Published by EH.Net (March 2020)
Walter Scheidel, Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. xvii + 670 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-17218-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Peter Temin, Department of Economics, MIT.

Walter Scheidel says in his acknowledgements that he proposed to write a short book on this topic, but he ended up with this long book. He seems to have written two books, as suggested by his subtitle: one about the fall of the Roman Empire and one about the Industrial Revolution. His aim is to connect these two events in a monocausal stream. In his words (p. 27): “Only Western Europe and its offshoots fit the bill: had our “Great Escape” [Industrial Revolution] not begun there, it would most likely not have happened at all.”

Many empires fell, but there was only one Industrial Revolution. It is hard to pin down the cause of unique inventions, such as the alphabet. Scheidel also claims that the modern cotton industry was caused by events almost two millennia earlier. This is a big book about “big” history; it is — as Scheidel freely admits — a hypothesis rather than a proof.

Scheidel’s ambition reminds me of another book by an ancient historian. Martin Goodman argued in Rome and Jerusalem (Random House, 2008) that a military mistake during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE led to the Holocaust two millennia later. These interesting books are not proposing economic hypotheses that can be tested with big data. They instead are directing us to understand how history — even ancient history — affects the world we live in.

Scheidel summarizes his 500-page book as follows: “I wrote this book to establish … two simple points: that interlocking forms of productive fragmentation were of paramount importance and indeed indispensable in creating the specific set of conditions that gave birth to modernity, and that the divergences that precipitated this outcome in only one part of the world but not in others were highly robust (p. 27).” Alternatively, why did Europe rather than China have an industrial revolution?

Scheidel surveys Roman economic history in Part II of the book, to which he has contributed a great deal, particularly on demography. His sources are many, and his footnotes guide anyone who wants to know more. He concludes his survey with a foray into counterfactual history, where he asks if Roman dominance could have been thwarted by another ancient state. As usual in these intellectual exercises, it is hard to get away from the idea that the history we know was inevitable.

Scheidel asks why other European empires did not arise on the ruins of the Roman Empire in Part III. For example, he notes that a Frankish empire was prevented by the practice of dividing kingdoms among the king’s sons (p. 158). It sounds like the aftermath of Alexander the Great. And it contrasts with the Roman Empire where Vespasian, after seizing power in the chaos that followed Nero’s death, was succeeded in turn by his two sons, Titus and Domitian. Scheidel does not ask if the system of land-holding was determinative, long-lasting and the unappreciated secret of why empires rose and fell. He summarizes his position and his thematic approach to empire longevity at the end of Part III (pp. 212-15).

Scheidel finally gets to the West and China in Part IV, and he summarizes his position in two figures, Figures 8.1 and 8.2, on a single page (p. 262) which contrast the mountains of Europe with the fertile steppes of China. The fall of the centralized Roman Empire fades from view to be replaced the ephemeral Holy Roman Empire that succeeded it. Economic historians will recognize this as posing an identification problem. Did the failure of the Roman Empire cause the mountains to rise? Or did the mountains make it close to impossible for the Roman Empire to be duplicated later?

Scheidel appears to agree that the latter choice identifies his view. But Part III, as just discussed, presents all kinds of reasons why no empires grew on the ruins of the Roman Empire, but geography is not one of them. Was the absence of new European empires due to the mountainous geography — as suggested in Part IV — or to the legacy of Rome — as suggested in Part III? If we follow Part IV, why is Rome in the story at all? If we follow Part III, why isn’t European geography important in the narrative of medieval Europe? One way out of this apparent loss of focus would have been to stress the maritime activities of the Roman Empire and the gains from trade. Rome as an open economy only served as a model for other empires when the Atlantic trade opened up many centuries later.

Part V continues the story by presenting Scheidel’s synthesis of the literature on how early modern warfare and competition generated the cotton textile industry. (He fails to mention the steam engine.) He then turns to Chinese history that most Western economic historians do not know to sharpen the contrast between competitive European states and Chinese empires. His point is that the Chinese took good care of their citizens but did not encourage innovation.

Scheidel turns to trade and knowledge in Part V. He sings praises of trade and argues that China suffered from a lack of international trade. Then he outlines a short course on the Industrial Revolution by discussing what seems like the entire recent literature on the subject. Scheidel discusses the effects of an open society as opposed to the closed society of China in his last chapter. Finally, he discusses trade in the Roman Empire in an Epilogue, as I suggested earlier, arguing that trade increased incomes of ordinary people but did not lead to a Roman industrial revolution.

Escape from Rome is a well-written survey of an enormous literature on the history of the world. If you have time to read 500 pages, it is fun and interesting to read. Economic historians might want to start with Part IV to evaluate Scheidel’s thesis. My summary is that this is an admirable book that would have benefited from an additional edit which included the current Epilogue in Part IV. Whether Rome had to rise and fall before we could have an Industrial Revolution remains speculative and worthy of discussion after reading through Scheidel’s history and counterfactual speculations.

Peter Temin is Professor Emeritus of Economics, MIT, and the author of The Roman Market Economy (Princeton, 2013) and “Words and Numbers: A New Approach to Writing Ancient History,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 50 (1), 31-58 (2019).

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