A few years ago, I hitchhiked from the Benedictine monastery of Monte Oliveto, southeast of Siena, across rolling, forested, and sometimes craggy hills to the medieval hamlet of Amorosa, near the railway spur of Sinalunga. Waiting for the few passing cars left ample time to read the landscape all around me. A single glance took in lone farmhouses perched on hilltops, either falling apart or being renovated for German holidaymakers, and castles with or without houses sheltering in their lee, and larger towns whose later growth had long since obscured their earlier castellated cores. And within that single vista there unfolded the history of the late Roman and early medieval landscape: villas abandoned, then recovered, then transformed into fortified castles, which served first as magnets for the defenseless and then–depending on various other circumstances–turned into towns.

So far as we know, Adam Smith never walked these hills, but the third book of The Wealth of Nations–the core of his historical vision–is devoted precisely to the transformation of the late antique landscape. Unlike his contemporary Edward Gibbon, the bulk of whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire deals with the same period, Smith’s focus was on the “rebound,” on how the rudiments of the modern “Progress of Opulence in Different Nations” could be located in those centuries spanning the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of what he called modern–and we call medieval–Europe.

more from TNR here.