*Escape from Rome*

The author is Walter Scheidel and the subtitle is The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity.  Imagine a whole book on what he calls “the second Great Divergence,” namely that China developed a large, relatively unified hegemonic state early on, while Europe remained (mostly) politically fragmented.

Have you ever wondered why the Roman empire did not, in some manner, re-form in the Western part of Europe?  And how did it matter that China had a tradition of having to defend against the steppe while Europe did not?  Here is one brief excerpt:

…East Asia was characterized by a unipolar or hegemonic political system for 68 percent of the years between 220 BCE and 1875.  This pattern presents a stark contrast to the prevalence of a balanced system in Europe for 98 percent of the years from 1500 to 2000, or indeed at any time after the demise of the mature Roman empire.


Remoteness from the bulk of the Eurasian steppe was a constant, invariant across Europen history.  Just as it did not matter if Latin Europe’s states were weak, it also did not matter if a large empire was in place.  Unlike Chinese dynasties, the Roman empire did not bring forth a nomadic “shadow empire”: there was no ecological potential for it.  The Pontic steppe, where Sarmatian tribes might have coalesced in response to the inducements of Roman wealth, was too detached from the Roman heartlands that lay behind the Carpathians, the Alps, and the Adriatic.  To the west of the plains of Eastern Europe, both components of the “steppe effect” were conspicuous by their absence: and so — at least after Rome — was empire-building on a large scale.

If you wish to read a book to ponder the second Great Divergence, this is the one.  You can pre-order it here.


And how did it matter that China had a tradition of having to defend against the steppe while Europe did not?

Is Eastern Europe Europe? Apparently not...

Eastern Europe is not Europe, anymore than the Eastern Roman Empire was the Roman Empire. What protected Byzantium from the barbarians was Greek fire for ship-borne attacks and the walls of Constantinople--a sort of "Great Wall" in Europe--from Hun/Mongol-type horsemen land attacks. That's why the Eastern Roman Empire, somewhat like China, lasted about 1000 years (until 1453) with a very stable albeit stagnant economy. Now you know.

Bonus trivia: wage and price controls were common in Byzantium, as well as hereditary occupations, something the Ottoman Turks adopted with their "millet" system. Such traditions, like the minimum wage in the USA, promote uniformity and stability at the expense of economic dynamism. I sometimes wonder...what DON'T I know? Scary.

The places with the highest minimum wages are the most economically dynamic. Correlation isn't causation and all but I don't think you can casually link them together so simply to suit your mood.

@ //// - but the counterfactual would be a place with no minimum wage laws, not comparing MS or AL to CA. Anyway, it's off-topic. The truth is the USA is no longer the leader for dynamic economy compared to its 19th century self, but in today's world it's relative so that Great Stagnation fact is masked.

There was a lot more variation in the economy, and culture, of Byzantium that your post acknowledges. It was not just "stable but stagnant".
And yes, eastern Europe is Europe too.
It's also not appreciated that a fair number of the Germanic "barbarians" came off the steppe. Their ancestors had migrated there when the climate in northern Eurooe started cooling in the 2nd century, and they were pushed west by the advance of the Huns. Until the 17th century a form of Gothic was still spoken in a few pockets in Ukraine.

Eastern Europeans and Slavs in general don't get to be seen as equals to the Western Europeans, particularly by the ringleader team Anglo-American. Originally it was too much Mongoloid DNA but now that such ideas are dated and make no sense in the modern era the reason now is because Eastern attitudes are decidedly illiberal and authoritarian.

The Baltic states are Eastern but far more modern, specially Estonia, than Western states (including the US) with their legacy governmental structures.

Western Europe, even Britain was pretty darn authoritarian and illiberal too- in some places that lasted right down into still living memory. Ivan the Terrible's near contemporaries included Henry VIII and Phillip the II of Spain.

Britain was authoritarian and illiberal to its low and poor class.
But the upper class fought for and secured their liberty in the 17. century.

Read Koyama's paper on state formation and unidirectional threat: Http://eh.net/eha/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Koyama.pdf

Eastern Europe was on the whole further from the steppe than North China, and did not have mega fertile agricultural river valleys near the steppe.

Steppe groups to the north of China occurred late in history to their counterparts on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, on a more arid terrain (Mongolic steppe even less suitable for agriculture) near some of worlds richest agricultural land in north China. Very different interactions.

Koyama is very much worth reading. Thanks for the tip.

