Escape from Rome by Walter Scheidel
In explaining the divergence of the West, this also shows why the steppe-adjacent countries will be international relations disasters for a lot longer than most expect.
Firstly, dealing with invaders from the steppe caused increasingly centralized coordination, either in mounting a defense or after losing and the conquerors consolidated. Secondly, the long-term continued exposure to the threat of invasion deformed culture and embedded governance expectations.
Lastly, is there a new global steppe?
Fernand Braudel famously labeled distance the number one enemy of civilization. Far-flung empires continuously struggled to maintain communication and to exercise power over diverse terrains: their very survival depended on this.3
Roughly 40 percent of the subjects of the mature Roman empire resided outside Europe. Even so, it is clear that the observed pattern was in the first instance the result of developments in Europe rather than in the Levant or northern Africa. The level of Roman imperial dominance in Europe was unparalleled. At the peak of their power, the Romans controlled between three-quarters and four-fifths of the European population, even though they claimed no more than a quarter of the continents land surface.12
After the disintegration of the western half of the empire in the fifth century CE, the corresponding share of the eastern Roman empire plummeted to 20 percent or 30 percent. Ephemeral consolidation under Charlemagne was followed by an entire millennium of persistent polycentrism as the most populous power did not normally rule even a fifth of all Europeans. Neither Napoleon nor Hitler managed to match the reach of the Romans even for a few years, and Russias ascent up to the mid-twentieth century was eventually checked by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991
Regardless of their formal standing within this system, the one thing all involved parties had in common was the obligation to contribute military manpower under Roman leadership and to fund military operations: citizens paid a direct tax (tributum) specifically for this purpose while allied communities were expected to support their own levies.14
Scale and mobilization intensity were the two critical variables. Scaling-up was achieved by aggressive co-optation. Unlike in Greek city-states, where citizenship was often viewed as a prized privilege, Rome readily bestowed citizen status on outsiders, many of whom were defeated former enemies. Also unlike among the Greeks, citizenship thus became divorced from ethnicity or geographical location. The effectively oligarchic nature of Roman government appears to have sufficiently devalued citizen status to ensure this unusual openness. The fact that Romans who resettled in most colonies forfeited citizenship also reflects the relatively low value of formal membership in the Roman state. Allied polities retained their existing governmental arrangements and merely contributed military resources without being incorporated into the republic.15
Financial taxation of the Roman citizenry was light and intimately tied to warfare. Annual tax rates are very poorly known but undoubtedly very low, perhaps not more than 0.1 percent of the assessed value of personal assets, functionally equivalent to an annual income tax of not more than a few percent. The modest income tax of 3 percent the U.S. Revenue Act of 1862 imposed on middle-class citizens of the Union to help fund the Civil War may serve as a suitable if distant analogy.17
On occasion, these taxes were even refunded out of the proceeds of war booty, thus turning them into something more akin to loans. Allies owed no direct taxes to Rome, presumably relying on their ownundocumenteddomestic revenues to sustain their military contingents. Low or no taxation generally benefited the local upper classes, boosting their willingness to follow Romes lead. Conscription also lacked any progressive dimension, and was in fact regressive insofar as it favored older and thus more affluent men who were less likely to be called up.18
Apart from tolls and rents on public land, a large share of state revenue was obtained through plunder, later supplemented by indemnities extorted from defeated opponents. Direct taxes in money and kind only began to flow more freely once Rome acquired provinces outside Italy, a process that did not commence until the second half of the third century BCE. For quite a few generations before then, the use of military labor could steadily increase simply because it was relatively cheap: conscripts regularly supplied their own equipment and received very modest compensation for their service.19
Given high military participation rates, conscription was by far the largest share of the tax burden placed on Romans and their Italian allies. Men of propertyoften mere smallholderswere expected to serve for six or seven years, and even more in periods of military exigency. This estimate comes with a generous margin of error: while Roman army strength is fairly well documented, the size of the underlying population remains the subject of debate. Even so, relatively conservative assumptions about Italian population numbers convey a powerful sense of the extent to which Rome committed young and sometimes even middle-aged men to military endeavors
And in all this it is worth emphasizing that such mobilization rates were sustained for hundreds of years, and not merely during specific wars that lasted only years or decades.21
Why did Rome pursue this course? Several factors came into play. One is that taxing labor via conscription was a practice well suited to the economically underdeveloped environment of central Italy, especially in its mountainous interior. This favored what Charles Tilly calls a coercion-intensive mode of revenue extraction, in which rulers squeezed the means of war from their own populations and others they conquered. What makes the Roman case noteworthy is that the single-minded focus on military labor (most of it self-sustaining infantry) obviated the need for (again in Tillys words) concomitantly building massive structures of extraction in the processan important qualification to a model designed to explain much later European state formation. Moreover, because the extent of military technology did not vary greatly across much of the Italian peninsula, there was no strong competitive demand to develop forces that were much more sophisticated than militias of peasant infantry, such as armored horsemen or large navies.22
It has been suggested that the open-ended Roman conscription system served to drain potentially dangerous manpower away from subordinated communities, and that other forms of tribute might have been perceived as too onerous and alienating even where they were feasible in economic terms. Expanding this line of reasoning, it is worth asking whether Romes approach might not have been at least in part conditioned by its relative weakness vis--vis its competitors.23
This perspective requires some detachment from the vision of an assertive Rome that we owe to much later sources composed with the benefit of hindsight. The least invasive way of scaling up was to leave local structures intact and thereby reduce friction. Emphasis on taxing military labor maximized the honor of co-opted groups, which we may assume to have been of considerable importance in the martial environment of Iron Age Italy. It was bound to be more honorable for young men to fight (in the case of allies even under their own local commanders) and for the wealthy to pay (or lend) funds explicitly to support these young men on their campaigns than for everyone to be asked to hand over a tithe or poll tax to Roman tax collectors. The sharing out of spoils among combatants, discussed below, likewise cast them in the role of respected partners. Finally, the Roman mode of co-optation succeeded because it enhanced capacity for collective action at the local level. Instead of disarming former enemies, Rome not only actively encouraged them to maintain their previous warlike disposition but institutionalized this quality even more solidly by routinizing it as a key obligation to a larger network of communities. It is true that this strategy was not without risk, as it augmented Romes military capabilities even as it preserved the option of organized armed resistance. It speaks to the systems remarkable success that the latter did not occur on a grand scale until a number of the Italian allies revolted in 91 BCE. However, this episode also demonstrates that the option of armed resistance had remained viable even after many generations of cooperative expansionism, which in turn suggests that it must have been at least as viable before.
