Transportation Renaissance

Ada Palmer posts rarely, but when she does, it’s always worth reading. She alternates between writing about her science fiction and writing about academic history; her most recent post is the latter, covering the historiography of the Renaissance. She notes that the idea of a three-age system, in which great Ancient knowledge was lost in the Middle Ages and rediscovered in the Renaissance, was first promoted in the Renaissance itself, even if the word renaissance was only used starting in the 19th century, and traces why this idea was accepted then and why it’s remained popular since. In short: it provided political legitimacy to the coterie of thugs (“aristocracy”) who launched coups and counter-coups in the Italian states, who could hire historians to portray them as harbingers of a new era of revival of ancient glory.

This is a paragraph-long summary of a 13,000-word post that summarizes an in-progress book, so I’m glossing over a lot of detail and I recommend that people read the post if they want to talk about Renaissance historiography. I bring this up because this is relevant to transportation, and to some extent urbanism in general, in a number of ways.

The three-age schema

Ada notes that medieval Europeans divided the world into two ages: before and after Jesus. The Renaissance began a trend of a three-age system: Antiquity, a medieval dark age, and the Renaissance or modernity. She further traces the intellectual history of this not just in the Italian Renaissance but also in more recent times, going over the use of the language of renaissance in Johan Burkhardt’s work to argue for a new modernity replacing medieval superstition.

Stepping away from professional historians, I do not know to what extent the average educated Westerner thinks in terms of three ages. The answer is clearly “a great deal,” but I do not know to what extent it is universal. I was taught this schema uncritically in primary and middle school, but what I see in the online discourse is less consistent – for example, Paul Krugman’s writings on Malthusianism back a two-age model, before and after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But even with the caveat that economic historians don’t view things this way, the Nike swoosh model of Roman greatness, medieval decline, and modern resurgence still exercises enormous cultural influence.

The relevance of this is that people who propose a change to something often default to the three-age model, transplanted into a specific context. The emergent view of most American and European advocates for rail transport is that rail had a golden age from its invention until the middle of the 20th century, declined subsequently, and is supposed to enter a renaissance now. This is usually connected with urbanism, with a model of the growth of traditional cities, decline through suburban sprawl, and renaissance; variants depend on politics, but Strong Towns, myriads of consultants telling cities how to attract talent, most YIMBYs, and most of the left agree on this picture.

Revival of ancient learning

Renaissance Italy had a MIGA obsession. In an era of the Avignon Papacy and intensifying warfare between different factions and city-states, the appeal of Roman unity and peace is not hard to understand; it’s not as if 14th- and 15th-century Italians had better models. Here’s Ada again:

The solution Petrarch proposed to what he saw as the fallen state of “my Italy” was to reconstruct the education of the ancient Romans.  If the next generation of Florentine and, more broadly, Italian leaders grew up reading Cicero and Caesar, the Roman blood within them might become noble again, and they too might be more loyal to the people than to their families, love Truth more than power, and in short love their cities as the Romans loved Rome.  Such men would, he hoped, be brave and loyal in strengthening and defending their homelands.  Rome started as one city, and did not make itself master of the world without citizens willing to die for it.

“Petrarch says we can become as great as the ancients by studying their ways!  Let’s do it!”  Petrarch’s call went out and, with amazing speed, Italy listened.  Desperate, war-torn city states like Florence who hungered for stability poured money into assembling the libraries which might make the next generation more reliable.  Wealthy families who wanted their sons to be princely and charismatic like Caesar had them read what Caesar read.  Italy’s numerous tyrants and newly-risen, not-at-all-legitimate dukes and counts filled their courts and houses and public self-presentation with Roman objects and images, to equate themselves with the authority, stability, competence and legitimacy of the Emperors.  No one took this plan more to heart than Petrarch’s beloved Florentine republic, and, within it, the Medici, who crammed their palaces with classical and neoclassical art, and with the education of Lorenzo succeeded in producing a classically-educated scion who was more princely than princes.

