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the inheritance of rome

29 december 2015

In my limited travels around Europe, I've found the "dark ages" to be visibly invisible. In southern Europe especially, there is a huge amount of architecture and infrastructure, in various degrees of ruin or repair, that dates from about 2,000 years ago. Even in Northern places like Trier and Reims, in the street patterns of London and Paris, you see clear physical traces of Roman life.

And there are obvious architectural traces of the High Middle Ages: castles and cathedrals that date from little after a thousand years ago; they're everywhere, as are examples of buildings from every era since. What you don't see very much of are the centuries in between, the years 400-1000: the subject of Chris Wickham's amazingly wide-ranging Inheritance of Rome. You don't see early-medieval building even though the early medievals saw much more Roman building than we do today, and could have copied its techniques: "Roman buildings and ruins were all around, generally dwarfing more recent constructions, and generally also more carefully built" (200).

This is as true in literature as in the physical fabric of Europe. When I teach my Western-Civ course, we spend half a semester on Greeks and Romans, maybe get as far as Saint Augustine, perhaps read a short Icelandic saga, and suddenly we're at the Chanson de Roland or the lais of Marie de France. What happened to the hundreds of years in between – when Virgil always, and sometimes Ovid, and certainly Augustine, continued to circulate in an unbroken tradition from antiquity? Were those centuries really the "dark ages," or are they simply underrated by prejudiced presentists (and classicists) ever since?

Chris Wickham stresses both continuities and breaks with Roman tradition in the West. (And in the East; a substantial amount of his history of Europe extends as far afield as Damascus and even Baghdad, places once within the Roman empire or its sphere of influence.) Royal, even imperial ambitions lived on once the Western Empire had disintegrated; so did Latin literature, though it became fanatically focused on the Church Fathers, leaving secular texts aside from Virgil and a few other approved works to fall into neglect or be lost altogether before the Carolingian revival of copying c800.

But the Empire really did disappear; it didn't just continue in smaller successor states. Wickham emphasizes the Vandals' conquest of Carthage in the early 400s, which cut off the grain and oil shipments that allowed Rome to maintain a population of a million. (It would soon shrink to only about 25,000, which still made it the largest city in the West for centuries to come.) Next, after the breakdown of central Imperial control (I'll stop saying "in the West," but remember that the Eastern Empire lasted another thousand years), the Roman system of taxation fell apart. This is astonishing in some ways: the following centuries seem like some kind of Tea Party paradise where taxes were unknown and large state fortunes were accumulated instead via rent, tribute, and conquest.

As you might imagine, the lack of taxes wasn't really utopian for anybody. Slavery, for instance, persisted throughout Wickham's period. Wickham prefers the term "unfree," which is more general and has fewer specific connotations of chattels and plantation economies, but all kinds of slavery flourished in the early middle ages. Carolingian power, and the eventual commercial dominance of Venice, were both built on westerners raiding eastern tribes and selling their captives to Arab traders. Meanwhile at home, though unfree Western peasants didn't have to worry about ending up on the block in Damascus, they were tied to the land and worked like draft animals. And the peasantry became steadily less free from the 500s to the 900s, Wickham argues.

Reading Wickham on the rise of the medieval aristocracy can be depressing in a big-picture way. Ancient Rome was a brutal slave state where even upper-class women were oppressed. But it was also a culture with highly-developed literary, artistic, and philosophical traditions. Wickham points to a large-scale change in the definition of elites, from literary – one might almost say academic – qualifications to strictly military ones that almost enforced ignorance outside of horsemanship, hunting, and martial arts.

The Roman Empire had kept personal violence and gang-boss behavior under control thanks to a massive bureaucracy and surveillance system, and of course a well-compensated professional army – things were hardly perfect, and civil wars often seemed to be the natural condition of the Roman state, but it was a relatively rule-bound society, and "pax Romana" wasn't just eyewash. As Wickham presents it, "barbarian" aristocrats (he always uses scare quotes around "barbarian") made permanent warfare the foundation of society.

Peasants increasingly escaped death in battle, however. As military elites gained power in the West, aristocracy and bearing arms became synonymous. Drafting and training the peasantry might have seemed to have obvious military advantages, but the slowly-developing system of allowing only elites to "bear arms" showed the real nature of intra-Western warfare: it was more important to cement the class superiority of proto-knights over peasant pawns than to give one "nation" or even one dynasty hegemony over others.

Meanwhile, for hundreds of years, these Franks and Goths and late Romans stopped building massive stone projects and stopped writing big secular books. Wickham stresses that the countryside remained rather thickly settled throughout, at least in what would become Spain, France, and northern Germany; but only in Italy did a lot of urban development survive, and then on nothing like a Roman scale. Cities were hard for elites to control, and the advanced exchange economies necessary for their support had broken down. But rural and village castles only came much later, too. It seems hard to believe that early medieval military leaders would not have hit on permanently fortifying their homes, but the concept involved tying themselves to the land and distancing themselves from courts like those of the Merovingians and Carolingians. In turn, these famous early dynasties were like super-magnified versions of the warrior nobility who supported and frequently tried to unseat them.

I found the commentary on economic and social systems in The Inheritance of Rome more interesting than the somewhat obligatory kings-and-battles chronicles. To be fair, Wickham gives more of an exemplary sampler of kings and battles than a knock-down-drag-out list. And of course, a lot of our knowledge of the period to begin with is based on spare kings-and-battles chronicles, when it isn't built on saints' lives and religious polemics. Wickham gives an interesting account of early medieval belief in the supernatural, which seems unironic and sometimes bizarre. He is somewhat less interested in language, art, or architecture, but of course there are lots of other sources for studying them. (He treats language as a somewhat transparent medium: "language … is in any case no guide to identity in our period, and is the least important of these three categories [which include tribal lineage and material culture]," 481).

Wickham notes that it was a weird world. As the year 1000 approached (though there was nothing magical about it in either secular or supernatural terms), exchange economies, permanent fortified estates, and cities began again to grow.

But complexity has costs, and the cost in this period was a decisive move to restrict the autonomy (and sometimes, indeed, the prosperity) of between 80 and 90 per cent of the population. (551)
The relative poverty and centralized (but weak) governments of the early middle ages had left some scope (as far as we can tell) for peasants to own their own land and control their own local destinies; subjugation to local seigneurs, while in some cases nominally freeing most peasants from slavery, ruthlessly expropriated the free peasantry of the West.

Wickham, Chris. The Inheritance of Rome: A history of Europe from 400 to 1000. New York: Viking [Penguin], 2009.