Rome did fall. It did not merely “transform”.
Across Eurasia, from 150 to 800 or so there was a pronounced “Late-Antiquity Pause” in terms of technological progress and even the maintenance of large-scale social organization.
There was a proper “Dark Age” only in Britain, Germany, the Low Countries, and France—with Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia being edge cases.
There was no Dark Age at all in what had been the Roman East—what became what we call the Byzantine Empire and what called itself the βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων—Basileia Rhōmaiōn—but the Byzantine Empire was definitely caught up in the “Late-Antiquity Pause”.
The Roman Empire starts to decline in the 165-180 reign of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Population, levels of production, trade, construction, the sophistication of the division of labor, political order, the ability of the army to protect the people from barbarian and Persian raids and armies—all of these begin a pronounced downward trend.
After 450 there was no real thing called the Roman Empire in what had been its western provinces—no Roman tax-collecting bureaucracy, no administrative bureaucracy to try to make decrees of Roman governors facts on the ground at other than sword’s point, no army large enough to keep any barbarian tribe from going wherever it wanted whenever it wanted.
After 476, there was nobody even claiming to be Roman Emperor in Italy—not even in the swamp-protected Adriatic coastal fortress of Ravenna, to which Emperor Honorius had fled from the Visigoths in 402.
The city of Rome itself was never a capital after 476, and was only garrisoned by Byzantine soldiers from 536 to 774.
After the Fall of Rome, in what had been the western provinces of the Roman Empire trade, the division of labor, urbanization, production of conveniences and luxuries, population, and total production were at a much lower level indeed—it truly was a “Dark Age”.
But thighbones tell us that the adults who lived in the Dark Age were taller and better-fed than their predecessors under the Roman Empire.
Perhaps this was because the end of the Roman Empire had seen the end of a cruel and oppressive aristocracy, and was a liberation of the people—there were many fewer slaves, and many many fewer plantation slaves worked to near-death.
But it is more likely that life became nastier and brutish and more dangerous, but that depopulation did increase farm and pasture size and so produce better nutrition even though the collapse of the Roman Empire’s economic network meant lower overall average living standards—the average farmholder was distressed enough by the collapse of the Pax Romana that he was willing to give up his and his family’s free status and become a bound serf of the local landlord,
Brad believes that Gregory of Tours was much worse as a prose stylist than Cicero or Tacitus—or great-great uncle Ernest, for that matter. Noah is neutral.
King Roger the Scylding at his hall of Heorot in the early 500s had no books, and was really happy whenever a bard would come around.
“After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain” is perhaps the best sentence of English prose ever written.
People should not overclaim with respect to the depth and spread of the post-Western Roman “Dark Age”.
People should not pretend that the Roman Empire in the west did not fall, and that there was no “Dark Age”.
Non-economic historians need to do the reading—to consider what we know and can learn about population levels, and about the productivity levels, trade patterns, and commodity types that were the fabric of the lives of the people who actually lived. People count, so you need to count people.
Economic progress is real progress.
Literacy is a good thing, not a neutral thing.
People who claim that valuing literacy is “frankly, kind of racist” should delete their accounts and go away.
Erich Auerbach: Mimesis
Cicero: In Catalinam I
Brad DeLong: Þe Late-Antiquity Pause, & þe “Bright Ages!”
Brad DeLong: Yes. Rome Did Fall
Matthew Gabriele & David M. Perry: You Gotta Do the Reading, Man
Gregory of Tours: History of the Franks
Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms
Willem Jongman: Gibbon Was Right
Willem Jongman: The new economic history of the Roman Empire
Willem Jongman & al..: Health and wealth in the Roman Empire
Noah Smith: Why didn’t they write anything down?
Ronald Syme: Tacitus
Tacitus: Annals of Imperial Rome
+, of course:
Vernor Vinge: A Fire Upon the Deep <https://archive.org/details/fireupondeep00ving_0/mode/1up>