Over at New Majority David Frum has a review up of Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000. Frum elaborates on one of Wickham’s central theses about the nature of the fall of the Roman Empire, the shift from direct taxation to assignments of land (what eventually evolved into what we term ‘feudalism’). Wickham’s book has been discussed in detail on this weblog before, he works within a Marxist framework whereby impersonal social and economic forces loom large, so you won’t get too much on battles as opposed to tax receipts.
But jumping forward in history 1,500 years I am struck by some of the same issues which crop up in the 18th century with the rise of the British Empire, and its ascendancy over continental powers such a France despite its smaller population (on the order of 1/3 France’s population in the early 18th century I believe). The argument roughly runs that Britain constructed a military-financial complex, whereby it could utilize debt to finance its wars, while France was dependent on more conventional forms of direction taxation. This is a classic case of using leverage to beat an opponent which by all rights should have you outgunned on paper. The early American republic saw conflicts between those who wished to emulate the British state (Alexander Hamilton) and those who did not (Thomas Jefferson). We know who won that debate. In any case, it is important to remember that before 1800, and in particular before 1500, differences in per capita wealth between regions were trivial compared to what we see today. The most extreme differences in per capita wealth might be 50%, while something closer to 10-25% were much more typical. This is why Greg Clark asserts blithely that for almost all of human history per capita wealth remained approximately what it was when our species were all hunter-gatherers in Farewell to Alms. No, what was different between Rome and the “barbarian” lands beyond the limes had less to do with median differences in wealth, and more to do with how the wealth was allocated and leveraged. This is why, I think, nomad elites invariably invaded civilized states despite the likelihood that the average nomad was likely more affluent than the average peasant; civilized super-elites could extract much more surplus from their subjects than nomadic warlords could from their inferiors.
Addendum: One thing want to add, structural and institutional innovations often only result in a transient advantage. For example, both Tim Blanning and Peter Turchin point out that the most consistent predictive variable for victories during the wars which erupted in Europe after the French Revolution was the size of armies. The initial victories of the French were simply a function of the revolutionary state’s putting many more men under arms, while most of the European monarchies stuck longer with smaller professional armies. Once other states caught up the French advantage disappeared. But despite the fact that the equilibrium was restored after a generation, I think we can admit that the transient was very important as a “hinge of history.”