The Roman state that arose from these arrangements was one narrowly focused on warfare and little else. It serves as an almost ideal-typical manifestation of Tillys four essential state activities: state-making (checking competitors within the area claimed by the state), war-making (attacking rivals outside it), protection (checking rivals of principal allies), and extraction (obtaining the means required to undertake the other three).30
In the Roman case, these activities were exercised in ways to sustain ongoing aggression directed against external targets. Low-friction co-optation of local communities reduced the need for the violent checking of internal competitors: only the southern Italian periphery of allies frayed on multiple occasions. Protection did not take much effort since local elites by and large took care of their own business: Roman interventions on their behalf are only very rarely documented.
Two factors rendered a larger ambitious apparatus both redundant and undesirable. One was the aforementioned concentration on the provision of violence at the expense of other governmental objectives. Oligarchic reluctance to strengthen centralized state capacity was the other. Eager to fill their own pockets and to prevent the ascent of leaders who might use state resources to seize power, aristocratic officials heavily leaned on patrimonial and clientelistic resources to fulfill their appointed tasks.33
As a result, public good provision in the form of civilian infrastructure other than temples (which had been sponsored by individual leaders) largely had to wait until provincial tribute began to flow in the second century BCE, and reached a large scale only in the first century BCE and mostly in the capital as political competition intensified and the aristocratic consensus collapsed. During the formative period and peak of the Roman war system from the fourth century BCE into the early second century BCE, by contrast, the parsimonious nature of the state was successfully maintained.
The Roman aristocracy was highly militarized. While its likely origins in roving warrior clans may have been a contributing factor, the institutional setup of the mature Republican system was crucial in maintaining and reinforcing this martial disposition. In the absence of regular tribute-taking, the principal source of public elite income was leadership in war, and annual rotation of office restricted opportunities to benefit materially from these positions and to gain glory that could be instrumentalized in subsequent electioneering and the enhancement of ones familys status.
Over time, this gave rise to a pervasive culture of prowess in war. By the second century BCE, ten years of military serviceprobably in actual campaigns or in camps rather than merely pro formawere considered a precondition for running for public office: thus, hopeful aristocrats would have spent their entire late teens and much of their twenties in the field. A strong warrior ethos permeated the ruling elite, inculcated through prolonged apprenticing, kept alive by family tradition and religious sanction, and avidly invoked in public displays: success in war was their central criterion of achievement. The triumphal procession granted to victorious commanders consequently represented a pinnacle of personal accomplishment.37
Elite enrichment and the quest for prestige were thus critically predicated on the pursuit of military success, and were only gradually complemented by involvement in (at least at times) more peaceful provincial administration that opened up novel revenue streams. This shift occurred only once Rome had already eclipsed its most serious competitors: as a result, by the time martial norms and expectations began to be relaxed, the traditional war machine had already been in place long enough to achieve hegemony in western Eurasia.38
During the formative stages of Roman hegemony in peninsular Italy, the distribution of spoils went a long way in ensuring widespread popular support for war. Large tracts of land were seized from defeated enemies and assigned to Roman settlers. Tens of thousands of adult Roman men were resettled with their families. By 218 BCE, some 9,000 square kilometers of land had changed hands that way, and probably as much again had been turned into state-owned land (ager publicus) and leased out or soldoverall a considerable portion of a peninsula of 125,000 square kilometers, not more than half of which could have been used for agriculture.41
Alongside conquered land, allied soldiers also received a share of movable plunder and expected to be granted the share of campaign bonuses as Roman citizen troops. Beyond tangible economic rewards that were assigned to individuals, allied polities obtained valuable protectionnot necessarily so much from credible outside enemies that soon disappeared from view but from neighboring communities. The Roman alliance system brought about lasting security at home, or at the very least suppressed old rivalries.44
Roman-style expansionism evinces attributes of a pyramid scheme: The Roman system has been compared to a criminal operation which compensates its victims by enrolling them in the gang and inviting them to share the proceeds of future robberies. Success in turning former enemies into fellow citizens or allies depended in no small measure on Romes ability to access new resources to reward those who had just been robbeda dynamic that made it rather difficult to abandon robbing altogether without incurring serious political costs.47
The exceptional scale of Roman war-making critically relied on very high military participation rates. We cannot really tell if Romans fought more fiercely than others, or whether high military participation rates generally increase ferocity. At the end of the day, it does not really matter: over the long run, sheer numbers were decisive. Romes superior manpower reserves compensated for the weakness of its oligarchic system that prized rotation of office-holding over pertinent expertise: a premise that not only strengthened the elites martial spirit but also welcomed amateurs to positions of command. Yet while this may have made warfare even costlier than it needed to be, in the end Romes massed infantry could always be counted on to hold the line: for centuries Rome lost many battles but never a war.62
Back in 1919, in an indictment of the bloody follies of the Great Powers, Joseph Schumpeter sought to identify traits that turned a society into a war machine, an arrangement in which war was the only means for the prevailing form of political and social organization to find an outlet and maintain its domestic position. In this case, even when rational reasons for war-making were lacking, War became the normal condition. To take the field was a matter of course, the reasons for doing so were of subordinate importance. Created by wars that required it, the machine now created the wars it required. This generated what Schumpeter regarded as an objectless disposition on the part of the state to unlimited forcible expansion.63
Thus, for no fewer than 425 years, Rome was engaged in war well over 90 percent of the time. The sixteen years devoid of major conflict between the end of the Tacfarinas war in North Africa in 24 CE and risings in Morocco in 40 CE followed by Claudiuss invasion of Britain in 43 CE were without precedent in known Roman history. At that point, more than half a millennium had passed since the conventional start date of the Roman Republic (and more than three-quarters of a millennium since the mythical founding date of the city itself).
