Rome was more than just an empire, an agglomeration of provinces ruled by the emperor and administered through a central bureaucracy and a collection of appointed governors and officials. The Roman world, beyond the political structures that sustained the empire, went much deeper than that: It was an interconnected space that brought together North Africa and Gaul, Iberia and Italy, Britain and the Balkans, Egypt and Greece, the North Sea and the Mediterranean.
The Roman world was a space in constant motion. The infrastructure built by the Roman state, the world’s finest network of roads, bridges, canals, and ports before the modern period, provided the means by which merchants, scholars, priests, soldiers, slaves, and aristocrats could travel from place to place with surprising speed and ease.
Levels of internal migration were high. One good recent estimate states that some 40 percent of Romans at the height of the Empire would have moved a significant distance from their place of birth during their lifetime; compare that to the 31 percent of Americans who move from state to state right now, a high rate compared to most of the world today, and you can see how uniquely mobile the Roman world really was.
Greek rhetoricians taught the children of the rural elite in Britain, Syrian merchants handled army supply contracts along the Rhine, North African pottery sat on tables in hilltop villages in Italy, and Goths born beyond the boundaries of the Empire fought Persians along the fringe of the Syrian desert. The Roman world brought together all of these different localities, all with their own local cultures, practices, beliefs, and economies, and connected them into a larger whole. Architectural forms, education, pottery patterns, the Latin language, books, and eventually Christianity all spread along the same routes that carried olive oil, wine, and grain.
There had been trade before the Roman Empire, just as there had been cultural contacts and the spread of common cultures and ideas throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. What changed with Rome was the depth and extent of these connections. The Roman world was a fundamentally cosmopolitan one, and not just in the major cities most deeply connected to networks of trade and communication. Even the countryside in remote provinces like Britain still touched the broader world in meaningful ways.
This unique level of mobility and communication didn’t survive the Roman Empire. In this episode of the Fall of Rome, we’ll explore how and why it fell apart.
Using the evidence of letters, thousands of them, we’ll build a detailed picture of travel and communications networks and track how the emergence of new kingdoms and the political instability that went along with them inhibited the easy mobility that had characterized the Roman world. In 500, it was much harder to travel from Paris to Rome than it had been in 400; in 600, it was harder still. Formerly connected places fell away from one another. Cultures and economies became regional, then local, as the movement that allowed for the spread of goods and ideas became less and less sustainable.
This is one story of how the Roman world fell apart.
I’m Patrick Wyman, and I just finished my PhD on the end of the Roman Empire. It seems pretty silly to me that professional historians don’t actually talk to the general public—why would you spend decades working on something if you don’t want to tell people about it?—so that’s why I’m doing this podcast on the fall of Rome.
This week’s episode is particularly special to me; mobility and communications, and how the Fall affected them, were the subject of my dissertation. I spent about five years working on this and read more than 3,000 letters, and I’m stoked to share what I learned.
My favorite part about these letters was meeting the real people whose lives they touched: A man with epilepsy traveling in the middle of winter to seek help from Pope Gregory the Great in 591 when his local parish stopped supporting him; a poor deacon who fled a Gothic invasion with his family; a courier stopped and interrogated by Burgundian soldiers while carrying a letter on behalf of a bishop.
If this sounds interesting to you, give this episode a listen, and if you have any questions, sound off in the comments.