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The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad (theatlantic.com)
80 points by diodorus 39 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 125 comments



I realize I don't have the chops to argue against a professional historian, but here's what I'm seeing:

The period after the fall of the Roman Empire is often called "The Dark Ages," though a lot of revisionists try to make us think this wasn't nearly as ominous as it sounds. OK, we know that time wasn't called "dark" because the Sun failed to shine; it's called "dark" because we have a dearth of historical information about it.

What does this tell us? The Greco-Roman civilization produced truckloads of books on all topics of interest; there were libraries both public and private, and schools to support general literacy, often bilingual, among the upper class, at least. A good part of the literature from that age survived the multiple sackings and burnings of Rome, etc.

In the Dark Ages, on the other hand, literacy was heavily monopolized by the clergy, and a preponderance of new books dealt with theology. It's a period where even many kings signed an "X" for their names. A period where intellectual energy went into religious ruminations and little else. A period of intellectual barbarism, in other words. A thousand years of barely any scientific progress.

In another top-level comment, user "causality1" mentions a large handful of side effects of this intellectual decline, including decreases in population, life expectancy, trade, infrastructure and technology. Unlike the author, I believe a decline in a whole slew of markers of societal functionality is bad indeed.


All history is revisionist. Those dark ages were so called because of people who called their time the enlightenment, throwing a little shade at their past to make themselves seem all the brighter.


Revisionist? Are you saying it wasn't a period of intellectual stagnation for the many reasons detailed in the comment you're responding to?


I don't know if drewcoo is saying that, but I certainly am. There was plenty of intellectual stagnation during the Roman Empire, and plenty of progress during the Middle Ages. The claim that the Roman Empire was so enlightened while the Middle Ages were stagnation, is revisionism.


The term was coined during the Renaissance...


Exactly, the article tries to say it was a good thing because it was the time that modern national identities emerged (Spanish vs. French, etc.), but it is questionable if that was really a good thing. While the EU (minus Britain unless there's a last minute saving) is a thing, wouldn't it have been better if Europe never culturally fractured in the first place?


> "wouldn't it have been better if Europe never culturally fractured in the first place?"

It would have been better for the people living at the time, but probably not for us. It's that diversity in different nations, different cultures, different forms of government and different ideas, that drove progress.

Compare China, which has been mostly unified for that period of time. Despite starting out as the most powerful country on Earth, it was eventually overtaken by European countries. A famous example is how China built a massive fleet ready to colonise the world in the 14th century, but then a new emperor came alone who decided there was nothing of interest outside China. In Europe, if one country wouldn't be interested in something, another would. That diversity and competition was probably why Europe eventually overtook China. Though there are benefits to both approaches: as long as you can avoid stagnation, there can also be a lot of efficiency in a single central government.


I'm not a historian either, but historians of the Dark Ages always come across as weirdly defensive about the era.


If people who have more information on a topic become "defensive" against viewpoints from people with less information, on first glance I'd trust the former group better.


If I'm sure of something, I don't become defensive when I argue my side. I just argue my side. (Maybe this is what historians of the period are doing, but it doesn't come always come across that way to me.)


> "In the Dark Ages, on the other hand, literacy was heavily monopolized by the clergy, and a preponderance of new books dealt with theology. It's a period where even many kings signed an "X" for their names. A period where intellectual energy went into religious ruminations and little else. A period of intellectual barbarism, in other words. A thousand years of barely any scientific progress."

Careful there. You quickly move from what's true and run into what's false in that paragraph. Yes, literacy was down, but it was absolutely not a thousand years of barely any scientific progress.

A lot of important advancements stem from the early middle ages: windmills, water mills, pumps, many agricultural improvements. And if you want to look at a 1000 years (from 500 to 1500?), you're going to have to include steel metallurgy, gothic architecture, and the renaissance, the introduction of Arabic (Indian) numerals, the invention of gunpowder, and many others.

There may have been a lot of problems with that period, but claiming there was barely any scientific progress smacks of Voltairian revisionism.


Well, I'm basing that particular claim on the published opinion of a professional academic historian of science.

If you or anyone else interested has a lot of free time, you may want to skim these pages by Dr. Richard Carrier:

http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2006/11/science-and-medie...

http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/search/label/history%20of...

https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/14660

Unfortunately, especially the first two links are into his blogs and challenge the reader to wade through a whole lot of polemic. The third one, though, makes for interesting general reading.

In the second link, he explicitly addresses a list of advancements allegedly from the early Middle Ages. I did some rather superficial research on the first three items you mentioned: windmills and water mills and pumps. Lo and behold, all three were known and in use in the Roman Empire or well before the period Carrier focuses on, to wit, 200-1200.

Admittedly, his focused time frame is shifted a bit from that of the discussion here in HN: We're talking about what happened after the Roman Empire tanked, while he's arguing against claims that Christianity was a boon to science.


You're not kidding about that polemic. He's projecting quite a lot of personal opinion on this. In any case, he's a professional academic historian of science. He makes it clear right at the start that there are people who disagree with him. I'm not surprised that there are people who think his way; it has been the dominant view since Voltaire at least. But that doesn't mean it's correct. It intentionally ignores many advances made during the early middle ages, because it needs to ignore those advances in order to make its claim. The simple fact that there were many advances in the fields of engineering, metallurgy, architecture, transportation, mathematics and others, easily proves he's wrong.

I'm probably mistaken about watermills, but I don't see any mention of Roman wind mills in your links, and I know those were used in the 10th century to drain swamps. Gothic architecture, with its glass walls and flying buttresses, started in the 12th century, and explicitly did not call back to Roman architecture; to the contrary: it replaced the existing Romanesque architecture. In mathematics, there's the Hindu-Arabic numerals, which, during the period from 500-1200 AD, found their way from India to Europe.

