The fall and rise of civilizations

If you accept the view that the fall of the Roman empire represented a watershed in European history- that organized states virtually vanished from western Europe and feudalism held sway for ~1000 years, then my question is, how/why did centralized states come back into existance? If they could, why did civilization collapse in the first place? What took so long? What changed between 400 AD and 1400 AD that made centralized government feasible again?

You’re starting with a slight misapprehension. (First, feudalism did not pop into existince in 456 or whatever date you prefer for the Fall of Rome. It developed over time. However, we can set that aside as a separate issue.)

Then, Rome did not collapse, one afternoon, when a barbarian knocked on the gates of the city and annouced “Boo!”. Rome took many years to collapse, with a lot of contributing factors, not the least being the decision of the emperors to move from the city of Rome to Byzantium/Constantinople, which meant that they paid a lot more attention to keeping things orderly in Greece, the Balkans, and Asia Minor than they did to sending enough troops to hold Spain, Gaul, and the Germanic lands under imperial sway. So, when troubles among the Asians kept forcing barbarians tribes to move west, The Eastern Empire could marshall the forces to make it worth the barbarians’ while to bypass that region, each new movement successively pushing more easterly tribes farther West. However, the notion that the barbarians ran about in disorganized mobs, plundering and moving on, is a really poor description of how the barbarian migrations were conducted. (Go back and bite your tenth grade history teacher on the ankle.) The barbarian tribes already had levels of organization and they tended to establish their own kingdoms wherever they set up housekeeping after they were pushed west by more easterly tribes. What they lacked was the Roman bureacracy to enforce identical laws and establish common communications throughout all the adjoining smaller kingdoms.

After a while, the great westerly migration slowed down as the Asian disturbances went through a couple hundred years of hiatus. Almost as soon as the barabarians quit forcing their way into Europe, there were efforts by different groups or leaders to consolidate power and re-establish central authority. The most successful of these was Charlemagne around 800, Unfortunately, while he wanted to re-estalblish the old Roman system (according to his understanding of it), he lacked sufficient clerical support to pull it off. He was unable to resurrect the ancient Roman bureaucracy, and his Holy Roman Empire was only held together by his strong personality–and immedaitely began to disintegrate under his squabbling sons. The idea did not go away, of course, and various leaders attempted to carve out larger and larger kingdoms as time passed, with France, Sweden, Hungary, (what became) Austria, Spain, Russia, (periodically) Poland, and, in the 19th century, Germany and, finally, Italy each eventually uniting under common languages and laws.

The primary obstacle to such unifying efforts was the quite understandable reluctance of smaller kingdoms to subject themselves to larger kingdoms. However, as any kingdom was able to consolidate enough land and power, it was able to subdue its neighbors and impose its will until its borders ran up against another neighbor either powerful enough to maintain its independence or sufficiently powerful to overwhelm its neighbor.

In some ways, Rome was the fluke, setting out to conquer the Mediterranean basin and Western Europe with a fully realized bureacracy that they brought with them and imposed on all conquered lands. Once that hold was broken, the more “normal” development of medium kingdoms swallowing smaller kingdoms, only to be swallowed by larger kingdoms reverted to its normal place in history.

Something else to recall is that the culture of the successors was totally different from Rome, although synethesis cultures grew up, too (French, for example). They did not neccessarily think or particualrly care about the idea of centralized states; they tended to focus on an independant clanhold which would cooperate with others when neccessary but fight amongst themselves when not. This developed into a Feudal system which, while decentralized, was more or less orderly internally.

Among other things:

  1. Gradual (very gradual) improvement in communications and cultural ties within the boundaries of what ultimately emerged as nation-states.

  2. Improvements in technology – e.g., the moldboard plow and the rigid horse collar increased food production, and made it slightly less human-labor-intensive.

  3. The Black Death decimated the population of Europe, increasing the relative labor value of the surviving peasants and workers, and eroding the basis of the feudal system. Less power for the lords eventually meant more power for the kings.

More than any other single factor, the development of cannon shifted the balance of power in favour of central state authorities.

Cannon made effective defences enormously more powerful. Before cannon, some confederation of local lords could hope to defy their king from behind the walls of castles- if enough lords did this, the king was essentially helpless, as it could take months to winkle a lord out of his castle by siege or starvation. Many an army was forced back by the expense and futility of besieging castle after castle, only to be decimated by disease and starvation themselves.

With cannon, a besieger could easily knock down a curtain wall. Since in general only kings (or some sort of central authority) could afford a siege train and only a central authority could afford an effective fortification designed along post-cannon lines (as perfected in the “star forts” designed by Vauban), this (along with a whole host of other factors) gradually shifted power into the hands of kings and parliaments.

As Tom implied (great post that one…didn’t leave the rest of us much to say!), essentially they re-invented bureaucracy. The ‘barbarians’ who expanded into and eventually caused the fall of the Western Roman Empire were far from unsophistocated. They had a very highly developed culture as well as high levels of SOME kinds of techology. What they lacked (that I think is important to the question) was a developed bureaucracy (essential to maintain a far flung empire) and sanitation/water technology (essential if you are going to have large cities where you don’t want to entire population to get sick periodically).

