“…for here it is precisely the element of the unexpected in the events I have chosen to describe which will challenge and stimulate everyone alike…” Polybius
Polybius’ statement, and his work in general, which was an attempt to explain how, in the course of a few decades, the whole order of the Mediterranean world had been reshaped by Roman imperialism, could serve as the introductory statement of any study of long term history. Is the world we live in the product of chance, or is it the result of certain causal events? If the latter is true, which of short-term or long-term events are more significant?
These are precisely the questions at the heart of the research engaged by several scholars concerning the different fate of what was once the Roman Empire and what is still essentially China. Several years ago, the “Great Divergence” was a phrase used to refer to the period in the 18-19th centuries when the Europeans, empowered by technology and a new economic order, rose to supremacy while China, considered the most powerful state on earth a few centuries earlier, sunk into (apparent) stagnation and depredation (see for instance Pomeranz’s book).
More recently, however, this question has been widened to consider not only the recent past, but the preceding 2 millenia as well (Read the analysis by Walter Scheidel here. ). The subject of Scheidel’s paper concerns what is now refered to as the “First Great Divergence”: that the Roman Empire in Western Eurasia and China in Eastern Eurasia, after converging trends characterized by the rise of their respective empire and a centralized government, started to diverge in significant ways between 500-800 AD, as the West gradually became divided under the swords of the Germanic barbarians and Muslim soldiers while the Chinese managed to reunite their empire. This divergence then would widen even more in the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of the European economic power and colonial empires.
The author, W. Scheidel, sees several apparent causes to this, although he does not venture into a conclusion as to which of these was or were most determinant–even if he seems to privilege the nature of the successor regimes as having played an important role.
A few comments could be made concerning the paper. First, concerning the reasons for the prospect of reunification of the Roman Empire, we must point out that the empire, besides being surrounded by barbarian peoples, also incorporated other peoples with a long history behind them (Egypt and Syria most particularly). To what extent did ‘nationalistic’ movements arise in these countries against the Roman and that would have helped fragment the empire? Also, Rome constantly faced Persia, of equal military power, while the Chinese did not, so far as I know, have to divert resources toward a quasi-permanent conflict with a power of equal military strength. To what extent did the Persian wars weaken the empire is another question that could be asked.
Second, and perhaps more significantly, the author considers Western Eurasia as a single entity. Yet, starting precisely from roughly the 6th century, this area, centered around the Mediterranean, became increasingly diversified culturally. Once Islam arose to prominence, all prospect of unification under a single power was lost forever. Division between Eastern and Western Christendom also made, on the long run, the reincorporation of the West within a larger Roman-Byzantine empire, or of the latter within a large domain headed by the Pope, impossible. Around the year 1000, while China had managed to reunify its former empire, the Mediterranean basin was a battleground on three levels: first between Islam and Christendom; second between the direct successor of the Roman Empire, of Orthodox faith, and the Western kingdoms and principalties under the sway of the Papacy; third, between these Western kingdoms, which each competed for supremacy and eventually functioned as separate nation-states. While the dreams of imperial reunification in the scale of the former Empire never died among all these contestants, diverging cultural differences made the prospect of such reunification increasingly impossible.