Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Tertullian was a conspiracy theorist: propaganda and irrationalism in Roman times and in ours

The Romans knew well the dark art that we call "propaganda" today. As an example, this image, from the Trajan column in Rome, shows Dacian women torturing naked Roman prisoners; it was part of the demonization of the enemy during the Dacian campaign of the early 2nd century AD. However, with the gradual decline of the Empire, its propaganda was becoming more and more shrill and unrealistic. Christian thinkers such as Tertullian were reacting against the absurdity of the official propaganda by contrasting it with ideas that at the time were regarded as even more absurd. 

Quintus Septimius Tertullianus (anglicized as "Tertullian", ca. 150 - ca. 230) was one of the early fathers of Christianity. Of his numerous works, we often remember a sentence that reads "Credo quia absurdum." (I believe it, because it is absurd). This exact phrase doesn't exist in Tertullian's works, but it describes well the essence of his way of thinking. He and the other Christians of that time were proposing something truly absurd: that a virgin had given birth to the son of God, that God was at the same time one and three, and that the son of a Jewish carpenter who had been executed as a common criminal was, actually, one of the three! 

Almost two thousand years of diffusion of these concepts made them familiar to us and we don't see them as absurd any more. But think of how they would be perceived in Roman times: they were the very essence of absurdity. Nevertheless, there is a logic even in absurdity and, in upholding these concepts, Tertullian was reacting to an even greater absurdity: the very existence of the Roman Empire.

The official truth of the Roman propaganda was that the prosperity of the empire was the result of the favor of the Gods, who rewarded the Romans for their moral virtues, their courage, and their performing the proper rituals. But all that was clearly becoming more and more in contrast with reality; at the time of Tertullian, the Roman Empire was not anymore the glorious war machine it had been in earlier times. Now, it was more like a zombie; a monstrous creature stumbling onward while desperately trying to hold itself in one piece against the attacks coming from the Barbarians outside and from rebellions inside. The official truth about the favor of the Gods had become a joke; a silly and cruel joke that nobody found funny any longer.

Tertullian died before the start of the third century crisis that saw the empire nearly disintegrating in a series of military defeats, civil wars, economic collapse, and currency devaluation. But, surely, the symptoms were all there much before and Tertullian could not miss that there was something rotten in the Roman Empire of his time. Indeed, he was possibly the first writer in history to identify what we call today "overpopulation," when he wrote in his "Apology" that 

...our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance. In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race.

It was not just Tertullian perceiving the problem and, as a result, the Empire was being swept by a wave of new religious creeds, all of them reacting against the official Pagan religion. Christianity was seen as an especially virulent sect, and it was the object of a strong repression on the part of the authorities. If Tertullian had been living today, he would be called a terrorist. But he, like many others, as just reacting to the increasing shrill and absurd official propaganda of his times.

Now, let's fast forward to our times. What does our Imperial propaganda tell us about our prosperity? It is not any more attributed to the favor of the Pagan Gods, but to a deity we call "Science," often endowed with attributes termed "progress" and "innovation". Our Imperial armies don't give thanks any more to the Pagan Gods for their victories, but rather attribute them to semi-divine spirits that we call "smart weapons" and which are bestowed on us by the main deity, Science. And our prosperity is attributed to the ability of science to provide better and slicker tools for us. It is scientific progress that allows us to attain the eternal bliss of economic growth.

But all this is showing evident signs of fatigue, to say the least. The prosperity of the empire we call "Globalization" is rapidly disappearing and the dark menaces of climate change and resource depletion are upon us. Now, we are told that we did everything wrong and we are told that by those same people, the scientists, who have taken us to where we are.  We are told that our smart phones, our shiny cars, our wonder drones can't save us; that our economic growth can't last forever, that the years of prosperity are getting to an end. How can that be? What kind of cruel joke is being played on us?

The result is a rabid reaction that takes different forms, but that normally takes as its main target science, or what's sometimes called "official science". Science, some seem to conclude, must be betraying us and the scientists must be traitors. It can't be that crude oil is running out; it must really be abundant, being continuously recreated in the entrails of the earth by mysterious abiotic processes. And it can't be that we are destroying ourselves by burning fossil fuels; no, climate science can only be a hoax played on us by evil scientists seeking fat research grants for themselves. And how can it be that the same people who can make a smartphone can't make a fusion reactor work? No, that can't be: they are hiding from us the fact that nuclear fusion can easily be obtained inside a huffing and puffing desktop device that looks like (and actually is) a water boiler.

Many people seem to be starting to see science not just as a hoax, but as something truly evil, as when the ancient Christians had turned the Pagan Gods into devils and evil spirits. And so we see the spreading of conspiracy theories: from the idea that the water vapor emitted from airplane engines is in reality a deadly cocktail of poisons designed to kill us, to the attempt to demonstrate that no human astronaut ever walked on the Moon. It is the rise of the "New Irrationalism,"  a movement of thought still officially ignored, but growing.

Perhaps, had Tertullian lived in our times, he, too, would maintain that the lunar landing had been a hoax and that the planes we see flying over our heads are there to spread poisons in the air. Then, we would call him a conspiracy theorist. But his ideas gained ground within a dying empire and, about one one century afterward, Emperor Constantine ordered the Christian symbol, a cross, to be painted on the flags of his army that was preparing for battle. He was hoping that the new Christian God would play the role of the old Pagan Gods; a new daimon that would grant him victory. Constantine won his battle, but that changed little to the destiny of the Empire. When Rome fell to the Visigoths, in 410 A.D., it was left to another Christian thinker, Augustine of Hippo, to explain in his "De Civitate Dei" (The City of God) that the purpose of Christianity never was that of saving a rotten empire.

In the end, empires are just constructions of the human mind; structures that persist for times long enough that some people tend to endow them with the virtue of eternal life: Rome was said to be the "eternal city" and our empire seems to be based on the idea that economic growth can last forever. But empires come and go in cycles, they are as impermanent as the morning dew; they just last a little longer. So, we are going to follow the example of the Roman Empire in its descent toward disappearance. And it may well be that, up to the last moment, we'll hope that some scientific miracle will save us. Then, it will be the task of someone, in the future, to explain that the purpose of Science never was that of saving a rotten empire.

(see also an earlier post of mine in Italian) and also "The New Irrationalism" (in Spanish)

Monday, October 5, 2015

Chemistry of an Empire: the Last Roman Empress

Originally published on Dec 22, 2011

A 5th century medallion showing what is perhaps the only portrait we have of Galla Placidia (388-450 c.e.), the last (and the only) Western Roman Empress. The inscription says "Domina Nostra, Galla Placidia, Pia, Felix, Augusta," that is "Our Lady, Galla Placidia, Pious, Blessed and Venerable."  A contemporary of such figures as Saint Augustine, Saint Patrick, Attila the Hun, and – perhaps – King Arthur, Placidia had the rare chance of being able to do something that past Roman Emperors never could do; take the Empire to its next stage which was to be, unavoidably, its demise.

As I was preparing this essay on Empress Galla Placidia, I found myself giving an impromptu talk on the subject to my students in chemistry on the last lesson before Christmas. Later on, I thought that I could write my essay in the form of that talk. So, here it is. It is much expanded in comparison to what I said to my students on that occasion, but still it maintains the essence of it. I have added headings and some figures.

Introduction: chemistry of an empire

I think there won't be a lecture in chemistry, today.  We are close to Christmas, there are just a few of you, and so it is better to skip a long and boring lecture; we'll have it after the pause for the holidays. So, we could simply leave for a coffee but, maybe, we could use this time we have in a different way. You know, there is a subject that I work on when I have some free time: Roman history. So, I was thinking that, instead of giving you a lecture in chemistry, I could speak to you about that. How would you like to hear the story of a Roman princess who married a barbarian king and then became Empress of Rome?

Now, I see from your faces that - yes - you would like to be told this story! But note that perhaps it is a subject that is not so far from chemistry as you might think. You see, civilizations can be seen as huge chemical reactions and you know that chemical reactions tend to flare up and then subside; it is what we call "chemical kinetics," you have studied that. The same happens for empires; they tend to flare up and then disappear; that's what happened to the Roman Empire, as you know.  So, civilizations and chemical reactions can be studied using similar methods; it is a field of science that goes under the name of "system dynamics". In a sense, there are forces pushing people to do things just like there are forces pushing molecules to react. In chemistry we call those forces “chemical potentials”, about people we might use the term “destiny” or "karma" or something like that. But perhaps the difference is not so great.

But don't worry about equations. I said that today I was going to tell you a story, and I am going to do it. It is the story of Galla Placidia; born a Roman princess, then Queen of the Goths, and, in the end, Empress of Rome. It is a great story of love, sex, and war. So, let's start!

The fall of Rome.

Now, I am asking you to close your eyes and forget for a moment where you are. Forget that you are in a classroom, forget that you are students of chemistry, forget that you live in the 21st century. Try to imagine something that existed way back in time: ancient Rome in the first years of the 5th century of our era, fifteen hundred years ago.

Yes, Rome, the eternal city, the center of the world, the cradle of civilization, the place all the roads lead to. At the beginning of the 5th century, Rome is still the largest city of Europe; the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Think of the city as stretched over its seven hills; surrounded by the massive Aurelian walls, full of marble palaces, markets, amphitheaters, gardens, and fountains. The Roman Senate still holds sessions in the Curia and gladiators still fight in the arenas, as they have been doing for centuries.

But, with the 5th century, things have changed a lot for the Empire. The victorious armies of old are gone; the Emperor himself doesn't even live in Rome any longer. He stays in the small town of Ravenna, protected by the marshes that surround it. And, in 410 A.D., Rome is under siege.

Imagine that: outside the walls of Rome there is a whole nation: men, women, children, horses and cattle. Tens of thousands of people who have marched there all the way from the North: the Visigoths. They are led by their king, Alaric, and now they are besieging Rome. While the Emperor, Honorius, is hiding in Ravenna, the only barrier that keeps the Barbarians out of the city is the circle of the ancient Aurelian walls. But that cannot last forever. Without an army to defend the walls, the outcome of the siege could be only one. In August of 410, the Barbarians broke in and they sacked Rome. That date was to be remembered in history: the most powerful city in the world, the “eternal” city, had fallen. The shock for the event reverberated for centuries. Among other things, it inspired Augustine's "The City of God," still well known today.

Now, how was that the largest city in the world, the eternal city, had ended up taken and sacked by a band of Barbarians? It was just  the final point of a decline that had been going on for centuries. You know that the peak of the Roman Empire had been at some moment in the second century A.D. After that period, it had been all downhill: civil wars, Barbarian invasions, epidemics, famines and all that. Not a smooth process, of course. There had been very difficult periods and periods when the Empire seemed to be able to recover. On the whole, the Western Empire had managed to remain all in one piece up to the end of the 4th century. But, with the 5th century, things were to change and, this time, the Empire would never really recover.

Edward Gibbon gives us an especially poignant report of these events in his “Decline and fall of the Roman Empire”. In the year 405 (perhaps), Europe saw a very cold winter – so cold that it froze the waters of the Rhine river. That river had been the Eastern border of the Empire for centuries. It had been chosen after that the Romans had been defeated by the Germans at Teutoburg, long before. But when it froze, a great number of Barbarians crossed over. That was the end of the border fortifications; the Romans simply couldn't defend them any more. The walls were abandoned and left to crumble to dust for ever and ever. It was an epochal change; from then on, the Barbarians were inside the Empire and they would stay there.   

In the great turmoil of those years, a large band of Barbarians marched directly towards Rome. In 406 AD, they were met at the foot of the Appennini Mountains, at the city of Faesulae, by what Gibbon calls "the last army of the Republic". The Romans had gathered there all the forces they could muster and they succeeded in stopping the Barbarians. Trapped in a narrow valley, the Barbarians were nearly all killed or taken prisoners and sold as slaves. Their King, Radagaisus, was captured and beheaded. These events are still remembered as legends in the area where the battle was fought.

