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The American infrastructure, ancient Rome and ‘Limits to Growth’

The American infrastructure, ancient Rome and ‘Limits to Growth’

Infrastructure is the talk of the town in Washington, D.C. where I now live and with good reason. The infrastructure upon which the livelihoods and lives of all Americans depends is in sorry shape. The American Society of Civil Engineers 2021 infrastructure report card gives the United States an overall grade of C minus.

Everyone in Washington, yes, everyone, believes some sort of major investment needs to be made in our transportation, water, and sewer systems which have been sorely neglected. There are other concerns as well about our energy infrastructure and our communications infrastructure—both of which are largely in private hands. The wrangling over how much will be spent and on what is likely to go on for months.

What won’t be talked about is that the cost of maintaining our infrastructure is rising for one key reason: There’s more it every day. We keep expanding all these systems so that when they degrade and require maintenance and replacement, the cost keeps growing.

There is a lesson on this from ancient Rome. Few modern people understand that the Romans financed their expansion and government operations using the booty taken from vanquished territories. That worked until it didn’t. When Rome reached its maximum expanse, when it no longer conquered new territories, the booty stopped coming. With the borders of Rome the longest the empire had ever had to defend, it now relied primarily on taxes to finance a large army and administrative presence across the empire in order to maintain control.

Our modern-day version of booty has been cheap energy, much of it supplied by the oil, natural gas and coal fields of America and later its uranium mines…

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Western Civilization has become a never-ending Jerry Springer episode

Early in the 2nd century AD, around the year 101, the Roman humorist Decimus Junius Juvenalis began publishing a collection of satirical poems poking fun at the Empire.

Rome was already in serious decline by the time Juvenalis wrote his first poem. In the first century AD alone, Romans suffered the tyrannical insanity of Caligula, the destructive extravagance of Nero, multiple civil wars, and the ‘Year of the Four Emperors’ in 96 AD.

Needless to say, Juvenalis had plenty of inspiration for his satires.

He was like the George Carlin of his day– making fun of everyone, even the most sacrosanct institutions. And he didn’t pull any punches.

Juvenalis made fun of the Senate for their endless hypocrisy. He made fun of wealthy noblemen for acquiring their wealth by sucking up to the Emperor.

He made fun of the merchant class and its constant obsession with status. He made fun of the military for acting as if they were above the law.

He made fun of how the Imperial government pretends to give a damn about the common folk. And he made fun the common folk, saying “the mob cares for nothing but bread and circuses. . .”

Most of all, Juvenalis made fun of the extreme decay in Roman morality.

By the 2nd century AD, the Roman virtues of ‘strength and honor’ had been replaced by deceit, idleness, apathy, and corruption.

Edward Gibbon echoed this sentiment in his work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1776.

Gibbon’s primary thesis is that Rome became a victim of its own success– its extraordinary wealth and prosperity made people lazy, complacent, and entitled.

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It’s time to start thinking about inflation

In the year 215 AD, the young Roman Emperor Caracalla, then just 27 years of age, decided to ‘fix’ Rome’s perennial inflation problem by minting a brand new coin.

Caracalla’s predecessors over the previous several decades had ordered an astonishing debasement of Roman currency; the silver content in Rome’s ‘denarius’ coin, for example, was reduced from roughly 85% in the early 150s AD, to less than 50% by the early 200s.

And with the silver content in their currency greatly reduced, government mints cranked out unprecedented quantities of coins.

They spent the money as quickly as they minted it, using the flood of debased coins, for example, to finance endless wars and buy up food supplies for their soldiers.

Needless to say this caused rampant inflation across the empire.

Egypt was a province of Rome at the time, and the one of the Empire’s major agricultural producers. Its local provincial coin, the drachma, had also been heavily debased.

A measure of Egyptian wheat in the early 1st century AD, for example, cost only 8 drachmas. In the third century that same amount of Egyptian wheat cost more than 100,000 drachmas.

Caracalla tried to fix this by simply creating a new coin– the antoniniamis.

It was originally minted with 50% silver content. But the antoniniamis was debased down to just 5% silver within a few decades.

Caracalla’s undisciplined attempt at controlling inflation was about as effective as Venezuela trying to ‘fix’ its hyperinflation by chopping five zeros off its currency.

In fact this same story has been told over and over again throughout history:

Governments who spend too much money almost invariably resort to debasing the currency.

In ancient times, ‘debasement’ meant reducing the gold and silver content in their coins.

In early modern times, it meant printing vast quantities of paper money.

Today, it means creating ‘electronic’ money in the banking system.

