Viewpoint: The time Britain slid into chaos

Actors dressed as ancient Romans

The social unrest, economic gloom and austerity in Europe today mirrors one of the greatest crises in British history, says the historian Michael Wood.

The news from Europe is getting worse by the day. Economic gloom across the continent and multiple crises in the currency zone.

With rising unemployment and inflation there are riots in the streets with forecasts of anarchy in some parts of western Europe.

And along with the simmering discontent there is a worrying rise of radical groups and populist right wing movements. In the fringes, secessionists are pushing for independence, indeed for the break up of the whole European order under which we have all lived secure and comfortable for so long.

At home in Britain there are worrying signs in every town - cuts in public services have led to closures of public baths and libraries, the failure of road maintenance, breakdowns in the food supply and civic order.

Protests against austerity in Rome by the Coliseum Anti-austerity protests in Rome

While political commentators and church leaders talk about a "general decline in morality" and "public apathy", the rich retreat to their mansions and country estates and hoard their cash.

It all sounds eerily familiar doesn't it? But this is not Angela Merkel's eurozone - it is Roman Britannia towards the year 400, the period of the fall of the Roman Empire.

In some places the fall seems to have been especially hard.

In Long Melford in Suffolk for example, in a communal dig for our new BBC Two series, the incredible richness of Roman finds in almost every test pit becomes a total blank from the 5th Century.

If people were still there they weren't using coins, or wheel-made pottery, and they certainly weren't shopping for luxuries. As Dr Carenza Lewis of Cambridge University puts it: "It's almost wiped out - as far as the pottery goes you could hold post-Roman Long Melford in your hand - with a bag of chips!"

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Man adjusting Union jack bow tie

By the early 5th Century in Britain, currency stopped being used altogether.

"It became a century of make do and mend," says archaeologist Peter Liddle on Burrough Hill in Leicestershire.

Some towns survived - Carlisle for example still had a town council and a working aqueduct in the 7th Century - but in most of them, with the rubbish piled up in the streets and the civic buildings left to decay, eventually the people left.

The British went back to an Iron Age rural farming economy. The population declined from its four million peak to maybe only a million, devastated by the great plagues, famines and climate crises of the 500s.

In the countryside life went on, but with barter and self-sufficiency, out of which, building from the bottom, our medieval and modern societies eventually emerged.

So is there anything to be learned now from Britain's experience then?

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Of course it was a long time ago, and conditions were very different. Modern mass democracies are much more complex than the Roman world.

But history tells us that complex societies do collapse. And the great constant, along with climate and economic forces, is human nature. Societies, then and now, are made by people, and they are often brought down by people.

Rome in the 4th Century had been a great power defended by a huge army. A century later the power and the army had gone.

Instead the West was ruled by new barbarian elites, Angles and Saxons, Visigoths and Franks. And nowhere were these changes more dramatic than on the very fringe of the Roman world in Britain.

Edward Gibbon, in his great book Decline and Fall, famously blamed the collapse not only on the barbarians, but on Christianity. He thought it had undermined society with its focus on another, better world.

Modern historians, though, see it differently, and some of their ideas seem startlingly relevant to us now.

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The fall of Rome serves to remind us that complex societies can, and do, break down”

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First was the widening gulf between the social classes, rich and poor. When rich and poor start to live completely different lives this leads (then as now) to the poor opting out of the state. All studies today show that society is happier when the gap between rich and poor is reduced.

Widen it and you affect the group ethos of society, and also the ability to get things done through tax.

In the Roman West real wealth lay more in land and property than in finance (though there were banks) - but in the 300s the big land-owning aristocrats who often had fantastic wealth, contributed much less money than they had in the past to defence and government.

That in turn led as it has today to a "credibility gap" between ordinary people and the bureaucrats and rich people at the top.

Roman Britain

The Roman Baths in Bath

Not surprisingly then, many people - especially religious groups - tried to opt out altogether.

