A conversation with a medieval historian about plagues, pandemics, imperial decline — and whether the U.S. is too broken to be fixed
I was 35 minutes into my conversation with Patrick Wyman when he scared the shit out of me.
I’d called Wyman — a European historian focused on the end of the Roman Empire and the world it left behind — to discuss his piece in Mother Jones on how societies hold together or fall apart. But like every conversation seems to these days,it quickly turned to plagues and pandemics. Wyman brought up the mid-1300s bubonic plague that basically cut Europe’s population in half. Here’s what, in Wyman’s telling, Europe looked like on the eve of the Black Death.
At the end of a long period of economic expansion and population growth, wages were low and serfs were struggling to get by. Inequality had soared as a small cadre of wealthy elite spent heavily on luxuries. The climate, after a long and stable period, was entering a volatile shift. Oh, yeah, and in the decade before the pandemic, a group of historically massive companies had overexposed themselves and gone bankrupt, triggering an economic crisis.
We sat for a minute with what he just said, both of us aware of the parallels and neither of us particularly comfortable with them. But then he laughed. I did too. It’s dark. I’m terrified. But what else can you really do?
It’s easy to feel powerless right now. We’re stuck inside, watching the confirmed coronavirus case count climb and waiting to find out if any of our social distancing can work, or if we’re already too late. And I’ve started to wonder if we’re all just sort of stuck on the wheel of history, believing we’re shaping our society’s destiny, but more just sort of dragged along in an inevitable cycle. Maybe we need to accept that those people who thought they built a good, stable society were really just beneficiaries of dumb luck — born at a place and time when the wheel is on its way up, rather than during its inevitable fall back down?
Fortunately, Wyman — who, unlike me, has a deep knowledge of history — had a different take, one that’s both more damning of where we are right now but, ultimately, more hopeful about where we can go next.
We discussed those hopes, his piece “How Do You Know If You’re Living Through the Death of an Empire?,” how pandemics have changed societies historically, and how the Romans might have succeeded (or failed) at handling the coronaviruses of their era.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
A recurring theme in your work on the Roman Empire is, basically, that what you learned in high school is wrong: As shocking as they were both at the time and now, the famed barbarian invasions that sacked Rome didn’t end the empire — they showed how far it had already deteriorated. In your essay, you apply that thinking to our modern United States. How does it apply here, with COVID-19?
Crises like these — whether it’s a crisis of political legitimacy, or a pandemic that demands response, or some kind of major external war that crops up out of nowhere — the chances are good that whatever snaps under the pressure of that crisis was probably straining already, was probably barely chugging along already. There’s some kind of deep problem that a crisis is going to expose, bring to the fore, and then break very dramatically for everybody to see.
We see the crisis and we see the break — and we equate the two. We’re narrative creatures. That’s how we understand the world. We understand things as a story with a climax, and the break has to be the climax. It’s very hard for us to turn a more analytical eye and see the collection of very small things that lead up to a systemic break. It’s just difficult. But these disasters don’t create these trends so much as they supercharge them.
What kind of breaks, systemic failures, and supercharged trends are you seeing with our response to COVID-19? Your point about systems breaking that were already stretched thin reminded me of these reports that somewhere between 90 and 98 percent of our nation’s ICU beds are being used all the time.
That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. When you have a society that has optimized for some ideal of efficiency or shareholder value, as opposed to redundancy or resiliency, this is the kind of result that you get. From my point of view, that amounts to a break. Something like repeatedly cutting ICU capacity in order to deliver more shareholder profits, that looks like a broken system to me, or at least one in which the incentives are not necessarily aligned with public welfare.
Put on a slightly different scale, if you have an economy that’s set up such that having to reduce consumer spending in order to preserve public health places such a massive strain on it, there’s probably something underlying that’s unhealthy about that system as a whole. If your system of political economy is not healthy enough to withstand a shock like that or respond to that, something’s wrong. If we end up with 20 or 25 percent unemployment, if we end up with large numbers of people who can’t eat, who are going to be paying thousands and thousand of dollars from medical bills if and when they get sick … those are systemic crises that grew out of problems that existed before the coronavirus.
