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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.

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

A Tide In The Affairs Of Men

A Tide In The Affairs Of Men

Leonardo da Vinci First anatomical studies c1515 

Sometimes we find ourselves merely pondering, not so much solving big problems. Is there playing out, in the world at large, or at least the world of men, something akin to the Kondratieff cycle in economics, a larger cycle, a force, a tide, an energy, that we mostly ignore, but which drives our ‘affairs’? Dr. D. thinks there may well be. But if so, what happens to free will?

Dr. D.:

Dr. D.: I seem to have taken a dark and grumpy turn lately.  Probably the winter, but as I get older, I find the present state of the world more and more frustrating.

I fear with the present madness it’s just de rigor to 1) label people as something they’re not, even the OPPOSITE of what they are, 2) furiously fight that strawman and 3) not care.  I have no explanation for it, but there are times and tides in the affairs of men (as Shakespeare would say) which flood you out and cost a fortune.  …Or something like that.

And it’s certainly flooding in Europe right now, as darkness falls as the shutters of censorship and totalitarianism are bolted up everywhere, every bit as clear and methodical as was done in 1935, even with a call for a shiny new army.  …To use on no one, of course, because we all know broke nations fund and create armies for no ill intent whatsoever.  But these things happen regularly.

“If…any person had told me that there would have been such [chaos] as [now] exists, I would have thought them a bedlamite, a fit subject for a madhouse.” 
– George Washington, 1786 (after a fiat money blowoff in the states)

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

US Conservatives Pursue a ‘Ben Option’ of Global Ramification

US Conservatives Pursue a ‘Ben Option’ of Global Ramification

US Conservatives Pursue a ‘Ben Option’ of Global Ramification

Are we ‘Rome’? The question has weighed heavily on the minds of American conservatives, libertarians and Catholics at their various conferences. Is America headed the way of the Roman empire? Bureaucratic decay, massive public debt, an overstretched military, a political system seemingly incapable of responding to challenges – “the late Roman empire suffered these maladies, and so, some fear, does contemporary America”, notes The American Conservative, a journal which has been pursuing this ‘line’ diligently, and with a growing constituency, over a number of years. (Note that this is not the constituency of Vice-President Pence who represents an Evangelical, fundamentalist, literal insistence on imminent Redemption, with its ‘Rapture’ politics).

The American Conservative rather warns:

“If libertarians on the Right worry about structural collapse – cultural and religious conservatives add a moral and spiritual dimension to the debate. Rising hedonism, waning religious observance, ongoing break-up of the family, and a general loss of cultural coherence — to traditionalists, these are signs of a possible Dark Age ahead”.

And this is their narrative in response to these fears: Around the year 500 (CE), a generation after the Franks deposed the last Roman Emperor, a young Umbrian man (i.e. hailing from a rural province in Italy), was sent to Rome by his wealthy parents to complete his education. However, disgusted at ‘Rome’s decadence, he fled to the forest, to pray as a hermit.

His name was Benedict. And he went on to found a dozen monastic communities, and wrote his famous ‘rules’ which are credited with having helped an earlier culture and its values survive in needy times. Professor Russell Hittinger summed up Benedict’s lesson to the Dark Ages like this: “How to live life as a whole. Not a life of worldly success, so much as one of human success”.

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

Does Society Turn More Violent During its End Times?

QUESTION: Is MMA the new Roman Colosseum? I’m a layman in history but didn’t blood sports rise in popularity during Rome’s decline? Now everyone and their mother is talking about MMA, and random celebrities e.g. Logan Paul or now Trump Jr. are jumping in the octagon or being challenged.

JR
ANSWER: Yes. For some reason, society begins to turn more violent toward its end times. Mixed martial arts is a full-contact combat sport that allows striking and grappling, both standing and on the ground, using techniques from other combat sports and martial arts. It is an interesting pattern. The Christian Persecutions really came into full swing only as the Empire was collapsing during the 3rd century.