+2 creepy
+2 scary

"Have you ever wondered why the Roman empire did not, in some manner, re-form in the Western part of Europe?"

Partly because England's main foreign policy since the 1500s has been to keep Europe divided.

England's not that important, or powerful.

It was important from circadian 1500 to 1945.

England was not the major or significant factor preventing the formation of a European mega empire between 1500-1945.

Can't tell if you are joking or just really, really wrong.

Another factor was the long-term, often military, conflict between the Church of Rome and nascent reform churches, with dynasts and nascent nationalities falling into each side.

The 1588 Spanish Armada defeat was only one of many English military/naval actions that stopped the Spanish monarchy from becoming the hegemon of western Europe. Then, the English led a coalition (on the sea, the Iberian Peninsula, Waterloo) that finally stopped Napoleon. In the 20th century, they thwarted Kaiser Bill and Hitler. Their major blunder (a happy confluence of idiots George III and Lord North to name but two) was to throw away the Thirteen Colonies - Thank God for that!

Not that I like the English, who also invented the modern war crime - See 900 years of Ireland conquest and genocide, and the Indian subcontinent.

Actually it was the Norman French who first conquered Ireland. But even if it were not, are you really believing that they acted worse than other countries at that time?

Did they act any worse than the Irish colonisers in, and slave raiders on, Britain in the Dark Ages?

Including Niall's nine hostages.

I'm not joking; I don't think there would have been a pan-European empire emerge at some point between 1500-1945 were it not for England. I think the system of states and the reasons for a lack of political unification ran deeper than one small-medium sized state.

You think differently?

England might not have the only reason or even the strongest reason for the non-emergence of a pan-European empire. But it was certainly one reason, as it was relatively strong despite its smaller size and ruled the seas since 1759.

England's power increased steadily in the 17. century, despite having its own civil war in between. During the war of Spanish succession, it became the main antagonist of France, the strongest power in Europe, by propping up Austria when France was strongest and by limiting Austria when Austria was about to become the strongest power in Europe again. From then until 1945, Britain played in the top power league of Europe and followed the program of preventing or fighting the dominant power on the continent. Only their failure in the Suez crisis showed Britain they were no world power anymore.

If this kind of historic fallacy is what is taught in English schools, it can explain Brexit.

Nothing of this form (SS's statement) is taught in British schools.

I made the same point as Steve last time this discussion came up here, same comments as before, but I never understood why the UK was not considered powerful enough even pre 1500 to prevent a strong European central state, I mean that is essential what the 100 years war was all about.

The Hundred Years' War was about which rival branch of the French royal family would get to rule France. In all likelihood, if the English kings had won, they would have moved their capital to Paris (Richard the Lionheart lived most of his life in France) and eventually some English rebels would have declared independence and the outcome would be the same.

A more interesting question is why the Holy Roman empire was so weak, despite the Carolingian and Ottonian renaissances. The centralizing French state certainly had as much to do about it as the English (and was not shy to ally itself with the Turks against the Austrians and Venetians).

I'm sure that books could be written about this question and not by me.
What I learned in school was that the loyalty oath in feudal Germany was given only to the direct superior and did NOT include a loyalty oath his superior, e.g. the king. When a direct superior, like a duke, announced he ended his loyalty to the king, all his loyal men had to follow the duke against the king or would be considered dishonorable.
In the interregnum in the 13. century, the top leaders under the emperor secured more rights to themselves.

Before the Spanish Armada, England was not truly a major player in the Western European system. 1500 is way too early to consider England as even thinking about "keeping Europe divided." They were more worried about national survival. The policy of keeping any one power from dominating the continent started in early 18th century and became serious in the late 19th.

I suggest reading N. A. M. Rodger's series on the British Navy, which starts with "The Safeguard of the Sea," if you want more nuance and detail.

I don’t get this, what about the Angevin Empire? Maybe you can argue that this was largely a French led system but the point remains, the presence of the large offshore island of Britain provided resources which prevented Europe from coalescing into one state like China did.

The closest Europe came to refounding the Roman Empire in the West was under Charlemagne. And that failed because his son Louis was concerned about his sons going to war over their inheritance, so , as Germanic rulers often did, he divided the realm up among them, permanently severing Germany and France. England had nothing to do with that.
Also of note: unlike the Roman Empire there was no natural boundary to the east for the Holy Roman Empire while the Alps split it in half. The emperors had to defend their eastern borders and wasted a huge amount of time and money trying to impose their power of Italy. As soon as they crossed the Alps on one direction, the nobles, bishops and towns they left behind would reclaim autonomy and sometimes rebel outright.