Of course if by "science" you mean very specifically philosophising in the style of Plato, you're right that Europeans rediscovered that later in the Middle Ages. But that's more of a regression in science than a resurgence of it. In fact, some of those ancient Greek ideas that held back science in some cases. For example: the idea that Earth is at the center of the solar system while other planets revolve around it in complex patterns of circles in circles. Even Galileo, who championed heliocentrism, held on to the Platonic ideal of circular orbits, and the church rejected it because it did not fit observations (the ultimate scientific reason). Only with Kepler's elliptic orbits (which Galileo ridiculed) did they let go of that Platonic idea.

I'm not saying the Romans didn't do anything or the Middle Ages were the high point of science, just that the traditional view of the Middle Ages as a scientific dead zone, and that Christianity is to blame for that, is nonsense. It's not objective history, it's projecting a very specific agenda onto history.

I'm also not arguing that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire had no negative consequences: it was devastating for trade, and therefore also to the spread of ideas, including new scientific discoveries. But that lack of trade forced communities to be more self-sufficient on a local level, which spurred innovations which weren't needed in Roman times, necessity being the mother of invention.


advances made during the early middle ages, because it needs to ignore those advances in order to make its claim. The simple fact that there were many advances in the fields of engineering, metallurgy, architecture, transportation, mathematics and others

I would specifically question the argument that were "significant advances" in mathematics in the area of the former Western Empire in the early medieval period. There were advances in the Islamic lands, but Western Europe was mostly stuck with Boethius's 6th Century summaries. The Arabic/Islamic advances (and the rediscovery of much of ancient Greek mathematics) did not really spread to Western Europe until the 12th Century, when you start getting translations into Latin of mathematicians like Euclid and al-Khwarizmi.


the church rejected it because it did not fit observations (the ultimate scientific reason).

No, the Church rejected heliocentrism because it clashed with scripture, and because Giordano Bruno had promoted it, so they associated it with heresy. Their argument was that it was OK to use heliocentric models purely as calculational devices, as long as one did not attempt to argue that it somehow reflected reality. The Church did not begin to formally accept heliocentrism until the 1750s, when they dropped the general prohibition against heliocentric books. The prohibition against Copernicus's book De Revolutionibus was only rescinded in 1835.


That the church rejected heliocentrism because it clashed with scripture is a common misinterpretation. It had nothing to do with scripture, and indeed scripture says nothing definitive about it in a way that would trump observation. The church did not have a problem with heliocentrism before Galileo started picking fights over it, and it seriously considered Galileo's model. Galileo's model did not match the observations of the time though, because Galileo insisted on circular orbits, which was wrong. (Who knows what would have happened if his model had been shown to match observations?) When Kepler proposed a model with elliptical orbits, Galileo even ridiculed that idea.

Once Galileo had fallen out of favour with the pope for insulting him (in a book that was supposed to be an evenhanded comparison of geocentrism and heliocentrism, he had a character called "Simplicio" repeat arguments that the pope had used), he got investigated for that, and eventually got house arrest. It's entirely possible a heresy charge got piled on top at some point, but that's not how it started; the pope was entirely willing to consider heliocentrism. And Galileo was not the first to propose it either.

Perhaps it should be mentioned that Kepler actually had religious reasons for proposing his heliocentric model, believing the sun to represent Jesus, around which the universe revolves. That didn't stop him from using observation, and thus science, to perfect his model.

Many of these people held what we now would consider pseudoscientific beliefs: Galileo insisted on the Platonic idea of circular orbits, Kepler was an astrologer, Newton had some weird alchemical ideas. And many, many important scientists have been devout Christians. That never stopped them from advancing science.


That the church rejected heliocentrism because it clashed with scripture is a common misinterpretation.

No, it's the simple truth, as the Church and other documents from the time attest.

Galileo's model did not match the observations of the time

Galileo did not have his own model of the heavens; he was a proponent of Copernicus's heliocentric model, which gave predictions approximately as accurate (or inaccurate) as those of the Ptolemaic model. Galileo's observations of the phases of Venus, however, did render the Ptolemaic model untenable, as most astronomers admitted once they had confirmed Galileo's observations themselves. After that, the debate was between heliocentrism and various neo-geocentric models, like Tycho Brahe's.

Galileo may well have offended the Pope with the character of Simplicius, but that character appeared in the book Dialog Concerning the Two World Systems, which was published in 1632. Copernicus's De Revolutionibus was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, along with other heliocentric texts, 16 years earlier, in 1616. (This was also the time of the Inquisition's first investigation of Galileo, for promulgating doctrines contrary to scripture.)

The official Church decree of 5 March 1616 read, in part: "This Holy Congregation has also learned about the spreading and acceptance by many of the false Pythagorean doctrine, altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture, that the earth moves and the sun is motionless, which is also taught by Nicholaus Copernicus's On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres and by Diego de Zuñiga's On Job. This may be seen from a certain letter published by a certain Carmelite Father, whose title is Letter of the Reverend Father Paolo Foscarini, on the Pythagorean and Copernican Opinion of the Earth's Motion and Sun's Rest and on the New Pythagorean World System (Naples: Lazzaro Scoriggio, 1615), in which the said Father tries to show that the above-mentioned doctrine of the sun's rest at the center of the world and the earth's motion is consonant with the truth and does not contradict Holy Scripture. Therefore, in order that this opinion may not creep any further to the prejudice of Catholic truth, the Congregation has decided that the books by Nicolaus Copernicus (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) and Diego de Zuñiga (On Job) be suspended until corrected; but that the book of the Carmelite Father Paolo Antonio Foscarini be completely prohibited and condemned; and that all other books which teach the same be likewise prohibited..."

("Corrected" in this case means with their heliocentric content censored.)

See the following for more of the background: http://copernicus.torun.pl/en/revolution/reception/2/ https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1989JHA....20....1W/abstra...


James Fallows is not a "professional historian", he's a journalist. Go ahead and argue with him; this is a very confused and silly article.