Sticking with this theme of “crises don’t break societies, they reveal what’s already broken,” how does that pertain to other world-changing historical events?
Take the “Black Death,” a bubonic plague in the mid-1300s that killed somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of the population. To someone living in it, it seemed like a massive breakdown. But if you look at the conditions in Europe in the run-up to the plague, you’ll see the pandemic supercharged a lot of trends that were already in progress.
So the Black Death came at the end of a long period of economic contraction that had begun way back in toward the end of the 1200s. Before that, there had been this long period of economic efflorescence in high medieval Europe of “the commercial revolution,” where long-distance trade spread rapidly, lots more money was in circulation, the economy grew. But it was built on demographic growth; some populations doubled or even tripled throughout a lot of Europe.
And that meant that by the end of the 13th century (1200s) practically all of the arable land was under cultivation. Even a lot of marginal, mucky, hilly, swampy land was in use. But the effect of having all of these people was that wages were extremely low. There were a lot of people living on the edge of subsistence without land of their own. These were the material conditions that underpinned the peak of the serfdom system, a labor arrangement in which people owed unpaid service to the lord in return for the use of his land.
There’s a climate element, too. Part of the reason for this long economic efflorescence was that it was a period of really good, warm, stable weather. It’s less important for farmers that the weather be good than that it be predictable, because what you need to know is when to sow your crops and when to harvest them. But over the late [1200s] and into the [1300s], the weather gets much worse. It’s much less predictable — it’s wetter, colder. And that reaches a particularly bad point in what’s known as the “Great Famine,” which spikes between about 1315 and 1322. A lot of people died: Hundreds of thousands or millions of people starved to death across Western Europe. So that’s a sign that there is something systemically wrong. And that continued up through the Black Death.
There were also a whole bunch of bankruptcies of very large businesses — unprecedentedly large businesses that in the historiography are called “the Super-Companies” — that were invested all over Europe. They went bust in the middle of the 1340s, before the Black Death. They went under for a lot of reasons, but one of them was because of how overexposed they were and how teetering the economy was.
So you have tight money. You have high population, low wages, high land costs … that’s a recipe for a really bad series of outcomes.
Um, you hear how that sounds, right? [Long silence, followed by laughter]
Yeah, when you lay it out that schematically, it looks bad, huh? What’s interesting is that, while of course you get economic contraction in the aftermath of that many people dying, in the long run, the Black Death made living conditions a lot better in Western Europe, particularly for peasants. Land was cheaper and you were more likely to acquire your own, you got to eat better, more nutritious food and more variety of food, your wages were higher …
But that came at a serious cost. You don’t want to have to “Thanos snap” half the population out of existence in order to get to a point where the peasants are doing better.
There’s something sort of depressing and deterministic about all this, to be honest. If you’re a peasant born in 1330, you’re going to grow up poor and then, as likely as not, die of the bubonic plague before turning 25. If you’re born in 1360, you have a much brighter set of possible outcomes. Are we all just sort of spinning on the wheel? Do you ever worry we’ll tell our grandkids about how good life used to be, and they’ll just look at us in disbelief.
The end of the Roman Empire did not make life worse for everybody, and I think that’s an important point. Life does not have to get worse because of the end of a large-scale political entity. There’s some desperate inequality in the Roman Empire. A lot of groups of people are systemically treated terribly in the Roman system. For most people, there is no baseline assumption that their life has any real value. So the standard of living probably rose for a lot of people in the post-Roman world, population health was probably better, and diets were probably better in large swaths of the world.
