Edward Gibbon gloomily observed that in a unified empire like the Roman there was nowhere to escape, whereas with a multiplicity of states there were always gaps and interstices to hide in (1776)

Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon, in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), describes the dangers of a unified Empire, in comparison to a Europe divided into a number of independent states, where the opponent of tyranny has nowhere to escape:

The slave of Imperial despotism, whether he was condemned to drag his gilded chain in Rome and the senate, or to wear out a life of exile on the barren rock of Seriphus, or the frozen banks of the Danube, expected his fate in silent despair. To resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly. On every side he was encompassed with a vast extent of sea and land, which he could never hope to traverse without being discovered, seized, and restored to his irritated master.

When reading this passage one is struck by its similarities to E.L. Jones, The European Miracle (1981, 1987) in which he states that free institutions emerged in Europe precisely because there was no universal empire but rather a multiplicity of rivalrous states which had to compete to get or retain labour and capital. When a state did introduce despotic legislation the citizens could and did move elsewhere. Gibbon understands this and feels for the “slave of imperial despotism” in a unified state, with his “gilded chain” but nowhere to hide from his “irritated master”. He sadly concludes that in such a society “to resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly”.