Other strands in the collapse of the Roman West are more difficult to quantify, but they centre on "group feeling", the glue that keeps society working together towards common goals. Lose that and you get a kind of nervous breakdown in the social order, which leads to what archaeologists call "systems collapse".

The British historian Gildas (c 500-570) in his diatribe against contemporary rulers in the early 500s, looking back over the story of the Fall of Roman Britain, lists the military failures, but behind them he speaks bitterly of a loss of nerve and direction, a failure of "group feeling".

Gildas talks about right-wing politicians advocating glibly attractive solutions that appealed to the populace while "any leader who seemed more soft, or who was more inclined to actually tell things as they are, was painted as ruinous to the country and everyone directed their contempt towards him".

Gildas also singles out his leaders' sheer ineptitude and bad judgement, recalling some governments and financiers in today's banking crisis.

Monty Python's view

  • And what have the Romans ever given us in return?
  • The aqueduct?
  • Oh. Yeah, they did give us that. That's true, yeah.
  • And the sanitation.
  • Yeah, the sanitation. Remember what the city used to be like?
  • I'll grant you the aqueduct and sanitation, the two things the Romans have done.
  • And the roads.
  • Obviously the roads. The roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads...
  • Irrigation. Medicine. Education.
  • Yeah, yeah, all right, fair enough.

From The Life of Brian

"Everything our leaders did to try to save the situation ended up having the opposite effect. Society became prey to corrosive quarrels and dissensions, anger towards the rich, and political opportunism was rife that made no distinction between right and wrong."

Another element Gildas saw as being crucial was the major influx of newcomers from the continent - Angles, Saxons and Jutes who had already been employed in the country as security guards, mercenaries, field workers and street cleaners.

These people now took advantage of the lack of central order to create small regional sub-Roman kingdoms in eastern Britain. Only ever a minority, nonetheless they would have a tremendous effect on our culture as they were the ancestors of the English and most of us in Britain speak their language today.

A very interesting development at the end of Rome was the gradual emergence of the distinctive regional identities, which still underlie our modern British society.

This kind of thing often happens in history in times of crisis, as in the Balkans in the 1990s. Wales in particular is a very interesting case where Roman culture continued long after the conventional end of Rome.

The south Welsh heartland of Glamorgan and Gwent had been heavily Romanised and there in the 500s sub-Roman Christian Welsh kingdoms emerged which still used Latin and which like many areas in western Britain continued to see themselves as Roman long after the end of empire.

The Town Hall, Llantwit Major, Glamorganshire, Wales, circa 1750 Llantwit Major in the Vale of Glamorgan was occupied during Roman times for about 350 years

Go into the fabulous church of Llantwit Major and in its carved stones with their Latin script you can see that Romanitas, "Roman-ness", was cultivated by their rulers and churchmen long into the Dark Ages.

Their kingdoms were the direct successors of the south Welsh provinces of the Roman empire.

So, the Roman Empire didn't fall everywhere or all at one time. Indeed you could argue that the last part of the Roman Empire to fall anywhere was Gwynedd in the English conquest of 1282.

Standing in Llantwit, the Dark Age stones testify to the long, slow, almost imperceptible process of change in history, by which one world becomes another.

Rome wasn't built in a day and it didn't fall in a day either. Its shadow still falls on us, a memory imprinted almost like genetic information, a memory to which we all belong.

And is its fall also a distant mirror of our present crises?

Well, the fall of Rome serves to remind us that complex societies can, and do, break down. There is rarely one reason. Rather, there are multiple causes that come together in a perfect storm, as they did around 400AD.

But in time society recovers, for societies after all are made by people, and one guesses that the ones that recover quickest are the ones which are most adaptive, and perhaps too the ones with the strongest sense of identity and history - the strongest sense of "group feeling".

Send us your comments using the form below. A selection will be published.