It was a great victory for Rome and in particular for the general who had been leading the Roman army: Flavius Stilicho,  magister militum, commander in chief of all the Imperial Forces. But there was a problem: successful generals are never liked by suspicious emperors. Besides, Stilicho was a Barbarian himself, a Vandal, and that didn't make him popular with the Romans. So, soon after the battle, Emperor Honorius had Stilicho executed for treason. That was a big mistake, a very big one; you might say that Honorius had shot himself in the foot with his crossbow. By then, the Roman Army was composed mainly of Barbarians and, with their chief, Stilicho, betrayed and killed, most of them deserted. The army melted away and many of those who had deserted joined the army of King Alaric. Now, you can understand how it was that Rome was left undefended and it ended up falling to the Barbarians.

Galla Placidia: Roman Princess

What I have been telling to you is the history of the fall of Rome as we can read it in the texts of the chroniclers. Actually, very little is left of those events in terms of contemporary sources; most of what we have was written decades, if not centuries, after the events. So, we need to put together all the sources we have to try to understand what was exactly happening. And there is a human side to the events that goes beyond the fact that Rome was in decline and that it eventually fell.  We can just barely imagine what was the atmosphere in Rome during the two years of the siege, what people thought and how they saw an event that - by all means - they must have found incredible; actually impossible. Rome had not been besieged for a thousand years, it was the greatest city in the known world. That it would fall to a petty Barbarian lord, that was.... come on. It just couldn't be!

The problem is that when people face something that doesn't fit with the way they think the world should be, they tend to ignore it. If they can't, they may go crazy. And the Romans went crazy. They tried whatever they could think of. They raised a new Emperor, someone named Priscus Attalus, with all the pomp involved. But the Barbarian King was unimpressed. Then, they sent to him a delegation of Senators, and they told the King how numerous the Romans were. To that, Alaric answered, solemnly (I figure) “The thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed” Now, tell me if this is not the stuff legends are made of!

At this point, the Romans really went crazy. Yes, they went nuts, bananas, watermelons, whatever you like to call that condition. They started looking for a culprit, a scapegoat, someone to blame. Now, you remember that Emperor Honorius had accused his general Flavius Stilicho of treason; that is, of being colluded with the Barbarians. That was already an effect of rampaging paranoia. But, in the besieged Rome, paranoia went up of a few notches. Someone noticed that Stilicho's widow, Serena, was in Rome. If her husband had been a traitor, well, she had to be a traitoress. Serena was the cousin of Emperor Honorius, a noblewoman of high rank. But when paranoia becomes the rule, it generates pure evil. Serena was accused of treason, sentenced to death by the Senate, and executed by strangling.

It is at this point that we have the first appearance of Galla Placidia in history as an adult, she was around 20 years old at that time. We are told by the chronicler Zosimus that the execution of Serena was done "with Galla Placidia's consent."

We have a little story to tell, here. Let's go back of a few years, when Placidia's father, Theodosius 1st, "The Great" was the last Roman Emperor to rule over both the Eastern and the Western part of the Empire. He had two male children, Arcadius and Honorius, to whom he left the Empire. Arcadius took the East and Honorius the West. But Theodosius had also a younger daughter, Galla Placidia, who got nothing. Then as now, being female is not an asset when it is question of inheriting an Empire. But Theodosius may have understood that his two male children would not make good emperors (they didn't) and so he kept Placidia in reserve, sort of; something that turned out to have been a smart move. Theodosius left Placidia in care of his best general, Flavius Stilicho, who raised her in his household, with his wife Serena who was also Theodosius' niece.

So, in the years of the siege, Placidia was in Rome, probably staying with her foster mother, Serena. Now, we can barely imagine a situation in which the Senate decides to sentence to death the cousin of the Emperor, as Serena was. But Placidia was of even higher rank in terms of nobility. She had the title of "puella nobilissima." I think you know enough Latin to translate this as "most noble girl," which is, of course, the equivalent of what we call "princess" today. So, in a sense, the Senators got cold feet with their idea of killing Serena and they asked to the highest rank noble in Rome, Placidia, to take the responsibility of what was, in effect, a legalized murder. And they were asking her to agree on the murder of someone who was both her foster mother and a close relative.

We can't say, of course, what passed in Placidia's mind at that time. We can't even be sure that she actually approved anything. We know about this story only from a line written by Zosimus, a Greek who wrote more than a century after the events. But, if it did happen, it was the first political decision taken by Placidia in her life; something that may give us some idea of her way of thinking. Possibly, she simply cracked under the stress of the moment. But she may also have reasoned that opposing the Senate would have made no difference. They had already decided on that crazy idea of killing Serena, what was to stop them if they were to get even more crazy and decide to kill also Placidia? After all, she was Stilicho's foster daughter; she could have been a traitoress, too. So, maybe Placidia just didn't try to fight a battle she couldn't win. It was her style: don't fight the unavoidable. We'll see that it will resurface more than once, later on. Placidia could be flexible, adapt and thrive even in very difficult situations.

With the execution of Serena, the supposed traitoress, we may imagine that the Romans expected that the Visigoths would vanish in a puff of smoke. But, of course, that didn't happen. In 410 a.d. the Visigoths broke in, they sacked Rome, and not just that: they took a very big prize: Galla Placidia herself; puella nobilissima, half sister of the ruling emperor. The chroniclers don't mention anything like Placidia being dragged away from her palace, kicking and screaming – actually they are totally silent on this point. Probably, that means something. We don't have to think that Placidia was happy to join the Barbarians but, again, she didn't try to avoid the unavoidable. We can't even exclude that she may have felt safer with the Barbarians than with the treacherous Roman Senators. At least, as far as we know, the Visigoths treated Galla Placidia with all the honors due to a puella nobilissima, a Roman Princess.

The Visigoths stayed in Rome for just three days. As sackings go, theirs was rather mild. They burned and sacked a few buildings but, mainly, they ransacked what gold and silver they could find and then they left, heading South, with the idea of reaching Africa and of settling there. They were taking Galla Placidia with them. After a long and slow trip, they arrived to the southernmost tip of the Italian peninsula, but they couldn't cross to Africa because a storm destroyed the ships they had assembled on the coast. Then, King Alaric died and legend has that he was buried under the riverbed of the Busento river, together with his share of the gold sacked in Rome. Another event that rings of legend. People are still looking for that treasure, today!

At this point, stranded in Southern Italy and short of food, the Visigoths had no choice but to go back, slowly retracing their road. They were led by their new king, Athaulf, half brother of Alaric. The travel to Southern Italy had weakened them considerably and, when they arrived close to Rome, they couldn't even dream to sack the city again. They kept moving on and, eventually, they stopped in Southern France, by then largely abandoned by the Roman Empire. And, on the way, Placidia married Athaulf, perhaps in Italy, or perhaps in Narbonne, in France. That was in 414, four years after the fall of Rome. Placidia was around 25 at that time.

The Royal Marriage

So, we have arrived to the royal marriage; it is something that most of us seem to be very interested in! I think you are all visualizing Galla Placidia and Athaulf getting married and, indeed, it must have been something special. It was celebrated with great pomp and high Roman festivities. We even have a description of the magnificent gifts that were given to Placidia from the booty that the Goths had captured in Rome. The wedding speech was given by a Roman Senator, Priscus Attalus, who had been claiming the title of Emperor from the time of the siege of Rome. Attalus even sang a song at the wedding; you know, that was something: think of having an Emperor singing at your wedding!

Galla Placida, the Roman Princess, now gladly took for herself the title of “Queen of the Goths”. I say “gladly” because she never reneged that title later in life, no matter what happened to her – and we'll see that a lot of things happened. But why that? I mean, she already had the title of Roman Princess, she had good possibilities to marry an emperor and become Empress herself. Why would she want to become Queen of a Barbarian nation? In addition, think that Athaulf was the brother of Alaric, the king who had sacked Rome. If you can imagine the daughter of an American president marrying the brother of Osama Bin Laden, well, then you can get some idea of what kind of decision Placidia took. 

Of course, 1500 years after the event, we can't say what passed in Galla Placidia's mind and we can't exclude that there was a romantic element in her decision. That brings up the question of whether Athaulf was a handsome man, but we have no portraits of him. We don't even know how old he was at the time of this marriage. We know that he had been married before, he had four children from his first wife, but we have no idea of what happened to her. So, we can only say that, probably, he was older than Placidia, but that's about it. We know much more about Placida, but we don't have a portrait that we can attribute to her, either. Nevertheless, if we want to understand this story, we have to figure out in our minds the faces of these characters. I am sure that you have been “seeing” in your minds both Placidia and Athaulf – our minds are made in this way; we can't avoid that. Think of when you speak over the phone with someone you never met – you can't avoid to build up a portrait of him or her in your mind.

So, what could Athaulf and Placidia have looked like? About Athaulf, the fact that he was a Barbarian King doesn't mean that you should imagine him as Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie “Conan the Barbarian.” Not at all, of course! Athaulf surely didn't go around dressed in a bear skin and with a horned helmet on his head. The best we can do to visualize him is to think of the one contemporary portrait of a high rank Barbarian we have: Flavius Stilicho; the Vandal general who was Placidia's foster father. We have an ivory diptych of him and of his wife, Serena, and their son, Eucherius. In this image, Stilicho is shown as tall and handsome; a bit solemn while wearing Roman clothes. Athaulf could have looked much like him: tall, handsome, and bearded.

And how about Placidia? Well, as I said we don't have a portrait of her. We might try to get some idea of what she looked like from the portrait of Serena, her cousin. She is shown almost as tall as her husband, Stilicho, and as a handsome and imposing lady – she must have been in her forties when that portrait was made. She wears a heavy necklace that looks like being made of pearls. You know, there is a legend that says that Serena was cursed when she took a necklace from a statue of the goddess Rhea Sylvia – maybe it is just that necklace. Actually, the whole household of Stilicho seems to have been cursed; he and his wife both died of violent death, including their son, Eucherius. But that's another story; let's just say that the portrait of Serena tells us, at least, how Placidia would dress in formal occasions; an elaborate garment that was called a “Palla”.

But we do know something about Placidia's face. We can see it in some coins minted during her later reign as Empress. The problem is that these portraits are anything but realistic. It is the same problem we have with Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen. We tend to think of Cleopatra as a very beautiful woman, but we don't have a portrait that we can attribute to her for sure. So, looking at her face on coins, well, she looks frankly ugly. But, of course, those portraits on coins were not supposed to be anything realistic and we can happily continue imagining Cleopatra with the face of Elizabeth Taylor, who interpreted her in an old Hollywood movie.

Now, about Placidia, it is the same problem we have for Cleopatra. If Placidia looked the way she is shown on some coins, well, ahem...... we might pity poor Athaulf who had to marry her. But, as for Cleopatra, these coins are not supposed to be realistic. Actually, different coins show different faces for Placidia; so we can reasonably be sure that, in most cases, whoever made the portrait never saw the Empress' face. In the end, the closest thing we have to a portrait of Placidia is a gold medallion; one of a couple, the other showing her half brother, Honorius. I think we can say that it gives us at least some idea of what Placidia looked like. Looking at it, we see that she had fine features and a slender neck under her elaborate hairdo. Surely, we have good reasons to imagine her as a beautiful woman; after all, her mother, Galla, had been said to be the “fairest woman in the Roman Empire.” In the end, if you like to imagine her as Audrey Hepburn playing the role of the princess in that old movie, "Roman Holiday," I'd say, why not?

So, let's go back to the imperial marriage. We have two handsome people getting married: Athaulf and Placidia, but, of course, that can't be the whole story. What we can say is that people do things for many reasons: sometimes because of logic, sometimes they act on impulse. But don't forget that real life is not a fairy tale. You know that love is a chemical reaction and that chemical reactions have a way to go on by themselves if there is a chemical potential driving them. And, as we said before, this potential is something that we may call “destiny” if we like. And I think that in this case there was a very strong potential that was leading Athaulf and Placidia to react with each other, to marry.

King Arthur and Placidia

Now, I would like to ask you a question. Can you think of another figure who was trying to do something similar to what Placidia was doing, just in that period; that is, a Roman marrying a Barbarian? It takes a small jump of imagination to connect Galla Placidia to this figure. Think about that for a moment and the name will come to your mind. That name you know very, very, well: it is King Arthur!