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Revealing History

COMMENT: I find it interesting how two people the general consensus has said were scoundrels, John Law and Julius Caesar, you have shown were actually people against the establishment. I read your Anatomy of a Debt Crisis and you have put together the contemporary historians where everyone else just seems to rely on the fake news of the day.

Thank you for digging up the facts.

HY

REPLY: When I was in high school, I had to read Galbraith’s “Great Crash.” Nowhere in his book did he ever mention defaults on national debts by any country. When I came across Herbert Hoover’s memoirs in an old book store in London, this was probably the second thing that changed my life, with the first being the movie  “The Toast of New York” about the Panic of 1869 when gold hit $162.50, which I had to watch in history class. I learned not to trust the history books, and the best way to find out the truth was always to return to the contemporary reports of history and/or the newspapers of the time.

The coinage has been a major factor in identifying the history and accurately dating events. Here is an extremely rare coin of Julius Caesar. Note that there is no portrait of him. He is announcing his victory in Gaul. His Gallic campaign was initially a piecemeal affair, but within six years, he had expanded Roman rule over the whole of Gaul. Following years of relative success, mainly thanks to the disconnected nature of the tribes allowing him to take them on separately (divide and conquer), Caesar was faced with the chief of the Arverni tribe, Vercingetorix, who too late had built a confederation to stand against Caesar. In 52 BC, despite formidable resistance, Caesar finally defeated Vercingetorix at the Battle (or Siege) of Alesia…

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martin armstrong, armstrong economics, history, julius ceasar, rome, roman empire, war, conquest, coinage, fake news,

The Deification of Emperor Trump: Following Caligula’s Path

The Deification of Emperor Trump: Following Caligula’s Path

Jake Angeli, high priest of the growing cult of Emperor Donald Trump, dressed as the horned God Cernunnos. The deification of Emperor Trump in Washington, yesterday, didn’t go so well, but we are moving along a path that the Romans already followed during the decline of their empire, including the deification of emperors, starting with Caligula. So, comparing Roman history to our current conditions may tell us something about the future.

I already speculated on what kind of Roman Emperor Donald Trump could have been and I concluded that he might have been the equivalent of Hadrian. The comparison turned out to be not very appropriate. Clearly, Trump was no Hadrian (a successful emperor, by all means). But, after four years, and after the recent events in Washington, I think Trump may be seen as a reasonably good equivalent of Caligula, or Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who also reigned for 4 years, from 37 to 41 AD.

Caligula was the prototypical mad emperor — you probably heard that he nominated his horse consul. And he was not just mad, he was said to be a cruel, homicidal psychopath, and a sexual pervert to boot. In addition, he tried to present himself as a living god and pretended to be worshipped. He even claimed to have waged a war against the Sea God Poseidon, and having won it!

But, really, we know little about Caligula’s reign, and most of it from people who had plenty of reasons to slander his memory, including our old friend Lucius Annaeus Seneca (he of the “Seneca Effect“) who was a contemporary of Caligula and who seriously risked being killed by him. The Romans knew and practiced the same rules of propaganda we use today. And one typical way to slander an emperor was to accuse him to be a sexual pervert.

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The militarization of the Western Empire: How the COVID pandemic accelerated the process

The militarization of the Western Empire: How the COVID pandemic accelerated the process

Donald Trump may not have been not such a warlike emperor as previous Western Emperors have been (and probably will be). But, even assuming that Trump is trying to avoid wars, he cannot oppose the militarization trends of the Western economy that was boosted by the COVID-19 epidemics. 

History repeats itself – oh, yes! And sometimes it repeats itself so fast and so ruthlessly that it leaves you out of breath. Think of what’s happening right now: the COVID; the lockdowns, the face masks, the limitations to movements: all that happened in a few months, and the world of last year looks so remote that it could be seen as part of the still ongoing Middle Ages.

And, yet, there is some logic in what has happened. History may surprise you and it usually does (the only sure thing we learn from history is that people never learn from history). But whatever happens in history has a reason to happen. And what we are seeing is not unexpected. We have seen it already, stark clear and unavoidable: it is the militarization trend of a decaying society.

Let’s go back to the Roman Empire, as always the paradigmatic story of a state that went through a full cycle of growth and collapse. The Roman world was not so technologically sophisticated as ours, but the basic needs of the citizens were the same and the Roman government provided many of them. You may have heard the expression “Panem et Circenses” (bread and circus games). That described two of the services that the Roman state ensured: the shipment of  wheat from Africa to the Roman cities and the various kind of games performed in the amphitheaters.