The aptly named Warring States of early China are a good example. Over the course of 502 years, the state of Qin was involved in wars in which it was either the principal aggressor or target in only 186 years, or a little over one in three. Even if we pool the experiences of all major states, China registered 127 years of peace in the same period, or one in four.66
Third, Hellenistic armies were much more expensive in per capita terms than the forces of the Romans and their Italian allies. Even allowing for wide margins of uncertainty, we may estimate that in nominal terms, a Seleucid or Ptolemaic infantryman cost anywhere from three to six times as much per day as the average soldier on the Roman side.20
There were two main reasons for this enormous gap: nominal prices and wages were higher in the economically more developed Hellenistic world than in Italy, and professional soldiers and mercenaries commanded wages that were much higher than those of Roman and allied soldiers not merely in nominal terms but also in real ones. Thus, while the Hellenistic powers struggled to channel vast financial resources into their voracious militaries, the more nimble Roman state relied on large numbers of low-cost conscripts and enjoyed the added advantage of recruitment below actual cost among its Italian allies, an arrangement sustained by allied self-funding and the promise of booty.21
Rome attained naval security and then supremacy across the Mediterranean at a very early stage of its expansion beyond Italy. Romes naval defeat of Carthage in 241 BCE, which concluded their first round of warfare, left much of the Carthaginian empire intact but effectively ended its sea power. Thanks to the lack of other major seafaring societies west of the Aegean and Egypt, this made Rome the undisputed hegemon over more than half of the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. By the same year, the Ptolemies had achieved naval supremacy in most of the remainder of this sea basin, from the Aegean (up to Thrace and the Dardanelles) and throughout the Levant all the way to the Cyrenaica.32
Their capitals separated by well more than 2,000 kilometers of sea travel as well as by shared enemies or sources of concern, these two powers had been on friendly terms ever since Rome had first consolidated control over the Italian peninsula. In the third century BCE, the Ptolemaic empire maintained a large navy that included some of the largest warships built in all of antiquity. Its interference in Romes operations against Sicily and North Africa would not have been a trivial matter. As it was, cordial relations were maintained until the decline of Ptolemaic power in the second century BCE allowed Rome to extend its naval hegemony eastward simply by filling the vacuum this created while the second-tier navies of Macedon and the Seleucids were shunted aside without much difficulty.33
After 190 BCE, no Hellenistic state challenged Rome by sea. The true extent of its hegemonic status is reflected in the later spread of piracy: as the Roman state was able to neglect its naval capabilities because it had run out of state-level competitors, no other powers were able to step in to improve security. In the end, it was Rome that suppressed maritime raids by nonstate actors (or pirates) with overwhelming force.34
Rome's record in empire-building was unique in more ways than one. No other state would ever again rule four out of every five inhabitants of Europe. No other state would ever again control all of the Mediterranean basin as well as the entire population of its coastal regions. No other empire in world history that had arisen at considerable remove from the great Eurasian steppe belt was anywhere near as large or durable as imperium Romanum.23
This uniqueness was rooted in the similarly unique circumstances of Romes rise to power. Military mass mobilizationand political republicanismon the scale practiced by the ascendant Roman state and its principal allies did not return to Europe until the early modern age, at a time when competitive polycentrism had already hardened into an immovably stable state system. In no small part thanks to centuries of Roman campaigning, stateless peripheries had retreated to the northern and eastern margins of Europe. As a result, no later state in the temperate zone of Europe would ever again enjoy the privilege of being able to scale up its resources and military capabilities without having to worry about outside interference.
Never again were geopolitical conditions so favorable for the creation of naval hegemony, of the Roman mare nostrumour sea: by 241 BCE, two friendly powers, Rome and the Ptolemaic empire, had come to share effective control over most of the Mediterranean Sea, and the latter declined too fast, and soon became too dependent on the former for any serious rivalries to emerge between them. This unlikely sequence of events remained without parallel. Once the Vandals and then the Arabs had ended Romes naval monopoly, the Mediterranean became and remained an arena for competing states and buccaneers. Not until the days of Admiral Nelson did any one power rival Romes position of maritime supremacy. And never again would the surpluses of the well-taxed Levant be harnessed for state-building in Europe.
In short, Romes manifold advantages, even insofar as it would have been possible to replicate them at all, were so unusual that they were unlikely to occur again laterand in fact they never did. This, in turn, helps us understand why nothing like the Roman empire ever returned.
Several long-term trends that undermined the integrity of the Roman empire are reasonably well discernible in the record. Local elites, on whose cooperation the central government critically relied, obstructed attempts to increase state revenue. Military capabilities as proxied by mobilization intensity declined. Geographical divisions deepened and became more formalized. Secondary state formation at the frontiers commenced wherever the Roman advance had finally run out of steam (or rather, incentives): what had once been a highly fragmented tribal periphery steadily accumulated organizational and technological knowledge. Scaling-up progressed far enough to challenge Romes military supremacy but not enough to create suitable targets for counterattack, let alone sustainable conquest.
The Arab forces consisted of war-trained men, loyal to kin and tribe, and now also to their new religion. Often hardened Bedouin, they were highly mobile and able to cover large distances without slow supply trains. Their initial footprint was light, or at any rate less heavy than that of the centralizing high-maintenance empires they replaced. Their leaders demanded tribute but little else; destruction or terror remained rare.