Ah, sorry about muddling that up. I understand that Fallows is a journalist, but he looks to be distilling the ideas of "real" historians including Peter Brown and Walter Scheidel. So to my way of thinking (and arguing), Fallows is just the proxy (facade? I suck at design patterns) for those guys.


Peter Brown and Walter Scheidel are indeed real historians (Brown of "Late Antiquity" and Scheidel of the Roman Empire). Not everything they're quoted as saying is necessarily that solid, though. For example, if Scheidel is really attributing "the dawn of the university" to the fall of the Western Empire, then he's eliding about seven or eight hundred years. (Fall of Western Empire: 5th Century; dawn of universities: 12th or 13th Century.)


One thing that this analysis ignores is how the Roman Catholic Church stepped in and filled a lot of the void left by the collapse of the Roman administrative state. Although, the various Germanic kingdoms fought each other, by the time the Roman Empire fell, they had all converted to Latin Catholic Christianity. Because, of this the Roman Catholic Church could serve a unifying purpose and hold in check the worst impulses of an individual kingdom.

Now, there is no such authority. Maybe 10 years ago, we could have thought that multilateral institutions like the UN, EU, IMF, World Bank, NATO, etc could step up, now, if anything, those institutions might have more of a credibility gap than the US.

The collapse of the American "Empire" would be very painful for everyone, not least Western Europe.


> Maybe 10 years ago, we could have thought that multilateral institutions like the UN, EU, IMF, World Bank, NATO, etc could step up, now, if anything, those institutions might have more of a credibility gap than the US.

I'm skeptical. Fundamentally, the all of civilization is built on the rule of law, and the rule of law is built on enforcement.

The UN is nothing without the mailed gauntlet the US brings to the table. IMF/World Bank depends on international law, they can't enforce it.

The EU/NATO has the same problem as the UN. I suppose many of the EU countries have a functional military, but they just can't project power.


> The EU/NATO has the same problem as the UN. I suppose many of the EU countries have a functional military, but they just can't project power.

Only the UK and France have relevant militaries within the EU Nations as far as I'm concerned. Or at least they're the only ones with nukes - Germany's conventional forces might qualify otherwise.

And you need some sort of retaliatory strike capability to really take a seat at the big boys table. (Which they both do, with their SSBNs)


Germany's army is barely functional.

What we need is a small, well trained and equipped, EU army and a disbanding of the national armies. It makes no sense that each EU member has their own army.


> What we need is a small, well trained and equipped, EU army and a disbanding of the national armies. It makes no sense that each EU member has their own army.

I understand why someone who wants to create a "united states of europe" would want that, but why would the member countries ever agree to that?


Money? It'd cost less than 1 army each.


It also gives them none of their sovereignty a national army does.

In fact it lets 27 others co-decide on their economy, social policy, foreign policy, and so on, with some top dogs like Germany getting undue influence, the very top dogs individual countries fought hard to push back in two worlds wars...


The alternative is Britain and France asking for American help in Libya because they can’t actually even do the things they want to do. Regardless of the utility or desirability of action in Libya.


Well, Britain and France have no reason being in Libya, besides plundering resources, and turning a stable, albeit autocratic regime, into a hell-hole of instability, civil war, and fundamentalism...


>What we need is a small, well trained and equipped, EU army and a disbanding of the national armies.

So that the people of European nations would give up the sovereignty their ancestors and them fought hard to gain, for a bureaucratic federal scheme nobody asked for (it was built and promoted by bureaucrats and force-fed with promises, threats, and bribes) that prioritizes the top dogs (Germany, to a lesser degree France) to smaller countries detriment?


Ultimately, the EU (if it survives) will be something like the US. Where the substates have some sovereignty, but major decisions (such as military ones) are at the federal level.


No, so that Europeans don't pay extra taxes for duplicate stuff. It's not like France will invade Spain anytime soon. There is no point of both having armies.


>It's not like France will invade Spain anytime soon.

Well, Europeans powers fought twice among them in the 20th century. And in its beginning many said the exact same thing (there was even a popular book called "The Great Illusion" about how a great war in Europe is no longer conceivable, because peace and commerce). Similarly, after the collapse of the USSR a Japanese-American thinker smugly wrote about the 'End of history'. We saw how that turned out...

The main reason Europeans powers have stopped in-fighting in the latter part of the 20th century is because they were devastated by the previous wars, in the process of losing their colonial empires (and like Britain, France, etc) and so had their concerns elsewhere, e.g. France in "Indochina". Some were also under control (from USSR), and Germany was split into two and under US and USSR supervision. The power balance had shifted between the US and USSR, so there was little at stake for the European powers to fight, even if they had the might.

If more things get at stake, including after long and deep recessions, perceived or real threats to sovereignty, resources, etc, in a troubled climate-change-hit late 21st century, all bets are off.

>No, so that Europeans don't pay extra taxes for duplicate stuff.

The EU only makes sense if it's a shared political and cultural vision (which at the moment it's not).

If European countries want to avoid "extra taxes" and want to think of their economic interest, then should probably do the inverse, and split from the EU (keeping only the trade deals), so that they have their own local currency they can control, instead of a currency that's tuned to Germany's economy (or to some compromise that either hurts the weak economies or the strong ones).


Yes, these cross-national committee-based institutions tend to be cost-effective and efficient.


No, we need each EU country to realize that they all need to have a functioning army that all train together and all contribute to a force that can possibly defend the EU together. Maybe we could standardize a lot of equipment across the armies, but why would we want a general EU army? Who would be in control of it? The possibility of an unelected comission ending up with control is unacceptable IMHO.


In essence, this is more or less what NATO is, and it does standardize a lot of equipment across different forces and provide a chain of command.

If NATO didn’t exist though, the other guy is right: you want one military with one chain of command. The more fractured you guys are, the more ineffective any kind of unified military you create will be because you have to convince Frenchmen and Spaniards it is worth dying for Poles and Hungarians and vice versa.