"Partly because England's main foreign policy since the 1500s has been to keep Europe divided." And it was not in Frances's interest that the Holy Roman Empire should ever have a strong central government.

But in any case, the Roman Empire was a Mediterranean Empire (with the exception of southern England), and was unable to extend itself in northern/central Europe beyond the Rhine and Danube Rivers.

Justinian made perhaps the most credible attempt to re-unite/re-create it, but Plague spoiled his plans. And after the Muslim conquest of North Africa, a unified Mediterranean empire (encompassing both the north and south shores) was no longer possible.

"The Sarmatians were eventually decisively assimilated (e.g. Slavicisation) and absorbed by the Proto-Slavic population of Eastern Europe."

Over a thousand years later, the conquering Mongols too assimilated into the Chinese, the Indians, and the Slavs. See people, immigrants, even illegal, barbaric, hostile invaders like the Steppe nomads, get assimilated. Easy for Kublai Khan since he loves Chinese food and women. I can't wait til the national conversation shifts to something more impactful like pushing for more infrastructure, investment in the sciences, or nudging China to more democratic reforms. America is losing its time, IQ, and collective mind on these dumb immigration debates. Obama quietly deported more illegals and built more wall than anybody, then Trump showed up, turned it into a circus and failed to match his predecessor.


I disagree. American has lost its mind.

I'm not sure what steppes had to do with it.

The main reason China remained a (mostly) unitary state throughout its history is the Chinese writing system, which encouraged a single written language even in the face of spoken "dialects" that diverged from it and from each other as least as much as the daughter languages of Latin diverged.

The meritocratic civil-service examination system ensured that anyone with an ounce of ambition studied that written language intensely. It also helped that China was geographically contiguous and relatively concentrated. Various barbarian invader dynasties (Mongols, Manchus) ended up assimilating linguistically into the numerically far greater native population.

In Europe, dialects became vernacular written languages in their own right, and separate new nations formed around them. Reviving an empire around Latin was no longer feasible. Historically non-unified Europe was backward but dynamic and eventually progressed rapidly. No such process occurred in China. Mostly-unified China was initially far more advanced but stagnated.

It's interesting to contrast China with the Arabic speaking world. Superficially, the unifying linguistic aspect was very similar: a single intensely-studied written form was imposed by the existence of the Quran, so the very different spoken "dialects" could not really develop into anything in their own right. Yet political unity remained elusive. Geographically the language was much more thinly stretched out, and the population not so large due to unfavorable climate, so the Ottoman Turks who eventually took over were not linguistically assimilated.

China's historical path was disadvantageous in many ways, but today the conditions are ripe for China to impose a single national dialect while still reaping the benefits of a large population in a unitary state. Even today, a language like Cantonese remains mostly only an oral language, and a language without a proper written form and without a literature is much easier to suppress in the name of national unity and much harder for later generations to revive. So China may get the last laugh, as unity continues to elude the European Union.

The steppes are important because they united various regions in China together against a common enemy which happened numerous times, even in ancient times before the kingdoms were united under the Qin. Power grabs and land grabs in the name of national security have been happening since time immemorial.

To flesh out a bit more, Peter Turchin tends to stress that the steppe-sown barrier was important itself as the "meta-ethnic" frontier catalyzing large empires.

But Koyama's hypothesis, which I find more realistic, is that its really about the overwhelmingly unidirectional and intense nature of the threat to the north compared to the south.

That led to China having to a much greater extent a tendency to a single militarily competitive state with a basis in the north (much more tendency for the civil wars, internal conflicts, alliance to play out into every player competing to form a single state) which was able to expand into the south and call on the loyalty of the south to the state.

That state was also overwhelmingly oriented towards the threat from the north, and less competitive on its frontiers to the east and south (and so ran into limits to project by sea to the east and to the south by land).

This actually remained true even when pastoral nomads per se stopped being the main northern threat and the Manchu agriculturalists were.

If there were an array of relatively weaker multi-directional threats, as in Europe, you would see a tendency to form multiple states, focused on their local theatre of war. The theory would be that in an alternative world where for we had the Southeast Asian medieval kingdoms (Cambodia, Burma) form their basis about 1000 years earlier than they did OTL, and Japan was somehow larger and more powerful earlier, (e.g. both more in parity with China) and the steppes were weaker, China would be likely to "fracture" into a set of separate states focused on competitors on the border (and probably most of them would not speak Sinitic or have a Chinese identity).

