1. NYC public schools Conor Friedersdorf, Atlantic
  2. The realism of magic John Gray, New Statesman
  3. How the Black Sea shaped the ancient Mediterranean world Douglas Boin, History Today
  4. How not to read Bernard Bailyn Asheesh Siddique, Age of Revolutions


  1. Nobody knows anything (Singapore and South Korea) Scott Sumner, Money Illusion
  2. The cholera riots and the coronavirus revolts, compared Jesse Walker, Reason
  3. Climate, disease, and the end of the Roman Empire Jaspreet Singh Boparai, Quillette
  4. On trying to solve the paradox of memory Emina Melonic, Modern Age


  1. The science of Roman history Alberto Prieto, Inference
  2. On some newly translated Brazilian books Sheila Glaser, New York Times
  3. Postcolonialism does not exist in France Haythem Guesmi, Africa is a Country
  4. In cold blood (reversing death) Philip Jaekl, Aeon

RCH: 10 most brutal massacres in history

That’s the subject of my latest at RealClearHistory (I submitted it before the vicious, anti-Muslim shooting in New Zealand occurred). An excerpt:

7. Chios massacre (March – July 1822). The Ottomans were bad people for a few centuries during the Middle Ages (RealClearHistory has more on the Ottomans here). In 1822, Istanbul massacred 52,000 Greeks on the island of Chios during the Greek War of Independence. The massacre was used deftly by imperial proponents in London, Paris, and Moscow, and further isolated the Ottomans from European diplomacy. As for the inhabitants of Chios, most were apathetic toward the rebellion until the massacre.

Here’s another one:

5. Massacre of the Latins (1182). In the 12th century, Roman Catholics in Constantinople, the capital city of the Roman Empire, were known as Latins and in 1182 they were slaughtered, driven out of the city, or sold into slavery. Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have died. The massacre occurred because the vast majority of non-Roman Catholic inhabitants were much poorer than the Latins of the city, due to the latter’s connections to the wealthy city-states on the Italian peninsula (Venice, Genoa, Pisa, etc.). The massacre also made it harder for the Pope to unify the Christian world, as the split between Catholic and Orthodox sects only became more hardened.

Lots of bad things have happened in Turkey and Greece and over the years. Please, read the rest. There’s more massacres, but also thoughts on the genocide-versus-massacre debate, and the sheer lack of knowledge that humanity possesses in regards to its own history.

The End of the Past

On Branko Milanovic’s recommendation, I read Aldo Schiavone’s The End of the Past. Scholarly and elegantly written, it provides one of the best imaginative reconstructions of the ancient Roman economy.

Previous posts have touched on the economies of late antiquity, the modernist primitivist debate, and diagnosed problems in many recent assessments of the ancient economy (here, here, here, and here). I want to use Schiavone’s book to revisit a question raised by Peter Temin in The Roman Market Economy. How advanced was the Roman economy? Specifically, how did it compare to the economy of Europe in late medieval or early modern times? Was the Roman economy only as developed as that of Europe circa 1300 or was it as advanced as that of western Europe on the eve of the Industrial Revolution in say 1700.

This question is not mere idle speculation. It matters for our understanding of the causes of long-run economic growth whether an industrial revolution could have happened in Song China or ancient Rome. This type of counterfactual history is crucial for pinning down the casual mechanisms responsible for sustained growth, especially as historians like Bas van Bavel are now proposing explicitly cyclical accounts of growth in societies as varied as early medieval Iraq and the Dutch Republic (see The Invisible Hand? (OUP, 2016))

Temin’s GDP estimates suggest that Roman Italy had comparable per capita income to the Dutch Republic in 1600. The Empire as a whole, he suggests, may have been comparable to Europe in 1700 (Temin 2013, 261). My gut reaction is that this is plausible as an upper-bound. Schiavone (who was writing several years before Temin), however, raises important points that I had fully not considered previously.

Schiavone opens with an account of a speech given by Aelius Aristides celebrating the wealth of the Roman empire in the mid-2nd century AD.

“Whatever each culture grows and manufactures cannot fail to be here at all times and in great profusion. Here merchant vessels arrive carrying these many commodities from every region in every season and even at every equinox, so that the city takes on the appearance of a sort of common market for the world. One can see cargoes from India and even from southern Arabia in such numbers that one must conclude that the trees in those lands have been stripped bare, and if the inhabitants of those lands need anything, they must come here to beg for a share of what they have produced….

Your farmlands are Egypt, Sicily, and all of cultivated Africa. Seaborne arrivals and departures are ceaseless, to the point that the wonder is, not so much that the harbor has insufficient space for all these merchant vessels, but that the sea has enough space (if it really does). Just as there is a common channel where all waters of the Ocean have a single source and destination, so that there is a common channel to Rome and all meet here: trade, shipping, agriculture, metallurgy— all the arts and crafts that are or ever were and all things that are produced or spring from the earth. What one does not see here does not exist” (Aristides, The Roman Oration).

