At the height of its power, the Roman Empire stretched from Libya to London, Istanbul to Iberia.
It was remarkably modern. The Romans collected taxes, they built roads, they negotiated trade deals with the (literal) Slavic hordes.
The empire’s most critical nervous system was its infrastructure. Mail and goods and information traveled from one end to the other in just two weeks. A network of B&Bs let travelers change horses, rest for the night, eat a hot meal.
It was a legitimate miracle, a feat of bureaucratic innovation that wouldn’t be matched for a millennium.
Until, of course, it fell apart.
The vandals invaded, the military lost, the bureaucracy shattered. Cue dark ages.
We think of the fall of Rome as an event, a discrete, seeable Thing that happened on a Thursday a thousand years ago.
In reality, though, it was more like a big long exhale. Yes the barbarians invaded and yes it sucked. But the empire had been faltering for decades beforehand and coasted on its built-up power for decades afterward.
What happened, slowly and steadily, was that the central authorities lost their ability to project power. Their tentacles of influence—infrastructure, taxes, law enforcement—retracted over decades, leaving power vacuums that filled up with made-up royalty and ad-hoc warlords.
Province after province, as the shadow of the central authorities lightened, local aristocrats and landowners rose up to replace it. Borders appeared. Mail took longer to deliver. Regions cut themselves off. Trade routes withered. Cities languished.
It some places it took decades. In others, centuries. To the people living through it, the fall of Rome did not particularly feel like one. It was simply an escalating series of scandals, little mistakes and decisions that rendered centralized power weak, then invisible, then history.
These are random pictures of Zimbabwe I took over the years.
It was once the great hope of Africa, a bright spot of prosperity and peace in the (literal) middle of a troubled continent.
The best universities, the most educated workers, the best infrastructure.
And then Robert Mugabe, piece by piece, took it apart.
He confiscated land from industrial farms and gave them to random war generals. He hyper-inflated the economy. He killed rivals and chased off investors and taught his own people to fear him.
None of this was unexpected or surprising. We did not learn anything new about this man each time he stole an election, disappeared a political rival, inflicted his worst instincts upon his people.
But each of them mattered.
There is a human tendency to think that the most important events, the most seismic changes, are differences in kind. Narratives new and unprecedented, developments that erase the past. An earthquake. A fire.
They make the best stories. Transformations, turns, reversals. Peace to war, prosperity to squalor, progress to backsliding.
But history does not happen in category changes, lines being drawn and then crossed. History is shifts in emphasis, swapped priorities, the future echoing the past a little louder or slight softer.
Events from which we learn nothing. Decisions about which we are not surprised, only saddened.
There’s this thought experiment for human evolution.
Put yourself on an index card. Then make one for your mother, then her mother, then her mother, and so on.
Index cards stretching back in time forever. A hundred thousand generations ago you were an ape. A million ago, you were a rat. Ten million ago you were a fish.
These changes are profound. But pull any two cards out of the stack and you will see no difference between them.
You’re not so different from your parents and they’re not different from theirs. The ape looks just like his parents, and so does the fish.
Maybe we’re conditioned to look for differences in kind because we seek stories. Twists, turnarounds, surprises. Differences in degree are less noticeable, harder to find, less tellable in the moment.
Britain was one of the first outposts of the Roman Empire to go. The farthest corner, a mossy island, a tiny garrison of troops, warring tribes already competing to usurp them.
For 80 years, Roman currency inflated and dwindled. Without money, the elites couldn’t buy leather or food or pottery. Without income, the peasants making them had no choice but to move back to the countryside.
As the cities emptied, as tradesmen became backyard farmers, they stole stones from the roman architecture they left behind. Brick by brick, they carried them home along the roads, stacked them in squares around their families. Then they waited for the world to reach them again.
I know I talkabout thisall the timehere, but I still don’t really feel like a journalist. I have no beat, I’m terrible at pitching, my articles start out half-baked and get published only slightly more so.
A few years ago I wrote to my old high school and asked if I could spend two weeks there. I had no idea, no pitch, no characters, no themes, no anything. “I’m interested in how teens are different now than when I was one,” I told them. And I meant it! That was the complete extent to which I had thought it through.
It’s remarkable they invited me to come anyway. Public institutions are notoriously media-averse—if I was a Real Journalist I would have known this, of course—and schools more than most. For administrators and PR staff, the idea of a random writer roaming the halls, pulling aside students, asking them about bullying and studying and sexting, is some sort of nosebleed, a huge gamble with no reward.
But they let me! And it was great! For two weeks I was there all day every day: Sitting in classes, attending after-school clubs, sharing vending-machine lunches with students, debating the merits of standardized tests with teachers.
And, slowly, an idea formed. I went there to write about the kids, but almost all of my conversations ended up being about the adults. The ways the school was changing, what it used to do, how it couldn’t anymore. Things that seemed small to an outsider—shrinking teacher collaboration, tightening budget rules, evolving evaluation criteria—were decisive for the people charged with implementing them.
The most un-journalistic thing about this story, the all-caps flashing disclaimer above all of these links, is that this is my old high school. My institution, my hometown, my former teachers. As a journalist I am supposed to be dispassionate and objective. About this place and these people, I am not.
I don’t know if I will start to feel like a journalist anytime soon. But when it requires me to stop rooting for the people I write about, I’ll stop trying.