It helps that the Han Chinese are one ethnically and genetically homogeneous group, unlike, say, India which is a siloed into a few hundred extremely disparate groups (that maintained better than 99.5% endogamy over 2000 years, even more so than Ashkenazi Jews).

The Chinese are not as genetically unified as you think. The northern Chinese are one clade, kin to Koreans, Japanese. and Tibetans. The southern Chinese are largely long-assimilated Austric peoples related to the Thais, Vietnamese, and more distantly to Polynesians.

Genetic differentiation between Northern Han and Koreans/Japanese seems higher than Northern Han to Southern Han groups, as measured by fst.

The point is that there are a lot of non-Han people in the south of China who are classed as Chinese (and speak one of the Sinitic languages) but are descended from earlier peoples who were conquered by the Chinese during the empire-building period.

Thanks. Very interesting points.

East Asia was characterized by a unipolar or hegemonic political system for 68 percent of the years between 220 BCE and 1875. This pattern presents a stark contrast to the prevalence of a balanced system in Europe for 98 percent of the years from 1500 to 2000, or indeed at any time after the demise of the mature Roman empire.

Huh? Comparing a 2100 year period with a mostly later 500 year period doesn't seem particularly rigorous.

"Indeed at any time after the demise of the mature Roman Empire"

1) Geography plays a huge role inside China. No large bodies of water divide the regions of China, nor are their mountains in the “main area” as steep/impassible as the Swiss-Austrian Alps. (2) The Chinese believed that the “northern barbarians” posed an unsolvable problem. They would always be out there, and unconquerable. And then, the Manchu solved the problem (by 1720), and yet China still remained a unified state long after the threat of the northern barbarians ended. Sheer habit? (4) The Jurchens conquered most of China in 1125-1140 and the Manchu conquered all of it (1640-1660) and neither of these were from Mongolia, they were instead from southwestern Manchuri.

On topic also note: https://academic.oup.com/jeea/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/jeea/jvz032/5535419?redirectedFrom=fulltext - "Geography and State Fragmentation" 18th July 2019

"Some of the richest places in the world have very high historical border presence, and are often located in particular geographic environments. In this paper we compile grid-cell level data on borders between sovereign states in Europe and surrounding areas from 1500 until today to document that state borders tend to be located in rugged and mountainous terrain, by rivers, and where it rains a lot. Moreover, two commonly used measures of economic activity—night lights and population density—are higher in cells with more borders, in particular more stable borders. This result holds also when controlling for geography. However, by the same metric, cells with more borders than neighboring cells are less developed than those neighbors. These patterns are consistent with a theory in which state competition benefits long-run development, but these benefits accrue more to the center than the periphery of states."

Like Schiedel and Koyama's work. Should provide some check for boosters of state size and political-legal integration into larger common, single markets.

The Smithian maxim that increasing the extent of the market and so possible division of labour and degree of complementary trade, may be an inadequate considering the optimal division of the market.

Smaller, competing states built around geographic borders and human cultural nations may be the vast superior to any attempts to reconstruct a Rome or China esque single imperial market environment.

To edit: The Smithian maxim that increasing the extent of the market and so possible division of labour and degree of complementary trade is optimal for growth, may be an inadequate maxim considering the optimal division of the market.

Aren’t stable borders a sign that states are *not* competing, but have settled into a peaceful equilibrium like the European Union? It’s the increase in the size of the market that allows small states to maintain stable borders, as they are able to trade for resources that they don’t have and therefore do not need to conquer neighbors.

The usual interpretation of long term stable borders in Europe is not that the English, French, Spanish had entered into a vast detente, but that they were competing states which were unable to overcome each other, and whose internally knit basis as states for particular peoples inhibited expansion. Stable borders = a sign that states are not competing.

But in any case, the comparison here is not a comparison between an almost permawar of states with no permanent borders, but between the virtues of competition between separate, largely territorially non-expansive, stable states tied to peoples vs an order of a single unitary empire.

Re; International trade (which is far from being a single market) this may make small states more viable under certain conditions (and less viable under others).

My reference is that there are many out there (globalists and internationalists) who argue that a "fragmented" market and diverse set of separate political institutions, each of which regulates its market differently and has barriers to trade, is ultimately a negative for economic growth. Results showing a system competing, separate states may run in the direction of greater economic growth run counter to that idea.