This provided the template for every Western narrative of decline that I’m familiar with, and a good number of non-Western ones: we were great, we’ve gone into decline, we will reverse the decline by restoring our ancient values. It’s unavoidable in every narrative of American decline; it’s there in the Brexit conception of British nationalism; it’s there in cross-national narratives of the decline of the left since the 1970s. In non-Western countries, it was there in a lot of early colonial rebellions (the Indian Rebellion of 1857 tried to restore the Mughal Empire). Even Japan went through a restorationist phase in the wake of its forced opening, though it famously went in a very different direction once the Meiji restoration happened.

This schema is used at a subnational level extensively. Regions that view themselves as declining, like the American Rust Belt, Northern England, or East Germany, cling fiercely to distinctive local institutions. This includes extensive study of local history and local affairs. It’s unavoidable in, say, Belt Publishing. Sometimes, this history is studied critically; in the broad public, it usually isn’t. The number of times I’ve heard New Yorkers contrast how the First Subway was built in four years (and not, say, 40) with how long subways take today is beyond mortals’ ability to count.

With rail transport specifically, advocacy is usually bundled into railfan interests. This, as per the usual paradigm, dovetails into very deep, usually uncritical, study of the history of the technology back when it was supposedly great. Go on and you will see people talk about the minutiae of historical steam and diesel engines and also brush off every piece of knowledge that was not generated in American mainline railroading. Interest in rail technology as a solution for the future gets bundled into romanticism for steam locomotives and for the particulars of how private railroads chose to operate service in the early 20th century.

The Renaissance Man as the innovator

Finally, Ada’s insight about why the idea of the Renaissance was accepted so quickly matters when looking at modern technology. Here, the three-age model is less relevant. The same emphasis on the innovator bringing the company/city/nation/world into a golden age is produced by other models. The accelerating growth model of the technological singularity produces the same effect even without the need to learn history, and is therefore widely popular among rationalists.

In transportation, the best recent example of this is the idea of the Hyperloop. What it is, underlyingly, is a new technology for running rail service, like maglev but capable of running at higher speed. All aspects of rail service planning with the exception of propulsion remain mostly the same (mostly, because the higher speeds do have special implications, though I don’t think they’re any different from what one can extrapolate from existing high-speed rail). This means that what it takes to build Hyperloop is similar to what it takes to build ordinary rail plus more money. I think Hyperloop One and Virgin understand that, but Elon Musk does not.

The importance of history as legitimacy cannot be discounted here. Court historians were hired to write hagiographies, just as artists were hired to paint and sculpt the likenesses of the biggest thugs (“royalty”). This does not usually apply to modern academic history – historians have political biases but there are layers insulating high-prestige academic historians from donors. But it does apply to a lot of popular writing, especially business journalism. I forget where I’ve read – I think it was in the context of New York real estate – that 2010s journalism is alive and well in trade media, but writing critical investigative pieces about powerful players is not always expected or rewarded in publications that make money as internal trade papers.

The upshot is that analyzing history, whether general or specific, as an abrupt positive change serves to empower people who can claim that they are the new world, and that any and all criticism is just the old way of thinking. It’s a form of epistemic narrowing that blocks off knowledge those people don’t have or can’t easily control.


  1. SB

    So what should people in declining regions should do?
    Move to growing regions? Currently that is what is happening.
    Copy growing regions? Just to become poor-man’s version of growing regions?
    Copy Meiji Japan (minus the militarism)??

    Isn’t Hyperloop moot point because no one is building Hyperloop with real ridership anytime soon.
    Currently only faster than conventional HSR under construction or planning is Chuo Shinkansen and it predates Hyperloop.

    • Eric2

      Chuo Shinkanshen is supposed to be a 67 minute ride from end to end. It’s not worth building anything faster than regular maglev on that corridor, because it’s probably 20-40 minutes travel to the average destination at either end, so you will spend as much time on local transit as on the shinkansen.