The Arab forces settled in isolation from the local population in newly founded garrison cities, a strategy that helped them maintain cohesion and reduce friction with civilians. Thin on the groundunlike Germans, Arabs did not resettle en massethey did not push for religious conversion: their conquest societies were open, allowing allies to join. Islamization was slow and driven by benefits rather than compulsion. In the Christian Levant, the large Miaphysite and Nestorian communities were finally free to practice their creeds without high-handed interference from orthodox Constantinople.23
Moreover, the psychological impact of the Arab blitzkrieg must not be underrated.
In the Roman empire, meanwhile, a patrimonial bureaucracy that had grown only very slowly received a major boost from serious dislocations in the third century CE that encouraged more determined centralizing reforms. As a result, the mature imperial state of the fourth century CE resembled that of the Han more closely than before, featuring a sizable bureaucracy of 20,000-plus men, an overhaul of the fragmented tax system, the separation of military and civilian commands, and halfhearted encroachment on urban autonomy. Ministries, powerful court eunuchs, and child emperors, long common in Han China, likewise appeared on the scene.9
In the more distant past, rulers might rely on plunder or on income from their own estates. However, regularized revenue extractionof material goods from food to money and of human labor from military conscription to corvefrom a broader base is necessary for sustaining any kind of state with more than minimal capacities. Empire, as the result of massive scaling-up of military reach and territorial consolidation, is impossible without it. Its characteristic articulation into center and peripheries all but requires resource flows between them. At the same time, the logistical challenges involved in controlling extensive possessions unfailingly turned local powerholders and distant agents into partners as well as competitors of the central authorities in extracting surplus. If those intermediaries became too autonomous, effective state power was bound to diminish as private rent crowded out public tax.19
When it comes to accounting for the First Great Divergence, revenue extraction plays a key role as a predictor of rulers ability to maintain state power and to build larger imperial polities. As we will see, fiscal capacity precipitously declined in post-Roman Europe but was more successfully maintained or restored in other parts of the Old World that subsequently hosted large empires. In Latin Europe, this erosion of fiscal capacity was not overcome until after a stable multistate system had formed and political power within polities had come to be critically constrained by domestic compromises born in no small measure of fiscal weakness.22
Caesar subdued Gaul with ten legions30,00040,000 men even if seriously understrength, and bolstered by considerable allied contingentsa display of military might the region would not witness again until the early modern period. In 43 CE, the emperor Claudius invaded Britain with some 40,000 men, four or five times as many as William the Conqueror would marshal in 1066.
At the same time, under the fubing system, more adult men were granted land in exchange for regular military service obligations. This added farmer-soldiers to an expanding infantry even as horses obtained via the Gansu corridor helped maintain strong cavalry forces. These policies simultaneously mobilized a growing share of the population for military purposes and buttressed the rural smallholder class. Chinese elites became more widely involved in administration, and bureaucratic reforms created ministries. All of this raised state capacity and helped cement centralized authority. The overall result was a shift toward the kind of well-integrated high-mobilization state that had been characteristic of the Warring States and Western Han periods. The payoff was large: army strength grew from perhaps 50,000 in the 550s to well more than 100,000 by the 570s.53
Europe does indeed emerge as a serious outlier within the Old World. In this respect, David Cosandeys work has produced striking results. Almost half of the surface area of what he labels Western Europegenerously defined as Europe west of what used to be the Soviet Unionis located on peninsulas and another tenth on islands. Conversely, the aggregated peninsular and insular shares of China, India, and the Middle East and North Africa region range from 1 percent to 3.6 percent.4
The Alps, Pyrenees, and Carpathians are relatively high compared to mountain ranges that can be found in China east of Tibet: the first two generally rise above 1,500 meters. Moreover, well less than half of Western Europe lies less than 300 meters above sea level, mostly England, Ireland, northwestern France, northern Germany, and Poland, as well as the Po Valley (figure 8.1).
By contrast, core China (excluding Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria) enjoys conditions that favor greater connectivity. Much of that area lies less than 300 meters above sea level, and elevations of 1,500 meters are rare, confined in the first instance to the northwest where the state of Qin developed sheltered within the passes (figure 8.2). Core China is an excellent illustration of Montesquieus much more extensive divisions by mountains.6
In 2009, Peter Turchin observed that up to 1800, except for modern European overseas colonies, most empires that covered at least 1 million square kilometers (a convenient metric equivalent to three-quarters of a percent of the earths land surface outside Antarctica) emerged in close proximity to a steppe frontier. My own revised and updated version of Turchins survey shows that 62 out of 73 such polities more or less clearly belong in this category. No fewer than 54 of these 63 developed either in or very close to the Eurasian
Away from the steppe, empire-building on this scale remained limited to just a few cases: the Roman and Carolingian empires in Europe, the Angkorian empire in Southeast Asia, and the Inca empire in the Andes. Among these four, the Frankish and Khmer polities barely cleared the size threshold, and the former proved rather brittle. Only Rome could rival the largest agrarian empires of the Middle East and South and East Asia in terms of both heft and longevity.29
At the same time, the steppe effect of imperial consolidation extended well beyond China proper. Barfield developed his model of shadow empires based on parallel trends in state formation in the agricultural and pastoralist spheres that suggest close developmental linkages: bipolar cycles with centralization or collapse on both sides. Thus, when China united, so did the steppe: the creation of the Qin-Han empire coincided with the unified Xiongnu empire (third through first centuries BCE), the Tuoba consolidation with the rise of the Rouran (fifth and sixth century CE), the Sui-Tang consolidation with the two Turkish khaganates (sixth through eighth centuries CE), and the Uighur khaganate (eighth and ninth century CE) (as well as the Tibetan empire in the seventh through ninth centuries CE).
Similar to the marginal zone between northern China and the great steppe, Afghanistan served as a conduit for exchanges with Central Asia and as a launchpad for invasions of northern India. In a further analogy, south Indian militaries were generally deficient in cavalries (but strong in naval assets), just as south Chinese ones were. South Asian ecology placed serious constraints on riders and herders: the lack of extensive grasslands limited their numbers, and high levels of humidity damaged their bows.