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This Is How It Ends: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

This Is How It Ends: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

While the Federal Reserve and the Billionaire Class push the stock market to new highs to promote a false facade of prosperity, everyday life will fall apart.
How will the status quo collapse? An open conflict–a civil war, an insurrection, a coup–appeals to our affection for drama, but the more likely reality is a decidedly undramatic dissolution in which all the elements of our way of life we reckoned were solid and permanent simply melt into air, to borrow Marx’s trenchant phrase.
In other words, Rome won’t be sacked by Barbarians, or ignite in an insurrectionary conflagration–everything will simply stop working as those burdened with the impossible task of keeping a failed system glued together simply walk away.
If we examine the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Western Roman Empire, we can trace the eventual collapse to the sudden psychological shift from an assumption of permanence that found expression in denial (Rome can’t fall, it’s eternal…) or in the universal belief that life was unchanging and so everything was forever.
This psychological state was replaced by a shocked awareness that what was unimaginable, “impossible”–systemic collapse–was not only entirely possible, it was happening in real time. This change in consciousness arose in individuals in differing ways and velocities, but eventually everyone accepted that some adaptation was now necessary.
Correspondent R.J. and I have been discussing the consequences of the sharp decline in the value of labor which is painfully obvious in the chart below and the many other charts depicting the declining purchasing power of wages and the skimming of the majority of the economic gains by the top 0.1%.
In effect, it no longer pays to work beyond the bare minimum needed to survive as all the value generated by labor above this minimum is either skimmed by the Bezos, Buffetts, Gates, Zuckerbergs et al. or it’s paid in higher taxes to the government.

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Bimillenary of the death of Germanicus: The Defeat of the Roman Deep State

Bimillenary of the death of Germanicus: The Defeat of the Roman Deep State

2,000 years ago, on Oct 10, 19 CE, Germanicus Julius Caesar died in Antioch, Asia Minor, perhaps poisoned by his uncle, Tiberius, then the ruling emperor. If we see Hillary Clinton in the role of Germanicus and Donald Trump in the role of Tiberius, you have an equivalent ongoing conflict. 
Most likely, the concept of “Deep State” existed in Roman times, just as in ours.

Germanicus had not gained his “agnomen” (victory name) because he was a friend of the Germans, but because he had managed to kill many of them in a series of military campaigns from 14 to 16 CE. Tacitus tells us many details of how the Romans engaged in what we would call today a Strafexpedition (“Punitive expedition”) to avenge the defeat they had suffered against the Germans in Teutoburg ten years before. 

The Romans attacked Germany with eight legions and plenty of auxiliary troops in what was probably the largest military expedition in history, up to that time. In military terms, it was a success: the Germans were defeated and forced to retreat, but the cost of the campaign was simply staggering. Reading Tacitus we can get a feeling of the enormous effort in which the Romans had to engage in order to keep their legions supplied of food, equipment (and money for the troops). Eight legions were about a third of the whole military strength of the Empire: imagine fielding them in a region having no roads and no supporting infrastructure! 

By 16 CE, it must have been clear that the effort was bankrupting the Roman state. That led to an undeclared conflict between the ruling emperor of the time, Tiberius, and his nephew, Germanicus. It was good that Germanicus could defeat the Germans (or, at least, claim victory over them).

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The Surrender of Liberty in the Name of Security

The Surrender of Liberty in the Name of Security 

QUESTION: It seems that as we get closer to a change-over of economic systems that as a society we are more willing to give up our rights to the State. Is that part of a pattern during these types of events? Was it seen as Britain, Rome, and other countries lost power after their peaks?
DS

ANSWER: Unfortunately, the trend first materializes when people need the government to protect them usually from an external force. The British used this tactic against both the French and the American colonists. That prompted Ben Franklin to comment on this trend.

After the 3rd Century Monetary Crisis bottomed in the Roman Empire in 268 AD, there was a surge to build a wall around Rome by Emperor Aurelian following the same pattern. Aurelian saw the corruption that led to the debasement of the currency because those minting the coins were robbing the treasury. Aurelian moved to DRAIN THE SWAMP in Rome. When Aurelian returned to Rome in 271 AD after fighting off barbarians, he had to pacify a terrified city. He immediately halted the rioting and restored order to the capital. The controller of the mint in Rome began a rebellion over the monetary reforms laid out by Aurelian. He ordered that all the debased currency be purchased back and replaced with a new currency of higher content in silver. The rebellion was led by Felicissimus.

It appears that those who had been running the mint were embezzling the intended silver and issuing the debased coinage at least in part on their own authority. Obviously, any reform to the monetary system that called for an increase in silver content would have been unprofitable for those running the mint for personal gain.