Yes, King Arthur, the legendary hero. We can't say for sure that he actually existed. At least, historians say that there is no proof that he ever existed. But that doesn't mean that he didn't exist and if he existed there is a reasonable chance that he was a contemporary of Galla Placidia, during the 5th century. At that time, Britain had ceased to be part of the Roman Empire and it is likely that Placidia never came to know the name of a petty Barbarian King – Arthur – who ruled part of a remote northern island. Arthur, on his part, surely knew little of the events that took place in the far away Roman Empire. But, curiously, Arthur and Placidia – contemporary or not – may have followed similar paths in their lives.

You know that the core of the Arthurian cycle is the love of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. The way we often interpret the story is that Arthur was Roman and Guinevere was British (actually, Welsh). You may have seen the movie “King Arthur,” the one that was released in 2004. It ends with the scene of the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere. It is a stunningly beautiful scene and it symbolizes the whole theme of the film. It is the marriage not of just a man and a woman, but of two civilizations. So, their marriage implies the fusion of the Roman and the British culture. That was happening in Britain earlier than in the rest of Europe because, there, the Roman Empire had ceased to exist already during the 4th century AD.

I am mentioning this movie to you just to show how we can still “feel” quite a lot about an age as remote as the 5th century. The Arthurian cycle pervades our culture still today even though, as I said, we can't even be sure that a king named Arthur ever existed. But the fifth century was a great generator of legends. Think of the Nibelungenlied, the saga of the Nibelungs. You know that story; you know the names of the characters: Siegfried, Hagen, Kriemhild. It comes from the same period, the 5th century AD and it echoes of events of that age, including the presence in the story of historical personages, such as Attila the Hun, who also was a contemporary of Galla Placidia.

It is curious that of those characters, the one for which we do have the most historical data, Galla Placidia, is the one who didn't generate epic poems. I feel a bit sorry for Placidia because of this, but so it goes. I think it is because civilization stymies creativity. Placidia's foster-father, Stilicho, was rich enough that he could keep a house poet, Claudian, who was a "panegyrist;" someone whose job was to sing the deeds of his masters. And Claudian did exactly that; he wrote poems praising Stilicho and the members of his family, but almost nobody remembers those poems today. As I was studying the story of Placidia, I made a honest effort to read Claudian. I found that he is refined, clever, cultured, and unbelievably banal. That is, when I say “banal” I mean real silly. You know, Claudian looks to me as something not unlike our TV advertising: it is clever and often visually stunning but, in the end, it is just about eating hamburgers. As a note, Claudian mentions Placidia once, as a child, all clad in gold, at the imperial coronation of her half brothers. A glimpse we have of that time, so remote that even a small detail is to be treasured as much as possible.

Queen of the Goths

In marrying Athaulf, Placidia may simply have ceded to the unavoidable; as it was her typical style. But in following her destiny, Placidia may also have had a specific plan; surely she had a way to seize an opportunity when she saw one. You see, she was a Roman princess and she had this potential of becoming Empress. She couldn't do that as long as her half brother, Honorius, was alive, but Honorius was childless. So, Placidia must have had something in mind when she named her son "Theodosius", the same name of his grand-father, Theodosius “The Great.” It seems clear that Placidia's idea was nothing less than taking over the throne from her half-brother, Honorius, and starting a Gothic-Roman dynasty that would have ruled the Empire. A bold plan, if ever there was one.

But there was much more in Placidia's plans than simply ruling an Empire. You see, the fifth century looks like our times for many reasons; one was the great migrations. It was a time when people marched on and on, searching for a place to settle, and that brought many contrasts, battles and wars. For the Romans, the people who had entered their empire were invaders or, in some case, immigrants; that was what the term "Barbarian" meant: simply "foreigner". Legal or illegal as they could be, immigrants they were looked with suspicion – just like today we look at our immigrants. At that time, just like today, there were people who wanted to send the immigrants back home, or just get rid of them one way or another. But that wasn't easy and, as we saw, the immigrants had become numerous and powerful enough that they had been able to sack Rome. So, the Romans would have had to learn how to live with their Barbarian immigrants; but at the time of Placidia many Romans just couldn't resign to the idea they had to do that. As I said, there are remarkable similarities with our times!

In a way, what was happening was a big chemical reaction: the two “reactants”, Barbarians and Romans, had come together on that fated winter of 405, when the border fortifications of the Empire had collapsed. Now, the reactants were mixed together, the reaction was going on. It could not be stopped and Placidia's idea was to favor it. Again, we see her style: don't fight the unavoidable, let it happen. In this case, the unavoidable meant anticipating something that in actual history would take several centuries to happen: the merging of the Roman and German peoples in Europe. Placidia was taking this merging on herself by marrying a Barbarian and bearing a child to him. According to the chroniclers, it was she who convinced her husband, Athaulf, of this idea. Athaulf is reported to have said that initially he had planned to destroy Rome and the Romans, but after that he had met Placidia, he wanted to live in peace with them. Maybe it is a fancy story, but it gives us some idea of what was passing in the minds of the characters of this story.

It would be nice, at this point, to say that Athaulf and Placida lived happily ever after and that their son, Theodosius, became Emperor of the Romans and, at the same time, King of the Goths. But things didn't go that way, of course. It was a beautiful dream, but also an impossible one.

The military situation was changing. The Romans had managed to re-organize and rebuild an army under the leadership of a new commander in chief: Constantius. He seems to have been a competent general; he never fought big battles but almost always he obtained what he wanted. The Visigoths started feeling the pressure and they had to leave Southern France and move to Spain. Their retreat must have been rather hasty, since they had to abandon Attalus, the usurper who had sung at Placidia's marriage. He was captured by Costantius and sent to Ravenna, where he suffered the humiliation of having a hand cut off before being sent to exile.

In Spain, the Visigoths settled in Barcelona, which a that time was a fortified stronghold. There, everything went wrong. Little Theodosius died before being one year old. Then, Athaulf was killed in a conspiracy. Maybe it was the result of the loss of prestige that he had suffered with the retreat from Southern France. Surely, there were Visigoths much more aggressive than Athaulf in the way they thought they should deal with the Romans; there may well have been something like a “war party”. The new king was one of them. He was named Sigeric and, just to give some idea of what he had in mind, let me tell you that he forced Placidia to march for miles on foot, while following her, riding his horse. Fortunately, as I said, she was strong and in good health.

But Sigeric ruled for just one week; I think that the Goths were afraid of what he was planning to do – and correctly so; as I said, the Romans were now much stronger than they had been at the time of the siege of Rome. So, someone got rid of Sigeric and a new, more diplomatic king was installed - someone named Wallia. The new king started negotiations with Costantius and, eventually, he sent Placidia back to Ravenna in exchange for food and a peace treaty. That was the end of Placidia's time with the Goths. For all her life, she maintained the title of “Queen of the Goths”, but she would never be with them again.

Galla Placidia: the Empress

The story of Galla Placidia seems to have been conceived from the beginning as the plot of an adventure movie. It is full of events and it swings up an down as a rollercoaster. So, we saw that Placidia started as a princess, then she was prisoner of the Goths, then she became their Queen, then she was again their prisoner. A series of oscillations that was to go on for quite some time.

With Placidia back to Ravenna, things changed again. It seems that Constantius had something in mind about her; actually he may have been an early suitor of hers. Anyway, the two got married soon after arriving in Ravenna. We can't say whether Placidia was happy about that but, as usual, she didn't fight the unavoidable and she followed opportunities when she saw one. The couple had two children and, later on, Constantius, as the husband of a member of the Imperial family, managed to be raised to the title of “co-emperor” of the Western Empire. At this point, Placidia obtained the title of "Augusta." It was not exactly the same title as “Imperator” which means “commander” and has to do with leading armies. But, for all practical purposes, she was Empress of Rome. You see? A big swing upward of the rollercoaster.

Now, there is a lot to say about Placidia's life as Empress and the rollercoaster was to go through a few more swings up and down. But let me go quickly with the story because, as you perhaps have heard, “the art of boredom consists in telling everything.” So, Constantius died a few months after having been raised to the Imperial Purple and the situation in Ravenna evolved into a squabble where Honorius and Placidia, Emperor and Empress, started behaving as the characters of old western movies; you know, when they say, "this town ain't big enough for both of us."

There are many curious details about the fight of Honorius against Placidia. One is that Placidia was accused of incest with her half brother; that may have been just bad press against her but, who knows, maybe she was using all the means she had to try to control him. That's a curious facet of Placidia's personality, considering that she was a devout Catholic and she was always said to be an exemplary spouse and a chaste widow. Was this one true or false? We'll never know. Then, there is mention of Placidia's Gothic bodyguards. They had accompanied her since the time when she was Queen of the Goths (which she still was – she never wanted to abandon that title!). So, the fight got ugly in the streets of Ravenna and, no matter how brave Placidia's bodyguards were, her brother Honorius managed to get the upper hand.

And here we have another swing down of the rollercoaster. Placidia, thrown out of Ravenna, could only take refuge in Costantinople; the capital of the Eastern Empire. There, her nephew had become Emperor with the name of Theodosius II. Placidia arrived in front of him with little more than the clothes she had on. But the rollercoaster swung up again: while Placidia was there, Honorius died and an usurper took his place. At this point Theodosius II thought that he couldn't lose the Western Empire; so he gave to Placidia a whole army to go back to Italy and reconquer Ravenna. It was bad for the usurper; the poor guy didn't have a chance. He was defeated, captured, had one hand cut off, then he was paraded around on a donkey, and finally beheaded. We don't know if Placidia ordered all that herself, but those were hard times and if you wanted to be an emperor (or an empress) you had to take the risks involved. No one ever said that Placidia was Ms. Nice Girl, anyway.

Then, in 425 AD, Placidia took the title of Augusta for herself alone, although theoretically on behalf of her son, Valentinian. That was the end of her rollercoaster ride in life – no more swings up and down from now on. She was to rule as Empress for 12 years and she maintained a strong influence at court as Empress Mother for 13 more years; until her death, in 450 AD, when she was 62 years old.

Ruling an empire.

Now, let's play a little game, a game that I think all of us have played inside our minds. If you were the absolute ruler of the world, the Emperor of Earth, what would you do to solve the world's problems? I am sure you have plenty of ideas that you would put into practice; you know, how to eliminate hunger, reduce pollution, stop global warming, make everyone happy - all that. Of course, that is only a dream for us, but there have been people in the past who really had tremendous power in their hands. Not on the whole world, of course, no single person has ever ruled it. But there existed people who ruled sizable parts of the world and their power was absolute and subjected to no rules. The Roman Emperors of the last period of the Empire were of that kind. They were called porphirogenites, “born in the purple,” they were semi-divine rulers. You know, if you were emperor at that time, you couldn't turn your head left or right when you walked; your subjects could speak to you only if you addressed them first, you had to wear heavy clothes all the time, and God knows what else the imperial protocol would impose on you. There is a curious detail about Constantius, Placidia's second husband, who said that becoming Emperor had been a terrible experience for him: too much protocol! That was the price of absolute power.

Actually, “absolute power” is an exaggeration. Galla Placidia, as any emperor before and after her, had limits to what she could do. One of these limits was that she couldn't lead armies herself. She had to rely on generals and that was big problem: as it always happens in history, successful generals tend to take all the power for themselves and, of course, unsuccessful generals are totally useless. So, during her career as Empress, Placidia's main problem was to control her generals by balancing one against the other. One of these generals was named Aetius, you may have heard the name. He was quite a character, he was a Roman but he had been raised with the Huns, so they were his allies and they would fight for him when he needed (not that he didn't need to pay them, though). But Aetius was also the general who led the army that stopped Attila the Hun from invading Europe at the famous Battle of Chalons, in 452 AD. So, Aetius and Placidia were often at odds but, on the whole, they managed to get along together. After that Placidia was gone, her son, Valentinian, killed Aetius, repeating the mistake that Honorius had done earlier on with Stilicho. Again, by killing his best general, Valentinian nearly destroyed the empire. But that's another story.

So, the story of Placidia as Empress would take an entire book but, as I said, the secret of boredom is to tell everything, so let's just say that Placidia managed to keep the Empire more or less together as long as she was Empress. One of her achievements was securing the supply of grain to Rome from Africa. That was despite the fact that North Africa had been taken by the Vandals; yes, but they kept shipping grains to Rome as long as Placidia was Empress. After the death of Placidia, they stopped sending grain and not just that; they took Rome and sacked it. I think it means that Placidia made a difference as long as she was in Ravenna; she was really ruling the Empire; she was not just a doll wearing expensive clothes.

