Counterfactuals, Empires, and Institutions

Reflections on Walter Scheidel's "Escape from Rome"

Originally published in Journal of Economic Literature

This essay reviews Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity by Walter Scheidel. It examines the argument that Europe's persistent fragmentation following the collapse of the Roman Empire is responsible for the origins of the modern world. First, I consider Scheidel's argument that the rise of Rome at the end of the first millennium BCE was relatively overdetermined, but that once Rome fell, it was highly unlikely for any subsequent empire to dominate Europe. Second, I examine the institutional consequences of this divergence in state building. Finally, I reflect on the role of counterfactuals in history.

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