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Did climate change cause the fall of the Roman Empire? No, but what may have actually happened is amazing.

Did climate change cause the fall of the Roman Empire? No, but what may have actually happened is amazing. 

“Vanity Fair” may not be the best source for reliable scientific information, but this cover is typical of an idea that’s becoming popular in the memesphere: that the Roman Empire fell because of climate change. Alas, this means stretching the data more than a bit and surprisingly, the opposite may be true: the climate changed because the Empire fell. Read on! (image source)

We have a problem with history: we often try to frame the past as if it were the same as the present. And that means projecting on the ancient our own troubles and fears. Add to this the difficulties we have in dealing with complex systems, the kind of systems that normally behave the way they damn please, and the results are often a complete mess.

The fall of the Roman Empire is a case in point. Maybe you know that in 1984 the German historian Demandt listed 210 (!!) causes proposed for the fall. It is fun to read how people just transferred to the Roman society whatever they were afraid of, from Communism to Culinary Excess.

In more recent times, we started being worried about things that weren’t well known in the 1980s. One is the decline of the energy return on energy invested (EROI), which is a true problem for our fossil-based society. It is much less obvious that it was a problem the ancient Romans and I wasn’t impressed by the attempts of Thomas Homer-Dixon to paint the Roman collapse as the result of an EROI decline. No data, no proof, just vague analogies.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Following in Rome’s Footsteps: Moral Decay, Rising Inequality

Following in Rome’s Footsteps: Moral Decay, Rising Inequality

Here is the moral decay of America’s ruling elites boiled down to a single word.

There are many reasons why Imperial Rome declined, but two primary causes that get relatively little attention are moral decay and soaring wealth inequality. The two are of course intimately connected: once the morals of the ruling Elites degrade, what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine, too.

I’ve previously covered two other key characteristics of an empire in terminal decline: complacency and intellectual sclerosis, what I have termed a failure of imagination.

Michael Grant described these causes of decline in his excellent account The Fall of the Roman Empire, a short book I have been recommending since 2009:There was no room at all, in these ways of thinking, for the novel, apocalyptic situation which had now arisen, a situation which needed solutions as radical as itself. (The Status Quo) attitude is a complacent acceptance of things as they are, without a single new idea.

This acceptance was accompanied by greatly excessive optimism about the present and future. Even when the end was only sixty years away, and the Empire was already crumbling fast, Rutilius continued to address the spirit of Rome with the same supreme assurance.

This blind adherence to the ideas of the past ranks high among the principal causes of the downfall of Rome. If you were sufficiently lulled by these traditional fictions, there was no call to take any practical first-aid measures at all.

A lengthier book by Adrian Goldsworthy How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower addresses the same issues from a slightly different perspective.

Glenn Stehle, commenting on a thread in the excellent website peakoilbarrel.com (operated by the estimable Ron Patterson) made a number of excellent points that I am taking the liberty of excerpting: (with thanks to correspondent Paul S.)

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The Lessons of Rome: Our Neofeudal Oligarchy

The Lessons of Rome: Our Neofeudal Oligarchy

Our society has a legal structure of self-rule and ownership of capital, but in reality it is a Neofeudal Oligarchy.

The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 is not an easy, breezy read; its length and detail are daunting.

The effort is well worth it, as the book helps us understand how the power structures of societies change over time in ways that may be largely invisible to those living through the changes.

The Inheritance of Rome focuses on the lasting influence of Rome’s centralized social and political structures even as centralized economic power and trade routes dissolved.

This legacy of centralized power and loyalty to a central authority manifested 324 years after the end of the Western Roman Empire circa 476 A.D. in Charlemagne, who united much of western Europe as the head of the Holy Roman Empire. (Recall that the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire endured another 1,000 years until 1453 A.D.)

But thereafter, the social and political strands tying far-flung villages and fiefdoms to a central authority frayed and were replaced by a decentralized feudalism in which peasants were largely stripped of the right to own land and became the chattel of independent nobles.

In this disintegrative phase, the central authority invested in the monarchy of kings and queens was weak to non-existent.In the long sweep of history, it took several hundred years beyond 1000 A.D. for central authority to re-assert itself in the form of monarchy, and several hundred additional years for the rights of commoners to be established.

Indeed, it can be argued that it was not until the 1600s and 1700s–and only in the northern European strongholds of commoners’ rights, The Netherlands and England–that the rights of ownership and political influence enjoyed by commoners in the Roman Empire were matched.