But, from our viewpoint, we know that the Western Empire was doomed and that it would disappear a few decades after Placidia. The question that we may ask ourselves is whether she understood that the Empire was going to fall. If she did, what did she do to avoid that? Think of being in her shoes: if you were Placidia, what would you do to save the Empire?

So, let's see if we can understand in what kind of troubles, exactly, was the Western Roman Empire at the time of Placidia. We said before that empires are like chemical reactions and chemical reactions subside when they run out of reactants. In the 5th century, the Roman Empire had been running out of reactants. It had been growing on the profits made from military campaigns but, at some point around the 2nd century, it had reached its limits. With no more easy conquests in sight, the Empire had to live on its own resources and it never really learned how to do that. The empire, simply, could not tax its subjects high enough to support the troops it kept. Over and over, the Empire continued to spend more than it could afford for defense. It is typical of empires all over history: empires destroy themselves by spending too much for their military apparatus.

Managing any large structure is difficult and we tend to do it badly; a whole empire may be an especially difficult case. To do it well, we would need to use a method that I mentioned before: system dynamics; which is a way to describe systems and the relation of the various elements that compose them. But it is rare that people can understand systems in this way. What happens instead is that, in most cases, we understand what are the critical points ("levers") that are causing troubles, but we tend to act on them in the wrong way. It is something that we learned in our times from Donella Meadows (like Placidia, a strong woman, although not an Empress) who has taught us a lot about system dynamics. It is a very general trend: almost always we pull the levers in the wrong direction and we worsen the problems that we are trying to solve. That is even too clear for the case of the Roman Empire, at least from our viewpoint. During the decline phase, Roman Emperors struggled to keep the Empire safe from Barbarian invasions and they understood that their problem was that they didn't have enough resources to do that. But their answer was always the wrong one: they kept trying to raise as many troops as they could. That was a self-defeating idea: every time that the Romans fought the Barbarians, they could win or lose, but each battle made the Empire a little poorer and a little weaker. The empire was using resources that could not be replaced; non renewable resources, as we would say today.

So, wasn't there a solution for the troubles of the Roman Empire? Well, there was one if you think in terms of system dynamics. It is a question of pulling the levers in the right direction. By raising troops and fighting battles, the Roman Emperors were pulling the levers in the wrong direction. They had to invert the direction: the solution was not more troops but less troops. It was not more imperial bureaucracy but less, not more of a tax burden but less. In the end, the solution was right there and it was simple: it was Middle Ages.

Middle Ages meant getting rid of the suffocating imperial bureaucracy; transforming the expensive legions into local militias; having people paying taxes locally, in short transforming the centralized empire into a decentralized constellation of small states. Without the terrible expenses of the Imperial court and of the Imperial bureaucracy, these small states had a chance to rebuild their economy and start a new phase of prosperity, as indeed it happened during the Middle Ages. The Empire was going there; it was unavoidable and one could as well favor that road. Of course, when the Empire was still strong and powerful, no emperor had the power of disbanding the legions, nor the imperial bureaucracy. But that was happening anyway during the 5th century and what an emperor (or empress) could have done was to give to the events just a little push in the right direction. Don't fight the change, ease it. It is the way of pushing the levers in the right direction. Could Placidia have done just that? Incredibly, perhaps she did.

What Placidia could do as an Empress was, mainly, to enact laws. The Empire still had a functioning bureaucracy and so the edicts from Ravenna were not ignored, at least in the regions that the Empire could still control. So, law was the playground of Placidia and she did enact a number of laws, many of which are still existing in the “Codex Theodosianus,” a collection of laws compiled on behalf of Placidia's nephew, the Emperor of the East, Theodosius the 2nd. The Codex Theodosianus is an unbelievable mass of data; there are some 2500 laws in it. Well worth giving a look, because it is full of hints and glimpses of what was life in the Roman Empire at that time. But it is impossible to go into any depth in it unless you are a specialist in this matter – it is just too much. So, I learned about Placidia's laws mainly from the report written by Stewart Oost, who wrote her biography in 1966.

Now, as I said, it is a complex matter and very often we cannot say who was exactly the mind behind a certain law. But there seems to be some logic in what the Imperial Court in Ravenna was doing. That logic looked a bit like the policy of Mikhail Gorbachev for the Soviet Union – let's call it “Soviet Empire.” Gorbachev consistently refused to use force to keep together an empire that was disintegrating – although he could have done that. The court of Ravenna, it seems, took the same approach during the first half of the 5th century. The Roman Empire still had an army, they could have used to try to destroy the Barbarian nations that had settled within the Empire's borders. But that would have meant only squandering away those few resources that the Empire still had. It would only have greatly hastened collapse.

It seems that Placidia was acting according to her style; ease the unavoidable, don't fight it. Not that she knew system dynamics but, after all, system dynamics is just formalized common sense and it seems that Placidia had plenty of it. So, consistently, we see the tendency of reducing the power of the Imperial court. You see it in some details, such as when she gave back to the Senate, in Rome, the gift of gold that was customary for the senators to present to the Emperor every year. But she did much more than that. Placidia forbade the coloni, the peasants bound to the land, to enlist in the army. That deprived the army of one of its sources of manpower and we may imagine that it greatly weakened it. Another law enacted by Placidia, allowed the great landowners to tax their subjects themselves. This deprived the Imperial Court of its main source of revenues. All that meant just one thing: Middle Ages.

If the purpose of Placidia really was to take the Empire to the Middle Ages, we can say that she was successful. After that she was gone, the Empire melted away. Her son, Valentinian managed to get killed a few years after the death of her mother. Then, Rome was sacked by the Vandals and that was a deadly blow. For a few decades, there were still individuals in Ravenna who claimed the title of Western Emperor, but we don't care much about their names just as, probably their contemporaries did not. We only remember the name of the last Emperor, Romolus Augustulus, who was deposed in 476, and that is just because he was the last. After that, it was officially Middle Ages – the destination where the Western Empire was going in any case.

This is just a possible interpretation of what Placidia did and I am the first to say that it is just speculation. These laws may have been enacted simply because the Imperial Court was forced to, or it had no other choices. And, of course, we will never know what passed in Placidia's mind. She left us only some letters that miraculously survived in the Vatican's archives, but nothing that we could use to penetrate her inner thoughts. We can only say that staying with the Goths, although for just a few years, could have opened her mind enough that she could have a vision that no Emperor, before or after her, could have. And so she did something that no emperor, before or after her, could do. Push the empire towards its destiny, fulfilling its chemical potential, if you like. In a way, Placidia was the catalyser that made it happen. 

Galla Placidia's legacy

Now, I'll ask you another little feat of imagination. Close your eyes again for a moment and imagine something that took place a long, long time ago; 15 centuries before our time. Imagine a young princess. Imagine that she has lived all of her life inside beautiful palaces; that she has been wearing splendid dresses and expensive jewels, that she has been walking inside closed gardens, rich of statuary and fountains; always protected, always secluded, as it is the usual lot of princesses. And then imagine her in a completely different situation: she is somewhere in the mountains; around her, the slow, winding column of wagons has stopped. The nation of the Goths has stopped for the night. It is a cold night of an early winter and the women have lit campfires while the warriors are sitting around, singing their songs. These tall warriors are Christian, but they are Arians, while the Princess is Catholic, and that makes a lot of difference. Then, there is more. It is likely that in one of those wagons they still carry the wooden statues of their pagan gods: perhaps Hertha the goddess of earth, and perhaps other gods of fire and thunder. Maybe, the prayers being recited for these ancient divinities can be heard as a distant whispering in the night. Placidia listens to these distant songs and then she looks at the stars as she has never seen them. These are the same stars that we can see today; dimly, because we have dirtied our sky with our waste. But Placidia sees those stars in a sky of a clarity that today we can’t even imagine; the sky of a world that was shrinking to nearly nothing, its cities depopulated, its roads abandoned, its farmland left to transform into forest. Just during those years, Rutilius Namatianus gave us an unforgettable image of the lights of Rome in the night, lights that he saw for the last time as he was abandoning the city, to seek refuge in Gallia. But, around Placidia, there was no human light, except the fires lighted by the Visigoths, and so she could see that fantastic sky.

Now, of course this is just fantasy, but I am mentioning to you stars for a reason. You see, I said that Placidia left us almost nothing in terms of written worlds. At least nothing that we can use to understand what she thought. But she left us a message that is perhaps even clearer than a written diary. It is the mausoleum that takes her name in Ravenna; and it is there that you can find a triumph of stars in the mosaics of the ceiling. Big, bright, fantastic stars that remind to us a little those that Vincent van Gogh painted in that famous painting of his.

You know, those stars in Placidia's mausoleum always reminded to me of "Christmas", in the sense of the way we celebrate it today. Not, of course, the commercial holiday that it has become nowadays, but the atmosphere of the "nativity scene" that is still commonplace in Southern Europe and South America. Of course, in the mausoleum you won't find the baby Jesus and not even the Virgin Mary. These figures would became commonplace much later. At the time of Galla Placidia, Christianity was something different than it is for us. But there is no doubt that Placidia was a convinced Christian; she was a believer and she always saw Christianity as an important part of her life. The mausoleum is just part of this attitude of hers.

No one can say, of course,  that these stars in the mausoleum in Ravenna are there as a memory of Placidia's travels with the Visigoths, but I think we can take this small creative license and see those stars as such. It is, as I said, a way to get a feeling on the matter we are discussing. We need it; you see, I could mention something that Marguerite Yourcenar says in her “Memoirs of Hadrian”. She says that she got a tremendous feeling of kinship with the long gone Emperor when she could hold in her hands a jewel that, most likely, Hadrian had held in his hands, once. We don't have a jewel that Placidia may have held or worn, but we have that building, her mausoleum.

Actually, the building in Ravenna is not a "mausoleum" in the sense of something built over one's tomb. It is reasonably certain that Placidia was never buried in there; she probably died in Rome and her tomb has been lost long ago. We can't even be sure that Placidia had a role in the design of that building; it is just a later tradition. Yet, if the tradition exists, it has to be for some reason and I think it does. In my opinion, that building was built under her influence. There are many details in it that are absolutely clear to me. So, if you walk inside the mausoleum, you know that you are walking in a place where Galla Placidia has walked. And there is more: I can tell you that the mausoleum is a message from her. A message that comes to us from these remote times. 

By now, Placidia is almost a creature of the mythical universe of Gods and Heroes, just like Cassandra and Helen of Troy. Yet, she has not yet vanished from memory. Her voice is faint but, if we listen carefully we can hear it. And you can still hear it if you go to see that small building in Ravenna, her last message to us. It is simple and unprepossessing in the exterior, but it is a triumph of colors inside. That’s already a message in itself that comes from an age when whatever there was that was beautiful had to be kept hidden to be saved from destruction. But it was there and it could be enjoyed by those who had the key to it. But it is not just that. That building is like a woman who may show you something intimate of herself, but only if you deserve it. Everything in there has a meaning; it is in the figures and the images in it: it is her story, Placidia's story – that building will tell it to you, but only if you deserve it.

I told you that the art of boredom consists in telling everything, so I won't tell you the details of the decoration of the building and how each detail fits so well with Placidia’s story. I'll let you just imagine that and, if one day you'll have a chance to go there and visit that mausoleum; do it in silence and listen. It is a faint, faint voice, but you can hear it if you pay attention. After all, a Latin poet who lived centuries before Placidia, Terence, said that, "nothing human is alien to us."  Placidia was one of us.

In her 62 years of life, Placidia was princess, queen and empress. She did reasonably well in these roles and, during her reign as Empress, the Western Empire remained relatively safe and the Romans had the food they needed. She had defects; for sure. She failed to save her foster mother from death when, perhaps, she had a chance to do that. She was ruthless with her enemies and her way of being Christian may have veered on the verge of bigotry. But she played her role as well as she could in those difficult times and she may have played a fundamental role in closing an era in which the very concept of “Roman Empire” had become anachronistic. A judgment by a later chronicler, Cassiodorus, may say it all about her rule, "too much peace," even though it was intended as a criticism. In the end, she was a human being like all of us and she followed her destiny, her chemical potential, if you like.