A Storm is Brewing in Europe: Italy and Its Public Finances Are at the Center of It

A Storm is Brewing in Europe: Italy and Its Public Finances Are at the Center of It

Photo Source Giuseppe Milo | CC BY 2.0

Yet the problem with Italy is not the problem that the European Commission or financial markets see.

Rome is planning an expansionary budget – just what Italy needs and just the opposite of what Brussels and the financial speculators in the bond markets are expecting or demanding.
Brussels wants “fiscal consolidation”. That is, for Rome to reduce its deficit – the annual gap between spending and taxation – so it can start paying down its huge public debt, which is 131% of GDP, proportionately the highest in the euro zone after Greece’s.
The government of the League and 5-Star Movement has raised the target for next year’s deficit to 2.4% of gross domestic product. That is comfortably below the EU’s 3% ceiling, but up sharply from a targeted 1.8% this year, flouting EU rules which call on highly-indebted countries like Italy, to narrow the deficit steadily towards a balanced budget.
Rome’s budget includes a reversal of an increase in the retirement age enacted in 2011 by a previous Democratic Party Government. This is a genuinely progressive and an economically sensible move, as it should force employers to high more young people sooner, helping to reduce the 31% youth jobless rate.
The budget also contains a so-called ‘citizen’s wage’, aimed primarily at the young unemployed who currently have to rely on their families for financial support. Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio has said the proposed payment of up to 780 euros a month will “abolish poverty”. That’s hyperbole, but any attempt to cut the numbers, which have tripled in the last 10 years, while those in “absolute poverty” have risen to 5.1 million (or 8.4 percent of the population), has to be welcomed.

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

The Fall of Empires Explained in 10 Minutes

The Fall of Empires Explained in 10 Minutes

This is the presentation I gave to the meeting for the 50th anniversary of the Club of Rome on Oct 18th in Rome. The gist of the idea is that the fall of ancient civilizations, such as the Roman Empire, can be described with the same models developed in the 1970 to describe the future of our civilization. States, empires, and entire civilizations tend to fall under the combined effect of resource depletion and growing pollution. In the end, they are destroyed by what I call the Seneca Effect.

You can find the paper I mention in the talk at this link.

How the World Elites are Going to Betray us: Lessons from Roman History

How the World Elites are Going to Betray us: Lessons from Roman History

The more I study the story of the Roman Empire, the more I see the similarities with our world. Of course, history doesn’t always repeat itself, but it is impressive to note how with the start of the collapse of the Western Empire, the Roman elites abandoned the people to build themselves strongholds in safe places. Something similar may be starting to occur in our times and our elites may decide to seek for safe havens while leaving us to drown, starve, or burn.

Rutilius Namatianus is known today for his “De Reditu Suo” (of his return). It is a long poem where he tells us of his travel along the Italian coast around 416 AD, during the last decades of the Western Roman Empire. We read in it a chilling report of the ongoing collapse: abandoned cities, wastelands, ruined roads, and more.

But who was Rutilius Namatianus, and what was he doing? A patrician, a powerful man, a rich man, and also a liar and a traitor. He was running away from Rome, probably taking with him gold, slaves, and troops with the idea of building himself a feud in Southern France, where he had some possessions. In doing so, he was abandoning the people of Rome to fend off for themselves. The people whom it was his duty to defend as praefectus urbi, the prefect of Rome, the delegate of the Emperor himself.

Namatianus was doing nothing worse than other rich and powerful Romans were. Emperor Honorius himself had run away from Rome, settling in Ravenna, protected by the marshes surrounding the city and with ships ready to take him to safety in Byzantium if things were to get really bad.

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

The latest casualty in the global pension catastrophe is…

The latest casualty in the global pension catastrophe is…

In the year 6 AD, the Roman emperor Augustus set up a special trust fund known as the aerarium militare, or military treasury, to fund retirement pensions for Rome’s legionnaires.

Now, these military pensions had already existed for several centuries in Rome. But the money to pay them had always been mixed together in the government’s general treasury.