Yet these obstacles could be overcome by learning from local practices and, above all, by taxing large subordinate sedentary populations to sustain large cavalry forces that were replenished by ongoing imports of horses from farther north and west. High-endurance turki-horses were Central Asias main export item to Mughal India: as many as 100,000 of them are said to have arrived there each year. Medieval Latin Europe, by contrast, lacked not only sufficient grasslands but also the fiscal infrastructure that might have made comparable forms of Magyar or Mongol rule viable
On the continent, a first phase of scaling-up commenced in the ninth century CE: Pagan expanded in Burma, Angkor in Cambodia and Thailand, and Dai Viet in Vietnam. Largely confined to the lowlands, these sizable but brittle polities were propped up by close cooperation with religious institutionscomparable perhaps to what had happened much earlier in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamiaand by favorable environmental conditions fostered by the Medieval Climate Anomaly that ensured strong monsoon rains. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, all of them succumbed to escalating problems associated with population growth and climate change.
The period from the late thirteenth to the mid-fifteenth century was thus defined by political decentralization, followed by a phase of renewed concentration that lasted until the mid-sixteenth century. Even so, the latter did not result in hegemonic unification: in Liebermans count, the number of polities merely fell from twenty-three in 1340 to nine or ten in 1540. In a region of a little more than 2 million square kilometers, this reflected a considerable degree of fragmentation.
WHY DOES it matter that Europe was so fragmented? My answer is straightforward. This polycentrism is key to explaining the (Second) Great Divergence, the Industrial Revolution(s), and thus the Great Escape. Almost all of the many competing interpretations that seek to account for these radical transformations are predicated on this one feature of European sociopolitical evolution. This is true irrespective of whether these reconstructions privilege institutions, global connectivity, or cultural characteristicsand whether or not their proponents are aware of this shared underlying premise. By all accounts, the transition to the modern world was deeply rooted in the First Great Divergence.1
This perspective has a long pedigree. Montesquieu thought that Europes fragmentation formed a genius for liberty by favoring the government of the laws over despotism. He was on the right track: as we will see, smaller polities enjoyed greater capacity for more inclusive forms of rule than large empires, and interstate rivalries were a crucial driver of institutional development. Immanuel Kant likewise objected to the idea
that all the states should be merged into one under a power which has gained the ascendancy over its neighbours and gradually become a universal monarchy. For the wider the sphere of their jurisdiction, the more laws lose in force: and soulless despotism, when it has choked the seeds of good, at last sinks into anarchy.2
The polycentristic variant provides a rough approximation of conditions in post-Roman Europe. The fall of Rome ultimately gave rise to multiple states that did not dramatically differ in terms of capabilities (smaller but more cohesive polities balanced less-well-organized larger ones), mobilization intensity (Roman-style levels of conscription did not return until the French Revolution), mode of production (most Europeans were farmers and lived far from the steppe frontier), and religion (Christianity steadily spread into the northern and eastern reaches of the continent while Islam failed to make much headway). All this ensured that interstate competition was fairly symmetric in style: with like fighting like. Not least because of this, it also remained inconclusive, as no one party ever managed to overpower all the others.
After Romes collapse, the four principal sources of social power became increasingly unbundled. Political power was claimed by monarchs who gradually lost their grip on material resources and thence on their subordinates. Military power devolved upon lords and knights. Ideological power resided in the Catholic Church, which fiercely guarded its long-standing autonomy even as its leadership was deeply immersed in secular governance and the management of capital and labor. Economic power was contested between feudal lords and urban merchants and entrepreneurs, with the latter slowly gaining the upper hand. church leaders supported Germanic rulers by acting as their vassals, councilors, and legitimators. Their services added to state capacity, and rulers investiture rights and feudal claims sustained rulers authority over these enfeoffed clerics, even as the latters abiding loyalty to a separate organization was a potential source of friction. These conflicting commitments were not normally a serious concern as long as the church itself remained regionally decentralized, mirroring therein the growing fracturing of secular power across early medieval Latin Europe.
This changed once the introduction of the pontiffs election by cardinals in the eleventh century had put the papacy on a more secure footing. In the twelfth century, centralization enabled popes to arrogate to themselves hugely increased powers, including supreme doctrinal authority, control over canon law as sovereign lawgivers and judges, and the right to confirm archbishops. By 1300, the Roman curia had grown to a thousand mostly celibate clergymen, a body without equal among the secular courts of the period. Papal legates acted as roving agents who overrode the decisions of local bishops.
Perpetuating customs that were typical of the small-scale face-to-face societies of northern Europe, the Germanic successor regimes generally featured political and judicial assemblies. These bodies operated on different scales. On specific occasions, rulers convened mixed councils of bishops, counts, and assorted noblemen to debate and make decisions regarding war and political disputes as well as legal affairs. In less-rarified settings, local assemblies, variously composed of notables or even all free men, tended to focus on conflict resolution. These gatherings did not reflect continuity of earlier Roman practice, which had not survived urban collapse: an importation from the North, they represented in almost all respects a break with the Roman past.15
As a matter of fact, assemblies were at their strongest where Roman traditions were weak or nonexistent. Under the Visigoths, royal councils played only a minor role, and Lombard rulers in Italy found it easy to control them. The Frankish placitum generale convened powerful aristocrats who needed to be carefully managed by their kings to broker consent.
In Anglo-Saxon England, both rulers and elites keenly participated in deliberative gatherings. Emphasis was put on collective decision-making: resolutions were passed by the king and his witan, the wise men who upon Englands political unification in the tenth century came to be understood as representatives of the entire realm.