And, if Placidia's destiny was to be empress, yours, boys and girls, seems to be to study chemistry. Then, my destiny – my chemical potential, if you like - is to teach chemistry to you. That's what we'll do next time we meet in this classroom. Now, thanks for having listened to me and we can leave and have that coffee!

"Peak Civilization": The Fall of the Roman Empire

A silver mask that had belonged to a Roman cavalryman of imperial times. It was found on the site of the battle of Teutoburg, fought in September 9 a.d. This year, 2009, marks the 2000th anniversary of the battle that led to the annihilation of three Roman legions and changed forever the history of Europe. It was a tremendous shock for the Romans, who saw their mighty army destroyed by uncivilized barbarians. It was not yet the peak of the Roman Empire, but it was a first hint that something was deeply wrong with it.

This text describes the presentation that I gave at the "Peak Summit" in Alcatraz (Italy) on June 27, 2009 (the picture shows me speaking there). It is not a transcription, but something that I wrote from memory, mostly in a single stretch, while I had it still fresh in my mind. The result is that my 40 minutes talk became a text of more than 10,000 words, much longer than a typical internet document (but still less than Gibbon's six volumes on the same subject!) A talk, anyway, can be longer and more effective than a post, mostly because the people listening to you are not distracted by the infinite distractions of an internet connection. So, I wrote this post trying to maintain the style of an oral presentation. I don't know if it will turn out to be more easily readable than the usual style but, if you arrive to the end, you'll tell me what you think of it.

Ladies and gentlemen, first of all thank you for being here. This afternoon I'll try to say something about a subject that I am sure you are all interested in: the decline and the fall of the Roman Empire. It is something that has been discussed over and over; it is because we think that our civilization may follow the same destiny as the Roman one: decline and fall. So, the Roman Empire offers us some kind of a model. We can say it is the paradigm of collapsing societies. And, yet, we don't seem to be able to find an agreement on what caused the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Historians - and not just historians - have been debating this subject and they came up with literally dozens of explanations: barbarian invasions, epidemics, lead poisoning, moral decadence and what you have. Which is the right one? Or are all these explanations right? This is the point that I would like to discuss today. I'll be focusing on the interpretation of Joseph Tainter, based on the fact that empires and civilizations are "complex" systems and try to use system dynamics to describe collapse.

Before we go into this matter, however, let me add a disclaimer. I am not a historian and I don't pretend to be one. It is not my intention of criticizing or disparaging the work of historians. You see, there are several ways of making a fool of oneself: one which is very effective is to try teaching to people who know more than you. For some reasons, however, it happens all the time and not just with history; just look at the debate on climate change! So, what I am trying to do here is just to apply system dynamics on the history of the Roman Empire which - as far as I know - has not been done, so far. It is a qualitative version of system dynamics; making a complete model of the whole Roman Empire is beyond my means. But the results are very interesting; or so I believe.

The collapse seen from inside.

Let's start from the beginning and here the beginning is with the people who were contemporary to the collapse, the Romans themselves. Did they understand what was happening to them? This is a very important point: if a society, intended as its government, can understand that collapse is coming, can they do something to avoid it? It is relevant to our own situation, today.Of course, the ancient Romans are long gone and they didn't leave us newspapers. Today we have huge amounts of documents but, from Roman times, we have very little. All what has survived from those times had to be slowly hand copied by a Medieval monk, and a lot has been lost. We have a lot of texts by Roman historians - none of them seemed to understand exactly what was going on. Historians of that time were more like chroniclers; they reported the facts they knew. Not that they didn't have their ideas on what they were describing, but they were not trying to make models, as we would say today. So, I think it may be interesting to give a look to documents written by people who were not historians; but who were living the collapse of the Roman Empire. What did they think of what was going on?

Let me start with Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who lived from 120 to 180 A.D. He was probably the last Emperor who ruled a strong empire. Yet, he spent most of his life fighting to keep the Empire together; fighting barbarians. Maybe you have seen the movie "The Gladiator": Marcus Aurelius appears in the first scenes. The movie is not historically accurate, of course, but it is true that Aurelius died in the field, while he was fighting invaders. He wasn't fighting for glory, he wasn't fighting to conquer new territories. He was just fighting to keep the Empire together, and he had a terribly hard time just doing that. Times had changed a lot from the times of Caesar and of Trajan.
Marcus Aurelius did what he could to keep the barbarians away but, a few decades after his death, the Empire had basically collapsed. That was what historians call "the third century crisis". It was really bad; a disaster. The empire managed to survive for a couple of centuries longer as a political entity, but it wasn't the same thing. It was not any longer the Empire of Marcus Aurelius; it was something that just tried to survive as best as it could, fighting barbarians, plagues, famines, warlords and all kinds of disasters falling on them one after the other. Eventually, the Empire disappeared also as a political entity. It did that with a whimper - at least in its Western part, in the 5th century a.d. The Eastern Empire lasted much longer, but it is another story.

Here is a piece of statuary from Roman times. We know what Marcus Aurelius looked like.

Now, if it is rare that we have the portrait of a man who lived so long ago, it is even rarer that we can also read his inner thoughts. But that we can do that with Marcus Aurelius. He was a "philosopher-emperor" who left us his "Meditations"; a book of philosophical thoughts. For instance, you can read such things as:

Though thou shouldst be going to live three thousand years, and as many times ten thousand years, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses.

That is the typical tune of the book - you may find it fascinating or perhaps boring; it depends on you. Personally, I find it fascinating. The "Meditations" is a statement from a man who was seeing his world crumbling down around him and who strove nevertheless to maintain a personal balance; to keep a moral stance. Aurelius surely understood that something was wrong with the Empire: during all their history, the Romans had been almost always on the offensive. Now, they were always defending themselves. That wasn't right; of course.

But you never find in the Meditations a single line that lets you suspect that the Emperor thought that there was something to be done other than simply fighting to keep the barbarians out. You never read that the Emperor was considering, say, things like social reform, or maybe something to redress the disastrous situation of the economy. He had no concern, apparently, that the Empire could actually fall one day or another.

Now, I'd like to show you an excerpt from another document; written perhaps by late 4th century. Probably after the battle of Adrianopolis; that was one of last important battles fought (and lost) by the Roman Empire. This is a curious document. It is called, normally, "Of matters of war" because the title and the name of the author have been lost. But we have the bulk of the text and we can say that the author was probably somebody high up in the imperial bureaucracy. Someone very creative - clearly - you can see that from the illustrations of the book. Of course what we see now are not the original illustrations, but copies made during the Middle Ages. But the fact that the book had these illustration was probably what made it survive: people liked these colorful illustrations and had the book copied. So it wasn't lost. The author described all sorts of curious weaponry. One that you can see here is a warship powered by oxen.

Of course, a ship like this one would never have worked. Think of how to feed the oxen. And think of how to manage the final results of feeding the oxen. Probably none of the curious weapons invented by our anonymous author would ever have worked. It all reminds me of Jeremy Rifkin and his hydrogen based economy. Rifkin understands what is the problem, but the solutions he proposes, well, are a little like the end result of feeding the oxen; but let me not go into that. The point is that our 4th century author does understand that the Roman Empire is in trouble. Actually, he seems to be scared to death because of what's happening. Read this sentence, I am showing it to you in the original Latin to give you a sense of the flavor of this text.“In primis sciendum est quod imperium romanum circumlatrantium ubique nationum perstringat insania et omne latus limitum tecta naturalibus locis appetat dolosa barbaries."

Of course you may not be able to translate from Latin on the spot. For that, being Italian gives you a definite advantage. But let me just point out a word to you: "circumlatrantium" . which refers to barbarians who are, literally, "barking around" the empire's borders. They are like dogs barking and running around; and not just barking - they are trying hard to get in. It is almost a scene from a horror movie. A nightmare. So the author of "Of matters of war" is thinking of how to get rid of these monsters. But his solutions were not so good. Actually it was just wishful thinking. None of these strange weapons were ever built. Even our 4th century author, therefore, fails completely in understanding what were the real problems of the Empire.

Now, I would like to show you just another document from the time of the Roman Empire. It is "De Reditu suo", by Rutilius Namatianus. The title means "of his return". Namatianus was a patrician who lived in the early 5th century; he was a contemporary of St. Patrick, the Irish saint. He had some kind of job with the imperial administration in Rome. It was some decades before the "official" disappearance of the Western Roman Empire; that was in 476, when the last emperor, Romolus Augustulus, was deposed. You may have seen Romulus Augustulus as protagonist of the movie "The Last Legion". Of course that is not a movie that pretends to be historically accurate, but it is fun to think that after so many years we are still interested in the last years of the Roman Empire - it is a subject of endless fascination. Even the book by Namatianus has been transformed into a movie, as you can see in the figure. It is a work of fantasy, but they have tried to be faithful to the spirit of Namatianus' report. It must be an interesting movie, but it has been shown only in theaters in Italy, and even there for a very short time; so I missed it. But let's move on.

Namatianus lived at a time that was very close to the last gasp of the Empire. He found that, at some point, it wasn't possible to live in Rome any longer. Everything was collapsing around him and he decided to take a boat and leave. He was born in Gallia, that we call "France" today, and apparently he had some properties there. So, that is where he headed for. That is the reason for the title "of his return". He must have arrived there and survived for some time, because the document that he wrote about his travel has survived and we can still read it, even though the end is missing. So, Namatianus gives us this chilling report. Just read this excerpt:

"I have chosen the sea, since roads by land, if on the level, are flooded by rivers; if on higher ground, are beset with rocks. Since Tuscany and since the Aurelian highway, after suffering the outrages of Goths with fire or sword, can no longer control forest with homestead or river with bridge, it is better to entrust my sails to the wayward."

Can you believe that? If there was a thing that the Romans had always been proud of were their roads. These roads had a military purpose, of course, but everybody could use them. A Roman Empire without roads is not the Roman Empire, it is something else altogether. Think of Los Angeles without highways. "Sic transit gloria mundi" , as the Romans would say; there goes the glory of the world. Namatianus tells us also of silted harbors, deserted cities, a landscape of ruins that he sees as he moves north along the Italian coast.

But what does Namatianus think of all this? Well, he sees the collapse all around him, but he can't understand it. For him, the reasons of the fall of Rome are totally incomprehensible. He can only interpret what is going on as a temporary setback. Rome had hard times before but the Romans always rebounded and eventually triumphed over their enemies. It has always been like this, Rome will become powerful and rich again.

There would be much more to say on this matter, but I think it is enough to say that the Romans did not really understand what was happening to their Empire, except in terms of military setbacks that they always saw as temporary. They always seemed to think that these setbacks could be redressed by increasing the size of the army and building more fortifications. Also, it gives us an idea of what it is like living a collapse "from the inside". Most people just don't see it happening - it is like being a fish: you don't see the water.

The situation seems to be the same with us: talking about the collapse of our civilization is reserved to a small bunch of catastrophists; you know them; ASPO members, or members of The Oil Drum - that kind of people. Incidentally, we can't rule out that at some moment at the time of the Roman Empire there was something like a "Roman ASPO", maybe "ASPE," the "association for the study of peak empire". If it ever existed, it left no trace. That may also happen with our ASPO; actually it is very likely, but let's go on.

What destroyed the Roman Empire?

From our perspective we can see the cycle of the Roman Empire as one that is nicely complete. We can see it from start to end; from the initial expansion to the final collapse. As I said, a lot of documents and data have been lost but, still, we have plenty of information on the Empire - much more than for other past empires and civilizations that collapsed and disappeared as well. Yet, we don't seem to be able to find an agreement on the reasons of the collapse.

You have surely read Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"; at least parts of it. Gibbon wrote a truly monumental account of the story of the Empire, but he doesn't really propose us a "theory" of the causes of the fall, as most historians would do, later on. On reading Gibbon's work, you understand that he thinks there was a sort of loss of moral fiber in the Romans. He attributes this loss to the negative effect of Christianity. That is, the noble virtues of the Ancient Romans - he says - had been corrupted by this sect of fanatics coming from the East. This had made the Romans unable to resist to the invading barbarians.