Essentially my argument here is against those that argue that competing states with separate markets and barriers to trade are inhibiting deadweight when set against a borderless world under a single market and single state. The closest examples through history may suggest that's not true and that competing and separate political and economic regimes are more optimal for growth.

"Remoteness from the bulk of the Eurasian steppe was a constant, invariant across Europen history. "

I wonder what the average Russian, Pole, or Hungarian thinks of this sentence, and the book in which it was written.

Americanization is today's equivalent to Hellenization. Pax Americana is today's equivalent to Pax Romana. Hellenization went east not west, and Pax Romana protected trade routes to the east not west. For good reason: east was where the money was. That's difficult to comprehend in a western-centric world view like ours.

That was then, this is now: am I the only one who sees the humor in our current attitude about China's version of state capitalism, that it will collapse any day now and threatens our economic superiority. Model that!

Westernization is a more accurate term than Americanization, since the US is part of a wider western culture whose most influential elements are not native from the US.

For example, what is the global sport? Soccer. Soccer was developed in the UK and spread throughout the world. In the US, since Americans like to be "different" from the British, developed gridiron from soccer instead of just adopting the original sport. What is the global language? English. What is the global measure system? The metric system, first developed in France. What is the global standard of paper sizes? The French-German paper standard.

The most influential element of what is particularly American in American culture worldwide is perhaps rap music. In terms of rock music, regarded by many as the most important contribution of American culture to the global culture, the most influential artists are European. Actually, an Australian rock band, AC/DC, is more popular worldwide than any single American rock band.

Hellenization also went west. The influence of Greece on the Romans is enormous.

There is weirdly little room in ray's worldview for Greek colonies across the Western Mediterranean, in Sicily, France, Spain, Southern Italy. Or for Phoenician attempts at the same, and for the power of Carthage. (Or for Greek colonization up the Black Sea for that matter).

Like most middle-browed Westerners who pride themselves on the sophistication of their "Ex Oriente Lux" and "non-Eurocentric" cultural humblebrag he draws himself into making a rather foolish and overreaching statement. (Another example of the genre is mindless NYT reader praise of "the tolerance and grandeur of Al-Andalus! And so on.).

Why do historians have a déformation professionnelle in favour of centralised bully states? You see it in such witless remarks as "Europe remained (mostly) politically fragmented." Why "fragmented", which is clearly intended to imply 'bad', in contrast to "unified" which is meant to imply 'good'?

Why not, for instance, 'monolithic' and 'diversified'?

Anyway, it was Europe's being diversified that presumably let the English invent the Industrial Revolution, and thus free mankind - at least for the present - from endless poverty. That included freeing those blessed Chinese, with their precious unification.

Very good point. But for one thing, “diversity” in your sense isn’t the diversity that counts, currently.

The cost was perpetual war among the fragmented states culminating in potential mutual nuclear annihilation of those states.

England built the largest empire ever, so it was a "centralized bully state" itself.

Also we don't know that the cause of the industrial revolution was simply political fragmentation.

Say China had expanded into a nuclear world empire, then hit one their customary civil war dynastic meltdowns, the ones that tended to see the biggest single conflict death tolls of any single pre-modern war. (Hell, imagine the USA today had a civil war).

A unipolar nuke world isn't necessarily safer, if that unipole isn't politically internally stable, and there is an argument that placing the world into a single interdependent political order will increase fragility and the stakes of civil conflict.

The original point is that fragmented states lead to greater, more intense, and more rapid arms races. If so, these arms races also have costs.

The highest death toll was due to having such a big population in the first place and disruption of agriculture leading to famine. It would be the same in the US. Most Americans are not interested in civil war and most casualties would be from economic disruption, not from combat.

Europe and China fairly similar population size for most of history until the 20th century.

Big death tolls because huge conflict happening all at once in China; no conflict in Europe pulls in or affects as large a population, due to polycentrism.

The American Civil War had high military casualties but the civilian death toll was fairly low. Civil wars are not always brutal and blood drenched, though they certainly can be. The English Civil War produced only limited civilian casualties too.

"... it was Europe's being diversified that presumably let the English invent the Industrial Revolution, and thus free mankind ."

No. Great Britain had coal and James Watt, and that made all the difference. Throw in a good navy and an empire for good measure.

Britons had used coal since before the Romans turned up. Something had changed - presumably slowly - so that a bunch of practical geniuses like Watt could flourish.

The slow and gradual accumulation of a lot of metallurgical improvements is what allowed for an efficient steam engine. The ancient prototype was inferior to human and animal labor and was used only as an occasional gee-whiz toy.