This is a panegyric addressed to flatter the emperor but its emphasis on long-distance trade, commerce, manufacturing is highly suggestive. Such a speech is all but impossible to imagine in an predominantly rural and autarkic society. Aristides is painting a picture of a highly developed commercialized economy that linked together the entire Mediterranean and beyond. Even if he is grossly exaggerates, the imagine he depicts must have been plausible to his audience. In evaluating the Roman economy in the age of Aristides, Schaivone notes that:

“Until at least mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam, so expertly described by Simon Schama — the city of Rembrandt, Spinoza, and the great sea-trade companies, the product of the Dutch miracle and the first real “globalization of the economy — or at least, until the Spanish empire of Philip II, the total wealth accumulated and produced in the various regions of Europe reached levels that were not too far from those of the ancient world” (Schiavone, 2000, 94).

This is the point Temin makes. Whether measured in terms of the size of its largest cities — Rome in 100 AD was larger than any European city in 1700 — or in the volume of grain, wine, and olive oil imported into Italy, the scale of the Roman economy was vast by any premodern standard. Quantitatively, then, the Roman economy looks as large and prosperous as that the early modern European economy.

Qualitatively, however, there are important differences that Schiavone draws out and which have been obscured in recent quantitative debates about GDP estimates.

Observe that Roman history leaves no traces of great mercantile companies like the Bardi, the Peruzzi or the Medici. There are no records of commercial manuals of the sort that are abundant from Renaissance Italy; no evidence of “class-struggle” as we have from late medieval Europe; and no political economy or “economics”, that is, no attempts to systematize one’s thoughts and insights concerning the commercial world. The ancient world, in this view, only superficially resembled that of early modern Europe. Seen from this perspective, the latter contained the potential for sustained growth; the former did not. Why is this?

The most obvious institutional difference between the ancient world and the modern was slavery. Recently historians have tried to elevate slavery and labor coercion as crucial causal mechanism in explaining the industrial revolution. These attempts are unconvincing (see this post) but slavery certainly did dominate the ancient economy.

In its attempt to draw together the various strands through which slavery permeated the ancient economy, Schiavone’s chapter “Slaves, Nature, Machines” is a tour de force. At once he captures the ubiquity of slavery in the ancient economy, its unremitting brutality—for instance, private firms that specialized in branding, retrieving, and punishing runaway slaves — and, at the same time, touches the central economic questions raised by ancient slavery: to what extent was slavery crucial to the economic expansion of period between 200 BCE and 150 AD? And did the prevalence of slavery impede innovation?

It is impossible to do justice to the argument in a single post. Suffice to say that after much discussion, and many fascinating interludes, Schiavone suggests that ultimately the economic stagnation of the ancient world was due to a peculiar equilibrium that centered around slavery.

One can think of this equilibrium as resting on a two legs. The first is the observation that the apparent modernity of the ancient economy — its manufacturing, trade, and commerce rested largely on slave labor. The expansion of trade and commerce in the Mediterranean after 200 BC both rested on, and drove, the expansion of slavery. Here Schiavone note that the ancient reliance on slaves as human automatons — machines with souls — removed or at least weakened, the incentive to develop machines for productive purposes.

The existence of slavery, however, was not the only reason for the neglect of productive innovation. There was also a specific cultural attitude that formed the second leg of the equilibrium:

“None of the great engineers and architects, none of the incomparable builders of bridges, roads, and aqueducts, none of the experts in the employment of the apparatus of war, and none of their customers, either in the public administration or in the large landowning families, understood that the most advantageous arena for the use and improvement of machines — devices that were either already in use or easily created by association, or that could be designed to meet existing needs — would have been farms and workshops”

The relevance of slavery colored ancient attitudes towards almost all forms of manual work or craftsmanship. The dominant cultural meme was as follows: since such work was usually done by the unfree, it must be lowly, dirty and demeaning:

“technology, cooperative production, the various kinds of manual labor that were different from the solitary exertion of the peasants on his land — could not but end up socially and intellectually abandoned to the lowliest members of the community, in direct contact with the exploitation of the slaves, for whom the necessity and demand increased out of all proportion . . . the labor of slaves was in symmetry with and concealed behind (so to speak) the freedom of the aristocratic thought, while this in turn was in symmetry with the flight from a mechanical and quantitative vision of nature”

Thus this attitude also manifest itself in the disdain the ancients had for practical mechanics:

Similar condescension was shown to small businessmen and to most trade (only truly largely-scale trade was free from this taint). The ancient world does not seem to have produced self-reproducing mercantile elites. Plausible this was in part because of the cultural dominance of the landowning aristocracy.