      For longer corridors like NYC-Chicago or Beijing-Guangzhou or Delhi-Mumbai, even regular maglev would be fast enough to outcompete flights, and it’s hard to imagine there being enough demand to justify hyperloop despite its extra time savings.

      For the longest land-based corridors, particularly California to the eastern US, hyperloop is the only reasonable alternative to flying (or sleeper HSR trains). But given the long distance involved and the quadratic decay in travel demand, it’s hard to imagine the economics working here either…

      • SB

        Isn’t Ruhr economically diverse and have both growing and declining areas?
        Similar to how Columbus and Indianapolis are growing but not Cleveland and Detroit?

        • Herbert

          Yes. To give one example: Oberhausen has a tram because a neighboring tram expanded into their city. Now Oberhausen is expanding it and the neighboring city is thinking about shutting it down…

          This disparity is one of many reasons why many in the area oppose further urban fusion

  2. Lukas

    The biggest problem with ,,narratives” of renaissances isn’t that they might be inaccurate from a historical perspective but that people in the engineering and planning dpt. start believing in learning from the past instead of from overseas.

    • Ted

      On the contrary, I think it is possible that Elon Musk realizes that hyperloop is not a significant improvement over rail, and that is why he chose not to make a major investment in it.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, I suspect it’s part of the narrative. It made sense for 14-15c Italy – what was it going to learn from, other wartorn European countries? – but in 19-20c anti-colonialism it was a dead-end and the more successful anticolonial movements learned from the West (from capitalist industrialization in Japan and, much later, Korea; from socialism in most ex-colonies). But even in the face of mass death one can’t get Western countries to learn from non-Western ones about centralized quarantine…

      • Herbert

        The idea that the countries that got crushed by the West just modernized not at all or not enough is tempting but wrong. China spent a lot of money and resources on western arms and ammunition, western railroads and so on. They just didn’t have a navy like Japan (an island nation). Islamism in the Arab world is pretty much “the last option” after they’d tried every other ideology under the sun, including monarchism, socialism, fascism (Ba’athism) and so on. Unluckily for them they decided to go to war against Israel all the time and lost all the time…

        • Eric2

          Modernization isn’t just about buying some weapons from abroad, it’s also about educating your population and growing an economic base and instituting the rule of law and so on. Arab countries have failed at that. The most interesting partial explanation I have heard is that they are heavily clan based, and it’s hard to develop loyalty to society or the state when your real loyalty is to the clan.

          • Alon Levy

            It’s not about clans, it’s about the fact that these countries are under constant fear of coups, so they need to coup-proof their army, which makes it really suck as a fighting force.


            EDIT: also, re clannishness – it rises and falls during a lifetime, it’s not some immutable centuries-long fact. For example, in Israel, clannishness among the Arabs rose in the generation after independence, because the state placed most Arabs under military rule, and this rule was indirect and subcontracted to clan patriarchs who were made responsible for the clan’s behavior (e.g. each adult had to fold the ballot in a specific way, so that vote counters could be certain which clan was voting as instructed, i.e. for either Labor or a satellite party). As a result, gender roles became more traditional, clan loyalty increased, and total fertility rates rose in the 1950s and 60s. Then the military rule was removed, and things changed, to the point that today Arab fertility rates aren’t much (if at all) higher than Jewish ones, identity is mostly pan-Arab-Israeli (with some exceptions, e.g. a pretty hefty minority IDs as Palestinian), the political voice is mostly progressive, etc.

          • El_slapper

            Education in Tunisia in Iran is excellent. Education is not everything. Access to economic resources is important too.

            Tunisia failed to ever build a decent economic system, and its very skilled workforce is doing wonders in Europe. Iran could be better, the the revolution’s guardians are preventing young talents from achieving results, pushing many of them in exile.

          • Eric2

            Yeah, it’s really remarkable how overrepresented Iranian expats are in my career. Very impressive

        • Brendan

          “They just didn’t have a navy like Japan (an island nation).”