The existence of separate political/economic (EU/EEC) and political/military (NATO) unions in Europe is remarkably dissonant.


A reminder that the members of the EU Commission are proposed by the collective ministers of all European governments, appointed by the group of all EU Heads of Govt (prime ministers/presidents) and ratified by the EU Parliament (directly elected).

It's as unelected as the US Supreme Court is - which means - technically unelected, but definitely reflective of the wishes of the electorate via the people they elect to populate it.


This is absolutely will be blocked by UK and other right-wing and euro-sceptical parties in Euro Parlament. USA will also oppose it with all possible means.

I think it's one of their greatest fears ( Russia, Turkey, USA)


And this is exactly why a lot of Europe sees Brexit as potentially positive in the long term, even if it is painfull in the short term: The UK is the main blocker to further political unification of the EU.


Maybe. Views of the EU were more negative in French polling than in the U.K. in 2016. Holding a referendum on Frexit was one of Le Pen’s campaign promises. (She lost, but still got 1/3 of the vote.) Further political unification may or may not make France more pro-EU.


Macron admitted in 2018 that the French would probably have voted to leave in a UK-style referendum.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/21/emmanuel-macro...


I think most people feel something is wrong with the EU. But this is apart of it: Is it an economical union, or a step towards a fully integrates US-like country. For now it tries to be both,and succeeds in neither. But removing the UK shifts the power balance in this story, and that influences the vote.


Maybe the next fundamental step for humanity is detaching rule of law from physical enforcement at a macro level. This has already happened at the individual level. Most people treat their neighbor with respect, not because they fear arrest or a vengeful God, but because we've internalized that we're all better off when we treat each other better.

It's similar to getting off of the gold and silver standard. Money used to mean something because it was backed by a physical good. What we learned is that humans can operate at the macro level based on abstractions instead. Rule of law doesn't have to be backed by physical violence.


The EU is not interested in projecting military force. They're interested in economy, trade, and human rights. And economically, the EU is doing fairly well, though I suppose it could be more effective in leveraging their economic trade power to improve human/civil rights outside their border.


I'm skeptical of your idea that the UN is "nothing" without the US military. I think you overestimate what the US contributes. I'm also skeptical that it's beneficial to "project power", which I assume means has military bases in their country and parks a carrier somewhere near them.


It might not be anything with the US military.

This is a serious question: what has the UN successfully accomplished in the last 20 years?


What has the Roman Empire ever done for us?


Obligatory link:

"Monty Python: What have the romans ever done for us?"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7tvauOJMHo



For one, the major task of implementing a single currency shared by a big number of the world's richest nations.


>the Roman Catholic Church could serve a unifying purpose and hold in check the worst impulses of an individual kingdom.

When they weren’t actively inciting and promoting those worst impulses in the service of their own ends, that is.


Exactly which Germanic kingdoms do you mean? The Frisians did not convert until after 754 AD (when they killed Saint Boniface - Bonifatius - after he managed to upset them, probably doing stuff like cutting down their holy oak).

The Frisians were never properly incorporated into the Roman empire to begin with, just like many other northern Germanic kingdoms.

As for the EU having a credibility gap, we're doing just fine, thank you very much.


I could imagine in the future American empire being divided into many states who are at war with themselves suffering same fate as Europe


I can’t. There’s a solidarity among the states that European countries don’t have. We all speak the same language, use the same websites, listen to the same music, and watch the same movies. We’re not just going to start killing each other.


It can happen here. Neighbors in the former Yugoslavia socialized together and got along well until the day they didn’t. I suggest the graphic novel “Safe Area Gorazde” for an account of this.

Also, it happened here once before.


Peter Zeihan, a geopolitical author, has had a long running thesis that after the end of the cold war, the US no longer has a motivation to maintain the post WWII order of multilateralism and ensuring the safety of global free trade with its navy. The current administration has only accelerated that timeline. The end result, he claims, will be nations acting more like nations have always acted which unfortunately means more conflict. The US will simply watch from afar and swoop in when its interests are directly threatened. So in his opinion, it very much is NOT the US falling, but simply withdrawing because the economic order it used to bribe most of the world to be allied against the USSR no longer makes sense.


An alliance without a definite enemy is a sad state of affairs.

Russia was an existential threat to the United States in a way that the PRC simply isn’t. They’re more of a threat to their immediate neighbors than anything, and near as I can tell they just want US to back off and let them be, let them have Taiwan, do what they want with Hong Kong and Macau, and let them assert a local hegemony. I don’t want to see Korea, Japan, Vietnam, or others to fall under a PRC hegemony, and Americans don’t necessarily want that either, but it’s a tough ask of my countrymen to continue to allocate resources to maintaining the world order in a sort of stasis when that proposition is increasingly expensive, bad for business and we we have strong isolationist tendencies. The post-WWII order was the exception, not the norm for American sentiments.

Charles Krauthammer wrote in the wake of the collapse of the Cold War when we weren’t sure what the hell we were going to do as a country that it was actually pretty obvious: we would move from a bipolar world to a global order of American dominance, and if we were lucky, it would last about 30 years or so. Krauthammer[1] hasn’t lived to see how that turned out, but we’re creeping up on the end of that third decade.

[1] Krauthammer 1) has about the coolest name for a Jewish man to have and 2) was a guest on Bill Kristol’s podcast “Conversations with Bill Kristol” where he gave an excellent interview in 2015. I highly recommend giving it a listen.


> and let them assert a local hegemony

Why would they stop at local hegemony? The Chinese don't dream small scale. Without opposition; anyone would be happy seizing global hegemony. I'm not saying anyone should do anything in particular about it but the only reason China only talks about local hegemony is because anything else would get the US involved.

If the PRC maneuvers into a position where they are bigger and stronger than the United States they could become an existential threat in a way that the Soviets never really were, and they'll probably look for global hegemony if it is a possible option.