I feel this is a bit "telescoped", particularly in its analysis of social causes of the crisis. Gildas, your principal witness for social break-up and the decay of group feeling, wrote considerably more than a century after the profound and abrupt shift in the archeological record cited at the beginning of the article. It's therefore arguable that material factors such as plagues and declines in productivity were the main features in the AD 400 "perfect storm" and social malaise an effect of it.

James Keddie, Kathmandu

I found the similarities of the collapsing social order and reaction of the wealthy and the poor to their respective crises particularly pertinent. If the eurozone collapses, I do wonder what will be rebuilt from the rubble? As the article notes, it may lead to a re-emergence of the distinctive regional identities in Europe - a new wave of nationalism? Scary times, but perhaps an era which can present an opportunity to realign our European ambitions onto a more sustainable path? Perhaps Europe, like the Roman Empire will divide into two, but instead of an East / West divide, could we see a divide between the fiscally prudent northern states and the heavily indebted southern (Mediterranean) states?

Lev , Horsham, Sussex

One of Michael Wood's main lines of thought is that "group feeling" is essential for a society to thrive, and its hard to argue with this. Even ultra capitalist societies like the USA try to get their populace to buy into the "group think" of their own country being the best place to live. One problem with pushing this too hard though is that it's hard to marry this with a sense of fair-play to other societies and cultures. TV is the biggest inculcator of "group feeling" and isn't the BBC a leader in formulating this? As one of the worlds leading media organisations it must have a major responsibility for this in the UK and Europe. The "group feeling" theory would seem to be in contrast to Margaret Thatchers "there is no such thing as society" quote, but is it really? Thatcher was really just bemoaning the culture of big government where there seemed to be a handout for all social ills. I think Lady Thatcher would agree that positive group-feeling is essential to a society's wellbeing, and indeed also to our wellbeing as individuals.

Frank Devlin, Dublin

No, the Roman Empire did NOT fall in 1282 - it fell in 1453, when New Rome (Nea Rome, Constantinople), the capitol of the Roman Empire (as it still called itself and was called) was conquered by Mehmed II of the Ottoman Turks. The Roman emperors did not even relinquish the city of Rome until the eighth century. Three quarters of the empire was Greek-speaking, and that part did not fall.

John Yohalem, New York

Interesting read. I see it unfolding in Pakistan. There is no sense of identity. The gap between the poor and rich is rising on a daily basis. Sectarian, tribal and religious divides are going deeper with daily random and targeted murders. There is complete breakdown of law and order as the government is totally inept and corrupt and whatever little they do adds to the mess. So no identity, growing rich poor gap and breakdown of law and order. Fits the pattern.

Akber Khan, Leuven, Belgium

The loss of technological advantage, the collapse of religious and cultural consensus and significant inward migration of peoples from collapsing empires and beyond. Those factors along with the waging of economically unrewarding wars are just too much for any civilisation to withstand perhaps.

Nick Collins, Tonbridge

The fall of the Roman Empire was not a bad thing, and I think the fall of the West will not be a bad thing either. Both are oppressive cultures to poor and minority groups. And, if the cultures fall, we can make new ones.

Therese S, Hollywood

In all of this current mess I have never seen a direct reference to the fact that when you place a bunch of nations under a single currency you place them in direct economic competition with each other. And so today we see the inevitable consequences of the northern European nations out-performing the southern. Did anyone honestly believe that the Greeks, Italians and Spanish could stand alongside Germany in terms of productivity and self-discipline?

M Hamimck, UK

It seems obvious to me that we're headed for some kind of crash. Our political and financial systems are slowly failing, and I think Greece is the perfect example of what's going to happen to the rest of the west over the course of the next century. It won't be immediate, and there will be brief periods of relief, but if you ask me we've already past our peak. As for what we are to do to survive, I think the answer lies in building strong local self-sufficient communities that will be able to gradually take over duties from greater states, much like what was done in Britain during the fall of Rome.