So for hundreds of years, mischievous senators could easily grab money that was earmarked for military pensions and redirect it elsewhere.

Augustus wanted to end this practice by setting up a special fund specifically for military pensions.

And to make sure there would be no meddling from any government officials, Augustus established a Board of Trustees, consisting of former military commanders, to oversee the fund’s operations.

Augustus really wanted this pension fund to last for the ages. And to keep a steady inflow of revenue, he established a 5% inheritance tax in Rome that would go directly to the aerarium militare.

He even capitalized the fund with 170,000,000 sesterces of his own money, worth about half a billion dollars in today’s money.

But as you can probably already guess, the money didn’t last.

Few subsequent governments and emperors ever bothered themselves with balancing the fund’s long-term fiscal health. And several found creative ways to plunder it for their own purposes.

Within a few centuries, the fund was gone.

This is a common theme throughout history… and still today: pension funds are almost invariably mismanaged to the point of catastrophe.

We’ve written about this topic frequently in the past. It’s one of the biggest financial catastrophes of our time.

Congress has even formed a committee that’s preparing for massive pension failures.

And here’s another, very recent example: the city of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania is deep in the red with its police pension fund.

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

How Mises Explained the Fall of Rome

How Mises Explained the Fall of Rome

An excerpt from Mises’ classic work, ‘Human Action’.

Observations on the Causes of the Decline of Ancient Civilization

Knowledge of the effects of government interference with market prices makes us comprehend the economic causes of a momentous historical event, the decline of ancient civilization.

It may be left undecided whether or not it is correct to call the economic organization of the Roman Empire capitalism. At any rate it is certain that the Roman Empire in the second century, the age of the Antonines, the “good” emperors, had reached a high stage of the social division of labor and of interregional commerce. What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness.

Several metropolitan centers, a considerable number of middle-sized towns, and many small towns were the seats of a refined civilization. The inhabitants of these urban agglomerations were supplied with food and raw materials not only from the neighboring rural districts, but also from distant provinces. A part of these provisions flowed into the cities as revenue of their wealthy residents who owned landed property. But a considerable part was bought in exchange for the rural population’s purchases of the products of the city-dwellers’ processing activities. There was an extensive trade between the various regions of the vast empire. Not only in the processing industries, but also in agriculture there was a tendency toward further specialization. The various parts of the empire were no longer economically self-sufficient. They were mutually interdependent.

What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness, not the barbarian invasions. The alien aggressors merely took advantage of an opportunity which the internal weakness of the empire offered to them.

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

New Data Reveal the Hidden Mechanisms of the Collapse of the Roman Empire

New Data Reveal the Hidden Mechanisms of the Collapse of the Roman Empire

Alaric Sack of Rome
The reasons for the fall of the Western Roman Empire have remained a mystery for modern historians, just as for the Romans themselves. Yet, recent data from the Greenland ice core provide us with new data on collapse of the Empire, showing how fast and brutal it was – a true “Seneca Collapse.” Could our civilization go the same way? (above: the sack of Rome by the Visigoths of King Alaric in 410 AD).
The Ancient Romans never understood what hit them. Nor did later historians: there exist literally hundreds of theories on what caused the fall of the Roman Empire. In 1984 Demandt listed 210 of them, ranging from moral decline to the diffusion of Christianity. Today, some historians still say that the fall is a “mystery” and some attribute it to the improbable piling up of several independent factors which, somehow, happened to gang up together. 
 
Why is it so difficult to understand something that was so massive as the fall of the Western Empire? There is more than one reason, but one is the lack of data. We have scant written material about the last centuries of the Empire and very little has arrived to us in terms of quantitative data. Things are changing, though. Modern archaeology is generating astonishing results telling us a lot about the mechanisms of the collapse of the ancient Empire. For instance, look at this graph: (from Sverdrup et al., 2013):    
…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Five Things You Should Know About Collapse

Five Things You Should Know About Collapse

The Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca was perhaps the first in history to identify and discuss collapse and to note that “the way to ruin is rapid.” From Seneca’s idea, Ugo Bardi coined the term “Seneca Effect” to describe all cases where things go bad fast and used the modern science of complex systems to understand why and how collapses occur. Above: the Egyptian pyramid of Meidum, perhaps the first large edifice in history to experience collapse. 

