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The End of the Past: Ancient Rome and the Modern West

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The End of the Past: Ancient Rome and the Modern West
By Aldo Schiavone and Translated by Margery J. Schneider.(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000. Pp. viii, 278.) ISBN: 0-674-00062-5.


Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - May 1, 2000

Ever since the Roman empire 'fell' people have been asking, "How could this have happened?" It is hard to imagine how such a great empire, at the height of its power and seemingly on the verge of universal peace, could fall so quickly and so completely. In The End of the Past: Ancient Rome and the Modern West, Aldo Schiavone, a Professor of Roman Law at the University of Florence, explains his theory about how and why the Roman empire fell. He also illustrates how the course of Western history drastically diverged from the Roman model.

Many theories exist that purport to explain what caused the fall of the Roman Empire, ranging from political corruption to mental impairment of the citizenry due to the use of lead water pipes. What most of these theories have in common is that they put the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire upon a singular event or circumstance that occurred toward the latter days of the Empire. Schiavone, in contrast, places the beginning of the fall far back in the Roman past. He squarely places the main causal factor behind the fall upon Rome's inability, and unwillingness, to change its economic and philosophical outlook to meet the changing realities of their world. In addition, rather than looking for a single factor to ‘blame', Schiavone takes a wider perspective showing that the fall was the culmination of a long string of events.

Through the use of detailed historical and economic analysis and by making comparisons with modern economic theories, Schiavone shows that while their monuments still stand to attest to the fact that a great empire once stood, intellectually and economically, the Roman way of life is totally alien to the Western mind-set, in part because the Roman economy was based upon slavery to extent never seen before or since. This affected not only their philosophical outlook, giving rise to the Roman abhorrence of manual labor, but also caused a form of technological stagnation. Since they had a glut of labor, they had no need for labor-saving devices and therefore did not invent them. Schiavone perspicuously illustrates how the Roman's over reliance on slave labor, both for production and as an indicator of wealth, was a causal factor in the fall of the Roman Empire. This need not have been the fate of the Empire, the Roman's had a chance to change the course of their own history, but failed to adopt the necessary changes.

Written more in the form of a narrative than a staid ‘history' book, Schiavone offers insights on how the Romans viewed themselves, and how early historians viewed the Romans. He also provides an insightful overview of economic theory and offers detailed historical proofs showing how post-Roman western economies were not extensions of the Roman economic model, but rather unique institutions. Schiavone further illustrates his theories by viewing the Roman economy from the standpoint of the various players: elites, slaves, merchants, foreigners, soldiers, and common citizens.

The End of the Past is the thirteenth volume to be included in the Revealing Antiquity series published by Harvard University Press. As with the other books in the series, The End of the Past is insightful, thought provoking, and it advances the modern understanding of the ancient world. Geared for a scholarly audience, this text offers scholars a well-researched reference book, made so by virtue of Schiavone's assiduous attention to historical methodology and the inclusion of detailed notes. Despite its scholarly bent, The End of the Past, is well suited for a general audience, due to Schiavone's clear and uncluttered narrative style. The only caveat is that, at times, the prose becomes stilted, not an unusual occurrence in a translated work. While this may be off-putting to some readers, it is well worth the effort to persevere.

Schiavone's economic and historical analysis of the Roman Empire, from the founding of Rome to the collapse of the Empire is, if nothing else, compelling. Whether or not you accept his argument that the Roman economy and the inflexibility of the Roman philosophical outlook were the main causes of the fall, The End of the Past will make you reevaluate your preexisting ideas. More important, The End of the Past will force you to rethink your ideas on where modern society is headed. It will make you question if we too, as a society, are missing the chance to advert our own downfall because we are blind to our own foibles and too ‘set in our ways' to take into consideration the future impact of the political and economic polices that are being set into motion - today.


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Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, Edited by G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar.
Late Antiquity is both an encyclopedia and a book of essays. The text will act as a guide, opening new vistas and encouraging you to pursue further study into a unique period of time. It is also an unparalleled and valuable reference work.

Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire, By Warwick Ball.
This book offers the readers a brief glimpse into the exotic world that was once Eastern Rome.

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