The Roman Road to Capitalism and the Rise of the West

Historian Walter Scheidel claims to have found the surprising secret of Europe’s rise to world domination: the collapse of the Roman Empire. Scheidel’s work is an impressive, globe-trotting feat of scholarship, but his argument ultimately fails to convince.

Historian Walter Scheidel attributes the rise of the West to the long absence of any large empire from Europe after the decline of Rome. (Unsplash)

The question of how Europe and its North American offshoot came to dominate the world is of perennial interest to historians. The scholarly debate has produced many different explanations for why and when the West came to rule, from the rise of agrarian capitalism and the uneven development of powerful territorial states to the colonial expansion of Europe itself.

There are several reasons for this diversity of thought. The protagonists of the debate often work with different understandings of modernity, a concept that is hard to pin down. They also have to reckon with the fact that history rarely gives us unambiguous turning points to identify and analyze. Moreover, the various pathways to modernity in different parts of the world were not walled off from one another. Their reciprocal chains of influence make it harder to determine which factor was the crucial one.

Walter Scheidel has never been afraid to tackle the big historical questions in his work. Scheidel’s latest book, Escape from Rome, argues that Europe followed a linear and rather violent evolutionary path. According to Scheidel, the explanation for Western hegemony is simple: with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE, Europe could shake off the burden of political constraints and begin its lonely, long, and “painful” march toward modernity.

For Scheidel, the end of Rome paved the way toward what he calls “the First Great Divergence.” In answer to the old Monty Python gag, “What did the Romans ever do for us?” Scheidel proposes a simple answer: the most useful thing they ever did was get out of the way. The world as we know it, he believes, is the product of Rome’s eclipse.

Scheidel’s Vision of History

Walter Scheidel is, by training, a historian of the Roman world, who teaches ancient history at Stanford University. He is a highly original, not to say indefatigable, scholar, who has expanded his research interests over the past two decades into wider reaches of history, from the comparative study of ancient empires, slavery, and human welfare, to the applicability of neo-Malthusian and Darwinian theories to the past or the long-term evolution of economic inequality.

Before looking in detail at Escape from Rome, it may be worth briefly identifying his lasting achievements in an extended career of academic production on the subject of empire. Without oversimplifying Scheidel’s intellectual profile, we might see his big research questions in terms of three main overlapping lines of investigation: empire, equality, and economic development.

Scheidel’s primary interest is the comparative history of tributary empires. The central tenet of his thesis is that tributary empires, which emerged in those parts of the world where agriculture had first developed, caused the escalation of inequality. During the Paleolithic era (three hundred to one hundred thousand years ago), social and economic inequality had remained a sporadic and transient phenomenon. However, from the Holocene period onward, which lasted one hundred thousand years, there was a slow but uninterrupted transition to new modes of subsistence and new forms of social organization — agrarian and pastoral communities — that eroded the egalitarianism of foragers, replacing it with durable hierarchies and disparities in income and wealth.

The principal motor of this development was predatory extraction. The accumulation by certain emerging groups of plunder, tributes, and unfair taxes gave rise to what Scheidel calls the “original one percent.” This was a small minority of the entire population, made up of competing but often closely intertwined elite groups, all of which did their utmost to capture the political rents and commercial gains generated by state-building and imperial integration.

In the tributary empires, these elites were not interested in — or capable of — improving their own economic performance, since the primary thrust of their political and economic organization was to maintain their relentless control over the resources that were already available for appropriation. In turn, this exacerbated the existing social inequalities.

The longer it lasted, the more tributary empire — with its characteristic intertwining of political and economic power and its polarizing effects on society — proved to be an unstoppable engine of de-equalization.

The Four Horsemen

In his 2017 book The Great Leveler, Scheidel showed that there was no necessary correlation between economic growth and inequality. Inequality may increase in periods of economic growth or in phases of stagnation. Expanding on this point, Scheidel contended that any intervention designed to reduce inequality through the redistribution of accumulated wealth by nonviolent means has failed dramatically.