1. Collapse is rapid. Already some 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca noted that when things start going bad, they go bad fast. It takes a lot of time to put together a building, a company, a government, a whole society, a piece of machinery. And it takes very little time for the whole structure to unravel at the seam. Think of the collapse of a house of cards, or that of the twin towers after the 9/11 attacks, or even of apparently slow collapses such as that of the Roman Empire. Collapses are likely to take you by surprise.

2. Collapse is not a bug, it is a feature of the universe. Collapses occur all the time, in all fields, everywhere. Over your lifetime, you are likely to experience at least a few relatively large collapses: natural phenomena such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods – major financial collapses – such as the one that took place in 2008 – and you may also see wars and social violence. And you may well see small-scale personal disasters, such as losing your job or divorcing. Nobody at school taught you how to deal with collapses, but you’d better learn at least something of the “science of co,plex systems.”

3. No collapse is ever completely unexpected. The science of complex systems tells us that collapses can never be exactly predicted, but that’s not a justification for being caught by surprise.

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

Why The Empire Never Sleeps: The Indispensable Nation Folly

Like the case of Rome before it, the Empire is bankrupting America. The true fiscal cost is upwards of $1.o trillion per year (counting $200 billion for veterans and debt service for wars), but there is no way to pay for it.

That’s because the 78-million strong Baby Boom is in the driver’s seat of American politics. It plainly will not permit the $3 trillion per year retirement and health care entitlement-driven Welfare State to be curtailed.

The Trumpite/GOP has already sealed that deal by refusing to reform Social Security and Medicare and by proving utterly incapable of laying a glove politically on Obamacare/Medicaid. At the same time, boomers keep voting for the GOP’s anti-tax allergy, thereby refusing to tax themselves to close Washington’s yawning deficits.

More importantly, the generation which marched on the Pentagon in 1968 against the insanity and  barbarism of LBJ’s Vietnam War have long since abandoned the cause of peace. So doing, boomers have acquiesced in the final ascendancy of the Warfare State, which grew like topsy once the US became the world’s sole superpower after the Soviet Union slithered off the pages of history in 1991.

Yet there is a reason why the end of the 77-year world war which incepted with the “guns of August” in 1914 did not enable the world to resume the status quo ante of relative peace and prosperous global capitalism.

To wit, the hoary ideology of American exceptionalism and the Indispensable Nation was also, ironically, liberated from the shackles of cold war realism when the iron curtain came tumbling down.

Consequently, it burst into a quest for unadulterated global hegemony. In short order (under Bush the Elder and the Clintons) Washington morphed into the Imperial City, and became a beehive not only of militarism, but of an endless complex of think-tanks, NGO’s, advisories and consultancies, “law firms”, lobbies and racketeers.

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

That Collapse You Ordered…?


I had a fellow on my latest podcast, released Sunday, who insists that the world population will crash 90-plus percent from the current 7.6 billion to 600 million by the end of this century. Jack Alpert heads an outfit called the Stanford Knowledge Integration Lab (SKIL) which he started at Stanford University in 1978 and now runs as a private research foundation. Alpert is primarily an engineer.

At 600 million, the living standard in the USA would be on a level with the post-Roman peasantry of Fifth century Europe, but without the charm, since many of the planet’s linked systems — soils, oceans, climate, mineral resources — will be in much greater disarray than was the case 1,500 years ago. Anyway, that state-of-life may be a way-station to something more dire. Alpert’s optimal case would be a world human population of 50 million, deployed in three “city-states,” in the Pacific Northwest, the Uruguay / Paraguay border region, and China, that could support something close to today’s living standards for a tiny population, along with science and advanced technology, run on hydropower. The rest of world, he says, would just go back to nature, or what’s left of it. Alpert’s project aims to engineer a path to that optimal outcome.

