THE COLLAPSE OF ANCIENT STATES AND CIVILIZATIONS
Review Author[s]: Christopher Chase-Dunn
Contemporary Sociology, Volume 21, Issue 5 (Sep., 1992), 689-691.
The Collapse of Ancient States and Civilizations, edited by Norman Yoffee and George L. Cowgill. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991. 333 pp. $14.95 paper. ISBN: 0-8165-1249-3.
christopher chase-dunn Johns Hopkins University
This is an excellent collection of essays on the collapse of ancient states and civilizations by historians, archaeologists, one sociologist S.N. Eisenstadt and a political scientist. It will be important to readers of Contemporary Sociology because of the growing number of sociologists studying very long-run, large-scale social change. The editors organized a conference at the prestigious School of American Research in Santa Fe in 1982, and subsequently massaged the papers into the present volume. The result is far more book-like than most conference-
produced volumes, a tribute to the efforts of the editors.
This work accomplishes two purposes well. It is a digest and critique of explanations of political and cultural demise. And it provides expert overviews of the relevant research on Mesopotamian, Mayan, Teotihuacan (valley of Mexico), and Han Dynasty Chinese intersocietal systems.
Norman Yoffee provides an introductory survey of the literature about collapse from Spengler to Eisenstadt. He notes that most evolutionary theories are about rise or growth, and that they usually contain assumptions about systemic equilibria and continuity that are strongly contradicted by the boom-and-bust character of social change in ancient states and civilizations. The development of precapitalist political, religious, economic, and social institutions is very far from the notions of stasis and stagnation implicit in the ideas of "traditional society" or the "Asiatic mode of production."
Yoffee points out that because very few systems experience simultaneous collapse of everything, it is therefore necessary to examine the interrelations among different institutional subsystems. He critiques the general systems analysis of "cusp catastrophes" used by some archaeologists as too abstract and vague to provide much understanding of real historical systems. His precis of S. N. Eisenstadt is a marvel of clarity; it makes visible (possibly for the first time) a useful model in which political centers extract resources from dependent peripheries, and collapse when they are no longer able to do so.
Robert McC. Adams, now Secretary of the Smithsonian, presents an overview of the subject he knows so wellthe Mesopotamian world. Adams points out the irony that while we have good historical-structural explanations of the emergence of states in Mesopotamia before the invention of writing because that is the province of archaeologists, there is much less understanding of collapse because humanistic philologists are the resident experts on Sumerian culture (once documents have become available) and they spend little effort trying to explain structural changes. Thus, despite having more evidence, we have less social science. Adams also affirms the importance of core/periphery relations for understanding ancient Mesopotamia.
Yoffee's substantive chapter summarizes his argument about the importance of ethnic group interactions in ancient Mesopotamia. His presentation of the circumstances surrounding the conquest of the Sumerian inter-city-state system by Sargon of Akkad differs substantially (and in ways central to explanation) from that proposed by many other experts on Mesopotamia (e.g., Igor Diakonoff). It is tempting to dismiss these problems as unresolvable given the limitations of the evidence, but similar questions have been resolved as new evidence accumulates. As sociologists, we must be careful not to dismiss out of hand the kinds of evidence that archaeologists employ. Yoffee's piece is followed by an important contribution by T. Patrick Culbert, summarizing a vast literature on the collapse of the Mayan states. Culbert raises tantalizing questions about the connections between Mayan decline and the just-prior violent destruction of the mighty Teotihuacan in the valley of Mexico, but finally he puts greater emphasis on environmental degradation.
Rene Millon's fascinating summary of the literature about Teotihuacan details the interaction between this vast hegemonic state in Mexico and distant colonies and tributary regions. The causes of the complete, systematic, violent destruction of the empire city in a short period of time remains a mystery. Were the iconoclasts overexploited peasants and urban workers, or were they semiperipheral invaders?
G.W. Bowersock's essay on the dissolution of the Roman empire is the most disappointing chapter. Bowersock argues that since the Roman empire never collapsed, there is nothing to explain. Rather, the "Roman" state merely moved to Constantinople, and new states were set up in Italy by the Gothic emperors, who were not really barbarians anyway. This, and Henri Pirenne's earlier thesis about political but not economic collapse until Islam cut off the trade with the East, are interesting perspectives, but they do not completely vitiate the enterprise of trying to explain the demise of imperial Rome. Something significant must have happened to cause the population of Rome to decline from 450,000 to 50,000 between a.d. 100 and 600.
The essay by Cho-yun Hsu on the fall of the Han Dynasty is a fascinating analysis of the role of Confucian literati and the centrifugal effects of regionalism. His analysis of
core and periphery within the empire is excellent, and he also acknowledges the importance of so-called "external" relations with steppe nomads. But both Hsu and Bennett Bronson (in the following essay, "The Role of Barbarians in the Fall of States") err in seeing the steppe nomads as external. When the interactions of peoples are so important that their social structures are interdependent, they ought to be considered as parts of a single intersocietal system. This point was long ago made by Owen Lattimore, and the wonderful recent contribution by Thomas Barfield (The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China) confirms it.
Eisenstadt's essay on the importance of institutional differentiation in stabilizing post-axial age empires is an important lesson for those who would lump all the tributary states together.
I can attest that this book works well in an undergraduate course on long-run social change. The students are tantalized by the overview of theories, and the focus on particular times and regions puts meat on the bones.