You'll probably agree that this explanation by Gibbon is a bit limited; just as are limited other interpretations by authors who came later. Spengler and Tonybee are two examples, but if we were to discuss their work in detail it would take - well - weeks; not hours. So, let me jump forward to the historian who - I think - has given a new and original interpretation of the decline of Rome: Joseph Tainter with his "The Collapse of Complex Societies". His book was published for the first time in 1990.

It is a great book. I suggest to you to read it and ponder it. It is truly a mine of information about collapses. It doesn't deal just with the Roman Empire, but with many other civilizations. Tainter goes well beyond the simplistic interpretation of many earlier authors and identifies a key point in the question of collapse. Societies are complex entities; he understands that. And, hence, their collapse must be related to complexity. Here is an excerpt of Tainter's way of thinking. It is a transcription of a interview that Tainter gave in the film "Blind Spot" (2008)

In ancient societies that I studied, for example the Roman Empire, the great problem that they faced was when they would have to incur very high costs just to maintain the status quo. Invest very high amounts in solving problems that don't yield a net positive return, but instead simply allowed them to maintain what they already got. This decreases the net benefit of being a complex society.

Here is how Tainter describes his view in graphical form; in his book.

So, you see that Tainter has one thing very clear: complexity gives a benefit, but it is also a cost. This cost is related to energy, as he makes clear in his book. And in emphasizing complexity, Tainter gives us a good definition of what we intend for collapse. Very often people have been discussing the collapse of ancient societies without specifying what they meant for "collapse". For a while, there has been a school of thought that maintained that the Roman Empire had never really "collapsed". It had simply transformed itself into something else. But if you take collapse defined as "a rapid reduction of complexity" then you have a good definition and that's surely what happened to the Roman Empire.So, what was important with the collapse of the Roman Empire is not whether or not there was an emperor in Rome (or, as it was the case later, in Ravenna). We might well imagine that the line of the emperors could have continued well after Romulus Augustulus - the last emperor. And even after him there remained a legitimate Roman Emperor in Byzantium, in the Eastern Empire.

You could very well say that the Empire didn't disappear as long as there were emperors in Byzantium, that is, until Costantinople fell, in the 15th cenntury. And since the Russian Czars saw themselves as Roman emperors (that is where "Czar" comes from, from "Caesar"), you could say that the Roman Empire didn't disappear until the last Czar was deposed, in 1917. But that is not the point.The point is that the Roman Empire had started undergoing a catastrophic loss of complexity already during the third century. So, that was the real collapse. What happened later on is another story.

After that Tainter has spoken of complexity, and of the energy cost of complexity, it is perhaps surprising for us that he doesn't consider resource depletion as a cause of collapse. Resource depletion, after all, is the main theme of Jared Diamond's book "Collapse". It is how he interprets the collapse of many societies. Tainter explicitly denies that in his book. He says that if such a thing as depletion appears, then society should react against it. After all, it is normal: society always reacts to all kinds of crisis, and why shouldn't it react to resource depletion? This point made by Tainter may appear surprising - actually unpalatable - to people who have made resource depletion the centerpiece of their thought. Peak oilers, for instance.

The disagreement between peak oilers (and Diamond) and Tainter may not be so strong as it appears. That we'll see as we go deeper into the details. But before we do that, let me say something general about these explanations that people give for collapse. It happens all the time that people discover something that they describe as if it was the only cause for collapse. That is, they sort of get enamored of a single cause for collapse. They say, "I have the solution; it is this and nothing else."
Consider the story that Roman Empire collapsed because the Romans used to drink wine in lead goblets; and so they died of lead poisoning. That has some truth: there is evidence of lead poisoning in ancient Roman skeletons; there are descriptions of lead poisoning in ancient Roman texts. Surely it was a problem, probably even a serious one. But you can't see this story of lead poisoning in isolation; otherwise you neglect everything else: the Roman Empire was not just people drinking wine in lead goblets. Think of a historian of the future who describes the fall of the American Empire as the result of Americans eating hamburgers. That would have some truth and for sure the kind of food that most Americans eat today is - well - we know that it is doing a lot of damage to Americans in general. But you wouldn't say that hamburgers can be the cause of the fall of the American Empire. There is much more to that.

The same kind of reasoning holds for other "causes" that have been singled out for the fall of Rome. Think, for instance, of climatic change. Also here, there is evidence that the fall of the Roman Empire was accompanied by droughts. That may surely have been a problem for the Romans. But, again, we might fall in the same mistake of a future historian who might attribute the fall of the American Empire - say - to the hurricane Katrina. (I have nothing special against the American Empire, it is just that it is the current empire)

The point that Tainter makes, quite correctly, in his book is that it is hard to see the fall of such a complex thing as an empire as due to a single cause. A complex entity should fall in a complex manner, and I think it is correct. In Tainter's view, societies always face crisis and challenges of various kinds. The answer to these crisis and challenges is to build up structures - say, bureaucratic or military - in response. Each time a crisis is faced and solved, society finds itself with an extra layer of complexity. Now, Tainter says, as complexity increases, the benefit of this extra complexity starts going down - he calls it "the marginal benefit of complexity". That is because complexity has a cost - it costs energy to maintain complex systems. As you keep increasing complexity, this benefit become negative. The cost of complexity overtakes its benefit. At some moment, the burden of these complex structures is so great that the whole society crashes down - it is collapse.

I think that Tainter has understood a fundamental point, here. Societies adapt to changes. Indeed, one characteristic of complex systems is of adapting to changing external conditions. It is called "homeostasis" and I tend to see it as the defining characteristic of a complex system (as opposed to simply complicated). So, in general, when you deal with complex systems, you should not think in terms of "cause and effect" but, rather, in terms of "forcing and feedback". A forcing is something that comes from outside the system. A feedback is how the system reacts to a forcing, usually attaining some kind of homeostasis. Homeostasis, is a fundamental concept in system dynamics. Something acts on something else, but also that something else reacts. It is feedback. It may be positive (reinforcing) or negative (damping) and we speak of "feedback loops" which normally stabilize systems - within limits, of course.

Homeostasis has to be understood for what it is. It is not at all the same thing as "equilibrium" as it is defined in thermodynamics. For example, a human being is a complex system. When you are alive, you are in homeostasis. If you are in equilibrium, it means that you are dead. Homeostasis is a dynamical equilibrium of forces.

Also, homeostasis cannot contradict the principles of physics. It can only adapt to physical laws. Think of yourself swimming in the sea. Physics says that you should float, but you need to expend some energy to maintain a homeostatic condition in which your head stays above the water. Now, suppose that your feet get entangled with something heavy. Then, physics says that you should sink. Yet, you can expend more energy, swim harder, and still keep your head above the water - again it is homeostasis. But, if nothing changes, at some moment you'll run out of energy, you get tired and you can't keep homeostasis any more. At this point, physics takes over and you sink, and you drown. It is the typical behavior of complex systems. They can maintain homeostasis for a while, as long as they have resources to expend for this purpose.

Something similar occurs for human societies. When there is a forcing, say, an epidemics that kills a lot of people, societies react by generating more children. Look at the demographic statistics for our societies: there is a dip in numbers for the world wars, but it is rapidly compensated by more births afterward. Also in Roman times there were epidemics and the eruption of the Vesuvius that killed a lot of people. But those were small forcings that the Roman society could compensate.
Not all forcings can be compensated, but we know that the Romans were not destroyed by an asteroid that fell into the Mediterranean Sea. It might have happened, and in that case there would have been no feedback able to keep the empire together. We would have a single cause for the disappearance of the Roman Empire and everybody would agree on that. But that has not happened, of course. Perhaps, something like that has happened to the Cretan civilization; destroyed by a volcanic eruption - but that's another story.

So, in Tainter's view there is this feedback relationship between complexity and energy. At least the way I interpret it. Complexity feeds on energy and also strains the availability of energy. It is feedback. And not just energy; resources in general. So, I think that Tainter is right in refusing a simple explanation like "resource depletion is the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire". But, clearly, resources are an important part of his model. I think Tainter had in mind the Roman Empire when he developed this model, but it is of quite general validity. If this is the way things stand, his model is not in contrast with the models we have that see resource depletion as the main factor that causes collapse. But not the only cause. We must see collapse as something dynamic, and now I'll try to explain just that.

Dynamic models of collapse

Once we start reasoning in terms of complexity, we immediately see the relationship of Tainter's model with other models. I can cite John Greer's theory of "catabolic collapse" but we can go directly to the mother of all theories based on feedback: the study called "The Limits to Growth" that appeared for the first time in 1972.

As we know, "The Limits to Growth" was not about the fall of the Roman Empire. The authors tried to describe our contemporary world, but the model they used is very general and perhaps we can apply it also to the Roman Empire. So, first of all, we need to understand how the model works. Let me show you a simplified graphic representation of the model

This image was made by Magne Myrtveit a few years ago and I think it nicely summarizes the main elements of the world model used for the Limits to Growth studies.There is this problem with dynamic models; they are often very complex and difficult to understand. They use a graphical formalism, but if you look at one of these models made - for instance - using the "Stella" or "Vensim" software, all what you see is a jumble of boxes and arrows. If you are not trained in this kind of things, you can't understand what the model is about. Personally, often I find that the equations are clearer than all those boxes and arrows.

So, we need something more graphical, easier to understand, especially if we have to show these things to politicians. And, as I said, I think that Myrtveit has struck the right balance here: this graphic is "mind sized" (I am using a term from Seymour Paypert, who invented the "logo" programming language). It is mind sized because I think that you can make sense of this diagram in a few minutes. There remains a problem with politicians. Their attention span is more of the order of thirty seconds or less. But that is another problem.

So, Myrtveit's image shows us the major elements of the world model - the model of The Limits to Growth" - and their relationships. You see population, agriculture, natural resources, pollution and capital· Five main elements of the model; each one is rather intuitive to understand. What is important is the feedback relationship that exists among these elements. Perhaps the most important feedback loop is the one between capital and natural resources. Here is how the authors of "The Limits to Growth" have described this relationship:

The industrial capital stock grows to a level that requires an enormous input of resources. In the very process of that growth it depletes a large fraction of the resources available. As resource prices rise and mines are depleted, more and more capital must be used for obtaining resources, leaving less to be invested for future growth. Finally investment cannot keep up with depreciation, and the industrial base collapses, taking with it the service and agricultural systems, which have become dependent on industrial inputs.

Considering just two elements, instead of five, is not in contradiction with the more complex model. It makes sense especially when you are not considering a whole empire but something more limited, for instance the oil industry. Here are the results of this approach, this time with the equations written in clear.

You see that we obtain "bell shaped" curves. We do see bell shaped curves whenever a natural resource is exploited in a free market conditions. The "Hubbert curve" for oil production is just one case. There are many others. The curve is the result of a phenomenon called overexploitation or overshoot that leads to destroy even resources which are in principle renewable. The story of whaling in 19th centuries is typical and I wrote a paper on that - I am writing another one. It is a fascinating subject: whales are a renewable resource, of course, because they reproduce. But they were hunted so efficiently that, by end 19th century, it is estimated that in the Oceans there were only 50 females left of the species that was most hunted: the "right whale." ("right" is because it was easy to kill, of course nobody had asked the opinion of whales on this name).If you consider all five elements, things become more complex, but the general approach doesn't change that much. You can play a game with the scheme in Myrtveit's figure and you can relate it to what Tainter said about human societies. You remember that Tainter says that if a crisis emerges, society will try to cope with it. From the scheme, you can see what happens as time goes by and as people do things to avoid collapse.

So, suppose that pollution becomes a serious problem. Let's imagine that fumes from smokestacks are killing people; then society will allocate some capital to reduce fumes. Say, they would place filters on smokestacks. But filters need energy and natural resources to be built and that will place some further strain on natural resources. That will put strain on capital - so, fighting pollution may accelerate collapse, but not fighting it may cause collapse as well, although for different reasons - because pollution kills people and that makes it more difficult to generate capital and so on. You see how it works.

Let's make another example. Suppose that population grows to the point that there is not enough food for everybody. In response, society will use a fraction of its natural resources to produce fertilizers which will increase the yield of agriculture. That, however, will create a further increase in population that will put further strain on population and generate more pollution. That, in turn, will put new strain on capital and resources, and so on... Within limits, society can always adapt in this way - it is homeostasis, as I said. But only within limits.

