Collapse of Trade as a Phase Transition

Prompted by our visiting friend Geoff (the ‘lucky Geologist’ and author of ‘Green Figs’ and other essays), I have recently finished reading ‘The Fall of Rome – and the End of Civilization’ by Bryan Ward-Perkins (OUP2005), wherein the author responds to a recent trend amongst historians to view the fall of Rome as a largely peaceful transition to Germanic rule within a period of positive cultural evolution.

I am no scholar and was unaware of the trend Ward-Perkins is reacting to, but he does seem to me to provide good support for the traditionally taught reality of some kind of sudden economic collapse in Europe, which appears to progress over the centuries of ‘Late Antiquity’ from Britain down eventually to Greece (while the eastern reaches suffered no dramatic changes until later – and with the apparent cause coming from a different direction). But I would have liked to see more data about Gaul and Spain – especially since Gaul seems to me to be the crux of the puzzle. The collapse of abandoned Britain is hard to dispute and easy to comprehend, and the gradual decline in Italy may be explained by the loss of trading partners in Europe and North Africa – combined with an extended period of inter-racial mistrust in Italy over the Eastern Empire’s reconquest of the Ostrogothic kingdom, but Ward-Perkins gives little data about the extent and rate of decline in Gaul and doesn’t really explain why the overall collapse occurred.

Violence and disruption were frequent throughout the life of the Roman Empire, with a significant amount of local administrative autonomy in remote areas, and the Goths were wandering through the heart of the empire for two centuries before the collapse (and they eventually established relatively settled kingdoms which seemed for some time to be reasonably well integrated with the empire).

Perhaps the Franks integrated even less well than the Goths and were more committed to a culture which did not value the comforts of “civilization”, or perhaps it was just that the “civilized” economy was capable of working around disruptions to some extent but only up to a certain density in time and space beyond which it suddenly becomes impossible to continue or recover.

Both to establish the nature and reality of the overall collapse, and to gain insight into its mechanism, it would have been nice to see a discussion of the pottery and copper coin remains in Gaul and Spain on the same level of detail as Ward-Perkins has provided for Britain.

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