There’s been an explosion in scholarship pinning the collapse of societies on both outbreaks of disease and natural variations in climate. James Scott dedicates a good portion of Against the Grain to considering the fragility of early states. As he points out, when it comes to the formation of complex state societies, the question isn’t so much “what took so long” as “how could this even happen at all?” People don’t inherently want to be controlled or dominated by a sociopathic oligarchy, so why did they “bend the knee,” and remain kneeling ever since?
And, in fact, what we see is, rather than a direct, steady progression to larger and more complex societies as depicted by old narratives of history (the “progress” narrative), we see states rising and falling. The idea that “bigger is better” is not in evidence from the standpoint of the average peasant living in these cultures. As Scott points out at length, states are fragile things prone to undermining their own existence through various factors. We see this trend even today with active secession movements in Catalonia, Scotland, the United States, and the criticisms of the European Union and “free trade.”
Ancient Egypt may have fallen in part because of riots caused by climate change and volcanoes, according to a new paper. The new study paints a picture of the ancient civilisation riven by droughts and disasters. It looked at the impact of the severe events of ancient Egypt, finding that they caused stress on its economy and ability to fight wars.
The Nile was incredibly important for the ancient Egyptians of Ptolemaic Egypt, between 350 and 30BC. Each year monsoon rainfall brought summer flooding that helped grow crops to support the society. When those crops failed, societal unrest would ensue, according to detailed reports at the time.
Until now, researchers haven’t known what caused those strange but important floods. They now propose they were the result of volcanic activity – which in turn would have altered the climate and brought about disruption to the most central parts of society.
“Ancient Egyptians depended almost exclusively on Nile summer flooding brought by the summer monsoon in east Africa to grow their crops,” said Joseph Manning, lead author on the paper and the William K & Marilyn Milton Simpson professor of history and classics at Yale, in a statement.
“In years influenced by volcanic eruptions, Nile flooding was generally diminished, leading to social stress that could trigger unrest and have other political and economic consequences
What we are learning, principally from pathogen genomics, is that the fall of the Roman Empire may have been a biological phenomenon.
The most devastating enemy the Romans ever faced was Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic plague and that has been the agent of three historic pandemics, including the medieval Black Death. The first pandemic interrupted a remarkable renaissance of Roman power under the energetic leadership of the emperor Justinian. In the course of three years, this disease snaked its way across the empire and carried off perhaps 30 million souls. The career of the disease in the capital is vividly described by contemporaries, who believed they were witnessing the apocalyptic “wine-press of God’s wrath,” in the form of the huge military towers filled with piles of purulent corpses. The Roman renaissance was stopped dead in its tracks; state failure and economic stagnation ensued, from which the Romans never recovered.
Recently the actual DNA of Yersinia pestis has been recovered from multiple victims of the Roman pandemic. And the lessons are profound…
Was the fall of Rome a biological phenomenon? (Los Angeles Times)
The winter seasonality of the Plague of Cyprian points to a germ that thrived on close interpersonal contact and direct transmission. The position of the Roman Empire astride some of the major flyways of migratory birds, and the intense cultivation of pigs and domestic fowl such as chickens and ducks, put the Romans at risk. Climate perturbations can subtly redirect the migratory routes of wild waterfowl, and the strong oscillations of the AD 240s could well have provided the environmental nudge for an unfamiliar zoonotic pathogen to find its way into new territory. The flu is a possible agent of the pestilence.
A second and more probable identification of the Plague of Cyprian is a viral hemorrhagic fever. The pestilence manifested itself as an acute-onset disease with burning fever and severe gastrointestinal disorder, and its symptoms included conjunctival bleeding, bloody stool, esophageal lesions, and tissue death in the extremities. These signs fit the course of an infection caused by a virus that induces a fulminant hemorrhagic fever.
Church Records Could Identify an Ancient Roman Plague (The Atlantic)
1. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a pandemic “interrupted the economic and demographic expansion” of the empire.
2. In the middle of the third century, a mix of drought, pestilence, and political challenge “led to the sudden disintegration of the empire.” The empire however was willfully rebuilt, with a new emperor, new system of government, and in due time a new religion.
3. The coherence of this new empire was broken in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. “The entire weight of the Eurasian steppe seemed to lean, in new and unsustainable ways, against the edifice of Roman power…and…the western half of the empire buckled.”
4. In the east there was a resurgent Roman Empire, but this was “violently halted by one of the worst environmental catastrophes in recorded history — the double blow of bubonic plague and a little ice age.”
The Fate of Rome (Marginal Revolution)
Explanations for a phenomenon of this magnitude [Rome’s collapse] abound: in 1984, the German classicist Alexander Demandt catalogued more than 200 hypotheses. Most scholars have looked to the internal political dynamics of the imperial system or the shifting geopolitical context of an empire whose neighbours gradually caught up in the sophistication of their military and political technologies. But new evidence has started to unveil the crucial role played by changes in the natural environment. The paradoxes of social development, and the inherent unpredictability of nature, worked in concert to bring about Rome’s demise…
It turns out that climate had a major role in the rise and fall of Roman civilisation. The empire-builders benefitted from impeccable timing: the characteristic warm, wet and stable weather was conducive to economic productivity in an agrarian society. The benefits of economic growth supported the political and social bargains by which the Roman empire controlled its vast territory. The favourable climate, in ways subtle and profound, was baked into the empire’s innermost structure.