          About that – in 1894, the year the First Sino-Japanese War broke out, the Beiyang Navy, but one of China’s fleets, was believed to be as powerful as the entire Japanese Navy, and was equipped with fairly modern warships imported from Great Britain and Germany.

          But, for various fiscal, logistical, tactical, and social reasons the Japanese were able to destroy it

    • Eric2

      Interestingly the most advanced practical proposal so far – Swissmetro – would travel at 500km/h which Chuo Shinkansen would achieve without depressurization. So vactrain wouldn’t have any added value there.

      • michaelrjames

        Except for energy consumption which becomes horrendous above 300-350km/h. It is the sole reason why Shanghai’s TransRapid only operates at 430km/h at peak times and 300km/h at other times. It is not insignificant, and has assumed more importance in these climate changing and flygskam. It will be interesting to see if Japan runs the Chūō Shinkansen at full speed.

        In some ways hyperloop would also be proofed against most NIIMBYism just in the way the political solution to city transit is to simply deep tunnel. It’s essentially an above-ground tunnel, and probably as expensive.

        • Eric2

          How much energy does it take to continually depressurize a giant tunnel? I’m not sure this is a win.

          You can also put regular maglev in a tunnel (like Chuo Shinkansen is doing) if you want to avoid NIMBYs.

          • michaelrjames

            How much energy does it take to continually depressurize a giant tunnel?

            Dunno, but in principle it isn’t “continual”, except for the entry/exit problem which would be a section of tunnel acting as an air-lock; doing this on a fast-moving train rather than stationary train obviously poses a challenge.
            Also, I never understood some claims of very high vacuum whereas the zone that commercial airlines fly (≈10,000m) is only 0.06 of sea-level air pressure. (I’m not sure but the confusion may be that the original hyperloop conception used the vacuum in front and air behind, as the motive force for moving the train, ie. the way those postal tubes work. But that was abandoned early?) I’ve read that above 400km/h, >83% of energy is consumed just to overcome air resistance.
            There are reports about China’s experiments with their latest maglev (600km/h in tests) in a low-pressure tube, which was apparently 0.1 atmosphere (but these reports are minimalist and non-scientific).

            This is different to what you meant but here is what I wrote on Chūō-Shinkansen.

            2016/10/30 – 05:33 michael.r.james
            When one considers that the Chūō-Shinkansen is planned to run in a tunnel for more than 60% of the entire line, and 40 m underground (deep underground) for a total of 100 km in the Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka city areas, the differences to Hyperloop is not so great. The main limitation on maglev trains is the squared-law of increasing air-resistance with speed. This is the reason why the only customer-carrying operating maglev, the Shanghai Transrapid operating 30km between the city and its airport, does not operate at its top speed except at peak hours. To save on electricity costs. I imagine the Japanese engineers would have looked at the practicality of reducing the air pressure inside those long tunnels. (The main issue is entry/exit just as it is for Hyperloop.)

  3. Benjamin Turon

    Interesting post, but I think a good counter argument can be made about various societies being very keen on modernizing by learning from others overseas, and sometimes this occurs in concert with a push to glorify the past and promote “old values”, you certainly see both a work in Imperial Japan starting with the Meiji Era, although by the Showa Era the nationalist movement for improvement became more insular and detached from reality, leading to the disaster of WWII for Japan. America also has swung between thinking were the best to reaching out to learn from others who are perceived to be the best.

    • Alon Levy

      (I might want to cover Danny Orbach’s thesis on the origins of Japan’s WW2 crimes; you can poke around on the Internet, he talks about it from time to time, but his popular work is mostly in Hebrew.)

    • Herbert

      I think the western historiography makes a mistake when it considers Meiji and Showa radically different periods in Japanese outlook on the world. Many of the actions Japan took in the 1930s make a lot of sense framed through the same lense as earlier actions: imperial expansion to try and acquire resources and markets so as to become of equal standing with the West. Only after the failure of the racial equality amendment Japan more and more realized that western racists would only accept them as equals after having been beaten by them…

  4. Mike

    How about an article on what pre-WWII transit networks in the US and Europe really were like, and how the current networks compare to them?

