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laid a heavy tax burned on the empire.

burden ??

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"Are most cities and towns still run by a handful of old aristocratic families and I somehow have never noticed?"

Yes, I think so: at least in rural areas. I grew up near three small villages, no more than 200 people in any of them, and the Adams were the gentry in at least two of them: they owned two gas stations, a hamburger stand, and a hardware store among other things. They didn't have a mansion or anything, but everybody in those villages knew the Adams: they were a "preeminent family" you might say. If something big needed to get done, you could bet the Adams would have their fingers in it. And if you were a local boy and you needed a job, then you'd go to the Adams first.

A nearby town I went to High School at had a population around 2,500. The big man there was Mr. Heinz. He owned the pharmacy, and he must have owned a lot more I was never told about because he had a mansion up on the hill. He'd sponsor local sporting events, and was generally one of the "big men about town." I went to school with his daughter, and she was notable for being the only person in our rural school with a convertible.

There are thousands of small towns all across America, and in most of them you can find a big man or two who "own half the town": usually not literally half, but maybe half or more of anything that's worth owning, like businesses. And in farm country there are always a few big farmers who own most of the land, or the mill and feed, or both. If you haven't seen it then I would guess you don't come from rural areas: in the big city you can own $10 million in real estate and be invisible among a crown of others who own the same or more, which in a small town $10 million would make you the local nob.

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The famous science fiction novel ‘Canticle for Leibowitz’ has the Catholic Church be the only organization of significance to survive the nuclear war, for reasons similar to what you have described in Rome. But it takes place in Utah, which kind of wrecked my suspension of disbelief; while reading it, I kept thinking “The religious organization that runs Utah after the nuclear war is *not* going to be Catholic...”

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For future research, I want to understand if our current society is secretly ruled by local elites. If not, then what happened to them?

No idea if what I'm about to say is actually correct, but I would guess our society is no longer ruled by local elites and that the disappearance of these local elites is a relatively new phenomenon having only started in a small way with the invention of the telegraph and accelerating as communication over distance became easier and easier. Once it becomes easy for a executive in New York, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, or Frankfurt to give instructions and receive information from local employees in far-flung locations, the business advantages of concentrating the top sector of an organization in one place become overwhelming.

This trend may reverse however, if communications become so good that you can get those advantages without geographical concentration.

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Really interesting. Thanks for the review. I'm really curious if there were intellectual benefits to Christianity, i.e. did Constantine co-opt Christianity for a specific political purpose? It seems rather odd that a politician would elevate a newly emerging religion. It must have been able to foster some intellectual legitimacy at the time.

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Well, this is certainly the review for me! Congratulations on this, very informative and well-laid out!

Now, it wouldn't be a proper comment without some demurral, so I want to disagree a little about the Vandals and North Africa. Rome had long been dependent on Egyptian (and North African) wheat to supplement its own production. Indeed, Rome *couldn't* produce enough wheat to feed its own population - in that manner, it is reminiscent of many modern nations - see this set of statistics about the United Kingdom, where domestic food production accounts for 55% of all food consumed, the remainder being imported: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/food-statistics-pocketbook/food-statistics-in-your-pocket-global-and-uk-supply

This paper on the Roman grain market doesn't cover the same period as the book under review, but I think it gives a general idea: http://www.cgeh.nl/sites/default/files/Early-Economies/Efficiency_Markets_Preindustrial_Societies/Rathbone_Amst_paper.pdf

"The issue of state intervention deserves closer scrutiny. The basic aim of the imperial annona was to supply an annual ration of 60 modii of wheat, somewhat more than an adult male needed, to 200,000 ticket-holders at Rome and some 350,000 soldiers, that is at most 25% of the total wheat demand of the city of Rome, assuming one million inhabitants, and a tiny fraction of the empire’s total population of, say, fifty million.

... The common concern of imperial and local officials in a highly urbanised and civilian society with a strong civic ideology was that their cities, the embodiment of their regime, should appear prosperous and happy, and that meant avoiding severe food shortages which might provoke unsettling riots by aggrieved citizens.

