Sep 22, 2022Liked by Rafael R. Guthmann

What you say is definitely true and there was a general cultural decline after the augustan era, but there is also a paucity of surviving texts from the later periods which creates a survivor bias.

For example we know that there were many writings about the roman conquest of Dacia, including books by emperors Trajan and Hadrian, but most historical works that mention this event did not survive.

It is possible that later copyists where simply less interested in the imperial period and did not invest in the effort of copying books written in that period thus obscuring from our knowledge potentially significant "scientists" of the principate.

Since Gibbon there has been this idea that the decline of the ancient world started with Commodus or maybe with the Antonine Plague so I find it intriguing your arguments that the decline started earlier.

Maybe Pax Romana itself was a culprit? With wars being fought only near distant frontiers there was less need for military innovation and with political life being reduced to intrigues at the imperial court there was less need for the elite to patronize culture and "science" to gain prestige.

Expand full comment
Sep 22, 2022·edited Sep 23, 2022Author

Ian Morris said in The Measure of Civilization that the archeological evidence suggests that the peak in social development in the ancient world was between 100 BC to 150 AD. The scientist inventory agrees with this claim as the number of documented scientists peaks over the two long-centuries period of 85 BC to 125 AD.

So far, we lack data good enough to have an exact date when we can say that was the "peak" of antiquity. Also, not all regions reached their ancient peak development at the same time: like in mainland Greece which had a peak in overall archeological findings from 350 to 250 BC. However, other Greek cities in regions like Sicily and Western Asia minor continued to flourish. Bresson says the decline in Greece's population density during the Hellenistic period was due to immigration to the new colonies in the regions Alexander had conquered, not due to social collapse.

The reasons for the decline beginning after this peak around 100 BC to 150 AD are debated. I think (agreeing on Bresson 2016 and Ober 2015 here) that it was Rome's centralizing power that gradually undermined the institutions of the formelly autonomous cities. Other explanations focus on exogenous shocks like Harper's The Fate of Rome, who says that plagues and climate change gradually destroyed Greco-Roman civilization. I am more convinced of endogenous explanations: plagues and climate change happened in europe from the 14th century to the 18th century (black death and the little ice age) but european civilization continued to flourish (although its true living standards in some regions like Northern Italy peaked in the 15th century and declined later).

Expand full comment

Someone compiled an explanation for the fall of Rome for every letter of the alphabet, which may be fitting as it was probably the result of several things. It is possible that a despotic central power hindered demographic and economic recovery from plagues and enemy raids the way pretenders and civil wars hindered recovery from military defeats multiple times.

I wonder if low fertility was a problem for romans like you mention in the blogpost about greeks. That would also hinder recovery.

Expand full comment
Sep 27, 2022Liked by Rafael R. Guthmann

The obvious reason for the decline of Mediteranean civilization is erosion of farmland.Most places that were thriving city-states have almost no good farmland left.

Expand full comment