EGU General Assembly 2021
© Author(s) 2021. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

The place for agency in social collapse: the case of the Eastern Roman Empire in the 7th c. AD

Adam Izdebski
Adam Izdebski
  • Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Palaeo-Science and History Group, Jena, Germany (

The breakdowns of big empires have attracted the attention of historians for generations. Massive processes of social and political change, taking place over several generations and often several continents, they constantly invite new questions and ideas, and thus have often been studied in incredible detail. If we already know so much about them, is there potentially a lesson to be learnt for our times? Can we look at the historical examples to understand how the process of social collapse takes place, what are its key determinants and how – if at all – human agency can steer this process, with different human actors achieving their goals despite the overall unpredictability and decomposition of the existing structures.

In my talk, I will look at one of the best-studied instances of social collapse – that of the Roman Empire, or, more precisely, the Eastern part of it, which took place in the 7th c. AD – in order to look at the moments when human agency was able to steer the process of disintegration/collapse. I will focus on the different interventions of the imperial government (the emperor and the central administrative and military apparatus), the ideological innovations, elite transformation and other processes, which created a smaller, yet surprisingly resilient, social-economic system. Moreover, while environmental factors, such as climate or disease – as things stand now – do not seem to have been the primary causes of the collapse, a profound environmental change was taking place in parallel to the social transformation, underpinning the new emerging system in terms of its resource base. Overall, the seventh-century collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire could be seen as a successful transformation, largely due to human agency, or, more specifically, thanks to fortunate interventions and innovations of different human actors.

How to cite: Izdebski, A.: The place for agency in social collapse: the case of the Eastern Roman Empire in the 7th c. AD, EGU General Assembly 2021, online, 19–30 Apr 2021, EGU21-9192,, 2021.

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