...In conclusion, the market in wheat in the Roman empire was essentially a free market, comprising and being influenced by the administered market of the imperial annona and civic interventions. Rome’s achievement deserves recognition. For several centuries an urban population of around 30% of the total, and more if we include the nonfarming element in rural communities, was provided with a reliable supply of wheat at reasonable prices, at least in the main urban centres. It is striking that no serious food shortage at Rome is attested after AD 60 until the Antonine plague in the late 160s. "

So the annona was not simply a matter of feeding "useless mouths", which is where I take exception with your conclusion about "North Africa was required to grow grains for the politically irrelevant citizens of Rome." Egypt was astoundingly fertile by the standards of the time, able to produce two and even three harvests in the year. The grain grown there was feeding *all* the Empire, not just the layabout plebs in the city of Rome itself. As to "The land should have been put to more productive uses. As soon as the Vandals took control of north Africa, the land was put to more productive uses", I think you are overlooking this. If the idea is "well, if North Africa grew other crops or was used more productively, why couldn't the imperial citizens simply switch to other foodstuffs or buy those products?" is rather like saying "why was the Famine such a big deal, why didn't the Irish just buy other food instead of potatoes?"

It's a bit more complicated than that.

As to the Vandals themselves, they were in a sense "barbarians" but they had already been semi-civilised, which is why they could take over the North African cities they had raided and captured and run them successfully. For a start, they were already Christians - though Arians, which put them at odds with their Catholic and Donatist subjects in cities like Hippo. They had been driven out of the Iberian peninsula by Roman alliances with other local tribes and later waves of invaders and set up their kingdom in North Africa which flourished for a time: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vandals

To go off on a tangent, given that after the collapse of the Vandal Kingdom the remainder were either shipped off to Byzantium or integrated into the local African populations, and that they are described as "For they all have white bodies and fair hair, and are tall and handsome to look upon", could this possibly be the ancestry of the literary trope of "lost cities in Africa ruled over by white kings/queens"?

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The section on the barbarians is definitely off.

"barbarian militias, “little more than freelance pillagers and highwaymen,”

They were a bit more important than that; they regularly defeated Roman armies.

"Altogether, it was civil war – and no bloodthirsty drive of their own – that had moved barbarian militias from one end of the Roman West to the other in under a generation.”"

Constantine III's rebellion was surely a reason for Alaric's invasion of Italy, but he was acting on his own. Same for Gaiseric and the Bonifatius/Aetius war.

"For the most part, barbarian militias did not set out to conqueror."

True enough, but their conquests were important. The Visigoths battled for Narbonne and the Vandals successfully conquered Hippo Regius and Carthage.

"He blames the fractional violence among the Roman elites."

Certainly partly true, but the empire was in very poor shape during the 20 years of Aetius's rule despite a notable lack of factional conflict.

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Tracts of land, not tracks.

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Nice review, somebody.

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This may be too abstract or just plain wrong, but my impression from reading this is that just by being something in particular, systems are fragile because they're necessarily leaving something out, and that something can undercut the system.

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This is in great need of copyediting.

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"The more I learn about history, the more I realize that conquest is overrated and raiding is underrated."

Raiding has been more common, because it is easier. But the stationary bandit can steal more than the roving bandit over the long run.

"Another inefficient equilibrium was north Africa growing grain for the Roman annona. The land should have been put to more productive uses."

Growing grain sounds like a productive use. That the grain was taxed and sent to Rome is a pecuniary externality. If there was a marginal tax rate on the amount of grain grown, that could be a disincentive, but a Georgist land tax can be efficient.

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Overall I thought this was a pretty good but, not great review. I learned a lot about an interesting time period that I thought I knew fairly well, so that's always appreciated. But I don't know if there were any really shocking insights or the like. Also, and this isn't a major flaw but is something that sticks out compared to the other reviews, there's an awful lot of misspelled words. Overall, still glad I read it but still left thinking it could be better.

Anywho, new rankings:

1st Progress and Poverty

2nd On the Natural Faculties (tied)

3rd The Wizard and the Prophet

4th Double Fold

5th Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

6th Through The Eye Of A Needle

7th Order Without Law

8th Why Buddhism is True

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" And most obviously, don’t give barbarian militias license to plunder your country."

LOL - our own elites are doing the job quite well.

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This review pairs well with the review of Henry George's book and Georgism.

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I think this book would pair well with a reading of Nietzche's attempts to trace the transformation of the morals of antiquity into medieval Christian morals. His interest is primarily in the psychological change taking place in individual minds, and how that later affects the world order, but in a sense, a lot of his work re: transformation in moral valuations is an attempt to understand why Roman elites were ripe for conversion to Christianity. Or It at least strikes me as a historically grounded way to think about the impacts and causes of slave and master morality, and how they relate to the fall of Rome and Christianity's rise.