They might not stop there, my statement was more a comment on the prevailing attitude in the PRC today, or at least its leadership. I’m not convinced they have any kind of grand plan to secretly assert a global Chinese hegemony just as soon as these pesky Americans get out of the way, to be honest I’m not sure that even with the means, they would have the political fortitude to do anything other than clamp down on criticism of themselves.

What we are learning from the last 30 years is that no one, really, has the ability and/or the will yet to assert any kind of global hegemony and sustain it for much longer than a decade or two. Certainly not the Chinese yet, but maybe in another couple of decades?

If America withdraws substantially, at least in spirit if not in forces deployed anytime in the near future, then we enter a multipolar world again, filled with Great Powers rather than one or two dominant powers. It is possible we are already undergoing this shift and haven’t fully realized it yet. What happens after is anyone’s guess, but I don’t think anyone should want to live in a world where there are multiple competing powers for dominance and where nukes also exist. Seeing the Chinese step into a space that America vacates would almost be a relief in a way if it were to happen, even if I would prefer to see the US continue to fill that space.


How does China’s heavy investment in Africa and Eastern Europe fit into the thesis that they only want to be local hegemons? I believe they’ve even setup naval bases in some of these nations.


And the New Silk Road project is aiming to connect this interests, while pulling those west Asian countries into their political sphere.


Jobs program.

It’s either that or keep building cities for no one.

Let me clarify one thing though, I don’t believe they want to assert a global hegemony, but under US pressure they might feel they have no choice but to try to counterbalance us. That would theoretically lead us back to a bipolar world where the PRC takes the place of the USSR.

Here’s the problem with that theory though. No one is taking Russia’s place, and Russia has more nukes and more domestic issues which is saying something. The PRC nuclear arsenal isn’t comparable to the USA’s nuclear arsenal, and the Japanese while not a declared nuclear power, have the capability to be a nuclear power in very short order. So no one is taking the USA’s place either, least of all China under any government when they’re flanked by: Russia, Japan, India, Pakistan, and for an extra dose of fun, an Afghanistan which will soon be back under the Taliban, officially.

At the end of the Cold War, the difference between the #1 and #2 economy was so great that it wasn’t even close. Right now our closest competitors have even more problems than we do, and we went ahead and exhausted a lot of strength and political will to act on the foreign stage fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Right now the President of the United States is making peace with the bloody Taliban! After 17 years of trying to replace them with a different government.

It doesn’t make sense for the PRC to build the New Silk Road of their primary policy objectives had anything to do with foreign policy. Any benefits at all to their foreign policy is the gravy to their meat and potatoes of what is the largest domestic jobs program in the world and the infrastructure to strip mine Africa and Central Asia of their natural resources.

Hegemony is what you get when you are the dominant power at the table by a country mile, several country miles really. What they’re doing with the Silk Road is some new form of colonialism we haven’t exactly seen before, but it still reeks of colonialism. It puts them in a nicer position than they might otherwise be, but those contracts with Kenya or Sri Lanka are only as good as the PRC’s ability to enforce them. Given they don’t have the airlift power or a Navy remotely close to the US, that’s a pretty remote possibility. They might as well invade Afghanistan for all the good that has even done anybody, but at least it’s a next door neighbor and not past Taiwan, Singapore and across the Indian Ocean.

No wonder they want US out of “their” neighborhood. In the mean time, it is a very nice jobs program, and it keeps the peoples happy, happy enough to not revolt, even provides a decent source of pride so they can say “we’re out their physically connecting the world while ya’ll are out there talking a good game on free trade and you know, enforcing clear shipping routes and whatnot.”

Maybe the market really is decent at figuring out where and what kinds of railroads should be built, because a railroad to nowhere still goes nowhere.


Chinese society is less likely to expand and conquer nearby ground in the way that the mainstream culture of those territory isn't Chinese dominantly. There's also a strong isolationism deeply rooted in Chinese culture that "it's the central kingdom with the best land and smartest people and why bother go after those barbaric clans and poor lands." kinda thinking.


Han Chinese immigration means that the native populations of Tibet and Xinjiang are becoming minorities in their own lands. So I don't think you are correct.


China already invaded Tibet, after all.


You conveniently forget the immense benefits the American Empire has obtained from maintaining allies in Asia. Japan, Korea and then the other Asian tigers have been incredibly beneficial to American businesses and American consumers. Cheap manufacturing allowed Americans to keep a somewhat decent standard of life in the face of stagnating wages, and has allowed the US to focus on high end manufacturing, services and the like, all of which provide much better jobs than can be provided by the manufacturing sector.

I want to point out the fundamental flaw in your analysis: Asian allies have been an incredible investment for American taxpayers, and not supporting them would not only mean the loss of those benefits, but also goodwill, prestige and respect.


I never said there weren’t any benefits in it for us, let me be clear: I am a proponent for American hegemony. I want to see the American Empire continue.

I’m pessimistic however that even in the face of what are to me some incredibly obvious benefits that have been borne out and proven in the last several decades, that the sentiment I share with a decreasing amount of people outside of Washington and our predecessors that we will probably not even continue to try to assert American global hegemony. After World War II, we were and possibly still are despite our President, the greatest proponents of free trade, but when I look at both the left and the right of the political spectrum today, I see that same historic isolationist tendency creeping up on both sides of the political spectrum from where I stand.

Trump might be the first of several Presidents we see with such strong isolationist tendencies, but I sure hope not.


When you say isolationist, do you mean in terms of projecting force through military means, or by promoting and upholding trade liberalization?


Military. Americans generally had a distaste for foreign wars until about the 20th Century. Arguably still do.

Arguably there has also been a rather bloodthirsty contingent among us that once we ran out of Indians to kill, started wanting to get involved in foreign wars. We got our first real taste of being a Maritime Empire after the Spanish-American War, but that same contingent brought us into two World Wars and just kept on going until we had invaded Asia no less than 6 times, and I’m probably missing a few.