My harsh view is that most people are looking at it backwards. Human beings as a whole aren't that bright. They, we, were using pointy sticks for hundreds of thousands of years before anything interesting happened.

That means thst the things that did happen were very low probability events.

And no one serious show look for "causes" in such low priority events. For us they are essentially happy accidents, that put computer tablets and not sticks in our hands.

Once lighting struck, there are some interesting chains of events. There are James Burke style Connections. But they all owe their start to randomness. And monkeys who could recognize a good thing the 100th time they saw it.

"Have you ever wondered why the Roman empire did not, in some manner, re-form in the Western part of Europe?"

It did, "in some manner". Didn't it?

Indeed. Was it really coincidence that the European Economic Community was founded with a Treaty of Rome?

Of course it wasn't. They did not pick Rome out of a hat. It was symbolic.

I’m not sure it’s accurate to say China was more centralized than Europe. The data on taxation suggests the opposite. European countries also had vast colonial empires by the time of the Great Divergence and the UK including its colonial possessions was a much larger empire than China.

Yes, it's correct to note there are many dimensions of "centralization" here.

"Centralized" here implies a single state authority and lack of a competing state system (broad scale centralization), not that this intensification of engagement of subjects and revenues into the state (deep centralization) was more pronounced in China, which it was not.

And indeed these pressures are probably often somewhat at cross purposes - "broad" centralization is possibly easier to obtain if tax revenues are light, and the state is weakly involved with people's lives and identified with their culture and takes a "shallow" form.

It's inapt and makes little sense to compare the long term trend of Europe vs China to an efflorescence of empires between mostly 1790 and 1950, of course, mostly because Europe had taken the lead, in part due to the dynamics Scheidel talks about and was able to without too much effort or cost (although it usually was at cost rather than at benefit).

At the time of the Great Divergence Britain had just lost, or was in the course of losing, the largest lump of its Empire, measured as acreage. The French didn't have a lot at the time either. Spain's was big - but then Spain played no part in the Industrial Revolution. Portugal and the Netherlands had pretty big areas.

"The data on taxation ...": I challenge you to show that at the GD there was any centralised European taxation. There simply was no politically centralised Europe to do the taxation.

From a review of the Amazon site:

If a new Roman Empire had appeared in medieval Europe, it would have aborted modernity and everything would be different today! This is the remarkable, but tightly argued, conclusion of Walter Scheidel's virtuoso exploration of counterfactual world history

Yes, of course, I think Jared Diamond argued something along these lines, a single empire in Europe must have prevented disruptive technological innovations like the Industrial Revolution - this is actually what happened in China. But these technological innovations are presicely what made Europe eventually conquer the rest of the world.

Rome also aborted the process of economic development in the ancient world. Archaeological data suggests that growth in commercial and industrial activity was exponential in the Mediterranean from 600 BC to 100 BC (copper production, for example, expanded from about 200 tons to 15,000 tons over these 500 years, the number of shipwrecks found by archaeologists also increased by a factor of about a hundred over the same period), after Rome dominated the mediterranean world system, economic growth began to stagnate and then it was gradually reversed: silver production in the mediterranean world declined from 200 tons per year around the 1st century AD, to 25 tons per year in the 5th century AD.

No Roman Empire might have meant that modernity could have occurred much earlier. Although I might conjecture that the tremendous growth from 1820 to 2000 in Europe and North America (which has now slowed down) was partly caused by low TFP levels in the late 18th century compared to the ancient world in the 2nd century BC, despite the technological advances. That is, Ancient Greece had a much higher TFP than 18th century France. Which meant that Europe around the early 19th century had an enormous growth potential which manifested itself over the following two centuries. Now, this growth potential has mostly exhausted itself which is why growth rates have fallen so much.

The ancient world expanded to its technological limits. Beginning in the 2nd century adverse climate change and severe epidemics caused a gradual disintegration of the economy.

It is very easy to see the enormous geographical differences between the Roman Empire and China. The Roman Empire consisted of many roughly convex geographical entities: the Iberian peninsula, Italy, France/Germany/Belgium, the Balkans, North Africa, Egypt, Syria/Palestine, Turkey, which were spread over 3 continents. While China proper consists of one single convex piece of land, roughly like an oversized France. Of course, China will tend to more easily coalesce into a single state compared to the collection of territories that comprised Rome's empire.

