06 February 2020, The Tablet

Rising from Roman ashes

Rising from Roman ashes

The remains of the Temple of Saturn at the Forum in Rome
Photo: PA/Zuma, Rowan Gillson


Escape from Rome: The Failure of the Empire and the Road to Prosperity
Tablet bookshop price £27 • Tel 020 7799 4064

“What have the Romans ever done for us?” asked Monty Python in the 1979 film Life of Brian, and duly provided the answer: sanitation, medicine, education, public order, irrigation, fresh water, public health – and wine. The collapse of the Roman Empire, wrote Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was a disaster, “the most awful scene in the history of mankind”.
Not so, argues Walter Scheidel: the dis­appearance of the Roman Empire was a blessing. It paved the way for a polycentric Europe, which in turn led to the development of democratic systems, free enterprise and industrial and technological advances which created the prosperous world we live in today.

There were other empires after the fall of Rome – from Byzantium and Charlemagne to the Habsburgs and Napoleon – but none matched the all-embracing control systems of the Roman Empire. “The Romans always win,” a Roman soldier carved on a rock in what is now southern Jordan – but they didn’t, and a good thing too, Scheidel suggests.

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