John Sheehy, Eugene, Oregon

I am particularly interested in the idea that Roman culture and ways continued in the remains of Celtic Britain for many centuries after the Romans left. Llantwit Major was the site of a school founded by St Illtud where both St David and St Patrick were reputedly taught along with the sons of some Northern English kings whose fathers had been converted to Christianity by the Celtic Church long before St Augustine arrived in England. Some have called it the first university in Britain. In mid Wales, the Physicians of Myddfai were practicing surgery and medicine until the eighteenth century, using the medical techniques and practices used in Classical Greece and Rome. The medicinal recipes and surgical notes they left behind are now lodged with the BMA. It seems that the history of Britain since the Romans left is largely about the destruction of a civilised people by invading barbarians and the subsequent denial of what had been destroyed. No group in Britain has a stronger sense of identity and history than the Celtic nations but they were overwhelmed and continue to be dominated by a people whose sense of identity and history appears to be far weaker than theirs.

David Thomas, Swansea

Reading Gregory of Tours History of the Franks (written around 590 AD) at the moment and it's clear to see the Roman world and the barbaric worlds co-existing but in a dreadfully violent time. Civilisations do collapse but people living through it won't necessarily see it happening at the time.

Ian Legg, Carborough

When I was in University in the early 70's, the fall of the Roman Empire was expained in what was currently happening. The rised of immorality, discredit of religion, politicians losing contact with the public, disrespect for law enforcement and the disregard for "delayed gratification." Everyone wants it "now" without sacrifice or forming a work ethic. Minorities are now taught not to integrate into the new society which in the end will "Balkinize" the country and cause collapse of that society. It appears that all of western society is on this road to revolution.

Pat Dailey, Pinon Hills, US

Modern societies are much more complex than ancient Roman society, in parallel today's problems are too. The Romans maintained their empire for so long by simply being adaptive to changes. They often adapted other groups religion, gods, culture and anything else that might help. Christianity brought an end to all this. The Roman way of life, the Roman philosophy was based on wars, conquests and the love of power. Christianity in contrast was basically the opposite. In modern day societies, we can speak of an international cultural identity, but somehow this is making matters worse. Racial and religious intolerance are worse now than ever, xenophobia is becoming more and more dangerous. All of that goes back to the fact that people, almost always, need somebody to blame.

Michel Ibrahim, Beirut

I love history and I have fond memories of Michael Wood as a child when I started reading about his work on Troy. However, I'm not sure we should be quite so quick to portray western Europe as though it were Rome in irremediable decline. Things are moving quickly and today's rapid changes are unsettling and stressful - but they are also utterly unpredictable and so raising parallels with Rome is I think slightly leaning towards scaremongering at the moment. The Roman world order was a far simpler system of ordering than what we have today, and because it was an age of intense warfare and disease, I don't think a European "dark age" in the 21st Century could have any parallels with what what western Europe experienced after the barbarian invasions in the 5th Century. The Chinese and Indians are indeed coming, but they are not quite as bad as the Hun and the Vandals!

Pele Sahota, Germany

The article is apt and very timely. To quote the philosopher Santayana "those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it". Western societies are pulling apart. The "glue" that is supposed to bind them has disappeared after materialism and egoism encouraged by money makers have taken over. The state is responsible for the all the social work that was done by volunteers in the neighbourhood. Societies are held together by the common man. The rich stay where they are and keep skimming off the cream and share it mostly amongst themselves. This divide between the rich and poor is the main reason why life in Europe is better than England or America.

Jai Singh, Kaiseraugst, Switzerland

The emergence of distinct nations within Great Britain interests me, with the Welsh and Cornish in the surviving Celtic-speaking, Christian kingdoms British, while the British elsewhere were absorbed into kingdoms founded by incoming Irish Scots and Germanic English, kingdoms that eventually expanded to became Scotland and England and met in the middle (after conquering the British/Welsh who straddled the long-vanished Roman frontier). Unlike most modern immigrants, and migrants to the rest of the Western Roman Empire, the English and Scots (and Bretons) imported their own languages and culture and did not learn the native language. Except for some placenames, English became the only language within most of modern England, and history was forgotten, with ruins becoming "the work of giants" or pagan gods; was this because of the collapse of civic and church authority in England, unlike on the continent or in Wales, the lack of a British identity, or just because even then Englishness meant not learning other languages?