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We’re Still Making Diocletian’s Mistakes

We’re Still Making Diocletian’s Mistakes

Some of the most telling moments in history are when we look back and see people in a vastly different world behaving exactly as people do today. From 286 to 305 Diocletian, one of Rome’s most powerful and consequential emperors, tried to fix the political and economic systems which he inherited and were teetering on the brink of collapse. In doing so, he made mistakes remarkably similar to those made by people in government today.

The world Diocletian inherited was staggering out of the Crisis of the Third Century, a 50-year period that saw 26 claimants to the imperial robes, most of whom seemed guided by nothing more than personal greed and ambition. Relatively speaking, Diocletian brought stability and good intentions to the Roman state and helped it persist for another 150 years.

But virtually all of Diocletian’s individual reforms sought a stronger imperial state that exploded in both bureaucracy and godlike pageantry in an attempt to engineer prosperity from the top down. The astonishing part is that after more than 1,700 years, after the development of economics as a field of study, and under the auspices of liberal democracy, governments today proceed with largely the same instincts.

Is Four Greater Than One?

The man who would become known as Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus was born in present-day Croatia in the year 244. He first came to power as many emperors did, with an army under his command proclaiming him as such, and ultimately defeating other military rivals.

Diocletian realized that his vast empire was too large and complex to be ruled by a single man. This insight about the limits of top-down control may have been forward-thinking, but his solution shows how deeply important the elites of his time viewed a strong centralized state. By 293, Diocletian had fully formed the tetrarchy, where two junior and two senior emperors bound by a set of marriages would each rule a quarter of the empire.

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What can we Learn From the Middle Ages About Collapse? The Great Challenge of the Seneca Bottleneck

What can we Learn From the Middle Ages About Collapse? The Great Challenge of the Seneca Bottleneck

The idea that a collapse is awaiting our civilization seems to be gaining ground, although it has not reached the mainstream debate. But no civilization before ours escaped collapse, so it makes sense to think that the entity we call “The West” is going to crash down, badly, in the future. Then, just as it happened to the Romans long ago, we are going to enter a new world. What will it be? Will it look like the Middle Ages? Maybe, but what were exactly the Middle Ages? It may well be that it was far from being the age of barbarism that the name of “dark ages” seems to imply. The Middle Ages were more a period of intelligent adaptation to scarce resources. So, can we learn from our Medieval ancestors how to manage the coming decline? 

Aa some moment during the 2nd century AD, the Roman mines of Northern  Spain ceased to produce gold and silver, depleted after some three centuries of exploitation. The Roman Empire lost its main asset: its currency, the money used to pay for the troops, the bureaucracy, the court, the nobles, and everything else. Without money, there was nothing that could keep the Empire together and, following the great financial crash of the 3rd century AD, the Western Roman Empire faded away into a galaxy of statelets and kingdoms. By the 5th century, Europe was officially in the period we call the Middle Ages and that would last for about a millennium.

Today, we tend to regard the Middle Ages as a period of Barbarism and superstition, truly a dark age of witch hunts and religious wars. But are we sure that it was so? Actually, the Middle Ages were a period of intelligent adaptation to the lack of resources, a society that may anticipate our future.

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What’s Emperor Trump Doing? He is Busy at Splitting the Empire in Two

What’s Emperor Trump Doing? He is Busy at Splitting the Empire in Two

Donald Trump seems to be doing what Roman Emperors like Diocletian, Constantine, and Theodosius did long ago: splitting the empire into two halves. Trump may not have consciously decided to do that, but an Empire can only be as large as it can afford to be, and the American Empire can’t afford anymore to dominate the whole world. 

Flavius Theodosius Augustus “The Great” (347- 395 CE) was the last emperor to rule over the whole Roman Empire. His success was probably due in large part to his habit of plundering Pagan temples for the gold he needed to pay his troops. But Pagan temples were a limited resource and Theodosius himself seemed to understand that when, shortly before his death, he partitioned the Empire between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius. Afterward, the empire would never be whole again.

The Roman Empire had been a strong centralized power during its heydays, but it never was very interested in creating an ethnical and linguistic unity among its subjects. The Roman authorities understood very well that it was less expensive to tolerate diversity than to force uniformity — a typical policy of most empires. So, the Empire remained split into two main linguistic halves: the Latin-speaking Pars Occidentis and the Greek-speaking Pars Orientis. Theoretically, Latin was the official language of the Empire but, in practice, it remained a bilingual entity and, during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Roman elite would rather speak Greek — considered more refined and classy.

The split of the two sides of the Empire was not just linguistic, it was economic as well. The Pars Occidentis remained based on mineral wealth which, in turn, fueled the Empire’s military power.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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