We’ve always favored free trade, but that was as much a consequence of being cut out of the British mercantile system post Independence as it was just a nice idea. Generally when opportunities came up to assert more sway on the global stage, by which of course what I really mean is get involved in European affairs, we balked all the way till 1917, and mostly kept trying to balk even after until 1942.

The isolationist segment of society has been out of power for a long time now, but it has never truly gone away, and arguably they are gaining power. Clinton was a Hawk, Biden might be Hawkish relative to his contemporaries, but Trump is definitely an isolationist and there’s a decent chance the Democratic Party is going to nominate one as well.


>They’re more of a threat to their immediate neighbors than anything, and near as I can tell they just want US to back off and let them be, let them have Taiwan, do what they want with Hong Kong and Macau, and let them assert a local hegemony.

the same strategic interests guide regional and global hegemony, the only difference is in the capability and resources to exert power.


The years since WW2 are a third of all of America's history. Considering America still maintains military bases across the world, surely one cannot call it an exception when it's for that period of time. Either there is a coherent American sentiment over centuries and the one expressed over these last 75 years isn't exceptional or there is no coherent sentiment.


America’s history goes back to before the founding of the country and is filled with people fleeing the dysfunction of European politics around the time of the Enlightenment, literally seeking to at least insulate themselves with the Atlantic Ocean. How well they succeeded is a different question, but the will to do so has always been a strong force in domestic politics and is expressing itself again through the present Presidential Administration.


>So in his opinion, it very much is NOT the US falling, but simply withdrawing because the economic order it used to bribe most of the world to be allied against the USSR no longer makes sense.

Correct.

Among its many "Trump is such a threat to America that I think America ought to be destroyed as a country to save it" flaws, I love how Fallows's article glosses over most NATO countries not meeting the 2% target commitment, as if that isn't the fundamental basis of Trump's complaint about the alliance. As you say, the United States basically bribed most of its allies during the Cold War to fight the Soviets, and among those bribes was the willingness to spend to make up what they couldn't/wouldn't spend on defense. Russia today is an economic pygmy that faces within a decade demographic collapse (another theme of Zeihan's). Its conventional forces only pose a threat to Western Europe because, again, most NATO countries—notably Germany—aren't anywhere close to the 2% target and won't be by the 2024 deadline. (And yes, the four states most exposed to Russia—the Baltics and Poland—do meet the standard.)

Over time I've come to wonder more and more if Jeane Kirkpatrick's initial reaction to the end of the Cold War—to get the heck out of NATO and return to traditional American isolationism—wasn't the way to go. The great challenge to America going forward looks to be China, and that's an area 1) explicitly omitted from NATO's purview and 2) the US has worked bilaterally, not multilaterally.


Acording to this historian it was pretty awful: https://www.amazon.com/Fall-Rome-End-Civilization/dp/0192807...

"The book recaptures the drama and violence of the last days of the Roman world, and reminds us of the very real terrors of barbarian occupation. Equally important, Ward-Perkins contends that a key problem with the new way of looking at the end of the ancient world is that all difficulty and awkwardness is smoothed out into a steady and positive transformation of society. Nothing ever goes badly wrong in this vision of the past. The evidence shows otherwise."

We've seen how this looks like in modern times with the fall and decline of the Soviet Union. The US could end up similarly in the future: invading countries under flimsy pretexts, assassinating opponents, politics utterly corrupted by money, trying to bully other countries into submission, etc.


Wait you mean to tell me US doesn’t already do all of those things?


Well the glory days of the Roman Empire was pretty awful for all the people who was conquered and killed or enslaved by the Romans.


Well it is true just like the USA the Roman Empire attacked tribes (especially Caesar in Gaul) with pretext like abducting a diplomat (just like the United States did in Afghanistan, Vietnam etc)

But for the most part the Roman Empire where the peak of humanity civilization and we still awe at their ahead of time way of life (they had roads,politics, gyms, and many other public institutions we hold dear today)


How bad it was depends on what you value. Did splitting up societies across Europe lead to more differentiation? Yes, absolutely. Here's some other things it led to:

-Population totals and density dropped. -Life expectancy dropped. -Trade fell in volume, trade routes shortened, and the variety of available goods dropped. -The trend of urbanization reversed and Europeans became more rural. -The likelihood of dying to disease/plague increased. -The number and length of usable roads shrank -The plow fell out of common manufacture and farmers began relying on picks, hoes, and shovels instead

It's up to you whether those things count as "not that bad".


All of those things are true, but it’s easy to overcredit late Rome for their advantages. Remember a lot of the history, perceptions and analysis we get really grows out of 19th century work, where glorification of empire was something of a vested interest of gentlemen of the day.

The western Roman Empire had stagnated for years and lost a lot of ground.


This just and similar rebuttals just make the point that the lost ground happened in a gradual fashion. When the parts of the structure fell, much had already rotted away, sure.

That doesn't change the basic outline that the situation involved a decline in "civilization" and general quality of life. IE, it was a rather bad time, in contrast to the OP.


Many of these things weren't really effected by the Fall of the Roman empirical structure per se. Most of the things you mention didn't actually happen for a long while after the empire fell.

The first big plague happened in 541–542 AD and it effected people in the Eastern Empire more then in the former Western empire.

Italian urbanization was not actually significantly changed until the Justinian roman wars where Italy was invaded by different armies over and over again. But important to know is that Italy was already less urban by the time the empire fell, Rome had already far, far fewer people then at its peak and had gone down over the last 100 years before the actual Fall.

The point here is that many of the variables you describe had lots of variation within the imperial period and often didn't significantly change when the empire fell per see.

So we need to be really careful as these things are pretty complex and our data is incredibly bad. Often informed not by good data.


This article is bad. Instead of focusing on the actual topic of the book, it immediately jumps into an absurd comparison between the fall of the Roman Empire and today's America.

