Monday, June 1, 2015

A tale of a powerful empire and of a riotous kingdom

Originally published on Aug 7, 2014

History, it is said, doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. In particular, the times of the Roman Empire are a remarkable source of events rhyming with those of modern times. For instance, the ancient Romans had developed a number of propaganda technologies which were remarkably similar to the ones we use today. The image above (source), from the Trajan column in Rome, may be seen as accusing Rome's enemies of the time, the Dacians, of preparing for war by building a fortress - perhaps breaking a previously agreed pact. So, let me tell a tale of Roman times. I won't tell you what exactly it rhymes with in our times, but I think it will be easy for you to understand.

The Roman Empire had become rich and powerful on the precious metals, gold and silver, that the Romans mined in Spain. (the details are described here, and here). The problem for the Romans was that gold is a mineral resource and mineral resources don't last forever.

With the first century of our era, the production of gold and silver from the Roman mines started declining and the Empire started showing signs of trouble. The Jewish revolt of 66 CE was one of these signs: it almost destroyed the Empire. Eventually, however, the Romans managed to crush the rebellion and, by sacking Jerusalem, they obtained a nice stash of gold to replenish their badly depleted reserves. But the problem remained: the gold sacked in Jerusalem could not last forever. How to get the gold necessary to pay the legions which ensured the Empire's survival?

At this point, the Romans noticed that a small a kingdom on their North-Western border, Dacia, still had producing gold mines. The Dacians had been building up their production and by the start of the 2nd century CE they could dream of using this gold to their advantage; maybe to create a small empire of theirs.

The situation was clear: the Romans needed gold, the Dacians had it. The Roman had a powerful army, the Dacians a much less powerful one. The consequences were obvious: the Romans invaded Dacia during the early years of the 2nd century CE. It was a risky gamble, because the Dacians put up a stiff resistance, but eventually they were defeated and the Romans took control of their gold mines. With the newly found gold, the Romans tried to conquer their rival empire: Parthia, on their Eastern border. They failed miserably at that. If the gold of Spain had yielded a whole empire to the Romans, the gold of Dacia yielded strictly nothing except Dacia itself. And Dacia was the first border province to be abandoned by the empire less than two centuries after having been conquered. Then, the empire which slowly faded away from history as it was condemned to do.

This is the story. Now, as a little exercise in history-rhyming, let's list its main elements.

  • A powerful empire plagued by excessive military expenses and by declining mineral resources (Rome)
  • A short lived boost of resources for the empire (the sack of Jerusalem)
  • A growing regional power, with still productive mineral resources (Dacia)
  • A large rival empire (Parthia) 
  • A remarkable capability of using propaganda for military purposes (Rome)

Now, try to fit in this scheme the modern equivalents of the ancient ones. As you can see, history really rhymes a lot. It is not surprising: the way humans behave is determined by the way their brain works. And that has not changed much in the past and - from what we are seeing happening around us nowadays - is not changing at all.

But one more thing that history teaches us is how futile some human efforts are. Think again of the desperate attempt of the Romans to conquer Dacia. They succeeded, but they took a tremendous risk: the campaign was enormously expensive and, had they failed, the result could not have been anything but the disintegration of the empire. And, anyway, the gold of Dacia turned out to be insufficient to keep the empire expanding. The Roman Empire, just like our modern economy, could survive only by growing. Once it couldn't grow any longer, it withered and died.

So, conquering Dacia was a reckless gamble, an enormous cost, and a lot of destruction; and all that just postponed the unavoidable. Will the present world situation evolve in the same way? We can't say for sure, but it is certain that history rhymes a lot.