Book Summary “Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity” by Walter Scheidel

Escape from Rome

Title: Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity
Author: Walter Scheidel
Scope: 4.5 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

The rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the failure of any following empire to establish control over the European continent and the effect of all of the above on European development.

If you would like to learn more about how the fall of the Roman Empire shaped world history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

This is one of the best books ever written about the impact of history on today’s world. I highly recommend reading it. The author shows the importance of one of the key factors in progress, the competitive fragmentation of power, on European political, economic and religious development.

Key Take-aways

  • The fall of the Roman Empire was the second most important event in European history.
  • The most important event in European history was the failure of any the following empires to dominate the European continent as the Romans had done.
  • While Middle Eastern, South Asian and East Asian history has been dominated by a succession of dominant empires, European history alone has not had one enduring dominant empire since the fall of Rome.
  • The lack of one dominant empire meant that Europe saw many political, economic and religious organizations competing against each other. This dynamic competition drove progress as each innovated and copied each other in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage.
  • The end result of this competition was the Industrial Revolution, which transformed Europe and then the rest of the world.

Important Quotes from Book

“What was the Great Escape?”

“For the most part, it represented a radical break from the practices and life experiences of the past, a break that changed the world in the course of just a few generations.”

“This discontinuity accounts for the fact that any graph that tracks economic performance, or human welfare in general, in those parts of the world where modern economic development took off first—in Britain and then in other parts of Europe and their various global spinoffs—is shaped like a hockey stick. This upward turn opened up a growing gap with most of the rest of the world that has only recently begun to close ”

“The transition from organic to fossil fuel economies was crucial.”

“I argue that a single condition was essential in making the initial breakthroughs possible: competitive fragmentation of power. The nursery of modernity was riven by numerous fractures, not only by those between the warring states of medieval and early modern Europe but also by others within society: between state and church, rulers and lords, cities and magnates, knights and merchants, and, most recently, Catholics and Protestants. This often violent history of conflict and compromise was long but had a clear beginning: the fall of the Roman empire that had lorded it over most of Europe, much as successive Chinese dynasties lorded it over most of East Asia. Yet in contrast to China, nothing like the Roman empire ever returned to Europe.

The enduring absence of hegemonic empire on a subcontinental scale represented a dramatic break not only with ancient history. It also set Europe on a trajectory away from the default pattern of serial imperial state formation—from the boom and bust of hegemonic powers—we can observe elsewhere. By laying the foundations for persistent polycentrism and the transformative developmental dynamics it generated over the long run, this rupture was the single most important precondition for modern economic growth industrialization, and global Western dominance much later on.”

“imperial state formation in South Asia and the Middle East—as well as in Southeast Asia, Central America, and the Andes region—had more in common with East Asia, the classic example of imperial persistence over time, than with Europe, which represents a genuine outlier”

“In Part II, I explain the creation of a very large empire that came to encompass the entire Mediterranean basin with reference to two principal factors. First, the Roman Republic managed to combine a culture of military mass mobilization of an intensity unknown among ancient state-level polities outside the Greek city-state culture and Warring States China with integrative capacities that enabled it to scale up military mass mobilization to levels unparalleled and arguably unattainable elsewhere in western Eurasia at the time (chapter 2). Second, in its formative phase, Rome benefited from its position at the margins of a larger civilizational zone that had expanded outward from the Fertile Crescent region for several thousand years but had been exceptionally slow in drawing the central and western Mediterranean into the growing network of sustained political and military interaction at that zone’s core”

“In Part V, I argue that what is now commonly referred to as the “Great Divergence,” broadly understood as a uniquely (Northwest-)European and eventually “Western” breakthrough in economic and cognate capacities, was intimately connected with and indeed deeply rooted in the political “First Great Divergence” between Roman and post-Roman Europe (Parts II and III) and between Europe on the one hand and East Asia and intermediate regions on the other (Part IV)—a divergence between the enduring disappearance and the cyclical re-creation of hegemonic empire.”

“I show that all [the competing theories on the Great Divergence]critically depend on the absence of Roman-scale empire from much of Europe throughout its post-ancient history.”

“My book… develops a much more comprehensive line of reasoning to establish once and for all a fundamental axiom: without polycentrism, no modernity”

“traditional empire failed in three ways, all of which mattered greatly for the making of the modern world: in the specific sense that the Roman empire released its grip on Europe and gave way to a very long period of polycentrism of powers both international and domestic; in the broader sense that near-monopolistic empire failed to be reestablished in Europe; and in the most general sense that empire, as a way of organizing people and resources, consistently failed to create conditions that enabled transformative development.”