The two situations have NOTHING in common. None of the factors that led to the Western Roman Empire's fall plays any role in the US.

Also, the argument that the Roman Empire allowed things like individual human rights is absurd. Modern notions of individual and individual rights appeared in the 16th century. How is it possible to link the downfall of the empire with something that happened more than 1000 years later? How could we know the same development wouldn't have happened inside the empire?


>This article is bad. Instead of focusing on the actual topic of the book, it immediately jumps into an absurd comparison between the fall of the Roman Empire and today's America.

It's a coatrack to justify a claim that "Trump is destroying America, and maybe that won't be as bad as that sounds". Which, in turn, leads to Fallows's related article (linked at the bottom), "Trump is so bad that he is destroying America, which is justification to actually destroy America (in terms of dissolving the Union)".


Rome endured repeated leadership crises from the death of Commodus in 192 to the conquest by Odoacer in 476. Put another way, Rome spent more time “falling” than the US has even existed.


Why is classical education so much more fascinated with the sacking of Rome over the collapse of the Republic? The latter is, to me, far more fascinating and far less explored in our common curricula.


It is not, and the article hints at that:

> If a civilization could descend from Cicero and Cato to Caligula and Nero in scarcely a century, how long could the brave experiment launched by Madison, Jefferson, and company hope to endure?

This describes the fall of the republic, not the fall of Rome half a millennium later. Nero and Caligula are among the first emperors, not the last.


> the article hints at that

Unintentionally, perhaps. Really, this is an indication of the article's incoherence and sloppiness. It purports to be mostly about the aftermath of the collapse of the Western Empire in the 5th Century, and how this supposedly cleared the way for assorted awesome developments (five or six hundred years later). So the transition from Republic to Empire is irrelevant to the argument.


Classical education, for me, means exactly the sort of education where you would learn about the transition from republic to empire. We must have a different definition but I agree on the more general point that a lot of attention is being paid to the fall of Rome and we sometimes ignore the collapse of the republic.

I think part of it is that the end of the republic is so well documented, and that documentation so thoroughly studied and responded to up through the 19th century that it's hard to come up with anything really new to say.

The period immediately after the fall of the empire has precious few surviving contemporary accounts. Much is known only through archaeology or very fanciful writers like Isidore of Seville, and so there is a blank canvas to project one's hopes and fears.


I very much agree with this. I had never heard of Sulla or Marius until reading Sallust and that seems very odd considering Caesar's involvement with both. Not to mention that Caesar emulated Sulla's march on Rome. The entire period around the time of the 3rd Punic War seems fascinating and relevant to today and I personally would welcome more insight.


I think you're mistaken. Classical education traditionally focuses primarily on letters at the point of the fall of the Republic. It is pop culture and history that focus more on the collapse of the Empire, since this is the event that immediately led to the formation of modern European national identities.


I think even pop culture have been more interested in the fall of the republic and the rise and assassination of Caesar.


Because Rome was only at the beginning of its glory years when the Republic became an Empire.


Agreed, most people who study this subject for it's intellectual purposes agree as well


This article fails to live up to its premise of thinking through what the dissolution of the American empire would look like but does end up making an interesting case for local vitality and governance.


Nice read, and I think it likely that the article describes how things will be in the future. re:

> by large margins, Americans feel dissatisfied with the course of national events—and by even larger margins, they feel satisfied with and connected to local institutions and city governments

This. Ever since the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, I have been unhappy with resource allocation by the US federal government. I am happy and proud to pay local and even state taxes. I think that the very large amount of federal taxes that I pay goes to some expenses that I don’t approve of.

Since retiring this year, I am putting much more effort into my community, mostly volunteering at our local food bank. It is difficult to overestimate the value of local networking.


Slatestarcodex did a well-sourced and highly entertaining job rebutting this goofy “the Dark Ages weren't” meme: https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/10/15/were-there-dark-ages/

Also, life expectancy collapsed, Diocletian instituted what became near-universal serfdom, population density feel by a third (maybe nice if you were born afterwards, but can't have been super fun for the people watching their progeny diminish decade by decade), and the loss of learning inside the Empire was so complete that medieval Europeans called their standard text on astronomy the “Almagest”, its Arabic name, even though its author Ptolemy lived in the Roman Empire and presumably wrote in Greek; only Arabic translations survived. (Some other books only survived in Ireland, outside the former Empire.) The Romans were no scholars—think of the detestable Sulla or monstrous Marcellus—but what came after was far worse.

From the point of view of human rights, of economic prosperity, and of scholarship, the collapse of the Western Empire began a disaster that lasted nine centuries.


I can't answer to all of those points but, at least in Post-Roman Britain, life expectancy increased after the fall of the Roman Empire.[1]

[1]: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/114150...


I would be skeptical about attributing too much to a newspaper report about an unpublished conference presentation, particularly as the reported increase is only 2 years (with no quoted uncertainties).

From this review article about post-Roman Britain: (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1478-0542...)

"There is just no alternative to the conclusion that urban life ceased in most places by the mid‐fifth century, doomed by the virtual cessation of market activity, a climatic downturn which arguably destroyed the capacity of agriculture to deliver a reliable surplus, the collapse of state funding of officialdom and the soldiery, and the impact on trade of an era of barbarian raiding and internecine warfare."

Of course, since historically urban life expectancy has tended to be less than small-town and rural life expectancy, it's even possible that the de-urbanization of Britain did lead to a slight increase in life expectancy.


It's good to be cautious. (It would be interesting to find out if the author did eventually publish the work.) It's certainly plausible, as you point out, that while life expectancy was plummeting in Turin and Paris, it might have risen in Britain. We just have no written records from that time period — not even graffiti or runestones — adding to the uncertainty. More than All Creatures Great and Small this bare fact makes me think of Threads.


Interesting! I didn't know about this new research. Perhaps it will hold up! Thank you!


This made me think that "The End of the United States of America Won't be That Bad". Might actually be a good thing.