That said, life often can get worse because of the end of a political system. There are things that large-scale states do that make life better or are quite useful in a lot of ways. There’s some evidence that, after Rome, people lived in a more violent world. The simple fact was that people — and there were a lot fewer people in general — lived in much more local worlds. Their worlds were much less urbanized and less connected over long distances. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on how there was a lot less long-distance communication in the post-Roman world.
For our grandkids, I worry a lot about the climate, about a time when you just can’t really go outside in the summer, when you can’t grow certain crops because it’s too hot. I think we could be in a similar situation as post-Roman Europe, in which — if the climate stuff keeps going the way it’s going — we have a more violent world and a more disordered world. It’s not necessarily worse, but we could definitely be telling them about a much, much different world.
But you don’t seem to see societies’ fate as predetermined. Can you point to examples of leaders who’ve successfully pulled systems back together?
Yeah! To keep to the Roman context, there are at least two. There was the end of the Roman Republic, and there was nothing to say the struggle between Augustus and Mark Antony that followed [Julius Caesar’s death] had to end with their world intact, but it did.
Perhaps more interesting is the crisis of the third century, this cascading series of system failures all across the Roman world that included some climatic shock or major drought. There were droughts, famines, and plagues. (It’s hard to know just how bad they were because our sources from this time are so bad.) This is all combined with an economic meltdown, barbarian invasions — the Roman Empire could have very easily fallen apart in the third century A.D.
But there were a couple of emperors who managed to put things back together. The first of them was Aurelian, followed by Diocletian, who essentially rebuilt the Roman system into something much different. The later Roman Empire is a much different beast. It was much more militarized. It had a much larger bureaucracy. It was a much more centralized state. It took massive systemic changes to the empire for it to survive the crisis, to keep it united. And even then, it still didn’t survive more than a few centuries after that.
What lessons can we draw from Aurelian and Rome that apply to today?
The lesson of Aurelian is not that we should be looking for a tough soldier-emperor to make things OK. The lesson is that what Aurelian’s era demanded — if we think it’s a good thing that the empire did manage to survive the crisis — is someone whose skill set matched the moment. What the Roman Empire needed was a gifted military mind with a ruthless streak. We obviously don’t want to recreate anything like the Roman Empire, which was in many ways a horribly oppressive society based on massive human suffering and chattel slavery.
But as we’re looking to solve our current problems, we need people who have the right skill sets. We need people who know how to pull the levers of the political system to direct state resources toward the massive glaring problems that we are facing. We need people who can see a shortage of protective equipment in hospitals and find ways to ensure we are producing and distributing that equipment. If we need to test people for the coronavirus, we need people in positions of power who can guarantee that we are producing, distributing, and utilizing coronavirus test kits. That’s what the situation demands.
We’re seeing who has the skill set to govern — and it’s particularly evident on the state level. The governors who have that, I think, are going to save a lot of lives. It’s not hyperbole to say that in a crisis. The inverse of that is going to be, I think, the governor of Oklahoma. By tweeting out that picture of himself dining out, he might literally have killed people who decide to go out, and then contract the virus. The governor of Florida taking as long as he did to close the beaches during spring break — it’s really hard to overstate how bad that is. The fact that you had the capacity to take steps to stop the transmission of this virus by shutting down mass gatherings and you chose not to do it, that is malfeasance.
I cling to this last line of your Mother Jones piece: “Maybe those future historians will look back at this as a crisis weathered, an opportunity to fix what ails us before the tipping point has truly been reached. We can see those thousand cuts now, in all their varied depth and location. Perhaps it’s not yet too late to stanch the bleeding.” How do we do that?
And at moments like this, we have the opportunity to evaluate what is and isn’t working, and you have the opportunity to make change. Yeah, this crisis is ongoing, but when the dust eventually settles, we will be able to look at the wide and broad strokes and see things that desperately need changing. And hopefully we can use this as an opportunity to build more resilient systems as we move forward.
This won’t be the last shock. We’ve been very lucky that we haven’t had one for a long time. But we’ll have another one.
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