With the re-invention of bureaucracy (and water/sanitation I suppose) Western European nations were able to become larger and larger states, and eventually empires in their own right.

Bureaucracy and water technology (or even military technology) wasn’t enough. The Western Roman empire was rife with corruption and had been in decline for quite a long time when it finally went completely tits up. Another factor I’ve heard was the onset of a particularly virulent form of malaria that began to serious effect the Italian peninsula a century or so before the final collapse causing whole villages in marshy areas to be abandoned.

For Rome to collapse? Or for the Europeans to re-invent empire? As for Rome, the empire was massive…it encompassed most of the known world (well, known to Europeans I guess). It was the most powerful state of its time…something like that is going to take a long time to fall, essentially rotting from within long before someone comes along and pushes over the shell.


A bit off the subject, but one thing I had never thought of before was the lack of any major competing powers at the time of the Roman expansion. Besides Carthage, and perhaps the declining remnants of Alexander’s empire, I don’t recall any major powers blocking Roman expansion. I believe there might have been some strength in Persia, but Rome never got that far.

Is there some power I’ve forgotten?

Well, the Germans gave them a rather nasty shock in a certain forrest. That pretty much put a halt to their north eastern expansion once and for all…they never really got over that. I guess it depends on what period you are talking about as far as other major powers directly competing with Rome. Also, powers arose while Rome still held together (like the Huns for instance).


The Cimbri and Teutones posed a substantial threat to Roman expansion in the late 2nd century BCE until defeated by Marius.

shout out to all my homies in Ravenna.

This was the rout of Varus in the Battle of the Teutoburg forest, 9 AD. The Romans lost three legions: the 17th, 18th, and 19th, representing some 15-20 thousand men. The Romans considered the loss so grave that they never assigned these numbers to legions again. That battle, and subsequent indecisive encounters under Tiberius, pretty much set the Rhine as the NE limit of Roman influence.

Let’s see…they were quite concerned about Mithradites of Pontus. And the Parthians destroyed the legions commanded by Crassus, and Crassus as well.

Pretty dismissive summing up of every other neighboring power in the Mediterranean :D.

Remember that the Hellenistic kingdoms once were major states. The Seleucid demesne was huge, covering most of the former Persian empire ( from the straits of Bosporus to India ). The Ptolemaic state covered the rest ( Egypt, southern Syria, Cyprus, plus some Aegean islands for awhile ). Macedon was still formidable with their silver mines and loose dominance of parts of Greece proper. Indeed at one point Rome had plenty of problems dealing with even as minor a dynast as Pyrrhus of Epirus ( granted he was a superb general bankrolled initially by the other Greco-Macedonian kingdoms as a way of getting him out of their hair ).

The thing was they were all decaying and fracturing at the same time Rome was rising and they were more concerned with each other than with Rome until it was too late. Egypt fell apart without any help from Rome. The Seleucids did suffer a major defeat to the Romans at Magnesia, but a lot of heavy lifting in Asia Minor was done by schismatic Pergamum and in the end it was the Parthians that ended up eating most of that empire to build their own. Macedon on the other hand was broken by Rome in two wars with the help of Greek confederacies - but the two decisive battles were close fought affairs.

Still, it is entirely possible, but not probable, that Rome could have been checked. The Second Punic War is rightfully considered decisive.

Sure they did. Rome’s borders marched steadily, if intermittently, east. Even Hadrian’s retrenchment from Trajan’s conquests still kept them well east of where they had started. Septimus Severus for all intents and purposes finished off the Parthians. It was only with the rise of the Sassanids that Rome was actually forcefully pushed back west.

  • Tamerlane

Totally a hijack, but its interesting that I know most of at least the names and some of the history of the empires Tamerlane mentioned there because of Rome Total War (TR)…and since I was playing those empires I looked em up to see what they were about.

Sorry…now back to more interesting stuff.


You were speaking metaphorically of course, as I’m sure you recall that Charlemagne was survived by only a single son, the emperor Louis I the Pious ;).

It was Louis the Pious’ sons that started the squabbling, but the first half of his reign probably marked the apogee of the Carolingian state, even more so than under his father. It had been the great good fortune of the Carolingians, who always practiced the Frankish custom of partible inheritance, that for four generations ( from Charles Martel through Louis the Pious ) only a single heir had eventually united the kingdom under a single rule ( Pepin the Short’s one surviving brother entered a monastery, Charlemagne’s died fairly quickly after succession ).

Louis I had the misfortune to be survived by four very capable, very ambitious sons and they started the dissolution, all while striving mightily to succeed to a unitary state. Even so, if not for a remarkably unlucky dynastic bottleneck a couple of generations later they might have considered holding some version of an imperial throne with a potential for reunification ( as happened briefly under emperor Charles III the Fat ) for quite some time.