"The ancient university towns of Palo Alto and New Haven may lie in different countries."

This world is definitely possible, but I'd say as likely as one where the two Cambridges are part of the same union again.


The title perhaps means that we are we getting at the acceptance stage of the end of the American dominance?

(Hmm, the subtitle is: "Maybe the end of the American one won’t be either", so I guess I called that)!

As for the end of the Roman Empire, in the Eastern part it had a succession regime. In the Western parts, where this was slow to emerge, it was the end of tons of things the citizens of the Roman republic (and westwards) took for granted, for several centuries...


Kind of funny to refer to Palo Alto and New Haven as "ancient" adjacent to Rome.


The fall of Rome led to a power vaccum that was filled by organized religion.

Religion then outlawed science and philosophy (competing ideology)... Which led to the dark ages.

Yes, it was that bad.


[flagged]


Please don't take HN threads into nationalistic flamewar.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


As an american expat, no it is not particularly free. But it's good at presenting itself as that, or as a land of opportunity in all of the media we heavily export to the rest of the world. Leading many people to want to move there when in reality america is a land of poor social mobility, and extreme incarceration rates and legal restrictions on dumb things like giving a sandwich to a homeless person.


And it is very easy to work illegally in the US. Other countries make it very difficult. Working as an illegal in Canada or the UK is possible, but not nearly as easy as in the US.


The reason for this is to protect the social safety net which is non existent in the US. It's also harder than you think to get a visa for the US so it's pretty much attracting unofficial undesirables.


Visas are dead simple to get for the US. Some of them are even allocated by lottery. Other countries (canada) have points-based systems, standards, that applicants have to make. The US prefers a rights-based approach, a combination of family links and naturalization based on the leveraging of "temporary" permits into permanent residence permission.


Not dead simple for those who live in the third world or any country with huge population (India, China, any African, Asian country, Mexico).

Diversity visa benefits those countries with small population. 50,000 lucky people from these countries get a visa.


Yes, it is easier in the US compared to the UK, where its border patrol agents can ask for papers at any bus stop or tube station. Even one has to seek permission from the home department in order to marry a UK citizen.

After E-Verify in the states, things are not as easy as used to be. Large employers attract I-9 audits if they don't participate in E-Verify. So, illegal labor has shifted to small employers: restaurants, general contractors (in construction), janitorial services, etc.


Do you have any source showing the US is “one of the most free countries”? It figures as just moderate/mostly free in all lists I could find.

Also, immigrants don’t come to the US for “freedom”. _Maybe_ in the past, but definitely not today. We move here because it’s where the opportunities are, or (in the case of many refugees) to escape violence.


There are plenty of freedom indexes published by all sorts of agencies and NGOs. The US does not top ANY of them.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_freedom_indices

--------

US: #16 Canada:#9 UK:#11 HK:#1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_Freedom_of_the_World_...

US:#25/26 Canada:#6/7 UK:#14 Norway:#1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index

US:#33 Canada:#20 UK:#39 Norway:#1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_the_Press_(report)

US:#10 Canada:#3 UK:#36 The Netherlands:#1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Index_of_Moral_Freedom


So you're saying that people go to the US for economic freedom, and freedom from violence?


No, not at all. There’s plenty of places with more economic freedom - less regulation, lower taxes, simpler rules. The US simply has more _opportunities_ and (particularly in tech/sciences) and pays _much_ more money for the same job. It’s just leverage, not “freedom”. :)


People also risk death to go to the EU, so your comparison falls flat.


People naively apply historical "patterns" like this, why? History doesn't always repeat itself. It used to be that the most similar countries would have wars with each other, like England and France for hundreds of years. Now it's the opposite. Territories used to rebel against governments, today the US has successfully managed numerous territories for over a hundred years. We largely don't have governments based on religion. The world has had paradigm shifts that make large scale political events of the past unlikely to happen again.


People risk death to come here because they risk death at home if they don’t. It’s aboit safety, not freedom. Approximately nobody is risking death to come to the US because they want to enjoy our freedom.


> The us is still one of the most free countries in the world and people literally risk death to come here.

More people risk their lives to go to Turkey. That's not a valid metric.

> Our government is not even close to the imperialist Roman empire.

That's correct. We need to stop comparisons like that, the Roman empire or republic is nowhere near any of the current countries or organizations in 2019.

> A closer comparison would be the EU and the fall of it (Brexit).

EU is not even close to the imperialist Roman Empire either. I mean, the main comparison point between Rome and US is the amount of military forces it keeps abroad (which is not enough for the comparison to make sense IMO). EU doesn't really even have an army. It is pointless to compare both.

And Brexit has strengthen Europe for a generation at least: people proposing exiting from the EU have basically gone silent almost everywhere where they used to be audible. It used to be a policy that could be defended by moderate right or far left wings, no it is seen as a purely populist far-right strategy.


Both of the countries that bet on the EU folding, Greece and the UK, found that it was much more resilient than their own internal politics. Brexit is limping towards its own slow death.


> The us is still one of the most free countries in the world

With the exception of speech (cool) and guns (meh), the US is not really particularly free by global standards. There is plenty of heavy handed regulation on the books. Think about all the onerous zoning rules, the regressive alcohol laws (what kind of "free" country doesn't let you buy beer in grocery stores in many states?), the food safety laws that ban kinder eggs and unpasteurized milk (which are legal in other countries).


LOL imagine unironically thinking the US is still "one of the most free countries in the world" in 2019.

And yet I thought HN has no appetite for rabid nationalism. Guess I was wrong because an exception seems to apply when it's Americans reveling in their own bizarre delusion and nauseating hypocrisy.


Please don't reply to a bad comment with a worse one. That's exactly what we don't need.

The fact that we don't want nationalistic flamewars on this site doesn't mean comments of that nature never appear here. Of course they do. That's why we keep having to say we don't want nationalistic flamewars.

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