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Great review, and a great general lesson: "The more I learn about history, the more I realize that conquest is overrated and raiding is underrated."

This makes a lot of sense.

You might have added: No-end-in-sight raiding is more likely to lead to the collapse of a system, than conquest. Empires (and states) disintegrate not following conquest, but due to the attrition of never-ending raiding.

The classic definition of a state (applies also to empires) is an organisation that maintains a monopoly on the use of violence within a territory (courtesy of Max Weber). Countinous raiding destroys the economy (why grow/produce/create something when there is a high probability that someone will come and steal it anyway), which limits the state's/empire's taxation capability (fewer things to tax), which limits its ability to pay a sufficiently large army/coercive apparatus to maintain its monopoly on violence, which leads to more raiding. And so on.

The classic (light game-theoretic) treatment of this insight is Mancur Olson's article Dictatorship, Democracy and Development in American Political Science Review no. 3 1993.

(It could have been subtitled: Why it is better to be exploited by stationary bandits than by roving bandits.)

...And then there are Hobbes' Leviathan and Machiavelli's The Prince, both offering advice on how to dig a territory out of the ditch of roving-ness, to return to the blessed state where one stationary bandit rules us all.

Again, great review.

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How did all 20 Saxons strangle one another? 19/20 I could understand..

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"In many places, olive oil went from a common commodity to 'an almost supernatural luxury' used to fuel church lamps."

Olive oil still has that role in the Catholic Church to this day. The three anointing oils are made from it; chrism has a perfume mixed into it, usually balsam. If you've not seen the word "chrism" before, yes, I know what you're thinking and it is very funny. The standard etymology is from the Greek χρίειν, "to anoint". I find it pleasant to speculate from time to time about the reification of the role of bodily fluids in pagan rituals and how this might connect to the story of Cain & Abel.

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"If I was knowledgeable on Catholic theology and ancient heresies then it may have been more interesting. I don’t know much more than Sunday school level theology – I haven’t even read Augustine’s The City of God."

Oh, Augustine's writing is very interesting and well worth your time. There's an anecdote from the _Confessions_ that I like very much as an illustration of the degree to which the past is a foreign country. Augustine remarks that one day he came into the rooms of his teacher, Ambrose, and found him reading silently. This was an unusual faculty according to his telling; the custom for literate people in those days was to vocalize words as they read them, or at least to form the shapes with their mouths. I've tried to develop the habit of doing this when I read poetry to force myself to feel the rhyme, meter and scansion, because otherwise, I blitz through it too quickly to appreciate the shape of the words. It's hard for me to imagine vocalizing what I read all the time, though, it would slow me down too much to get through my work.

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I'm noticing that none of the book review contest entries so far are well proofread. You guys know you have to do that, right? Spellcheck doesn't catch punctuation errors, grammatical errors, or many transpositions or other word errors. For example, this review has "tracks" for "tracts," "fractional" for "factional," "burned" for "burden"...I could go on, but I don't want to pick on this entry in particular since it seems to be a global problem with all the book reviewers, and distracts from their points. Try having someone else proofread it, or go a few days without looking at the document and then proofread it yourself.

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"The curiales took care of almost every task of government on behalf of Respublica, except for high justice and the army. Curiales were responsible for police, road maintenance, fortifications, and the collection of taxes. The power and status of being a member of the curiales also came a supreme burden – the curiales were responsible for making up any shortfalls in tax revenue."


"For future research, I want to understand if our current society is secretly ruled by local elites. If not, then what happened to them?"

I think there's a connection to legibility and Seeing like a State here. The major service the curiales provided, from the perspective of the Emperor, was legibility. It may not have been a fair system, but it was very easy to administrate. If you want to know if a curiale has paid the appropriate amount of tax, you multiply the tax rate times the area of land they administer. Tax fraud is impossible, by definition. If a curiale has extracted more wealth from the people in their area than the Emperor expected, then they're legally entitled to keep it.

For that reason, I wouldn't expect the aristocracy trend to continue to the present day. There are better ways of establishing legibility now.

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"The core of the 530 page book uses the writings of the pagan Symmachus and the Christian writers Ambrose, Jerome, Pelagius, Augustine, Paulinus of Nola, John Cassian, Pinianus, Melania the Younger, and Salvian of Marseilles. I found these pieces of the book a little dry and overly theological. Their works are the primary sources from the era, so I understand why they were the focus of the book. If I was knowledgeable on Catholic theology and ancient heresies then it may have been more interesting. I don’t know much more than Sunday school level theology – I haven’t even read Augustine’s The City of God.

