Part of our shared culture is a basic, generally unspoken assumption that things are supposed to get better. Oppressed groups will have more rights in a few years than they have now. The economy overall will grow, even if an individual’s share might not. We’ll have cooler and more useful gadgets as our technology improves. This is called the progressive narrative of history, and it underpins, in a basic way, how we approach and interpret the world around us.
I’m here to tell you that’s bullshit. Things don’t get better just because we think they’re supposed to; they can and do get worse.
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 episode of the show focuses on the most extreme example of catastrophe and disaster that the fall of the Roman Empire provides: the end of Roman Britain.
In 350, Britain was just like any other Roman province, a smoothly functioning, complex economic and political system. It had tax collectors, administrators, governors, and a professional army. There were mass-produced consumer goods, highly developed infrastructure to get those goods to market, and a monetary economy to pay for them. Cities were prosperous, full of bathhouses and monumental architecture and art.
By 500, there wasn’t a single city left in Britain. Nobody knew how to build in stone. There was no money in circulation, no industry, and no real long-distance trade. Instead of a Roman governor, you lived under the rule of a petty warlord who controlled your local area; maybe, if he existed, you lived under the rule of the guy later generations would call King Arthur. You were four times as likely to be stabbed to death as an ancestor who lived 150 years earlier. Mass migration had re-written cultural DNA of the region, and you were more likely to speak English than Latin.
What in the hell happened to Roman Britain?
If that sounds interesting, give the sixth episode of The Fall of Rome a listen.