You can play this kind of game in various ways. The five elements figure by Magne Myrtveit is a good tool to gain a feeling of how society reacts to external interventions and how it evolves with the gradual depletion of natural resources. If these resources are non renewable, as it is the case of our mineral resources, eventually, the amount of capital that can be created and maintained must go down - it is one of the possible causes of collapse. Probably the most common. But in order to see how it is going to happen, you need to run the model in a computer and see what you get. Here are typical results, from the 2004 edition of "The Limits to Growth".

This is called the "standard run" or the "base case" scenario. It is a run of the model with the parameters most closely fitting the present situation. You see collapse occurring - it is when you see industrial and agricultural production crashing down. As you can see, the more complex model still produces bell shaped curves, although non symmetric ones.Note that the model doesn't have a "complexity" parameter built in. However, it is clear that when the industrial and the agricultural system cease to function it is complexity going down (and population as well, of course). So, in a certain sense, the "Limits to Growth" model is compatible with Tainter's model - or so I tend to see things.

Of course, you don't have to take this scenario as a prophecy. It is just a mental tool designed to amplify your understanding of the system. You can change the parameters and the assumptions - collapse can be postponed, but the model is very robust. An important point is that these bell shaped curves are typical and are always the result, unless you use very specific assumptions in input, usually assuming human intervention to avoid collapse.

People are very good at optimizing exploitation. The problem is that they exaggerate and take out of the system more than what the system can replace. And that is the reason of the curve. First you go up because you are so good at exploiting the resource; then you go down because you have exploited it too much. In the middle, there has to be a peak -it is "peak-resource". In the case of crude oil, people speak of "peak oil". In the case of a whole civilization, we may speak of "peak civilization". And, as we said before, peak civilization also corresponds to "peak complexity", in the sense that Tainter described.

One last point, here. Collapse is not irreversible. Society goes in overshoot, then collapses, but the collapse gives time to the overexploited resource to reform, so growth can restart after a while. Homeostasis is like orbiting around an equilibrium point, without ever reaching it. It is a cycle that may keep going up and down, or may dampen out to reach an approximately stable state. That is, if the resource is renewable. If it is not, like oil or uranium, when it is used up, there is no more. In this case, there is no return from collapse. Also, from the viewpoint of a human being, even a reversible collapse that involves society as a whole tends to last much longer than a human lifetime. So, for what we are concerned, collapse is irreversible if we are caught by it and is something that we don't like, clearly. So we set up things like ASPO and TOD to see if we can convince politicians to do something to avoid collapse. Whether we'll succeed is another matter, but let's not go into that now.

The dynamic fall of the Roman Empire

Now we know that we should expect to see these bell curves in the behavior of a complex civilization or an empire. So, we can try to give a look to the Roman Empire in this perspective and see if it agrees with an interpretation based on system dynamics. So, first of all, let me propose a simplified model based on the same scheme that Magne Myrtveit proposed for our world as described in "The Limits to Growth".

Please do not take it as anything more than a sketch, but it may be helpful for us to understand the mechanism that lead the Empire to collapse.Now, let me try to explain how this scheme could work. We know that the Roman Empire was based mainly on two kinds of resources: military and agricultural. I put the image of a legionnaire for "capital resources" because legions can be seen as the capital of the Roman Empire; military capital. This capital, legions, would be built on a natural resource that was mainly gold. The legions didn't mine gold, they took it from the people who had mined it (or had stolen it from somebody else).

This feedback between military capital and gold is a point that is very well described by Tainter in his book. You can read how military adventures played a fundamental role in the growth of the empire, and earlier on of the Roman Republic. There was a clear case of positive feedback. The Empire would defeat a nearby kingdom, rob it of gold and take part of the population as slaves. Gold could be used to pay for more legions and go on conquering more lands. Positive feedback: the more legions you have, the more gold you can rob; the more gold you have, the more legions you can create. And so on...

One of the inventions of the Roman was their capability of transforming gold into legions and legions into gold - as I said it is a very clear case of feedback. Still today we use the word "soldier", which comes from Latin, and it means "hired" or "salaried". It was not only gold, legionnaires were also paid in silver, but the concept remains the same. Legions paid for the salaries of the legionnaires using the profit they made from looting the conquered lands.

But, as conquest proceeded, soon the Romans found themselves without easy lands to conquer. It was a problem of EROEI; energy return on energy invested. In this case, GROGI (gold return on gold invested). After the easy conquests of the 1st century b.c., Gallia for instance, then things became difficult. The energy yield of conquering new lands went down. On the North East, the Germans were too poor - and also warlike. Conquering them was not only difficult, but didn't generate a profit. In the East, the Parthians were rich, but militarily powerful. Then on the West there was the Atlantic Ocean, the North was too cold, the south too dry. Negative feedback, you see?

With the legions not bringing any more gold, gold disappeared from the Empire for various reasons. In part it was to buy luxury items that the Empire couldn't manufacture inside its borders, silk for instance. In part, it disappeared because barbarian chieftains were paid not to invade the Empire or to fight alongside with the Romans. There were other reasons, but anyway gold was a dwindling resource for the Roman Empire, a little like our "black gold", petroleum. During the good times, the legions would bring back from foreign conquests more gold than what was spent but, with time, the balance had become negative.

Of course, military conquest was not the only source of gold for Rome. As I said, we are describing a complex system, and complex systems have many facets. So, the Romans had gold mines in Africa and in Spain. And they also had silver mines in Spain. There are no mines in the scheme; we could add mines to it, that wouldn't be a problem. But the problem here is that we don't have enough data to understand exactly the role of mines in the economy of the Roman Empire. We know, for instance, that silver mining declined in Spain with the decline of the empire. Did mining decline cause the collapse of the empire? Personally, I think not. At least, the Romans had started their expansion much earlier than they had conquered Spain and these mines. At the time of the wars with Carthage, it was the Carthaginians who held Spain and, I imagine, the silver mines. But this silver didn't help them much, since they lost the war and were wiped out by the Romans. So, we should be wary of single explanations for complex events. We can only say that mines are subjected to the same kind of negative feedback that affects military conquests. After you exploit the easy ores (or lands to be conquered) you are left with difficult ores (or lands) that don't yield the same profit. It is negative feedback, again.

Then, there was agriculture. Surely it was an important economic activity of the Roman Empire, as you can read, again, in Tainter's book. Agriculture is also subjected to positive and negative feedbacks as you can see in the scheme. With good agriculture, the population increases. With more population, you can have more farmers. In the case of the Roman Empire, as population grows, you can have also more legions which will bring back home slaves which can be put to work in the fields. But agriculture has also a negative feedback, and that is erosion.

You can see erosion in the scheme listed as "pollution". It affects agriculture negatively. It reduces population and sets everything backwards: negative feedback, again. The more you try to force agriculture to support a large populations (including the legions) the more strain you put on the fertile soil. Fertile soil is a non renewable resource; it takes centuries to reform the fertile soil, after that it has been lost. So, erosion destroys agriculture, population falls, you have a smaller number of legions and, in the end, you are invaded by barbarians. This is another negative feedback loop that is related to the fall of the Roman Empire.

The question of agriculture during Roman times is rather complex ad the data we have are contradictory; at least in some respects. There is clear evidence of erosion and deforestation, especially during the expansion period of the early Roman Empire. Then, during and after the third century, we have famines and plagues. These two things are related, plagues are often the result of poor nutrition. At the same time, we have evidence that the Romans of the late empire were unable to exploit in full the land they had. It is reported that plenty of land was not cultivated - apparently for lack of manpower. We also know that forests were returning with the 4th century a.d. So, there are various elements of the dynamic scheme which connect with each other. Apparently, the emphasis on military power took away resources from agriculture and ingenerated still another negative feedback: not enough people (or slaves) to cultivate the land. But it may also be that some areas of land were not cultivated because erosion had ruined them.

So, I have proposed to you a scheme and I described how it could work. But does it work? We should now compare the scheme with real data; fit the data to a model. The problem is that we don't have enough data to fit - we probably never will. So, I didn't try fitting anything; but I think I can show you some sets of data that are an impressive indication that there is something true in this dynamical model.

First of all, if the decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been a case of overexploitation of resources, we should expect to see bell curves for industrial and agricultural production, for population, and for other parameters. As I said, the historical data are scant, but we have archaeological data. So, let me show a plot that summarizes several industrial and agricultural indicators, together with a graph that shows how the extension of the Empire varied in time. It is taken from In search of Roman economic growth, di W. Scheidel, 2007" The other graph is taken from Tainter's book.

Especially the upper graph is impressive. There has been a "peak-empire", at least in terms of production and agriculture, somewhere around mid 1st century. Afterward, there was a clear decline - it was not just a political change. It was also a real reduction in complexity as Tainter defines collapse. The Roman Empire really collapsed in mid 3rd century. It had a sort of "Hubbert peak" at that time.The other parameter shown in the figure, the extension of the empire, also shows an approximately bell shaped curve. The Empire continued to exist as a political entity even after it had been reduced to an empty shell in economic terms. If we think that the extension of the empire is proportional to the "capital" accumulated, then this relationship makes sense if we think of the dynamic model that we saw before. Capital, as we saw, should peak after production. This is a bit stretched as an interpretation, I admit. But at least we see also here a bell shaped curve.

There is more. Do you remember the curves that are calculated in the dynamic model for the relation Capital/resources? You expect the production curve to peak before the capital curve. Now, I proposed that this relation capital/resources exists between the Roman Army and the gold that they looted. So, do we have data that show this relationship? Yes, we do, although only approximately. Let's first see the data for gold. We don't have data for the amount of gold circulating within the Empire, but Tainter shows us the data for the devaluation of the Roman silver coin, which we would expect to follow the same path. Here are the data (the figure is taken fromthis site ):

Now, the amount of precious metal within a denarius is not a precise measurement of the total gold or silver in the Empire, but it is at least an indication that this amount was going down after the first century A.D. And, since the Romans had started poor, earlier on, there must have been a peak at some time, "peak gold", probably in the 1st century a.d.
About the size of the Roman Army, we have this figure from Wikipedia . As you see, the data are uncertain, but if we consider the Western Empire only, there was a peak around 3rd century a.d.

So, you see? Army and gold show the correct relationship that we expect to have between capital and resource. they both peak, but gold peaks before the army. The Romans kept increasing the size of their army even after the economic returns that they got from military activities went down, actually may have become negative. It is exactly the same behavior of whalers in 19th century who kept increasing the size of the whaling fleet even it was clear that there weren't enough whales to catch to justify that. I think this is an impressive result. At least, it convinced me.

There is more if we look at the Roman population curve, although for this we must rely on very uncertain data (see, e.g. the paper byWalter Schneidel . I can't show you a graph, here, too uncertain are the data. But it seems that, in any case, there was a population peak in the Roman Empire around mid 2nd century. If this is the case, the Roman population peak arrives after the production peak - just as shown in the "standard run" calculations for the world3 model.

So, I think we have enough data, here, to prove the validity of the model - at least in qualitative terms. Maybe somebody should collect good data, archaeological and historical, and made a complete dynamic model of the Roman Empire. That would be very interesting, but it is beyond my possibilities for now. Anyway, even from these qualitative data we should be able to understand why the Empire was in trouble. One of the main causes of the trouble was that it had this big military apparatus, the legions, that needed to be paid and didn't bring in any profit. It was the start of an hemorrhage of gold that couldn't be reversed. In addition, the Empire bled itself even more by building an extensive system of fortifications - the limes that had to be maintained and manned, besides being expensive in themselves.

The story of the fortifications is a good example of what we had said; the attempt of a complex system to maintain homeostasis. The Romans must have understood that legions were too expensive if you had to keep so many of them to keep the borders safe. So, they built these walls. I imagine that the walls were built by slaves; and a slave surely cost less than a legionnaire. Slaves, however, were not good as fighters - I suppose that if you gave a sword to a slave he might think to run away or to use it against you. You know the story of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in Roman times. I am sure that the Romans didn't want to risk that again. But with walls the Romans had found a way to replace legionnaires with slaves. You needed less legionnaires to defend a fortification than to defend an open field. That was a way to save money, to keep homeostasis. But it wasn't enough - obviously. The Romans still needed to pay for the legions and - as a disadvantage - the walls were a rigid system of defense that couldn't be changed. The Romans were forced to man the walls all along their extension and that must have been awfully expensive. The Empire had locked itself in a cage from which it would never be able to escape. Negative feedback kills.