Philip Anderson, Cardigan

This is exactly what is currently happening in Mexico. The high crime and corruption have made people cynical of the government and the politicians. Even the rich businessmen have preferred to hide behind their bodyguards and mansions leaving the rest of the society feeling vulnerable and disregarded. All this factors have contributed to the loss of the cohesion in the Mexican society. People like orphaned children left to their own in the middle of the street. Mexico's main problem today is this loss of group feeling the article describes. We need to heel and mature as a society before any real change comes to us.

Ignacio Quijas, Monterrey, Mexico

The suggestion that Gwynned was arguably the last bastion of Western Rome is highly questionable. Yes there may have been ecclesiastical influence from Rome but this was widespread throughout Christendom. This theory belittles the "Celtic" cultural identity that reinstated itself after Rome withdrew. To some it was a "dark age" but to others Rome's withdrawl was a relief and cultural Renaissance until barbarian incursions in 1282. At least one horde of "barbarians" was leaving in Rome's departure. The idea of dark age itself was sheerly a matter of perspective anyway. Recent archaeological finds such as a gladiator and infant cemetary as well as a brutally slain girl suggest Roman occupation was oppressive and exploitative rather than beneficial anyway. You'd see how the RomanoBritish suffered rather than benefited from "civilisation".

Patrick Collins, Galway

I don't think all the parallels are true. Actually the Romans didn't do a lot for us. They co-opted the ruling elite but left the majority to carry on with the Iron Age level of technology. Crucially I don't believe the Romans shared any of their technical know-how with the natives. Given how most of it was geared to supporting their military, that is understandable. So when they left, they took the knowledge and skills with them so the ability to even maintain the infrastructure was lost let alone the ability to develop and expand it.. Many of the UK Roman villas show evidence of post Roman occupation where crude metal working facilities had been set up to perhaps try and recreate some of the former Roman technology. Today the UK possesses a lot of technical know-how developed from centuries of industrial experience though if it is not disseminated to future generations, supported and developed we may very well lose this knowledge.

John Bradley, Fareham

I loved this article. Mind you, there are plenty of other civilisations that went on for hundreds/thousands of years and then faded to nothing. The Romans were just the most recent in our part of the world. I have often thought about such civilisations and how people living then must have thought, "this is It, how can it get any better than this? It'll always be like this now," and how it's now faded to distant memory and occasional remnants.

Barbara Kay, Wallasey, Wirral

I am a big Michael Wood fan. But not too sure about the parallels he draws here. I want to start with a niggle. Gildas was a polemicist rather than a historian like Bede. His point was to argue that the Britons' moral decay, and their immoral kings (sorry, not "leaders") led to the arrival and success of the Saxons - he saw this as God's judgement. Also "right-wing politician"? Sorry, using this in a 4th or 5th C context is completely anachronistic. While the rich did retreat from urban life in the 4th C, they surely were among the biggest losers in the 5th C when the complex society that was Roman Britain fell apart. Unless they were able to recruit a warband to protect their very vulnerable villas. Also, it remains very debatable just how much the population changed as Roman Britain ended. Pollen analysis shows not much land went out of cultivation. While food production went down as less sophisticated farming techniques were used, for instance, the heavy Roman plough went out of fashion, and lighter ploughs were used, so output per acre fell - to talk of population falling from four million to one million is by no means certain. And even if it was was Michael, it's still a bit of a stretch relating it to us. I know the euro's going down the pan, but roving hordes of barbarians are not at the gates. However, I will still watch your programmes!

Tim Bowler, London

As it was approximately 1,000 years from the collapse of the Roman empire to the renaissance, we have only to wait another 996 years until the rebirth of the banking sector?

Mark Hiscock, Salisbury

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