The fragmentation, simplification and localization of the post-Imperial era offers us lessons we ignore at our peril.
There is an entire industry devoted to “why the Roman Empire collapsed,” but the post-collapse era may be offer us higher value lessons. The post-collapse era, long written off as The Dark Ages, is better understood as a period of adaptation to changing conditions, specifically, the relocalization and simplification of the economy and governance.
As historian Chris Wickham has explained in his books Medieval Europe and The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000, the medieval era is best understood as a complex process of social, political and economic natural selection: while the Western Roman Empire unraveled, the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) continued on for almost 1,000 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and the social and political structures of the Western Roman Empire influenced Europe for hundreds of years.
In broad-brush, the Roman Empire was a highly centralized, tightly bound system that was remarkably adaptive despite its enormous size and the slow pace of transport and communication. Roman society was both highly hierarchical–the elites claimed superiority and worked hard to master the necessary tools of authority– slaves were integral to the building and maintenance of Rome’s vast infrastructure–and open to meritocracy, as the Roman Army and other classes were open to advancement by anyone in the sprawling empire: every free person became a Roman Citizen once their territory was absorbed into the Empire.
When the Empire fell apart, the model of centralized control/power continued on in the reigns of the so-called Barbarian kingdoms (Goths, Vandals, etc.) and Charlemagne (768-814), over 300 years after the fall of Rome. (When the Ottomans finally conquered Constantinople in 1453, they also adopted many of the bureaucratic structures of the Byzantine Empire.)
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