Military expenses were not the only cause of the fall. With erosion gnawing at agricultural yields and mine productivity going down, we should not be surprised if the empire collapsed. It simply couldn't do otherwise. So, you see that the collapse of the Roman Empire was a complex phenomenon where different negative factors reinforced each other. It was a cascade of negative feedbacks, not a single one, that brought down the empire. And this shows how closely related to the Romans we are. Surely there are differences: our society is more of a mining society and less of a military based society. We don't use slaves but, rather, machines. We also have plenty of gadgets that the Romans didn't have. But, in the end, the interactions of the various elements of our economy are not that much different. What brought down the Romans, and eventually will bring us down, is the overexploitation of the resources. If the Romans could have found a way to use their resources, agriculture for instance, in ways that didn't destroy them, erosion in this case, their society could have lasted for a longer time. But they never found an equilibrium point - they went down always using a bit too much of what they had.

Avoiding Collapse

From our viewpoint, we see what was the history of the Roman Empire. But, from inside, as we saw, it wasn't clear at all. But let's assume that someone had it clear, already at the time of Marcus Aurelius. I said that there might have been something like an ASPE; "association for the study of peak empire". Or let's imagine that a wise man, a Druid from foggy Britannia, an ancestor of Merlin the wise, was smart enough to figure out what was going on. You don't really need computers to make dynamical models, or maybe this druid made one using wooden cogs and wheels, the whole thing powered by slaves. So, let's say that this druid understood that the troubles of the Empire are caused by a combination of negative feedbacks and that these feedbacks come from the cost of the army and of the bureaucracy, the overexploitation of the fertile soil, the fact that Rome had exhausted the "easy" targets for conquest.Now, it is a tradition of Druids (and also of ASPO) of alerting kings and rulers of the dangers ahead. After all, Merlin did that for King Arthur and we may imagine that the druid we are thinking of felt that it was his duty to do that with Emperor Marcus Aurelius. So, he decides to go to Rome and speak to the Emperor. Suppose you were that druid; what would you say to the Emperor?

Good question, right? I have asked it to myself many times. We could think of many ways of answering it. For instance, if gold is running out from the Empire's coffers, why not suggest to the Emperor to mount a naval expedition to the Americas? It is what Columbus would do, more than a millennium afterwards and the result was the Spanish empire - it was also based on gold and it didn't last for long. Maybe the Romans could have done something like that. But they didn't have the right technology to cross the oceans and, at the time of Marcus Aurelius, they had run out of the resources to develop it. So, they had to remain in Europe and to come to terms with the limits of the area they occupied. The Empire had to return its economy within these limits. So, there is only one thing that you, as the wise Druid from Britannia, can tell the Emperor: you have to return within the limits that the Empire's economy can sustain.

So you walk to Rome - kind of a long walk from Eburacum, in Britannia; a place that today we call "York". You are preceded by your fame of wise man and so the Emperor receives you in his palace. You face him, and you tell him what you have found:

"Emperor, the empire is doomed. If you don't do something now, it will collapse in a few decades"
The Emperor is perplexed, but he is a patient man. He is a philosopher after all. So he won't have your head chopped off right away, as other emperors would, but he asks you, "But why, wise druid, do you say that?"
"Emperor, " you say, "you are spending too much money for legions and fortifications. The gold accumulated in centuries of conquests is fast disappearing and you can't pay enough legionnaires to defend the borders. In addition, you are putting too much strain on agriculture: the fertile soil is being eroded and lost. Soon, there won't be enough food for the Romans. And, finally, you are oppressing people with too much bureaucracy, which is also too expensive."
Again, the Emperor considers having your head chopped off, but he doesn't order that. You have been very lucky in hitting on a philosopher-emperor. So he asks you, "Wise druid, there may be some truth in what you say, but what should I do?"
"Emperor, first you need to plant trees. the land needs rest. In time, trees will reform the fertile soil."
"But, druid, if we plant trees, we won't have enough food for the people."
"Nobody will starve if the patricians renounce to some of their luxuries!"
"Well, Druid, I see your point but it won't be easy....."
"And you must reduce the number of legions and abandon the walls!"
"But, but.... Druid, if we do that, the barbarians will invade us....."
"It is better now than later. Now you can still keep enough troops to defend the cities. Later on, it will be impossible. It is sustainable defense."
"Yes, it means defense that you can afford. You need to turn the legions into city militias and..."
"You must spend less for the Imperial Bureaucracy. The Imperial taxes are too heavy! You must work together with the people, not oppress them! Plant trees, disband the army, work together!"
Now, Emperor Marcus Aurelius seriously considers whether it is appropriate to have your head chopped off, after all. Then, since he is a good man, he sends to you back to Eburacum under heavy military escort, with strict orders that you should never come to Rome again.

This is a little story about something that never happened but that closely mirrors what happened to the modern druids who were the authors of "The Limits to Growth." They tried to tell to the world's rulers of their times something not unlike what our fictional druid tried to tell to Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The heads of the authors of "The Limits to Growth" weren't chopped off, but they were surely "academically decapitated" so to say. They were completely ignored. Not just ignored, ridiculed and vituperated. It is not easy to be a druid.

So, here we found another similarity between our times and the Roman ones. We are subjected to the "fish in the water" curse. We don't understand that we are surrounded by water. And we don't want to be told that water exists.

As things stands, we seem to be blithely following the same path that the Roman Empire followed. Our leaders are unable to understand complex systems and continue to implement solutions that worsen the problem. As the wise druid was trying to tell to Marcus Aurelius, building walls to keep the barbarians out was a loss of resources that was worse than useless. But I can see the politicians of the time running on a platform that said, "Keep the barbarians out! More walls to defend the empire". It is the same for us. Tell a politician that we are in trouble with crude oil and he/she will immediately say "drill deeper!" or "drill, baby, drill!" Negative feedback kills.

But I would like to point out to you something: let's go back to what our fictional druid was telling to Emperor Aurelius. He had this slogan "Plant trees, disband the army and work together". I had invented it in a post that I had written on the collapse of Tuscan society in 16th century; it is another story but one that shows how all societies follow similar paths. Anyway, can you see what kind of world the Druid was proposing to the Emperor? Think about that for a moment: a world of walled cities defended by city militias, no central authority or a weak one, an economy based on agriculture.

Do you see it.....? Sure, it is Middle Ages! Think about that for a moment and you'll see that you could define Middle Ages as a solution for the problems of the Roman Empire!

So, our Druid had seen the future and was describing it to Emperor Aurelius. He had seen the solution of the problems of Empire: Middle Ages. It was where the Empire was going and where it could not avoid going. What the Druid was proposing was to go there in a controlled way. Ease the transition, don't fight it! If you know where you are going, you can travel in style and comfort. If you don't, well, it will be a rough ride.

We may imagine a hypothetical "driven transition" in which the government of the Roman Empire at the time of Marcus Aurelius would have done exactly that: abandon the walls, reduce the number of legion and transform them into city militias, reduce bureaucracy and Imperial expenses, delocalize authority, reduce the strain on agriculture: reforest the land. The transition would not have been traumatic and would have involved a lower loss of complexity: books, skills, works of art and much more could have been saved and passed to future generations.

All that is, of course, pure fantasy. Even for a Roman Emperor, disbanding the legions couldn't be easy. After all, the name "Emperor" comes from the Latin word "imperator" that simply means "commander". The Roman Emperor was a military commander and the way to be Emperor was to please the legions that the Emperor commanded. A Roman Emperor who threatened to disband the legions wouldn't have been very popular and, most likely, he was to be a short lived Emperor. So, Emperors couldn't have done much even if they had understood system dynamics. In practice, they spent most of their time trying to reinforce the army by having as many legions as they could. Emperors, and the whole Roman world, fought as hard as they could to keep the status quo ante , to keep things as they had always been. After the 3rd century crisis, Emperor Diocletian resurrected the Empire transforming it into something that reminds us of the Soviet Union at the time of Breznev. An oppressive dictatorship that included a suffocating bureaucracy, heavy taxes for the citizens, and a heavy military apparatus. It was such a burden for the Empire that it destroyed it utterly in little more than a century.

Our Druids may be better than those of the times of the Roman Empire, at least they have digital computers. But our leaders are no better apt at understanding complex system than the military commanders who ruled the Roman Empire. Even our leaders were better, they would face the same problems: there are no structures that can gently lead society to where it is going. We have only structures that are there to keep society where it is - no matter how difficult and uncomfortable it is to be there. It is exactly what Tainter says: we react to problems by building structure that are more and more complex and that, in the end, produce a negative return. That's why societies collapse.

So, all our efforts are to keep the status quo ante . For this reason we are so desperately looking for something that can replace crude oil and leave everything else the same. It has to be something that is liquid, that burns and, if possible, even smells bad. Drill more, drill deeper, boil tar sands, make biofuels even if people will starve. We do everything we can to keep things as they are.
And, yet, we are going where the laws of physics are taking us. A world with less crude oil, or with no crude oil at all, cannot be the same world we are used to, but it doesn't need to be the Middle Ages again. If we manage to deploy new sources of energy, renewable or nuclear - fast enough to replace crude oil and the other fossil fuels, we can imagine that the transition would not involve a big loss of complexity, perhaps none at all. More likely, a reduced flux of energy and natural resources in the economic system will entail the kind of collapse described in the simulations of "The Limits to Growth." We can't avoid to go where the laws of physics are taking us.

Conclusion: showdown at Teutoburg

Two thousand years ago, three Roman legions were annihilated in the woods of Teutoburg by a coalition of tribes of the region that the Romans called "Germania". Today, after so many years, the woods of the region are quiet and peaceful places, as you can see in this picture

It is hard for us to imagine what the three days of folly of the battle of Teutoburg must have been. The legions surprised by the ambush of the Germans, their desperate attempt to retreat: under heavy rain and strong winds in the woods, they never were able to form a line and fight as they were trained to. One by one, almost all of them were killed; their general, Varus, committed suicide. The Germans left the bodies rotting in the woods as a sort of sacred memory to the battle. The ultimate disgrace for the legions was the loss of their sacred standards. It was such a disaster that it led to the legend that Emperor Augustus would wander at night in his palace screaming "Varus, give me back my legions!"

I think we could pause for a moment and remember these men, Germans and Romans, who fought so hard and who died. We have seen so many similarity between our world and the Roman one that we may feel something that these men felt as well. Why did they fight, why did they die? I think that many of them fought because they were paid to fight. Others because their commander or their chieftain told them so. But, I am sure, a good number of them had some idea that they were fighting for (or against) the abstract concept that was the Roman Empire. Some of them must have felt that they stood for defending civilization against barbarians, others for defending their land against evil invaders.

Two millennia after the battle of Teutoburg, we can see how useless it was that confrontation in the woods soaked with rain. A few years later, the Roman general Germanicus, adopted son of Emperor Tiberius, went back to Teutoburg with no less than eight legions. He defeated the Germans, recovered the standards of the defeated legions, and buried the bodies of the Roman dead. Arminius, the German leader who had defeated Varus, suffered a great loss of prestige and, eventually, he was killed by his own people. But all that changed nothing. The Roman Empire had exhausted its resources and couldn't expand any more. Germanicus couldn't conquer Germany any more than Varus could bring back his legions from the realm of the dead.

Civilizations and empires, in the end, are just ripples in the ocean of time. They come and go, leaving little except carved stones proclaiming their eternal greatness. But, from the human viewpoint, Empires are vast and long standing and, for some of us, worth fighting for or against. But those who fought in Teutoburg couldn't change the course of history, nor can we. All that we can say - today as at the time of the battle of Teutoburg - is that we are going towards a future world that we can only dimly perceive. If we could see clearly where we are going, maybe we wouldn't like to go there; but we are going anyway. In the end, perhaps it was Emperor Marcus Aurelius who had seen the future most clearly:

Nature which governs the whole will soon change all things which thou seest, and out of their substance will make other things, and again other things from the substance of them, in order that the world may be ever new.

Marcus Aurelius Verus - "Meditations" ca. 167 A.D