As a second benefit, public debt appeared on the scene earlier than it might otherwise have, if indeed it would have done so at all. It is hardly a coincidence that in all of documented history, only city-states invented public credit, first in the ancient Greek world and then once again in the Middle Ages
Mark Dincecco and Massimiliano Onorato develop this safe harbor argument more broadly by documenting a positive correlation between exposure to conflict and urban growth between 1000 and 1800. Artisans and entrepreneurs moved to cities, bringing financial and human capital with them. They benefited from fortifications and scale effects, and even though the concentration of resources turned cities into more attractive targets, the relative rarity of sackings, the mobility of urban capital, and common regeneration after wars compensated for this risk. Moreover, cities were not merely physically safer. They also offered personal freedoms and protection from predation by the powerful. Urban residents benefited from local governance and the privileges rulers granted as they bargained for funds for war.
Urban density lowered exchange costs and fostered division of labor and thick labor markets, while higher real wages provided incentives for technological innovation and human capital formation and, more specifically, for the substitution of capital for labor. For all these reasons, endemic warfare made Europe not only more urban but also more developed than it might otherwise have been.42
Why was war so common? Philip Hoffman has developed a tournament model of warfare in which great efforts were made to capture a prize but hostilities were not overly destructive for belligerents, especially for their leadership. Enduring polycentrism was an essential precondition, as was the persistence of martial tastes that I already mentioned.
More importantly, Hoffmans model seeks to explain the progressive character of European warfare: that by channeling ever more resources into warfare, this competition sustained innovation in weapons technology and public organization. For war to have that effect, it had to be common and desirable (by promising glory, territorial gain, and commercial advantage); fixed costs had to be low (military infrastructure was already in place, beginning with medieval castles and knights, which represented a huge sunk cost); variable costs had to be similar (allowing efficient smaller parties to balance larger ones that found it harder to raise revenue); conditions had to be conducive to investment in modern technologies such as firearms and in navies (which was ensured by sufficient distance from the steppe and the coastal articulation of much of Europe); and obstacles to innovation had to be low (which was all but guaranteed by the relative openness of European polities and ease of! transnational diffusion).
The convergence of all these conditions, which was arguably unique to Western Europe from the fifteenth century onward, fueled enduring competition and continual upgrades that boosted military productivity and commitment of resources, which in turn prompted and enabled European expansion overseas, the topic of chapter 11. In Europe itself, these massive exertions left an even deeper mark: the painful transition from weak and fragmented medieval polities to more centralized and increasingly capable early modern states was in large part driven by warfare.62
The expansion of warfare raised both the scale and sophistication of credit markets, which came to feature unsecured loans between individuals, commercial debt, and collaterized debt as well as public-sector debt that was taken on by cities, the church, and sovereigns.
The large scale of public borrowing provided the strongest impetus for innovation: credit needed for war gave rise to central banks, long-term bonds, bond markets, and debt-for-equity swaps. Intermediaries who covered the short-term needs of rulers were backed by markets for trading long-term bonds. Such financiers then expanded their activities into the private sector where they helped fund new ventures up to industrialization.68
Overall economic output is much more difficult to estimate, and any reconstruction must be handled with caution. Only occasionally do we encounter trends that are so clear as to exceed any reasonable margins of error. This is the case here. There can be no doubt that Dutch per capita GDP took off in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. England followed suit, catching up in the eighteenth century, while continental Europe stagnated (figure 10.3).73
British development was embedded in broader processes that unfolded across Latin Europe. To varying degrees and at greatly differing speeds, they sustained momentum toward well-defined, medium-sized states, burgeoning commerce, and a culture of vigorous critique.
Reduced to its essentials, the story of institutional development followed a clear arc. In the Middle Ages, the dispersion of power within polities constrained the intensity of interstate competition by depriving rulers of the means to engage in sustained conflict. In the early modern period, these conditions were reversed. Interstate conflict escalated as diversity within states diminished and state capacity increased. Enduring differences between rival polities shaped and were in turn shaped by the ways in which elements of earlier domestic heterogeneity, bargaining and balancing survived and influenced centralization to varying degrees.
The key to success was to capitalize on these medieval legacies in maximizing internal cohesion and state capacity later. This alone made it possible to prevail in interstate conflict without adopting authoritarian governance that stifled innovation. The closest approximations of this Goldilocks scenario could be found in the North Sea region, first in the Netherlands and then in England.
As Jean Baechler put it, Each time China was politically divided, capitalism flourished.151
The Warring States period was marked by seminal creativity, from the rebuilding of state structures to the Hundred Schools of Thought that advertised a wide variety of worldviews. The centralizing measures taken to standardize landholdings, mobilize the general population, and protect it from local elites were quite radical. They also fostered selection, as polities either succeeded in copying adaptive traits or risked failure. The competitive state system created a vibrant marketplace of ideas in which roving experts (sages) changed patrons at will. Perhaps most important, given the much later European experience, the desirability of organizing and increasing resources for the purpose of competition was explicitly recognized.152
The imperial Qin and early Han regimes, by contrast, indulged physiocratic tendencies, privileging the agrarian sphere at the expense of commerce. The Qin conquered China in part by arresting the rise of the merchant class in the Central Plain, in economic terms the most advanced part of the region. Cities were turned into bastions of bureaucratic rule. When the Western Han, most notably under the emperor Wu, felt the need to mobilize greater resources, they sought to do so by supplanting private enterprise with state-run institutions.153