Civilization — however we define that term — does not lend to itself to peaceful equalization. The only forces that have been capable of reducing inequality are external and violent shocks. According to Scheidel, these shocks have played a crucial role in disrupting the established order and “compressing” the distribution of income and wealth.

Scheidel identifies four different kinds of violent rupture capable of leveling inequality, which he calls the “Four Horsemen”: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics. Historically, these factors have caused the death of hundreds of millions, and these peaks in mortality have leveled the gap between the haves and the have-nots — sometimes dramatically, as in the twentieth century — thus giving rise to what Scheidel calls the “Great Compression.”

Europe’s Imperial Interlude

In Escape from Rome, Scheidel moves from the “Great Compression” to the third big historical question, that of “the Rise of the West.” If tributary empires generated inequality, and if violent ruptures were the only means of reducing it, the question then arises: what caused the Great Divergence between Europe and the rest of the world?

Scheidel’s answer to the question is straightforward. He links all the different explanations that historians have advanced for the emergence of the West to the absence of any Roman-scale empire from much of Europe after the decline of Rome itself.

To Scheidel, it does not really matter what specific set of circumstances caused the Roman Empire to disintegrate in the way that it did. He focuses instead on the infrastructures that determined Rome’s exceptional strength in its heyday, before going on to ask why nothing like the Roman Empire ever returned to Europe.

For Scheidel, the secret of Roman imperial dominance lay in its organizational techniques. He transforms our understanding of the possibilities and realities of power under Rome’s hegemony — and the ways in which they changed after its fall — across a whole range of areas: the logistics of military mobility; the extent and quality of literacy; the technology of farming and the transport capacities of trade; the incidence and range of judicial control; and the pattern of fiscal revenues and expenditure.

The fiscal sinews of power played a major role in shaping the geopolitical landscape under the empire. As these causal connections between fiscalism and imperialism show, it would have been impossible to build a large empire like the Roman one without the centralized bundling of enough energy inputs in the form of material resources (taxation) or military labor (conscription).

This changed after the fall of Rome, however:

State capacity divorced from, and indeed became antithetical to, that very concept of imperialism-cum-fiscalism: a new type of extractive dynamic, focused on intrastate integration, and strategically developmental policies, had been born. Both traditional empire and predatory taxation had to wither first to make this evolution possible.

All subsequent attempts to restore something akin to the Roman Empire failed, whether those attempts were made by Europeans (from Charlemagne to the Hapsburgs) or non-European empires (from the Islamic empires to the Ottomans). Neither Napoleon nor Hitler could succeed in matching the reach of the Romans, even for a few years.

From Empire To Prosperity

The core of Scheidel’s argument is that Europe would not have developed in the way that it did if an imperial state had been in place: without the polycentrism created by Rome’s fall, neither modernity nor prosperity — two concepts that appear to be interchangeable in Scheidel’s usage — were possible. Post-Roman polycentrism in Europe was an enduring phenomenon that makes the Roman Empire the real exception in European history.

According to Scheidel, despotic, centralized imperial polities held the civilizations of Asia and Africa in thrall and kept their subjects in poverty. This prevented any forward movement toward modernity and economic development, with authoritarian decisions emanating from a corrupt, avaricious bureaucracy and ruling class.

The “European states system,” on the other hand, emerged quite early in post-Roman Europe. It then remained in place as a political mechanism that allowed Europe to enjoy all the advantages of unity with none of the disadvantages — as Scheidel perceives them — of an imperial political system.

Scheidel shows a marked preference for explanations rooted in politics and institutions. This is partly dictated by the failure of other Eurocentric scholars — including David Landes, Eric Jones, and Michael Mann — to prove that the forms of technological, economic, and cultural development that underpinned the rise of Europe were specific to that region. But he also wants to distinguish between political and economic factors. This allows Scheidel to differentiate between what he calls the “First Great Divergence” of the early Middle Ages, which unfolded in the political sphere, and the better established Great Divergence of the modern period, principally defined by a gulf in levels of economic productivity.