The phenomenon coined by Fernand Braudel, the “Betrayal of the Bourgeois,” was particularly powerful in ancient Rome. Great merchants flourished, but “in order to be truly valued, they eventually had to become rentiers, as Cicero affirmed without hesitation: ‘Nay, it even seems to deserve the highest respect, if those who are engaged in it [trade], satiated, or rather , I should say, satisfied with the fortunes they have made, make their way from port to a country estate, as they have often made it from the sea into port. But of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more delightful, none more becoming to a freeman’” (Schiavone, 2000, 103).

Such a cultural argument fits perfectly with Deirdre McCloskey’s claim in her recent trilogy that it was the adoption of bourgeois cultural norms and specifically bourgeois rhetoric that distinguished and caused the rise of north-western Europe after 1650 (here, here, and here).

Having taken note of the existence of such a powerful equilibrium — one resting on both material and cultural foundations, we can now return to Schiavone’s argument for why a modern capitalist economy did not develop in antiquity. He argues that given the prominence of slavery and the prestige of the landowning elite, economic expansion and growth of the kind that took place between c. 200 BCE to 150 CE was not self-reinforcing. It generated a growth efflorescence that lasted several centuries, but it ultimately undermined itself because it was based on an intensification of the slave economy that, in turn, reinforced the cultural supremacy of the landowning aristocracy and this cultural supremacy in turn eroded the incentives responsible for driving growth.

Compare and contrast with early modern Europe. The most advanced economies of early modern Europe, say England in 1700, were on the surface not too dissimilar to that of ancient Rome. But beneath the surface they contained the “coiled spring”, or at least the possibility, of sustained economic growth — growth driven by the emergence of innovation (a culture of improvement) and a commercial or even capitalist culture. According to Schiavone’s assessment, the Roman economy at least by 100 CE contained no such coiled spring.

We are not yet at the point when we can decisively assess this argument. But the importance of culture and the manner in which cultural and material factors interacted is clearly crucial. The argument that the slave economy and the easy assumptions of aristocratic superiority reinforced one another is a powerful one. For whatever historical reasons these cultural elements in the Roman economy were relatively undisturbed by the rise of merchants, traders and money grubbing equites. Likewise slavery did not undermine itself and give rise to wage labor.

Why this was the case can be left to future analysis. The full answer to the question why this was the case and a more careful consideration of the counterfactual “could it have been otherwise” are topics deserving their own blog post.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XVII: Common and Civil Law

The last post referred to the need to investigate ideas about law and related ideas in discussing Britain’s relation both with the Anglosphere (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and with the rest of Europe. The big issue here is Anglosphere common law tradition versus Roman or civil law tradition in the European mainland and indeed most of the world outside the Anglosphere. Common law in this context refers to judge-made law based on precedent versus civil law referring to statute laws based on the will of the sovereign. Statute laws are laws instituted by the state, in writing, in public explicit acts of law making.

Judge-made laws based on precedent refers to the ways in which judges, using a general sense of justice, make judgements according to that sense of justice with the precedents of previous relevant judgements shaping the sense of justice along with the whole set of laws and their general principles. Civil law judges look at the text of statutes, as do common law judges, but apparently the latter category of judges are also concerned with the mixture of precedents and general spirit of the laws.

There are certainly some real differences between common law and civil law traditions, but how straight forward are these difference? The phrase ‘common law’ itself comes from the codification and national harmonisation of laws undertaken by French-speaking kings of England, after William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England. So the phrase ‘common law’ itself refers to the opposite of what common law has come to mean: the English legal tradition since the High Middle Ages has come out of conquest by an external power. We can argue about how far Anglo-Saxon laws and judicial formalities survived the Norman and Angevin re-codification, but there is no denying that the re-codification happened and that nothing now survives from the Anglo-Saxon era.

England started off in the earlier Middle Ages where all of post-Roman Europe stood, that is Roman law had collapsed and Germanic tribes introduced their own laws in conquered territories, where some elements of Roman law survived in the canon law of the church. The Roman law system itself reached a peak with the final codification undertaken under the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople during the sixth century. The transformation of the eastern part of the Roman Empire into a Greek empire included a decline in knowledge of Latin so understanding of the definitive law text was limited, but survived in the Empire including the last Roman-‘Byzantine’ holdings in Italy.

Knowledge of Roman law increased in the thirteenth century, in association with the growth of new universities where legal education played a very large role. England was not outside this process, but it is fair to say that it was less influenced by it than some continental powers, particularly France. The process of Revolution and Bonapartist rule, from 1789, produced a large scale deliberate construction of law as a unified system based on the will of the sovereign (whether elected assembly or absolute monarch) with regard to the laws, which was exported to other parts of Europe in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

The British commitment to common law was not entirely consistent since Scotland has always retained some differences from England in its legal system, which place it closer to the civil law tradition, at least compared with England. In the United States, there was a parallel to the French republican and Bonapartist experience of redesigned institutions in the process of adopting first the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution of the United States, which unified the thirteen British colonies in a common structure.