“the story of modernity is also a story about [the fall of] Rome… when viewed from a great distance, it was not that awful after all: quite the opposite, in fact, as it ushered in an age of open-ended experimentation. It is for that reason alone that it deserves to be thought of as “the greatest scene in the history of mankind.”

 “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”

“The pattern of one-off near-monopolistic empire followed by enduring polycentrism that can be observed in the area once held by the Roman empire and more specifically in Europe is completely different from conditions in the other three macro-regions.”

“Very broadly speaking, the profiles for MENA [Middle East & North Africa], South Asia, and East Asia are all variants of the same underlying pattern, one of dominant empires interspersed with periods of deconcentration. They differ only with respect to the relative durability of the leading empires and the length of the intervals between them.”

“ What does emerge from the record is a widespread pattern of highly dominant universal empire alternating with periods of deconcentration”

“Apart from Southeast Asia—a smaller and historically far less populous region—Europe has been the only genuine exception to this norm.”

Why Rome?

“I argue that Rome owed its ascent to a fortuitously favorable concatenation of conditions in both core and periphery that were either unique or remained very rare in European and Mediterranean history overall”

“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.”

“But scale was only half of the story: the other was a high military participation rate that made the most of Italy’s demographic assets. The latter was achieved by a combination of low levels of taxation of material resources and intense exploitation of cheap military labor”

“such mobilization rates were sustained for hundreds of years, and not merely during specific wars that lasted only years or decades”

“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 Tilly’s 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)”

“The evolution of the Roman Republic exemplifies with exceptional clarity the adage that war made states and states made war.”

 “This put Rome on a path to becoming what was by some measures the largest slave society in world history”

 “Only 19 of the 310 years between 410 and 101 BCE were free from recorded wars… “for no fewer than 425 years, Rome was engaged in war well over 90 percent of the time.”

“This track record seems unique even by the dire standards of premodern polities operating in anarchic environments. ”

“Rome greatly benefited from its semiperipheral position relative to the older civilizations of the Middle East and the Levant. Sufficiently far removed from powerful empires that might have interrupted its development or even absorbed it early on, Rome was also sufficiently close to capital-rich areas—Greek and Punic cities to the south, and the Aegean to the east—it could tap into as it laid the foundations for an imperial formation”

“Roman mastery of the Mediterranean was unique: never again in history would one power exercise lasting control over its entire coastline, and its effective naval supremacy was not renewed until the days of Admiral Nelson, if not World War II. Moreover, the Roman dominions were unusual simply for being centered on the Mediterranean: among later sizable empires, only Habsburg Spain and the Ottomans shared this distinction, although on a smaller scale, especially the former. Neither one of them enjoyed anything like Roman hegemony.”

“Once they stepped beyond the Italian peninsula, Rome and its allies encountered unusually favorable conditions for military success and ongoing expansion.”

“During the formative stages of its overseas empire, Rome consistently outscored all its competitors on the critical variables of intensity, scale, and integrity. Weak naval development in the western Mediterranean laid the foundations for Rome’s precocious hegemony over the Mediterranean basin, allowing it to project power over great distances without having to worry about the security of its homeland. With the single exception of the initial resilience of the Carthaginian empire, it is hard to conceive of peripheries that would have been more vulnerable to Roman aggression”

Why only Rome?

“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”

“Post-Roman Europe did not produce a single example of a sizable core with high levels of mobilization intensity and political integrity that was in a position to project overwhelming power against less well-organized competitors. Furthermore, as the states of early modern Europe gradually improved their capabilities in these categories, they did so in concert with their peers. As a result, no one state enjoyed the unique advantages of ancient Rome: never again would a powerful core face off against brittle patrimonial empires and fragmented ecologies of micro-states, chiefdoms, and tribes.

European polycentrism hardened over time.”

First Great Divergence.

“THE “FIRST GREAT DIVERGENCE” was not merely a break between Roman and post-Roman modes of state formation in Europe. It was also a genuine divergence, as trajectories of state formation began to separate between post-Roman Europe and other parts of the Old World… it was the persistent absence of large-scale empire from the past millennium and a half of Europe’s history that made it stand out”

“The First Great Divergence brought about an enduring contrast between serial reconstitution of empire and the resultant absence of a stable state system in China and the lack of any comparable scaling-up and the resultant formation of a highly resilient ecology of political polycentrism in Europe”

 “I call the widening chasm between post-ancient European and Chinese (as well as other Old World) trajectories of state formation the “First Great Divergence” because it prepared the ground for the much later political, economic, and scientific development and increase in human welfare associated with what is commonly referred to as the “Great Divergence”—the process of the economies of (parts of) Europe and some of its colonial spin-offs pulling away from those elsewhere in the world.”

