This week we’re going to start tackling a complex and much debated question: ‘how bad was the fall of Rome (in the West)?’ This was the topic that won the vote among the patrons of the ACOUP Senate. The original questions here were ‘what caused the loss of state capacity during the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West’ and ‘how could science fiction better reflect such a collapse or massive change?’ By way of answer, I want to boil those questions down into something a bit more direct: how bad was the fall of Rome in the West?
At first I thought I would try to answer that in a single post but it rapidly became apparent that giving a sufficient answer was going to require multiple weeks: my plan is for three parts. In part I (this part), I want to focus on culture, literature, language and religion (‘words’). In part II, we’ll then turn to look at states and government (‘institutions’), though this will also entail looking at the institutional part of religion, for reasons that will become clear as we get there. Then finally in part III, we’ll turn to look at economics and demographics (‘things and people’), the concrete realia of people’s lives. In all of these, we will mostly be focused on the western empire (with some gestures at the East), but I’ll note here (and no doubt repeatedly subsequently) that this is because the empire didn’t fall in the East, at least not any time remotely around the fifth century. The continued existence of the Eastern Roman Empire is a free, massive point that the change-and-continuity argument gets to score at the beginning of these debates for free, every time.
As will readily be apparent, that significance of that division of topics will be important because this is one of those questions where what you see depends very much on where you look, with scholars engaging with different topics often coming to wildly divergent conclusions about the impact and experience of the fall of Rome. And there is no way to really discuss that divergence (and my own view of it) without diving into the still active debate and presenting the different scholarly views in a sort of duel. I’ll be providing my own judgements, of course, but I intend here to ‘steelman’ each argument, presenting it in what I view as its strongest form; as will some become evident, I think there is some truth to both of the two major current scholarly streams of thought here.