Sep 28, 2006

End of a Civilization

Interesting quotes from Bryan Ward-Perkins. Ward-Perkins is the author of The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford University Press, 2005) and winner of the 2006 Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History.
... in every single area of the empire (except perhaps the Levantine provinces conquered by the Arabs) there was an extraordinary fall in what archaeologists term “material culture.” The scale and quality of buildings, even of churches, shrank dramatically—so that, for instance, tiled roofs, which were common in Roman times even in a peasant context, became a great rarity and luxury.
It was blindingly obvious to me, working on an archaeological site like ancient Luna—where all the great Roman buildings were abandoned and torn down in the 4th and 5th centuries, to be replaced by very simple wooden houses— that something very dramatic happened at the end of the Roman world, something which can reasonably be called the “end of a civilization.”
In the 6th and 7th-century West the vast majority of people lived in tiny houses with beaten earth floors, drafty wooden walls, and insect-infested thatch roofs; whereas, in Roman times, people from the same level of society might well have enjoyed the comfort of solid brick or stone floors, mortared walls, and tiled roofs.
What is so striking about the fall of Rome is the collapse of material sophistication that ensued. This happened, I believe, precisely because the Roman world was not entirely dissimilar to our own: complex economies are very fragile because they rely on hugely sophisticated networks of production and distribution. If these are seriously disrupted, widely and over a long period of time, the entire house of cards can collapse.
...sophistication in intellectual life generally requires solid economic underpinning.
The Romans, like us, enjoyed the fruits of a complex economy, both material and intellectual. And like us, they assumed their world would go on forever.

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