    The US clearly declined: previously you could get anywhere on transit, now large parts of the country and parts of many cities are accessible only by car, or if there is a bus it’s only weekdays, hourly, or once or twice a day.

  5. Korakys

    I’m going to have to disagree with this one. All societies everywhere and at almost all times view the past as a decline from a previous golden age. It is whether that society is in a current phase of general optimism or not as to if they see things in a three-age structure, with the new golden age on the horizon.

    The quintessential example for me is the Bible with humanity beginning in the Garden of Eden and gradually declining from there, but you also see it a ton in fantasy fiction (I also note that fantasy outsells science fiction by a large margin). I’m not sure why the human mind is so susceptible to believe in past golden ages but when the facts can be ignored then that is what the mind assembles as a narrative to explain things.

    As for this talk of the European Dark Ages not existing, well, lets just say I find it baffling that any serious person can believe that. I guess it depends on how you define it or think of it (I will read that long blog post you linked) but I can’t think of any metric that wouldn’t show a decline and recovery, albeit I do think there is much room for argument as to when the recovery was achieved.

    • Alon Levy

      An important difference between the Bible and the three-age model is that in the Bible (at least in J source), history is presented as a continuous decline, each new generation being further away from God, whereas the three-age model is one of decline followed by revival. Then there is the cyclic model in which dynasties rise and fall without any positive net direction. Decline-free models exist, too – the main of economic history views preindustrial history as a life of bare subsistence as outlined in Malthus, followed by decline-free growth beginning with the Industrial Revolution.

    • Herbert

      Most myths tell of a golden age because there was one. The Illias is the half remembered myth of pre collapse late bronze age Anatolia and Greece. The Nibelungenlied mixes and mashes late antiquity figures like Theoderic and Attila. King Arthur was based on a Celtic hero to kick the Anglo Saxons out… And so on…

      • michaelrjames

        Most myths tell of a golden age because there was one.

        Yes. In fact I think Ada Palmer clearly does believe the Renaissance was a genuine golden age:

        It’s also important to begin this knowing that I love the Renaissance, I wouldn’t have dedicated my life to studying it if I didn’t, it’s an amazing era. I disagree 100% with people who follow “The Middle Ages weren’t really a Dark Age!” with “The Renaissance sucks, no one should care about it!” The Renaissance was amazing, equally amazing as the Middle Ages, or antiquity, or now.

        She seems to want her cake and eat it. The crux of her long argument is that “everyone” considers it a golden age “in everything”(my precis) but that is a total strawman. Perhaps it is because I am a bio-medical research scientist but I don’t think anyone believes that at all. In fact it has been common knowledge for a long time now that the Renaissance coincided with the rise of many deadly infectious diseases due to several new or newish phenomena, mostly the concentration of people in city-states and increased globalisation following on from the voyages of discovery. This brought many diseases from east Asia or Africa because they arrived more quickly by sea than earlier land routes (Silk road etc) that previously had acted as de facto quarantine. In fact Palmer describes all this quite well:

        This let merchants grow rich, prosperity for some, but when people move around more, diseases move more too. Cities were also growing denser, more manufacturing jobs and urban employment drawing people to crowd inside tight city walls, and urban spaces always have higher mortality rates than rural. Malaria, typhoid, dysentery, deadly influenza, measles, the classic pox, these old constants of Medieval life grew fiercer in the Renaissance, with more frequent outbreaks claiming more lives.

        So it wasn’t just bubonic plague that gave the middle ages a bad name. In fact, most of these diseases were hanging around for aeons but only caught hold when humans began gathering in large numbers in cities of a certain size (or catchment–farmers coming in on market days etc). Measles, the most infectious disease in humans (at least ten times worse than SARS-CoV-2 ) first came to notice in the 12th century because it requires a co-mingled population of >250,000 to sustain (essentially via newborns, otherwise it dies out).