It is actually very weird why the Roman Empire emerged: the ancient Mediterranean was essentially a transportation network for a collection of 2,500-3,000 city-states, which were heavily involved in trade but were highly politically fragmented. China, on the other hand, is a piece of land, hence it lacked low transportation costs and thus its economy was not characterized by long-distance trade of bulk commodities, but it was politically unified, more like medieval and early modern France.

Rome was one among thousands of city-states that managed, first, to become the head of an alliance system with 150 Italian city-states (kinda like the US's position in Nato). Then, after a series of highly contested wars, this Italian alliance system dominated the whole Mediterranean, and then, Rome gradually assimilated the rest of the alliance into itself. It was a very weird development. It was kinda like if Genoa in the 14th century started to dominate Italy and then launched a series of wars to conquer the rest of Europe and the whole Middle East. It sounds completely outlandish because it was: Rome's empire was a historical singularity.

Naturally, Rome's empire gradually collapsed and was never formed again. What is weird is that Rome's empire lasted so long: about 2,206 years from Rome's founding in 753 BC to Constantinople's fall in 1453 AD, of which 600 years it was the sole hegemonic power in the whole Western Eurasian world (200 BC to 400 AD). To call the lack of political unification of Western Eurasia relative to China a "great divergence" sounds like one is trying to create a parallel between very different underlying geographical regions and civilizations (a cosmopolitan Roman Empire, which consisted of dozens of different cultures, compared to the cultural homogeneity of the Han Chinese people). It is true that China's historical population was comparable to Rome's but that was just a historical coincidence.

That's not what "great divergence" means: it refers to the long-lasting escape from Malthusian poverty for the first time in history or pre-history.

Essentially it means the Industrial Revolution, its associated economic changes, and its consequences. Economic historians amuse themselves by wondering why it was the English wot dunnit.

I would argue two major factors played a very simple role:
1. Distance. Rome to London is further than from the eastern capitals to Tokyo, let alone Korea. Even from something Chang'an, the distances Rome covered were often much further. China had nice stable riverine transport throughout. Rome desperately needed the Mediterranean and the littoral waters of the North Atlantic as well as rivers like the Danube and arguably the Black Sea to boot. Controlling bodies of water were hard to do; China basically controlled the South China Sea with actual authority maybe once. Once you have piracy, you cannot sustain an empire (notably when the Grand Canal began to suffer from piracy Chinese dynasties typically tumbled). Conversely, if was far easier for China to pacify along the rivers than for any would-be empire to go after every island fortress (as the Ottomans found with Rhodes, Malta, Crete, and Cyprus and the Spanish found with Algiers). The Chinese plain is about the densest plot of good farmland on the planet. Only the American Midwest really comes close.
2. Religion. Europe had this religion that managed to maintain independence of the Empires. Not only did this make it harder to legitimate your rule, it also meant that there was a parallel power structure to appease. Worse, embedded in the core teachings were examples of individuals who rebelled against authority in the name of godliness (e.g. David and Saul, the Maccabees, and of course the whole early history of the Church defying the diktat of imperial Roman civic religion). Sure the state tried to co-opt the church and use the latter to keep the pretenders, the scheming nobles, the wealthy, and the peasants in line ... but there was an obvious tension there. Worse, Christians believed that God spoke directly to ordinary people which lead to many rebellions, often along the Joan of Arc line delivering national salvation.

This would also follow with other empires that repeatedly reunified. Persia, for instance, was rebuilt many times. It had Christian influences, but had far tighter religious control in its many incarnations than anything in Western Christendom.

Hope about empires that fall apart? Japan seems to have few constraints binding loyalty and had great difficulty unifying over several periods. Once again we have an empire that needs to maintain control over seaways and lacks a parallel religious structure.

How about other Christian maritime empires? Spain got a few hundred years out of its colonies ... but promptly lost them when it was unable to maintain naval supremacy against foreign interlopers. France lost not one, but two empires knit together by naval means; both were seriously impaired when the dominant naval power turned against their colonial empires. And of course, there are the British. Massive amounts of manpower and territory. Massively diversified. Control maintained by small garrisons. Yet once they could no longer afford naval supremacy and once the missionary's own teachings were turned on them ... this empire too faltered.

Certainly if we are basing this all on the Nomad threat, I fail to see how China fared so poorly with Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. If this were all about nomads, why did these territories maintain their independence for most all of the period? Likewise, if nomads are the answer, why didn't we see continuous unification of say Russia? After all you had multiple splinterings of the state that took centuries to reform. And yet from Poland to wherever you wish to say the step ends in Russia you had repeated bouts of empire building and collapse.

