

In China Chin Shi Huangdi, the first Chinese emperor who unified China under Chin rule, created a high degree of centralization early in its history, in 221 BC. He and his adviser Li Si passed perhaps the earliest version of totalitarian legal and social reform; built large projects such as the Great Wall of China and a national road system; and killed many people. Li oversaw a massive book burning, illegalizing all intellectual activity. Scholars who resisted were buried alive. In this case the centralization may have preceded economic advance. Economic decline followed immediately upon the centralizing, totalitarian measures. But China's history is characterized by repeated overthrows of the central administrations. Advances may have occurred during disruptions to centralized authority. Alternatively, the Civil Service system may have facilitated a degree of innovation centrally. It will be interesting to trace the extent to which innovation did or did not occur during the centralizing periods. This intellectual elite likely produced considerable advances. But to what extent were the advances made available to the widespread peasantry and to what extent did they translate into improved well being?

It seems that scholars have been excessively impressed with the glories of scale. Rome was impressive, but its substance represented a small improvement of organization over the gains that the Greeks had already made. In terms of the fundamental driver of progress, innovation and experimentation, Rome represented a decline from the Hellenic world, especially in the Periclean era before Athens itself began to increase its scale and become an imperialist power. The obsession with empire, with the trappings of power and external grandeur mask the essential process that drives wealth: experimentation and creativity. These died with the fall of the Hellenes to Rome.