Feudalism in the Roman Empire

This remarkable photo is taken of Silchester, England, a famous Roman city whose archaeological remains have somehow been kept pretty much intact. This is one of the best preserved Roman ruins in modern Britain and as such it reveals rather a lot about the communal structure of late Roman cities. The first thing that strikes the mind about this remarkable city is its communal structure, namely its walls which provide a coherent structure to the city by encircling it and encompassing the entire population. If we imagine this city/town being patrolled regularly by soldiers and local armed forces, which it may well have been, this does seem to be an autonomous, independent military unit. Furthermore, a closer look shows that it seems to have its own basic supplies, namely its wells (hence water supply), market-place (hence regular trading and food supply), amphitheatre (hence its own source of entertainment). It is difficult to imagine anything that this city does not have, certainly nothing that might threaten its basic existence. Moreover, the urban design of this city seems to be centred around a particular large and elaborate building in the middle, which seems to resemble the residence of a local king, perhaps the landlord for the entire city. We may safely infer that this Roman city had a sophisticated social (if not political) hierarchy, which, along with its steady supply of basic needs, was enough to sustain itself.

Put in context, the urban design of Silchester reveals alot about the sociopolitical structure of cities/towns in the late Western Roman Empire, the death of which is considered to be one of the most significant events in Western history, since after the fall and disintegration of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, Western Europe was plunged into centuries of war and raiding known as the Dark Ages. Furthermore, the territories of the former Western Roman Empire were divided into numerous barbarian kingdoms, the process of which gave rise to Western Feudalism, the main sociopolitical system of medieval and modern Europe. The portrayal of the demise of the Western Roman Empire has often been dramatised to the extent that one has been led to believe that the last emperor of the Roman Empire (Romulus Augustulus) was sabotaged and eventually defeated militarily by the barbarians led by Odoacer, after which the empire was divided according to territorial power and from there emerged Western Feudalism. Indeed, some classic analyses of Western Feudalism attribute its origins to the post-Roman Carolingian empire and the Germanic tribes which took over much of their territory of the Romans (see e.g. Bloch (1999)). However, the archaeological evidence from Silchester suggests that perhaps territorial divisions and urban/civic autonomy existed long before the fall of Rome in 476 AD, and rather than seeing Feudalism (i.e. territorial divisions) as the consequence of the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, it may be seen as the cause of it, since territorial and urban/civic autonomy surely must have had a catalytic effect on the dissolution and eventual breakdown of the central Western Roman Empire. The transition between Roman Imperialism and Western Feudalism may have been much more gradual and drawn-out than historians have made out. Much evidence remains to be seen in support of this hypothesis.

Reference:

Bloch, Marc (1999): Die Feudalgesellschaft, durchgesehene Neuausgabe. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart.

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