Even if the breakthrough in economic capacities and their spin-offs came only in the nineteenth century, for Scheidel they had very deep roots indeed, reaching far beyond the signs of modernizing development that had appeared over the previous two centuries. When it comes to the underlying dynamics, Scheidel concludes, “the long road to prosperity reached back to late antiquity,” to the moment when Europe escaped from Rome’s imperial yoke.

Scheidel’s central thesis is neither new nor original. There is a robust scholarly tradition, extending from Max Weber to contemporary figures like Ian Morris, which argues that the rise of Europe resulted from her exceptional political development, and that endemic intrastate conflicts and polycentrism were somehow natural in the European part of the world, but not in other regions. However, Scheidel’s book stands apart from previously published work by developing a much more comprehensive methodological approach, with a blend of comparative and counterfactual observations, as the author draws upon extensive reading and erudition to support his argument.

When it comes to Western Europe and China, he has consulted most of the relevant secondary literature. The book’s flaws lie elsewhere. I will list three main problems with Scheidel’s thesis that are all in some way related to a single idea. Although Scheidel eschews the old-fashioned, triumphalist narratives of Europe’s global mission, he still bases his view of the shape of history on a sense that Europe was anomalous in relation to the wider world.

Europe, China, and the Missing Rest

The first problem is the book’s binary approach to world history. Scheidel organizes it for the most part around a set of contrasts between Western Europe and China. He focuses on this duality because the Chinese imperial tradition was unusually resilient by world-historical standards and constitutes an ideal-typical counterpoint to the enduring polycentrism of post-Roman Europe.

However, specialists in Chinese history have argued that since China and Europe were both large and diverse regions, we should replace broad, generic comparisons between the two with more tightly focused studies of specific, comparable zones over clearly demarcated periods of time. They insist that such assessments give us a new picture of “divergence” between Europe and China. That divergence does not appear to have been a deep-rooted phenomenon, whether in its causes or its consequences, but rather a comparatively short-term one, arising from differences of political economy rather than political culture.

Scheidel’s treatment of the rest of the world is, at best, marginal when set against the comparison between Europe and China. West Asia occasionally appears, for example in connection with the beginnings of Islam, which Scheidel depicts as a uniform, monolithic political entity. This runs against the characterization of the region in recent specialist literature, which has emphasized its diversity and inherent complexity. Africa doesn’t feature at all, apart from the Maghreb, which Scheidel includes as a mere extension of Islamdom.

By Scheidel’s definition, South Asia may have been on a path toward developing a permanent competitive, multistate system not unlike that of Europe, but he does not explain why this process began or whether it was actually completed. If Scheidel was to venture into the fields of South Asian or African history, it would challenge the binary approach that characterizes the whole work, obliging the author to recognize that political development throughout the world has not been uniform or specific to a given area.

Empire was a widespread practice — indeed a default mode of political organization throughout most of history — rather than the original sin of non-European peoples. If we recognize this fact, it carries the implication that “empire” is a useful but loose descriptive category, not a rigid conceptual benchmark against which hypotheses can be examined. The political unit that usually stood opposed to empire, the autonomous polity, was equally widespread. Scheidel’s belief that it was peculiar to Europe cannot be sustained against the historical record.

Social and political forces similar to those operating in Europe were at work elsewhere, and non-imperial governments ruled over many non-European societies, from kingdoms large and small to city-states with various forms of governance that were really under the control of merchant communities. There were even a few republics. European and non-European societies often went through comparable stages of development until the time when colonial conquest by the former stunted the potential of the latter for independent growth and disrupted their historical trajectory.