Restrictions on trade and seafaring were imposed with greater frequency, invariably in the context of uncontested imperial hegemony: reduced competitive pressures not only weakened the states need to profit from commercial exchange but also gave it more leeway in passing deleterious regulation. Thus, the Mongol regime first set up a state monopoly on overseas trade and then banned private merchants from dealing with foreign parties altogether. The Ming followed suit: in the late fourteenth century, coastal residents were forbidden to venture overseas. Only state-run tribute missions were allowed to do so. Further bans of private maritime commerce were issued in the fifteenth century and sometimes even extended to coastal shipping.170
When the regent Wang Mang usurped the throne from the Han in 9 CE, he reportedly instituted a series of ambitious economic reforms from land-distribution schemes, a ban on private land transactions, and the abolition of slavery to the confiscation of private bullion stocks and the distribution of a bewildering variety of fiduciary coins. It remains unclear just how much damage was done: the relevant sources date from after the restoration of the Han dynasty in 23 CE and are implacably hostile to the Wang Mang regime and thus prone to exaggerate its shortcomings. Even so, we get a sense of the unsteady nature of the usurpers decision-making: some of his measures were already repealed during his reign. The disruptive potential of radical decrees emanating from the imperial court was considerable.180
Given the recurrence of massive peasant revolts in Chinese history, this preoccupation made perfect sense if the overarching goal was maintenance of existing arrangements. Chinese policies reflect ancient concerns that appear as early as the Confucian Analects: I hear that rulers of states and heads of families fear inequality, but not poverty; they fear instability, but not scarcity of people.183
Kent Gang Deng has elevated this conservative stance into the defining principle of Chinese economic history: a trinary structure composed of interlinked counterpoises between agricultural dominance, a free peasantry, and physiocratic government that evolved in the Warring States period and proved highly resilient over time. The Song embrace of commercialism remained the only significant exception to this norm. In Europe, by contrast, rural production systems and social relations varied greatly, from the enclosure movement and the proletarianization of the labor force that facilitated rationalization and capitalistic exploitation of the countryside in England at one end of the spectrum all the way to Russian serfdom at the other.184
Low state capacity and rampant corruption conspired to weaken de facto protection of industrial and commercial property rights. We owe to Chen Qiang an illuminating model of real tax rates as a measure of property rights protection. The real tax burden was composed of the central tax rate (revenues levied and received by the imperial authorities), which could be low; local tax rates, that is, rents taken by officials; and the public-security tax rate, defined as the cost of poor governance and banditry. Once all these complementary elements are taken into account, the real tax rate in late imperial China appears to have been both high and highly variable, sensitive as it was to frequent turnover among officials and changes in security conditions.192
It is telling that despite Chinas integration into global trade networks, movement toward an industrial revolution was almost wholly absent before the twentieth century. Elite groups to whom vital tasks had traditionally been delegated could not be expected to mobilize sufficient material and human resources for industrialization even when the Qing and later the Chinese Republic underwent generations of national humiliation. Effective responses to the growing pressures that arose in the nineteenth century would have required a systematic overhaul that was incompatible with existing elite entrenchment. Thus, belated state initiatives from the 1860s onward failed to harness adequate support from the private sector and were hobbled by predation by local powerholders.208
Powerful and opportunistically uncooperative elites were a defining characteristic of the capstone state, which had reached its most mature form in hegemonic tributary empires. Absent credible, symmetric competition, Chinas rulers were not constantly benchmarking their empire.
After the end of antiquity, the largest Old World regions that hosted traditional empires, the Middle East and South Asia, came to share a characteristic that decisively interfered with developmental politics along European lines. They increasingly succumbed to foreign conquest regimes of steppe extraction: in the Middle East from the seventh century onward, and in India from the eleventh.215
These irruptions imposed two massive constraints. One was that iterative empire, however ephemeral it might sometimes have been, effectively prevented the formation of a stable competitive state system in which beneficial institutional adaptations could have been selected for and their cumulative gains preserved.216
Confucian elites did not endorse going abroad: All people in motion were potential sources of anxiety. Instead, their unwavering support for a social order that was considered intrinsic to China obviated the need to leave. The authorities sought domestic security and control: they had no interest in having particular constituencies gain too much wealth and influence from foreign trade, let alone in supporting mercantile colonies outside the empires contiguous territory that had the potential to evolve into rival power bases. Overall, subordination to an inwardly directed public sector constrained mobility.57It may well be that the smug condescension on display in the Qianlong Emperors famous letter to Britains King George II in 1792 was directed in part at a fractured domestic audience and tactically preferable to intimations of curiosity. Yet even if the Qing rulers professed lack of enthusiasm in the manufactures of foreign barbarians need not have ! been quite sincere, his claim that our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders was demonstrably emblematic of the self-image of universal empires well beyond China itself.58
Three thousand kilometers of mostly inhospitable terrain separate Kashgar in westernmost Xinjiang from Changan, and yet the former was targeted multiple times. The Philippines never were, even though they could have been secured with very little effort. After all, the Spanish, within six years of invading with a paltry five ships that carried 150 sailors, 200 soldiers, and 5 friars, had defeated the local sultan and taken over Manila.
Had an Asian power suddenly seized the Canary Islands in, say, 1400, Portugal or later Spain would very likely have contested this takeover. Not only did China do nothing of the kind: it was the Spanish who for a while toyed with the idea of invading China. Various hopeful schemes were devised, permanently shelved only after the defeat of the Armada back in Europe.64
The Chinese state intervened in the Philippines just once and in much the same manner as it later would in Taiwan. In 15731574, a Chinese pirate who had been raiding Chinas coast departed for the Philippines where he sought to dislodge the Spanish, albeit without success. A Chinese fleet was dispatched to kill or apprehend him. It thus appears that offensive naval operations were undertaken only against fellow Chinese who challenged imperial authority. Conversely, the authorities remained unmoved by the aforementioned massacres at the hands of the Spanish and Dutch. If anyone deserved to be punished, it was those who had removed themselves from the clutches of monopolistic rule.