        So these factors came together in the 15th century to make their impact considerably worse and as Palmer describes, the average lifespan decreased:

        Let’s look at life expectancy: In Italy, average life expectancies in the solidly Medieval 1200s were 35-40, while by the year 1500 (definitely Renaissance) life expectancy in Italian city states had dropped to 18. Pause to think on that one a moment—by the time you turn 18, half the kids your age are dead. (see comments for the statistical complexities, not worth bogging down here)

        Now, I still have a little niggle about her statements on this issue: she does acknowledge that an average doesn’t properly represent what was happening. It is mostly due to infant mortality, which has always been shockingly high (to moderns like ourselves but not to even our grandparents), and most of the increased death was in the peri-natal to about 5 years of age. So one really needs to talk about lifespan expectancy after having survived childhood–which she claims is still worse and that this argument has been discounted by further detailed studies (I am a bit sceptical and would need to hear it from an epidemiologist).

        Anyway the point is that, yes, life became tougher for more people in the Renaissance compared to the Middle Ages, but, no, that is irrelevant to whether an age is a Golden Age or not. I’m afraid her insistence on this naked strawman somewhat poisoned me against her arguments, especially as it took about 5,000 words to reach that point in her arguments. In fact the pestilence associated with cities didn’t begin to diminish until, first, the rebuilding of cities with sewers and clean potable water beginning with Paris and London in the 1850s, and second, medical advances in vaccination, pasteurisation and antibiotics. Of course no accident that those first changes coincided with cities exceeding threshold sizes (London was the world’s biggest city and Paris not far behind) and no accident that it also coincided with huge social changes and changes in mechanisms of finance. Both of these issues are the subject of David Harvey’s history of 1848-1870: Paris, Capital of Modernity in which “capital” has a double meaning re banking and finance. No accident that these were also concomitants with the Florentine Renaissance: the rise of debt finance (overcoming the religious prohibitions by a loophole that it was ok for another religious group, jews, to lend to a different group, catholics; also no accident that it was the jewish Rothchilds and Pereires behind it in Second Empire Paris.). This period, 1850-70, is another Golden Age at least for financiers, bankers, investment bankers and hedgefunders etc. while perhaps also being a Golden Age for the reaction to its rise: socialists and marxists like Harvey, and of course Marx himself who visited Paris after the Commune in 1870 and wrote a book about it, as did Edmund Burke.

        In summary, I don’t think that many people deny many of the things which we recognise the Renaissance for, hadn’t been cooking away for centuries since the middle ages–despite Palmer’s long-winded insistence otherwise–and it was a kind of continuum but nevertheless that it really did take a quantum leap in the Renaissance to deserve the term Golden Age. Art, architecture, culture, construction technology, warfare technology, banking, finance, insurance. Even medical, but only descriptive (physiology etc) rather than interventionist or curative. General health and well-being had to wait another half millennium for their own Golden Ages. Incidentally, arguably Second Empire Paris was also the beginning of a Golden Age for mass transit as the Pereires created giant companies (by M&A) for almost everything: gas companies (for street lighting), the first department stores (the Louvre store & Bon Marché), sea trade via docks, and the Compagnie des Omnibus de Paris (by merging dozens of smaller outfits and bringing order from disorder by new Haussmannian regulation).

        You see what I did there? From middle ages via Renaissance to golden age Paris! Ahhh, my work is done:-)

        • Herbert

          Non-European cultures could maintain huge cities that were far less disease ridden. China had the benefit of boiling the water to make tea for one.

          Many diseases are easily avoided by not drinking water contaminated with feces…

          • michaelrjames

            I’ll agree that East Asian habits of flash-cooking of everything and tea drinking were almost certainly adaptations to avoid the common water-borne diseases, but it didn’t protect them against Y. pestis and its bubonic plague. In fact the second pandemic originated there. Also no protection against viral diseases and many of the worst originated there, just like SARS-CoV-2, due to the farm animals in close proximity to people combined with huge populations (statistical likelihood as much as proximity).

