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A Return to Prehistory?

This is the last of four excerpts from The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins. The first excerpt, “The Disappearance of Comfort,” can be found here: LINK

The economic change that I have outlined was an extraordinary one. What we observe at the end of the Roman world is not a ‘recession’ or – to use a term that has recently been suggested – an ‘abatement’, with an essentially similar economy continuing to work at a reduced pace. Instead, what we see is a remarkable qualitative change, with the disappearance of entire industries and commercial networks. The economy of the post-Roman West is not that of the fourth century reduced in scale, but a very different and far less sophisticated entity.

This is at its starkest and most obvious in Britain. A number of basic skills disappeared entirely during the fifth century, to be reintroduced only centuries later. Some of these, such as the technique of building in mortared stone or brick, can perhaps be seen as products of specifically Roman styles of display, and therefore peculiarly susceptible to political and cultural change, rather than economic deadline, are impossible to uphold. All over Britain, the art of making pottery on a wheel disappeared in the early fifth century, and was not reintroduced for almost 300 years. The potter’s wheel is not an instrument of cultural identity. Rather, it is a functional innovation that facilitates the rapid production of thin-walled ceramics; and yet it disappeared from Britain. Presumably, though I would be the first to admit that it is hard to credit, this was because there were no longer enough consumers around to sustain any specialized potting. Sophistication in production and exchange did survive in post-Roman Britain, but only at the very highest levels of society and the highest level of artefacts. In the early seventh century an East Anglian ruler was buried at Sutton Hoo with an extraordinarily rich and exotic accompaniment of treasure: silver and copper dishes from the eastern Mediterranean; an enamelled bronze bowl, probably from West Britain; some splendid weaponry, some of it perhaps from Scandinavia; gold coins from the Frankish kingdoms; and some wonderful native gold jewellery, incorporating garnets and millefiore glasswork from the Continent (or, possibly, from even further afield). The jewellery, which was certainly made in Anglo-Saxon Britain, displays levels of craftsmanship and design that are extraordinarily accomplished and sophisticated. But these are all rare elite items, made or imported for the highest levels of society. At this level, beautiful objects were still being made, and traded or gifted across long distances. What had totally disappeared, however, were the good-quality, low-value items, made in bulk, and available so widely in the Roman period. An object from the Sutton Hoo ship burial that attracts very little attention in its British Museum showcase speaks volumes: the pottery bottle. In the context of seventh-century East Anglia, it was almost certainly a high-status item, imported from abroad (since it was shaped on a wheel, at a time when all pottery in Britain was hand-formed). But in any context of the Roman period, even a rural peasant context, it would be entirely unremarkable, or notable only for its porous fabric and rough finish. The economy that sustained and supplied a massive middle and lower market for low-value functional goods had disappeared, leaving sophisticated production and exchange for only a tiny number of high-status objects.

It may initially be hard to believe, but post-Roman Britain in fact sank to a level of economic complexity well below that of the pre-Roman Iron Age. Southern Britain, in the years before the Roman conquest of AD 43, was importing quantities of Gaulish wine and Gaulish pottery; it had its own native pottery industries with regional distribution of their wares; it even had native silver coinages, which may well have been used to facilitate exchange, as well as for purposes of prestige and gift-giving. The settlement pattern of later iron-age Britain also reflects emerging economic complexity, with substantial coastal settlements, like Hengistbury in modern Hampshire, which were at least partly dependent on trade. None of these features can be found reliably in fifth- and sixth-century post-Roman Britain. It is really only in about AD 700, three centuries after the disintegration of the Romano-British economy, that southern Britain crawled back to the level of economic complexity found in the pre-Roman Iron Age, with evidence of pots imported from the Continent, the first substantial and wheel-turned Anglo-Saxon pottery industry (at Ipswich), the striking of silver coins, and the emergence of coastal trading towns, such as Hamwic (Saxon Southampton) and London. All these features were new, or only just beginning, in around AD 700; but all had existed in Southern Britain during the pre-Roman Iron Age.

In the western Mediterranean, the economic regression was by no means as total as it was in Britain. As we have seen, some trade, some trading towns, some coinage, and some local and regional industries persisted throughout the post-Roman centuries. But it must be remembered that in the Mediterranean world the level of economic complexity and sophistication reached in the Roman period was considerably higher than anything ever attained in Britain. The fall in economic complexity may in fact have been as remarkable as that in Britain; but, since in the Mediterranean it started from a much higher point, it also bottomed out at a higher level. If, as we have done for Britain, we compare pre-Roman and post-Roman Mediterranean economies, in some areas at least a very similar picture can be found to that sketched out above – of a regression, taking the economy way below levels of complexity reached in the pre-Roman period. In southern and central Italy, for example, both the Greek colonies and the Etruscan territories have provided much more evidence of trade and sophisticated native industries than can be found in post-Roman Italy. The pre-Roman past, in the temples of Agrigento and Paestum, the tombs of Cerveteri and Tarquinia, and a mass of imported and native pottery and jewellery, has left enough material remains to serve as a major tourist attraction. The same cannot be said of the immediately post-Roman centuries.

The case of central and southern Italy raises a very important point. The complex system of production and distribution, whose disappearance we have been considering, was an older and more deeply rooted phenomenon than an exclusively ‘Roman’ economy. Rather, it was an ‘ancient’ economy that in the eastern and southern Mediterranean was flourishing long before Rome became at all significant, and that even in the northwestern Mediterranean was developing steadily before the centuries of Roman domination. It is true that in some distant northern provinces – the interior of the Balkans, northern Gaul, the Rhineland, and Britain – Roman power and economic complexity were more or less chronologically coterminous. But, even in these regions, as we have seen in looking at iron-age Britain, the result of the Roman conquest was perhaps more to intensify older developments than completely to change the direction of economic life. What was destroyed in the post-Roman centuries, and then only very slowly re-created, was a sophisticated world with very deep roots indeed.

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