Even when in the eighteenth century Taiwan became a major and lucrative source of sugar, China made no attempt to add similarly sugar-rich Luzon to its portfolio. There was simply no need: 90 percent of the Chinese sugar supply came from domestic sources, along with all its silk and tobacco. At that stage, trade in foreign luxuries, not to mention overseas colonization, promised little tangible gain. Chinas politically unified domestic market generally obviated the need to develop overseas trade
The same constraint applied to the Ottoman empire. In his somewhat disingenuously titled study The Ottoman Age of Exploration, Giancarlo Casale succeeds above all in demonstrating that there was in fact no such thing. Just as in Ming China, politics at a monopolistic imperial court played a decisive role. An elite faction in favor of expansion and international trade in the Indian Ocean region competed with those who were staunchly opposed to these goals: initiatives were launched or aborted depending on which side held the upper hand. Thus, two viziers in the 1560s and 1570s were the driving force behind a southward pushwith failed plans for a Suez canal and an expedition to Sumatrathat fizzled once the leading proponent, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, had been outmaneuvered by those favoring the more traditional imperial pursuit of war with Iran, and was finally assassinated. Support at the center faded, and renewed initiatives in the periphery, notably Yemen, were inadequate! .68
By the 1570s, the threat of a Portuguese naval blockade had receded and Ottoman traders no longer required state support. Reliance on their own resources left them high and dry when the empire underwent a generalized crisis during the early seventeenth century, Yemen was lost and the appearance of new European rivalsDutch and Englishencouraged allies to defect.
91Effective control over the Red Sea basin and its southern access point also guaranteed unencumbered relations with the Hadramawt kingdom in eastern Yemen and Dhofar, a major source of frankincense, and helped secure the route to India. Direct commercial and diplomatic relations with South Asian rulers date back to the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, who had seized Egypt and was the first to receive embassies from the Indian Ocean region. Roman vessels came to sail both to Gujarat and to Tamil southern India often directly from Africa or Arabia by taking advantage of the seasonal monsoon winds. The city of Muziris in Kerala became the principal hub: it even featured a temple of the deified Augustus. Sizable merchant communities grew up there and at other ports. Black pepper was the top export item alongside indigo and precious stones. As early as 20 BCE, the kingdom of Pandia south of Muziris had dispatched envoys and gifts of pearls and gems to Rome and, later ! on, local sources point to the presence of Roman mercenaries in the service of local rulers.92 Trade with Sri Lanka had initially been in the hands of Tamil intermediaries, but once direct contact was established in the 50s CE, an embassy from the island arrived in Rome, and high seas crossings began to supplement the ones via Indian ports. Just as in East Africa, middlemen had fallen by the wayside as Rome reached out to more distant polities. Its merchants eventually extended their routes to the east coast of India and crossed the Gulf of Bengal to reach Burma. By the second century CE, they may have sailed around the Malay peninsula to Thailand, and perhaps even all the way to the Han territory in northern Vietnam.93
In monetary terms the volume of this trade was enormous. Literary allusions to massive outflows of specie receive support from a surviving tax document from the second century CE regarding the arrival in an Egyptian port of a ship from Muziris that carried 135 tons of pepper and 84 tons of cinnamon and paid dues in excess of a tenth of a percent of the total annual public revenues of the Roman empire. According to an observer from the Augustan period, when this trade had just taken off, each year 120 ships reached Egypt from the Indian Ocean. The docks at Berenice, a port on the Egyptian east coast, could accommodate vessels that were 120 feet long and displaced 350 tons.94
In recent years, Joel Mokyr has been the foremost champion of the role of what he calls a culture of knowledge in driving Europesand especially Britainstransformative economic development. For him as for many others, this phenomenon is rooted in the early modern period.1
In this telling, Enlightenment culture grew out of the commercial capitalism of the late Middle Ages and the sixteenth century, and the individualism, man-made formal law, corporatism, self governance, and rules that were determined through an institutionalized process. All of these putatively significant traits were the result of the institutional arrangements discussed in chapter 10 that were predicated on the post-Roman fragmentation of social power.2
A fortuitous blend of pervasive political splintering and overarching cultural integration created a viable marketplace of ideas. Polycentrism opened up space for cultural innovation by reducing coercion bias, the ability of powerful incumbents to suppress innovation and heterodoxy. Whereas monopolistic systems tend to preserve the status quo, a fragmented political ecology is less likely to impose this outcome
Owing to the manifold rivalries among Catholic and Protestant countries and between secular rulers and the papacy, coordinated repression eventually became unfeasible. Thus, whereas Jan Hus was burned at the stake in 1415 because the king of Germany, who had initially guaranteed his safety, abandoned him to the pope and his council, a century later Martin Luther operated under the protection of three consecutive Electors of Saxony whom neither emperor nor pope managed to rein in. Ulrich Zwingli exploited divisions among the Swiss cantons to establish his reform movement, and Jean Calvin found refuge from France in Geneva.
Deirdre McCloskey has advanced a bold thesis that places values at the center of modernization and the Great Escape. In her telling, liberal ideas caused the innovation necessary to sustain this process. By 1700, talk and thought about the middle class began to change. As general opinion shifted in favor of the bourgeoisie, and especially in favor of its marketing and innovating, commerce and investment in human capital expanded as a consequence of this shift, rather than precipitating it. This led to a sweeping Bourgeois Revaluation embodied in a new rhetoric that protected the pursuit of business: whereas aristocratic-inflected discourse had previously stigmatized it as a vulgar pursuit, it now garnered acceptance and even admiration. This new mode of thinking permitted the bourgeoisie to join the ruling class and to infuse and enrich it with innovative and competitive traits. In the final analysis, the idea of liberty and dignity for ordinary people was ! the principal driving force behind this change.52
According to McCloskey, this process unfolded in a series of steps. The Reformation together with the growth of commerce, the fragmentation of Europe, and the freedom of their cities enabled the Dutch bourgeoisie to enjoy freedom and dignity. Over time, Dutch influence that encouraged emulation of their practices regarding trading, banking, and public debt converged with the spread of printing and English liberties in similarly liberating and dignifying the British bourgeoisie, whose efforts subsequently unleashed modern economic growth.53
Thus, the Four R's -- reading, reformation, revolt (in the Netherlands), and revolution (in England in 1688) -- culminated in late seventeenth-century England in the fifth and ultimately decisive R, the revaluation of the bourgeoisie, an R-caused, egalitarian reappraisal of ordinary people. Democratic church governance introduced by the Reformation emboldened the populace, and northern Protestantism encouraged literacy.