Longreads + Open Thread

Solar, Cockroaches, Antitrust, HFT, Chicago, Legibility, Google, the Dark Ages



The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000: I've found that when I think of broad historical epochs, I tend to anchor to when they reached the peak of their power and differentiation. So, there was once a Roman world, with roads, aqueducts, public baths, assorted legions defending the border. And, at some point after that, the formerly Roman world was fragmented into smaller kingdoms, typically ruled by someone who owned a castle or two. But that leaves a lot of the transition between the two unexplained, and this book is all about how we got from point A to point B.

One reason this process doesn't get a lot of coverage is that the collapse of Rome was a disaster for European standards of living. The Roman Empire was an extractive state, i.e. it converted taxes on peasants into infrastructure, luxury consumption for the rich, as well as assorted conquests, attempts to defend itself from being conquered, etc. But it was big enough, and imposed enough consistency in language, legal code, and currency, that it could support a complex economy with trade between different regions. Post-Roman Europe really couldn't manage this. Some post-Roman states were very weak indeed: the book describes kings in England as being entitled to tribute, paid in food, but often only paid when the king and his entourage showed up. It's a big decline, from emperors who can command vast armies and skim some production from tens of millions of people to a guy who shows up with a posse of intimidating friends and demands dinner.

As with other books I've read about turnover in regimes, like Tony Judt's Postwar, a transition that's sharp and impossible to ignore in the capital city is more gradual everywhere else. To someone in the city of Rome itself, 476 AD was a discrete and meaningful point in history, but to someone in what is now France or England, the fall of Rome was a gradual process happening over centuries—in England, at least, the Roman Empire more or less ghosted them, by answering letters more and more slowly and eventually neglecting to reply at all. In other places, the Roman system was kept running, to a degree, but under new management.

A running theme in the book is the search for legitimacy. Rome had lasted long enough that it probably felt unquestionably permanent to most people who lived in the empire and were even aware of it. But when someone new is in charge, they need some way to demonstrate that they are. You can roughly measure how nice it was to live in a particular post-Roman state by what their leaders did to signal that they were leaders: in the worst case, it was typically by killing off some rival claimant, but in a few places it meant building a nice church or mosque, a palace, or perhaps making a slapdash effort to reconstruct a Roman bridge or road. That search for legitimacy still matters, at many scales; it's useful to have someone specific in charge, but it's costly for them to demonstrate that they are, in fact, calling the shots.

Open Thread

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