The end of this lucky climate regime did not immediately, or in any simple deterministic sense, spell the doom of Rome. Rather, a less favourable climate undermined its power just when the empire was imperilled by more dangerous enemies – Germans, Persians – from without. Climate instability peaked in the sixth century, during the reign of Justinian. Work by dendro-chronologists and ice-core experts points to an enormous spasm of volcanic activity in the 530s and 540s CE, unlike anything else in the past few thousand years. This violent sequence of eruptions triggered what is now called the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age’, when much colder temperatures endured for at least 150 years. This phase of climate deterioration had decisive effects in Rome’s unravelling. It was also intimately linked to a catastrophe of even greater moment: the outbreak of the first pandemic of bubonic plague.
Wealth inequality has been increasing for millennia (The Economist)
Where hunter-gatherers saw themselves simply as part of an inherently productive environment, farmers regarded their environment as something to manipulate, tame and control. But as any farmer will tell you, bending an environment to your will requires a lot of work. The productivity of a patch of land is directly proportional to the amount of energy you put into it.
This principle that hard work is a virtue, and its corollary that individual wealth is a reflection of merit, is perhaps the most obvious of the agricultural revolution’s many social, economic and cultural legacies.
The acceptance of the link between hard work and prosperity played a profound role in reshaping human destiny. In particular, the ability to both generate and control the distribution of surpluses became a path to power and influence. This laid the foundations for all the key elements of our contemporary economies, and cemented our preoccupation with growth, productivity and trade.
Regular surpluses enabled a much greater degree of role differentiation within farming societies, creating space for less immediately productive roles. Initially these would have been agriculture-related (toolmakers, builders and butchers), but over time new roles emerged: priests to pray for good rains; fighters to protect farmers from wild animals and rivals; politicians to transform economic power into social capital.
How neolithic farming sewed the seeds of modern inequality (The Guardian)
Scientists have traced the rise of the super-rich deep into our historical past to uncover the ancient source of social inequality. Their conclusion? Thousands of years ago, it was the use of large farm animals – horses and oxen that could pull ploughs – which created the equivalent of our multi-billionaire entrepreneurs today.
It was only with the domestication of cattle and horses – sometimes thousands of years after land cultivation had begun – that serious divisions between societies’ haves and have-nots began to emerge, eventually creating the ancient equivalent of today’s island-owning, jet-setting billionaires...
Super-rich shown to have grown out of ancient farming (The Guardian)
Not only was prehistory more equal, but people were physically stronger too:
Unearthing a masterpiece (University of Cincinnati)
Q: What inspired you to look into this story?
A: When I was doing the History of Rome [podcast], so many people asked me, ‘Is the United States Rome? Are we following a similar trajectory?’ If you start to do some comparisons between the rise and development of the U.S. and rise and development of Rome, you do wind up in this same place. The United States emerging from the Cold War has some analogous parts to where Rome was after they defeated Carthage [in 146 B.C.]. This period was a wide-open field to fill a gap in our knowledge.
Q: One topic you describe at length is economic inequality between citizens of Rome. How did that come about?
A: After Rome conquers Carthage, and after they decide to annex Greece, and after they conquer Spain and acquire all the silver mines, you have wealth on an unprecedented scale coming into Rome. The flood of wealth was making the richest of the rich Romans wealthier than would’ve been imaginable even a couple generations earlier. You’re talking literally 300,000 gold pieces coming back with the Legions. All of this is being concentrated in the hands of the senatorial elite, they’re the consuls and the generals, so they think it’s natural that it all accumulates in their hands.
At the same time, these wars of conquest were making the poor quite a bit poorer. Roman citizens were being hauled off to Spain or Greece, leaving for tours that would go on for three to five years a stretch. While they were gone, their farms in Italy would fall into disrepair. The rich started buying up big plots of land. In the 130s and 140s you have this process of dispossession, where the poorer Romans are being bought out and are no longer small citizen owners. They’re going to be tenant owners or sharecroppers and it has a really corrosive effect on the traditional ways of economic life and political life. As a result, you see this skyrocketing economic inequality…
Q: Do you see parallels between land ownership in Rome and in the modern United States?
A: In the Roman experience, this is the beginning of a 100-year-long process of Italy going from being a patchwork of smaller farms with some large estates to nothing but sprawling, commercially-oriented estates. And yes, the United States is continuing to go through a very similar process. At the founding of our republic, everybody’s a farmer, and now everything is owned by what, Monsanto?
Moving beyond just strictly agricultural companies, large American corporations are now employing more and more people. There seems to be this move away from people owning and operating their own establishments, and they’re instead being consumed by large entities. You’re talking about the Amazons of the world swallowing up so much of the market share, it just doesn’t pay to be a clerk in a bookstore or own a bookstore, you end up being a guy working in a warehouse, and it’s not as good of a job.
