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February 13, 2008

Vanishing civilisations ….

Why does a civilisation simply fall apart? My studies to get into the life of St Patrick, who lived roughly between 385 and 461 AD, confronted me with a number of seemingly unanswerable questions, chief among them the question of why almost all Roman towns and the Villas that provided the food to them vanished from our landscape and would not reappear until almost four hundred years later – and then in a much cruder and far less pleasing form. Why did Rome itself, and almost all the cities of the Western Roman Empire fall apart so quickly? It more or less all fell apart in the space of sixty years between 410AD and 476AD. What caused it to go so quickly?

A lot of further reading provided some of the clues I needed. For instance, the fact that Britain, as a “border” Province, proved to be a breeding ground for ambitious generals with an eye on the Imperial Laurel. Following the campaign by Magnus Maximus (Macsen in the Roman British legends) and his son Vincent which ended in Magnus being assassinated in Northern Italy by agents of Stilichio and his son’s execution, Britain was not permitted to mint coinage. Thus, all money had to be imported after 389AD and there was a cash crisis in 405AD when the country literally ran out of money. Everyone was forced back onto a barter system, but the greater effect was that they were no longer able to pay the army to defend them. Coupled with that, after Boudica’s revolt all native born Britons were forbidden to train in arms, unless they could join a legion in Germany, Italy or the Eastern part of the Empire. Thus, in 409AD when the Emperor Honorius told them they would have to go it alone in future, they had a major problem. In 410 Constantius III sent tax gatherers and that was the final straw. Londinium held its own version of the Boston Tea Party …

The civil administration fell apart very rapidly after that, frankly, the Brits had had enough of paying tax and feeding the “Managers” who did nothing but shuffle paper and charge taxes. Those they could find, they killed. But, with civil government gone, a vacuum was created and into that stepped the old tribal rivalries under new leaders. The towns and cities could not be maintained without all the paraphernalia of government, so the people simply walked away from them and tried to subsist by farming any open space someone else wasn’t already using. Londinium was an empty shell by 429Ad and had all but vanished by the time Alfred the Great re-occupied the site in 889AD.

The same was happening along the Rhine and across the northern and western parts of Gaul and down into Spain. Cities and towns shrivelled without the protection of Rome or the civic authority needed to keep the streets repaired, the drains cleaned and ensure the garbage was removed. And into the void created by the departure of the bureaucrats and the empire troops came the Bishops and the local Senatorial families who claimed lands and the allegiance of the dispossessed and impoverished middle class.

Sound familiar? It should, because as I read I realised that I had been looking at it happening across Africa. Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Darfur, Nigeria. It doesn’t matter were you look, the same pattern emerges, crumbling infrastructures, power hungry “barons” who use muscle and influence to carve out their own fiefdoms as the central government loses its grip on its more remote parts. Corruption at the centre leaves the cities and towns crippled through lack of finance to maintain essential services and so disease, unemployment and crime begin to spiral out of control. And the "Middle" class vanishes.

The Roman British towns were abandoned because they could not be kept working without the trade generated by the free flow of goods from the countryside into the towns to feed the craftsmen who lived there and sold their goods and manufactured products to the rural communities and the passing traders. Once the money supply dried up, the craftsmen had no way of buying what they needed – after all, a farmer can only use so many brooches and a pair of shoes – well, how many pairs do you really need when the priority may be seed for the next planting, meat for the table or oil for the lamps. With no hope of sustaining trade the craftsmen had either to move to Gaul or further afield – or become farmers again.

It seems to me that we are watching this development afresh. In Africa for now, but the strain of absorbing the flood tide of migrants from those collapsing states – and the fact that they, like the Goths, Visigoths and Franks who swept into Gaul and Spain from Germany in 407AD have no tradition of democracy or of the skills that sustain cities and towns, it is only a question of how long before the same strains start to tear our “civilisation” apart.

I’m not sure there is a simple answer to this question. After all, at the centre of the Empire, Rome remained a functioning city, thanks largely to the Pope assuming secular powers and raising an army to defend it. I think something similar may happen here. I just hope that we don’t have a thousand year gap between now and the next Renaissance!

Posted by The Gray Monk at February 13, 2008 11:16 PM

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