History Without Alternatives

The second problem with Scheidel’s argument lies in his embrace of a teleological and evolutionary view of history. This means that all of his counterfactual speculations point in one direction. The historian examines a wide range of well-documented factors that in his view decisively blocked the reemergence of a true hegemonic empire in Europe after the demise of Rome.

However, his approach ensures that there is no plausible way of telling the story that could lead to such an outcome. Scheidel takes it for granted Europe was always heading in a particular direction and doesn’t examine any evidence that might suggest otherwise. He looks in European history for those factors that he thinks explain its later development, and then leaves everything else out.

In other words, Scheidel’s argument is that whatever happened had to happen, and had to happen in precisely the way that it did. The rule he has established at the beginning of his investigation precludes any meaningful exploration of alternative paths. In reality, any account that does not work through and dismiss the possibility of alternate outcomes, or the likelihood of the same outcome being reproduced if a key event worked out differently, is at risk of slipping into determinism.

In fact, when one changes a single important variable in the historical process, it soon becomes impossible to control the subsequent course of events. The longer the causal chain, the thinner and weaker the connections are from one link to another. The greater the number of steps we take from the original event, the less likely it is that things will have followed the same course in this hypothetical scenario as they did in the actual one. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that the mind — even the sharp mind of an historian like Scheidel — can reconstruct a chain of intermediary events that appear to lead toward an ultimate result.

Escape From Marx and Back To Darwin

The third and final problem concerns the motor of historical change. In contrast with those who like to think that progress can be achieved in peace and harmony, Scheidel argues that the story of Europe remains an account of failures, anomalies, and unsuccessful attempts to build a hegemonic empire.

He believes that the painful transition from weak and fragmented medieval polities to more centralized and increasingly capable early modern states was in large part driven by warfare. Polycentrism and the pressures of war proved to be conducive to commercial development, as competition opened polities up to new influences and experiments in the forms of conquest, colonialism, and finally capitalist expansion.

This sharp emphasis on persistent intrastate conflicts as a transformative force brings Scheidel’s historical sociology much closer to neo-Darwinian evolutionism (something that he explicitly acknowledges). In this context, the dynamic element in evolution is not the adjustment of biological species to a given environment but the conflict of sociocultural species with one another through warfare. This approach also marks a return to an earlier, late Victorian tradition of evolutionary social thought that gave pride of place to “the survival of the fittest.”

But Scheidel overlooks the fact that the violence inflicted by European states on non-European peoples was a function of capitalist development rather than an early medieval inheritance. There was a qualitative escalation in the capacity of European states to inflict violence on the rest of the world as a result of such development, on a much higher level than, for example, the medieval Crusader armies that stormed into the Middle East.

The violent nature of capitalist expansion — in the successive forms of commercial and industrial capital — means that we cannot think of political and economic powers in isolation from one another as different stages of a linear historical process. This renders Scheidel’s crucial argument about a link between the two Great Divergences untenable.

There was no linear evolution from the political organization of early medieval Europe to the modern development of the world economy. Instead, we can identify diverse trajectories in various parts of the world that generated short-term gaps in economic productivity. These regional divergences did not exist and evolve in isolation: they exercised a strong influence on each other, overlapping and intermingling across time.

Any reader will have to acknowledge the vast erudition that Scheidel displays in Escape from Rome. He matches the ambition of the book’s conception with the clarity and grandeur of its delivery. The result is a stimulating, thought-provoking work that will be of interest to professional and lay readers alike.

However, there are good reasons to disagree with some of the theses Scheidel advances. His search for a single overarching explanation for one of history’s most challenging conundrums ultimately falls short. We will be debating the causes of the Great Divergence for a long time yet — even if we reach a point where that divergence itself has become a page in the history books.

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Paolo Tedesco teaches history at the University of Tübingen. His main research interests include the social and economic history of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, comparative agrarian history, the fate of the peasantry across different types of societies, and historical materialism.

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