 “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.”

“By 1000, aristocracies were dominant everywhere in Latin Europe”

“What accounted for this dramatic divergence? The evidence I have briefly laid out gives pride of place unequivocally to the coercive capacity of rulers to frame conditions in favor of elite cooperation and subordination. European-style aristocratic polycentrism did not appear in China because the principal dynasts always, and especially from the fifth century CE onward, disposed of sufficient military assets to check the local power of magnates and ensure centralized revenue collection that in turn sustained military resources. This encouraged elite families to commit to imperial rule as a source of wealth and status, and enabled central authorities to stem and reverse recurrent trends toward devolution of power”

“whereas in Western Europe tax immunity and its replacement by localized rent and service obligations spread across the general population, in China everybody became subjected to homogenized claims by the central state. This crucial difference determined whether it was landed lords or state rulers who captured most of the surplus. State capacity differed accordingly, with noble levies, small armies, and rudimentary administrative structures on the one hand and extensive censuses, huge militaries, and ministries full of literate bureaucrats on the other. The former sustained intense polycentrism, the latter hegemonic empire.”


“Geography imposes basic constraints on the scope and scale of human social interaction.”

“Almost half of the surface area of what he labels “Western Europe”—generously defined as Europe west of what used to be the Soviet Union—is 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”

 “ Chinese development, by contrast, was framed above all by its largest rivers, which created two very extensive basins that are not separated by major natural barriers and could be connected even with sixth-century CE technology.”

“The Yellow River was navigable for about 600–800 kilometers inland, similar to the Nile below the First Cataract, and the Yangzi for 1,100 kilometers east of the Gorges. Between and beyond them, the Great Canal, multiple smaller rivers, and feeder canals created, in the words of environmental historian John Robert McNeill, “a huge fertile crescent united by cheap and safe transport.… No inland waterway system in world history approaches this one as a device for integrating large and productive spaces.”

“The durability and resilience of the state depended in large part on Chinese geography, but Chinese ecology in turn depended on the state to an unusual degree.” The imperial state assumed responsibility for big waterworks and flood control.”

“The cumulative effects of coastlines, ruggedness, and river basins support a simple observation: Europe consisted of multiple smaller core regions whereas China initially had just one—the Central Plain—and then two, with the Yangzi basin added into the mix. Increasingly interconnected, the northern basin consistently remained politically and militarily dominant.”

“Whoever was in charge of this core also controlled China: it is not by accident that virtually all imperial unifications proceeded from this area. Its demographic dominance was similarly pronounced: for a long time, it towered over other parts of China not only in population number but also thanks to the state’s ability to count and burden its concentrated and accessible residents.13

No such “natural” core existed anywhere in Europe. ”

“there was one big difference: unlike in East Asia, the European state system kept growing over time.”

“What Peter Heather calls “the ancient world order in western Eurasia: a dominant Mediterranean circle lording it over an underdeveloped northern hinterland” was finally overcome in the Early Middle Ages.”

“ The tenth century in particular witnessed a massive extension of political and social hierarchies beyond the old civilizational cores, into Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Rus’, and coastal Scandinavia. Much of Central and Eastern Europe filled up with increasingly ambitious regimes and incipient states or hegemonies. By 1000, recognizable polities stretched all the way to the Volga”

“ Thanks to the widespread replication of Western European structures—towns, churches, and noble estates—this expansion did not create core-periphery relations but simply enlarged the reach of a certain set of institutions eastward.”

“Expansions such as those into Central, Northern, and Eastern Europe (or overseas) did not occur in South, Southeast, or East Asia.”

“What, then, does geography tell us about state formation? By a number of counts, the East Asian environment favored large-scale empire and hegemony: limited articulation, considerable compactness, weaker internal obstacles, and a rich, “natural” core that could be further integrated with the help of manageable human inputs. Europe, by contrast, was much more segmented by mountains and the sea, and lacked large concentrations of natural resources. South Asia scored somewhere in between, and the same applies to the Middle East and North Africa, with their mixture of fertile river basins, highland plateaus, and arid zones.”