Brown uses these primary sources to narrate the entry of the rich into the Christian churches of the western Roman empire. Christ said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The Church transformed the rich and the rich transformed the church. Many rich Christians gave their wealth to the church – during their life or after their death."

St. Jerome, for instance, is important here for the "entry of the rich into the Christian churches". As well as having a reputation as a Biblical scholar and translator, and as being one of the worst-tempered saints, he had a great deal of influence on wealthy Roman women and the role of women in adopting Christianity is one that is perhaps not fully appreciated (I am not up on my feminist theology so I have no idea if they cover this). Chunks of quotes from Wikipedia to follow:

"The protégé of Pope Damasus I who died in December of 384, Jerome was known for his teachings on Christian moral life, especially to those living in cosmopolitan centers such as Rome. In many cases, he focused his attention on the lives of women and identified how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life. This focus stemmed from his close patron relationships with several prominent female ascetics who were members of affluent senatorial families.

...In Rome, Jerome was surrounded by a circle of well-born and well-educated women, including some from the noblest patrician families, such as the widows Lea, Marcella and Paula, with Paula's daughters Blaesilla and Eustochium. The resulting inclination of these women towards the monastic life, away from the indulgent lasciviousness in Rome, and his unsparing criticism of the secular clergy of Rome, brought a growing hostility against him among the Roman clergy and their supporters. Soon after the death of his patron Pope Damasus I on 10 December 384, Jerome was forced to leave his position at Rome after an inquiry was brought up by the Roman clergy into allegations that he had an improper relationship with the widow Paula. Still, his writings were highly regarded by women who were attempting to maintain a vow of becoming a consecrated virgin.

...Jerome was a scholar at a time when that statement implied a fluency in Greek. He knew some Hebrew when he started his translation project, but moved to Jerusalem to strengthen his grip on Jewish scripture commentary. A wealthy Roman aristocrat, Paula, funded his stay in a monastery in Bethlehem and he completed his translation there. He began in 382 by correcting the existing Latin-language version of the New Testament, commonly referred to as the Vetus Latina. By 390 he turned to translating the Hebrew Bible from the original Hebrew, having previously translated portions from the Septuagint which came from Alexandria. He believed that the mainstream Rabbinical Judaism had rejected the Septuagint as invalid Jewish scriptural texts because of what were ascertained as mistranslations along with its Hellenistic heretical elements

...Due to the time he spent in Rome among wealthy families belonging to the Roman upper-class, Jerome was frequently commissioned by women who had taken a vow of virginity to write to them in guidance of how to live their life. As a result, he spent a great deal of his life corresponding with these women about certain abstentions and lifestyle practices."

So it was the support of these wealthy and well-connected women that enabled St. Jerome to stand against the enemies he made within the Roman clergy, and that supported him to work on his translations of the Scriptures. And in turn, Jerome's guidance and direction buttressed the status of these women in the nascent Christian society of the times, and their influence in how it was adopted and lived.

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"Over the next hundred years, western Europe and north Africa completed their transformation from a classical pagan society to a medieval Christian one."

Christianity was declared the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380.

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Great review. Particularly with your “ rationalist” analysis

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Part of the story of the modern era is the concealment of power and the the diffusion of responsibility. Systems with no one to blame out-competed the others.

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"Brahmine elite" is the subject of Thomas Piketty's new book.

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There's certainly still local elites, though I think some combination of more reporting, anti-corruption laws, the brain drain and subsequent national dispersal of graduates of elite national universities, a culture that exposes even obscure local politics to national attention, and perhaps the relatively dynamic economy of the US makes the local elites less dominant, or at least, less publicly dominant.

Nowadays you could go to the most expensive charity galas or most prestigious dinner invitations in your local city to find these local elites. Some combination of local businesspeople, property owners, politicians, very influential media-types, presidents of local universities, maybe the chairman of the hospital, etc.

Local elites can't buy the law they want, at least not in any straightforward way, but they'll certainly have much more influence than the average citizen. Their outraged statements about some proposed highway extension or whatever will get into the newspaper.

It all feels much more obscured and illegible than it used to be, I think likely in response to the increased scrutiny of modern life.

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Brief review-of-the-review:

The topic is interesting but the writing and analysis here weren't as compelling to me as some other entries. The connections to game theory and equilibria feel forced and insufficiently motivated, and the sometimes casual tone is distracting. Props for a thorough and thoughtful treatment of the book's content, though.

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