A lot of interesting comments here; this one about Russia facing threats from steppe nomads is a good one.

I'm not sure what you're getting at with the examples of Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan however. The islands and Vietnam did not face the steppes. Korea I'm not sure about -- for most of its history didn't it face China, as opposed to steppe nomads?

I don't think China really did fare "poorly" with Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea and Japan - it is more the case that there was an absence of serious attempts to colonize these regions backed by state power, than that the state tried and failed to do so.

The ideas relating to nomads are that the nomads (or more broadly populations to the north, including the Manchu who were not nomads) were the only serious intrusive threats to China, and the only threats which would catalyze the formation of a basis for empire within China. Not that China should effortlessly roflstomp everything on their borders, despite lack of financial incentive or military imperative to do so.

European states routinely managed to keep large swathes of territory part of the state even though they were "distant" islands. England, for instance, managed to rule Ireland for centuries, Aragon and then Spain managed to rule several major Mediterranean islands for centuries, and the list goes with the Ottomans, Portugal, France, and the like.

Yet Chinese conquests outside the Chinese heartland rarely reverted to imperial norms. Vietnam was at times ruled directly by China. But when dynasties fell, Vietnam rarely reverted to imperial status. Similarly Taiwan had long had a Han presence and it became embroiled with Koxinga, yet somehow an island with much Chinese influence remained outside of the imperial territory.

I would submit that China's extended empire, with Japanese tribute and forays into Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam was just as fragile as Rome's. Sure, core territories, like France or Anatolia would routinely reunite under another dynasty, but outlying territories that required sustained control of littoral waters were impossible to sustain.

Put it another way, territories linked by land and more importantly rivers, just required marching soldiers through. Territories linked by open water required hefty investments in navies and it was a crapshoot if they fell back into the imperial orbit.

Saying well "China just kept reforming" is cheating a bit. We are just consciously ignoring parts of the Empire that did break away and were difficult to retain for new dynasties.

I challenge the idea that it was technology which allowed Europe to dominate the rest of the world at all. When the Age of Sail empires were subjugating all of the New World and half of Asia, the tech edge wasn't that great -- Conquistadors had steel swords and slow, inaccurate arquebuses, but the main army of Cortez's conquest was composed of other Mexican tribes armed with their usual clubs, spears, and bows. And in Asia, the British and Dutch colonizers had NO tech edge over the locals. Everybody used muskets, cannon, and pikes or bayonets. I'd look at the "technologies" of government, economics, and battlefield command rather than specific gadgets.

Well, "the "technologies" of government, economics, and battlefield command" are technologies themselves, but even if you want to talk about soft v hard tech, European approaches in gov, econ, military strategy are underwritten by hard tech advances in reproducing knowledge, ships, storage and transport, etc. Separating hard vs soft tech is probably not possible or useful.

Europeans did have similar edges against competing groups in Asia, when they did have an edge (which they frequently did not, until late).

There's a story which might even be true: a young Indian student asks a venerable Indian scholar "how did such tiny numbers of people from Britain conquer India?" Answer: "they didn't betray each other".

And now they do, unfortunately, all over the West.

Mexican obsidian weapons may have been superior to all but the finest Old World steel.

Have you ever wondered why the Roman empire did not, in some manner, re-form in the Western part of Europe?

Well, no, because it's incredibly obvious why it didn't -- the Roman Empire wasn't an empire of the "Western part of Europe". The Roman Empire was an empire of the Mediterranean basin, with one relatively isolated and economically backwards little finger extended northward from the Mediterranean basin across northern France to England.

Along that line, see "The Victory of Reason" by Stark.

There was a lot more variation in the economy, and culture, of Byzantium that your post acknowledges. It was not just "stable but stagnant". And yes, eastern Europe is Europe too. It's also not appreciated that a fair number of the Germanic "barbarians" came off the steppe. Their ancestors had migrated there when the climate in northern Eurooe started cooling in the 2nd century, and they were pushed west by the advance of the Huns. Until the 17th century, a form of Gothic was still spoken in a few pockets in Ukraine.

I wonder if the difference is not an accident - Gengis Khan first conquered almost all of the Mongolic and Turkic tribes of the steppe, and after they conquered China as a bloc (meaning that China remained united, only with, now, the Mongols in charge); in contrast, in Europe Attila did not conquered most the "barbarian" tribes - each tribe invaded the Roman Empire by itself, creating after each own kingdom.

This is not how history works.

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