“ the degree of proximity to the steppe split Eurasia into “exposed” and “protected” zones”

“steppe empires were locked into a symbiotic relationship with agrarian polities: “They could not exist except as part of an interaction with an imperial state because they lacked most of the essential characteristics of primary empires,” most notably the ability to tax large populations directly”

 “In China, empire emanated almost exclusively from the northern frontier. Over the course of 3,600 years, all but one of a dozen unification events originated in the north”

“For more than 2,000 years, mass rebellions were heavily concentrated near the end of individual dynasties: imperial rule carried within it the seeds of its demise, and was repeatedly undone by popular unrest and the countervailing forces it unleashed. From the middle of the first millennium CE onward, resources from and interaction with the steppe proved essential in repeatedly restoring political order on a large scale, most notably in the fifth, sixth, seventh, tenth, thirteenth, fourteenth, and seventeenth centuries”

“The underlying “steppe effect” was so powerful because it was perennial: for millennia, the presence of the steppe created a “persistent frontier” between China and Inner Asia.

The only constant was the principle that control of the (shifting) “marginal” border zone was a critical precondition for regional supremacy: if it was held by steppe groups, it facilitated southward attack; if held by China, it provided horses for its military and a buffer region for garrisons. Imperial regimes would alternately move in, as the Tang did, and retreat, as under the Ming”

“Most importantly, the core areas of later development—France, Italy, England, the Low Countries, western Germany—were particularly well sheltered from the steppe”

“Despite its brevity and inevitable simplifications, this survey has revealed a strong correlation between military inputs from the steppe and the scale of state formation across the premodern world. If taxes, highlighted in my discussion of fiscal institutions earlier in this chapter, were indispensable for empire-building, so were horses. The conspicuous scarcity of large empires in regions that were ecologically well equipped to support them but were sheltered from major grassland zones highlights the causal dimension of this association.”

“Political outcomes, such as patterns of state formation, were in no small measure contingent on geographic factors”

“In East Asia, the concentration of challengers to the north favored hegemonic empire among the agriculturalists, as well as the decentering of the capital cities toward the threat zone, a feature well documented for most Chinese dynasties. In Europe, the absence of a severe one-sided threat facilitated decentralization.

Culture and Geography:

“Cultural evolution unfolded within the geographic and ecological constraints of that physical environment.”

“two factors contributed to linguistic unity. First, the fact that Classical Chinese dominated formal writing throughout the imperial period ensured a great degree of cultural homogeneity among the literate elite.”

“Second, linguistic diversity within the core regions of Chinese had long been relatively moderate.

“No comparable unity existed at any time in western Eurasia. At the elite level, the Roman empire was resolutely bilingual and bi-alphabetic. Thanks to antecedent Greek migration and Macedonian imperialism, Greek was dominant in the empire’s eastern half, whereas Latin became dominant in the west.”

“China’s single writing system existed because it had been sponsored by a single state. Mandarin was both imposed by the central state and spread under the umbrella of imperial unity and expanding settlement in the peripheries. Empire sustained and on occasion impelled cultural harmonization, and was in turn strengthened by it.”


“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.”

“By all accounts, the transition to the modern world was deeply rooted in the First Great Divergence”

“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.”

See model Figure 10.1

“After Rome’s 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.”

 “Hegemonic empires were likely to prioritize maintenance.

“In the case of China, the overall result was a sociopolitical order that helped secure peace and basic welfare for a large population but did not lend itself to disruptive innovation.

[In Europe] “spatial proximity to the principal fault line of successive Carolingian partitions in the ninth century was a crucial determinant of the incidence of urban autonomy.”

 “ Scale thus appears to have been critical in sustaining representative bodies that exercised tangible power. For example, France, unlike England, might simply have been too large for an active national assembly. When it came to the intensity of political participation, less (territory) was more.

 “Most important, the combination of representative institutions and commercial bias provided city-states with significant advantages in developing public credit arrangements.

 “only when long-lasting states were forced by military competition to interact strongly with their civil societies was economic progress possible.”

  1. “Why the West Rules-for Now: The Patterns of History” by Ian Morris
  2. “Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850” by Joel Mokyr
  3. The WIERDest People in the World” by Joseph Henrich
  4. “A Culture of Growth” by Joel Mokyr
  5. “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World” by Deirdre McCloskey
  6. “The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created” by William J. Bernstein
  7. “Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World” by Deirdre McCloskey
  8. “Why Europe?: The Rise of the West…” by Jack Goldstone
  9. “Why did Europe Conquer the World?” by Philip Hoffman

If you would like to learn more about how the fall of the Roman Empire shaped world history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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