The difference between French and American constitution making is often held to be that the French constitutions claimed that laws are the will of the people and the product of nature, while the American constitution is designed to disperse any idea of a single political law-making will between the different branches of federal government and the ‘several states’. However, the preamble to the US Constitution refers to ‘we the people’ and therefore asserts that it is the product of a single political will of the people in the union.

While the US Constitution does not refer directly to good laws as the work of nature, there were shared underlying assumptions in France and the US concerning the ‘natural’ status of good laws, good political institutions, and justice. It is at least true that the US constitution federalises rather than centralises, while the French process of about the same time ended in a very centralised state. This cannot be the difference between common and civil law systems though, since there are federal civil law states like Germany and Switzerland and unitary common law states like the UK and New Zealand, though the UK has been evolving in a more federal direction, if in a rather ad hoc and limited way, since the turn of the century.

Next, laws, charters and constitutions

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, IX. British connections with Europe from the Stone Age to the Anglo-Saxon Invasion

Following on from the last post on post-war Germany and British attitudes to Germany, this post will jump back to the deep history of Britain’s links with Europe, though there will be a return at some point to more recent history and current concerns. There has always been trade and movement between the island of Britain and the mainland of continental Europe going back to the Stone Age.

The dominant Bronze Age peoples are usually grouped together as Celts, as are related peoples, stretching across Europe from Ireland to Anatolia. These peoples had no consciousness of existing as a pan-European civilisation, but communities of Celts overlapped and communicated so that the Druid Celtic culture of Britain was certainly related to that of France, or what was known to the Romans as Gauls. The Druids were the priestly elite of whom we know very little except that they were essential to the structure of self-governing Celtic communities and that the Roman destruction of Druidic power was part of their almost total conquest of the Celtic world. They did not trouble to record the knowledge and culture of the Druids, and associated Celtic elites, and given the lack of literary in the Celtic world they would have had some difficulty in grasping and writing down much of it.

The loosely trans-European aspect of the Celtic world was given much more structure and substance through the Roman Empire, which created an integrated administration and Latin speaking local elites across its large territory. What is now southern England was invaded by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BCE, at least partly in response to connections between the Celts of Gaul and the Celts of Britain, also known as Britons, who sent assistance to Gaul against the Romans.

There was no conquest and it is not clear whether or not any was intended, but alliances were formed between Rome and some tribes of Britons, which included taking some sons of the elite to Rome to foster relations and guarantee good behaviour of the families. What was known as Britannia to the Romans was completely incorporated into the Roman system from 43 CE when the Emperor Claudius sent an invasion force, apparently including elephants. The result was the incorporation of all of what is now England, though Cornwall in the extreme southwest was perhaps never fully under Roman control, along with Wales and very variable parts of what is now Scotland.

As with everywhere else in the Roman system, military camps and garrison towns were built on a standard cross-Empire plan, with a Romanised Latin speaking elite created from the Britons to aid in administration and ensure cultural dominance. This lasted until the early fifth century CE. 410 is the traditional date given for withdrawal of Roman legions and the end of Roman rule, but this may have been more of a moment in a process where Roman legions had already largely left Britannia for Gaul to deal with civil war on the mainland and a general weakening of Roman authority fostered by sea raids and incursions from the north.

Anyway that is more than three centuries in which what is now England and Wales was incorporated into Europe by virtue of Roman Imperial authority. Towards the end of that period the senior Emperor, or Augustus, was in Constantinople while the junior Emperor, or Caesar, was in Rome or some city in Italy, so that in principle Britannia was ruled from what is now Istanbul, though that was more a matter of abstract sovereignty than administrative control.

The attacks on Britannia from the northern seas became what is now known as the Anglo-Saxon invasion, with tribes coming over from what is now northwestern Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. The resistance of the Britons became the source of the King Arthur stories, written in Welsh, English, French and Breton during the Middle Ages. Welsh and Breton are of course Celtic languages. There was a special link between what is now known as Brittany and the Britons, as what was then known as ‘Amorica’ was a place of refuge for Britons fleeing Anglo-Saxons.

The Arthurian stories also mix in elements from Welsh mythology and legends of Roman soldiers, providing a very mixed, multilingual and transnational history for one of the most famous of British stories, retold in many very different ways, across centuries, but still taken as a major source of British identity at various times, particularly when English kings wanted a source of legitimacy distinct from the Normans, were Welsh like the Tudors, or when the national culture became very taken up romanticised Medieval origins as in the nineteenth century. Boudicca, the Briton tribal queen who rebelled against the Romans has also like Arthur, been taken up as a national hero in a nation dominated by Anglo-Saxons.