“…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.