I’ve mentioned previously previously about the role that the transformation of land and labor into commodities which could be bought and sold was critical to the establishment of capitalist market economies (along with the extensive monetization of the economy by the state).
Prior to the market economy, most land was distributed by feudal relations and not simply something to be bought and sold like a waistcoat or a side of beef. Land ownership and tenure was something that was critical to the social fabric. In England (as in much of Western Europe), much of the country’s land was held by the Catholic Church. When Hnery VIII broke with the Catholic Church, he seized monastic lands, and eventually sold them off. This created a market for land that had not existed before, and which was unique to Britain. This may have been the key even in turning land into a marketable commodity, which was key in the development of market capitalism. As Polanyi put it:
Production is interaction of man and nature; if this process is to be organized through a self-regulating mechanism of barter and exchange, then man and nature must be brought into its orbit; they must be subject to supply and demand, that is, be dealt with as commodities, as goods produced for sale.
Such precisely was the arrangement under a market system. Man under the name of labor, nature under the name of land, were made available for sale; the use of labor power could be universally bought and sold at a price called wages, and the use of land could be negotiated for a price called rent. There was a market in labor as well as in land, and supply and demand in either was regulated by the height of wages and rents, respectively; the fiction that labor and land were produced for sale was consistently upheld. Capital invested in the various combinations of labor and land could thus flow from one branch of production to another, as was required for an automatic levelling of earnings in the various branches.
Previous scholarship has argued that the demographic disaster after the Black Death caused a shortage of labor and led to the demise of the feudal system. Flight into cities would also have contributed to wage labor taking the place of status relations as the main form of contract. This, combined with the establishment of a market for land, may have both been the causes of the transformation of labor and land into saleable commodities, which was a necessary step toward the market economy. This paper argues that places where land was heavily commoditized after the dissolution of the monasteries correlate with places where the Industrial Revolution first took off. To my knowledge, this historical connection was never explored by Polanyi himself, but it does provide an interesting addendum to his argument that universal markets are created by top-down state power and authority. Fascinating stuff:
In 1534, Henry VIII decided to break with the Catholic Church. In addition to severing ties with Rome, Henry appropriated all taxes that monasteries, churches and other religious institutions paid to the Pope. When his financing needs – due to wars in France – became too great, he expropriated all monasteries in England, which collectively held about one third of all land in the country (Youings 1967). When the management of these vast properties turned out to outstrip the bureaucratic capacity of his government, Henry sold all monastic assets in England. The main effect of this dumping of land was the creation of local land markets. Where lands were before held in long leases whose rates were set by medieval custom, lands now changed hands frequently and at market rates. In a few years between 1535 and 1542, the majority of monastic land was sold. Since monastic holdings were often ancient and were spread out unevenly throughout England, villages were differentially impacted by this shock. Some villages had no monastic assets in them (monasteries often owned land far away from their physical buildings) whereas in others, a local – or distant – monastery may have held large tracts of land. We hypothesise that the creation of a land market can be linked to local differences in subsequent development and, ultimately, industrialisation.
It’s notable that this event did not take place in France, or anywhere else in Western Europe! Is this why France lagged in the race to industry? The lands of the Church were, in fact, eventually seized and sold off, as in England. But this took place only in the aftermath of the French Revolution centuries later.
And where it did take place, it seems it had a similar effect as in England centuries earlier: higher agricutureal productivity and more industrial output:
The law passed by the French Constituent Assembly on 2 November 1789 confiscated all Church property and redistributed it by auction. Over the next five years, more than 700,000 ecclesiastical properties – about 6.5% of French territory – were sold…We find that in regions where more church land was auctioned off, land inequality was higher in the 19th century. Further, we show that this wealth imbalance was associated with higher levels of agricultural productivity and agricultural investments by the mid-19th century. Specifically, a district with 10% more Church land redistributed had 25% higher productivity in wheat production, about 1.6 more pipe manufacturers (used for drainage and irrigation projects), and about 3.8% less land left fallow. Our study also shows that the beneficial effects of revolutionary land redistribution on agricultural productivity gradually declined over the course of the 19th century. This result is consistent with other districts gradually overcoming the transaction costs associated with reallocating the property rights that came with the feudal system.
And this article wonders whether Rome could have had an industrial revolution:
And finally, the scars of destroying people’s way of life continue to linger hundreds of years later, down to the present day!
People living in the former industrial heartlands of England and Wales are more disposed to negative emotions such as anxiety and depressive moods, more impulsive and more likely to struggle with planning and self-motivation, according to a new study of almost 400,000 personality tests.
The findings show that, generations after the white heat of Industrial Revolution and decades on from the decline of deep coal mining, the populations of areas where coal-based industries dominated in the 19th century retain a “psychological adversity”.
Researchers suggest this is the inherited product of selective migrations during mass industrialisation compounded by the social effects of severe work and living conditions.