Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation 3

As in ceramics, so in coinage and roof-tiles, the late 5th Century sees a dramatic fall off in quantity, quality and in social diffusion. The roof-tiles are a useful indicator; even modest farm sheds would be protected by them, as state of affairs not to be attained again for several centuries. The lack of coins, however, bespeaks a multi-faceted collapse. Coins are the great facilitators of development. Coins tell us that goods move from place to place, and are exchanged by people who do not know each other and who would otherwise have no dealings. An economy with coinage can afford to specialise, and thus improve techniques in one area so as to produce more. The population can then grow, cities expand and a leisured class come into existence to create demand for luxuries that might soon become staples. After 476, Europeans became villagers, peasants and barterers again. I recently visited Tintagel, that evocative detached headland on the Cornish coast, an important seat of power of the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia in the 5th and 6th Centuries, long before the Arthurian stories were attached to it. Though there have been found some relics of pan-european exchange, not a single coin has emerged. Yet a 4th Century farmstead in Somerset yields 68 copper coins.

There are many other indicators of the sophistication of the Roman economy, some of them double-edged. There's the waste mountain of Monte Testaccio, where smashed amphorae and diotae (oil and grain containers) were tossed and gathered until they become a geographical entity. And (most contemporary of all, perhaps) there are the ice layers of the Arctic. Atmospheric pollution blows where the wind goes, and in the far north is collected in the snow, which falls, freezes, thaws in the summer before freezing once again. It can thus be dated. Lead and copper pollution from smelting lead, copper and silver, high during Roman period, fell dramatically not to rise again until the 16/17 Centuries.

Ward-Perkins, for the most part, has eyes for the objects of daily life, the objects bought, used and thrown away by ordinary people. They're the ones who felt most severely the limitations and privations of the new peasant economy after the passing of Rome; they were the most exposed to the prevailing conditions. This is especially so in those countries where economic sophistication came with the legions; areas such as Northern Europe and Britain. Here the blow was crippling - the British economy regressed far beyond the developing Celtic system of Britain BC; it was hurled back to the early Iron Age. The degree of regression was similar in Southern Europe, though there the starting point had been far more advanced, so they sank, but not so low.

Ward-Perkins does venture away from basic economic issues to deal with literacy, though always with regard to its social diffusion. Here Pompeii is a cornucopia of the minutia of ordinary life. He starts with this effusive piece of graffiti, “Here Phoebus the perfume-seller had a really good fuck”. There are many similar items of ephemera including electioneering posters and parodies of same, marks of ownership on household goods, the many remnants of Vindolanda with the handwriting of 100s of different people, and vast quantities from Egypt, including the papyrus receipt for payment of duty on 6 amphorae for entry into a small settlement in the Fayum. There is circumstantial evidence that most legionaries could read and write, and similarly that people in low-status rural sites had use for a stylus.

The point is always the same: that the material comforts of life were spread far more widely before Rome's demise than after. Ward-Perkins is conscientiously, fixedly materialistic in his analysis. He does not pronounce on the moral qualities of the Romans, on their spiritual status. He does not say that they were better people than the Celts, or the Visigoths, or the Alani. He does not reiterate what the Romans left behind for us to make use of, or laud the cultural achievements of their culture. This last is obvious, or should to anyone who doesn't a contemporary target to aim academic darts at. However, he demonstrates that the available evidence all points towards an economic cataclysm for ordinary folk like me and you. That what the Roman economy attained for its people is comparable to what our economy has given us. That its decline was no smooth transition to another, different, but not inferior, culture. It was a disaster, but would be as nothing compared to what would happen if we threw away what we have now.

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.

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