          • Herbert

            Cholera at the time was far deadlier than Influenza or others…

        • Sarapen

          As Herbert notes, this is a very Eurocentric take on history. Chinese cities had populations on the hundreds of thousands centuries before Western Europe. David Graeber notes that the Renaissance can be viewed merely as living standards in Europe finally catching up to those in Asia and the Middle East.

    • jcranmer

      > As for this talk of the European Dark Ages not existing, well, lets just say I find it baffling that any serious person can believe that. I guess it depends on how you define it or think of it (I will read that long blog post you linked) but I can’t think of any metric that wouldn’t show a decline and recovery, albeit I do think there is much room for argument as to when the recovery was achieved.

      The problem of Late Antiquity is that this discussion is mostly framed by a very motivated historiography that ignores many facts on the ground in favor of denying legitimacy of certain political institutions (predominantly the Byzantine Empire and the Catholic Church). Start pushing people to actually give a strict definition, and you find that the evidence doesn’t meet that definition. Some examples:

      Loss of scientific knowledge–unfortunately, there’s not really any loss here. People are still using the same textbooks from the height of the Roman Empire through much of the High Medieval. If you want to instead go for a suggestion of less scientific inquiry, you’d find that the Romans themselves in their heyday weren’t particularly inquisitive folks (compared to the Greeks and Islamic Golden Age, certainly), at least as far as natural philosophy goes. Scholars are still growing up, traveling to important scholastic areas to further their studies, and writing, even in the middle of the Dark Ages.

      Okay then, let’s talk about when the (Western) Roman Empire fell. The popular date is Odoacer deposing the last Roman Emperor in 476, but the actual primary sources at the time don’t consider it to have been a particularly noteworthy event; arguably far less important than the first (then-modern) sack of Rome in 410. Rome and Italy were still considered by its inhabitants to be part of the Roman Empire, whose seat of power had shifted to Constantinople. Note that the Roman Senate still met after 476–we don’t actually know when it stopped meeting except that it happened between 603 (the last known act) and 630 (when its meeting place was turned into a church). It’s just that the Senate had less of an impact on people’s lives, and its continuation as an actual body held less value as a sign of the functioning of government. So it basically just sort of fades away over decades, if not centuries–and this pattern is repeated all across the Western Roman Empire. The end is typified by a gradual political shift that is hard to pin firm dates for any substantive change.

      What did decline then? Well, the internal trade networks of the Roman Empire broke down in the Crisis of the Second Century, and they never really recovered in the West. Even after Diocletian’s reforms, it seems that the administrative capacity was permanently weakened. Emperors leaned more on local kings to govern their subjects, and were less able to provide them with the benefits that taxes to the Roman Empire and the decentralization of power continued until the question of whether or not the kingdom in question was actually independent was a theoretical question rather than one that had any practical importance; you can compare this process with the later Holy Roman Empire, which similarly shows a process of basically descending into nonexistence. (Viewing political maps before modern times is fraught with difficulty because the polities back then do not follow the same rules as modern states).

        • michaelrjames

          Sounds like someone should be putting their talents to good use and doing some Wiki editing to help out we poor Anglosphere mono-lingual types.

        • Alon Levy

          Sure, but as always, the Middle Ages are a long period, and talking about the real collapse in trade and population in the 5th and 6th centuries is not terribly relevant to how one characterizes the changes within Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries.

          • Herbert

            I never said anything of the sort, but what I wish stated for the record is that something important WAS lost some time between 450 and 550 CE…

  6. Reedman Bassoon

    Since the topic heading is “Transportation” (not just “Rail”), it is worth mentioning that buses are getting another technology update. The transition from diesel to (cleaner) natural gas is essentially done. California has a rule in place requiring all transit agencies in the state purchase fully electric buses after 2029. [There is also a rule that all trucks and vans purchased in the state after 2045 must be zero-emissions (electric or hydrogen).]

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