I hadn’t encountered quite such an extreme view of the future before, except for some fictional exercises like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (Alpert, too, sees cannibalism as one likely byproduct of the journey ahead.) Obviously, my own venture into the fictionalized future of the World Made by Hand books depicted a much kinder and gentler re-set to life at the circa-1800 level of living, at least in the USA. Apparently, I’m a sentimental softie.

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

What If All the Cheap Stuff Goes Away?

What If All the Cheap Stuff Goes Away?

Nothing stays the same in dynamic systems, and it’s inevitable that the current glut of low costs / cheap stuff will give way to scarcities that cannot be filled at current low prices.

One of the books I just finished reading is The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire. The thesis of the book is fascinating to those of us interested in the rise and fall of empires: Rome expanded for many reasons, but one that is overlooked was the good fortune of an era of moderate weather from around 200 BC to 150 AD: rain was relatively plentiful/ regular and temperatures were relatively warm.

Then one of Earth’s numerous periods of cooling–a mini ice age–replaced the moderate weather, pressuring agricultural production.

Roman technology and security greatly expanded trade, opening routes to China, India and Africa that supplied much of Roman Europe with luxury goods. The Mediterranean acted as a cost-effective inland sea for transporting enormous quantities of grain, wine, etc. around the empire.

These trade routes acted as vectors for diseases from afar that swept through the Roman world, decimating the empire’s hundreds of densely populated cities whose residents had little resistance to the unfamiliar microbes.

Rome collapsed not just from civil strife and mismanagement, but from environmental and infectious disease pressures that did not exist in its heyday.

Colder, drier weather stresses the populace by reducing their food intake, which leaves them more vulnerable to infectious diseases. This dynamic was also present in the 15th century during another mini ice age, when the bubonic plague (Black Death) killed approximately 40% of Europe’s population.

Which brings us to the present: global weather has been conducive to record harvests of grains and other foodstuffs, and I wonder what will happen when this run of good fortune ends, something history tells us is inevitable. Despite the slow erosion of inflation, food is remarkably cheap in the developed world.

What happens should immoderate weather strike major grain-growing regions of the world?

Then there’s infectious diseases.  Global air travel and trade has expanded the spectrum of disease vectors to levels that give experts pause.  The potential for an infectious disease that can’t be mitigated to spread globally is another seriously under-appreciated threat to trade, tourism and cheap stuff in general.

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

How Societies Collapse: Or, The Eerie Parallels Between Rome, Nazi Germany, and America 

A little reflection occurs to me every time I write about American collapse.

Societies collapse in much the same way — there is something like a universal way of collapse. Yet the whole problem begins with the fact that human beings, having needy egos, find their own downfall difficult to accept.

Perhaps you yourself will object — you are a mighty citizen of a proud society. Ah. Do you think the Incas, Mayas, Romans, or Nazis ever thought they obeyed the laws of history? Of course not. Becoming a powerful society makes us vulnerable to collapse because it leaves us puffed up with hubris. “We shall never fall!”, we cry, “our thousand-year reign has barely begun!”

To think one is above history is precisely where collapse begins — people who don’t understand how societies fall can’t do a whole lot to stop it. We begin the story of how a society falls thus: there is an almost hysterical atmosphere of denial that it ever could.

Step one. The economy stagnates. Life becomes harder and meaner. An atmosphere of cruelty permeates. But elites must deny stagnation— otherwise, they have admitted that they have failed: in this way, a social contract never gets repaired.

Step two. Neighbour turns on neighbour for a constant share of a dwindling pie. They must compete more and more viciously to maintain the living standards of their parents and grandparents. Social bonds blow apart. Norms begin to disintegrate.

Step three. Growing ever more anxious and desperate, seeking a truce in what has become an unwinnable battle for survival, people turn to strongmen, glorified thugs, revelling in indecency, thus flaunting their power over broken norms and failed social contract.

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

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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Olduvai III: Cataclysm
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