Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Emperor's Trap

Last week's story of the rise of the Roman Empire and the beginnings of the Christian movement within it may have felt like a detour from my stated purpose of writing about nature and the magic thereof, but I can assure you it wasn't. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that if we want to look honestly at our present culture's relationship with nature, it's important to understand the roots of that culture and how we got to where we are. Anyone reading this blog in the English language has been affected to some degree by the dominating influence of Western European cultures, and these cultures have their strongest roots in Rome and in Christianity.

The second reason is that the story of the Roman Empire illustrates one of nature's most important lessons. Rome arose and flourished, but later declined and fell, and for a thousand years thereafter Western Europe was peopled by much smaller and less sophisticated societies. We call this subsequent period the Middle Ages because it occurred between Rome's time and ours. But why did this happen?

I realize that I stray into dangerous territory when I begin to tell stories experienced by real people living in time, a danger that confronts anyone who attempts to study or explain history. (Whose story, did you say? What about her story? Or their story? For that matter, what about our story?) If you've experienced a historic event and later read about it in the news or in books, you're probably aware that the facts of what happened and why depend quite a lot on who's telling them.

The story of Rome is especially so. As Adrian Goldsworthy points out in How Rome Fell (Yale University Press, 2009), every age has projected its own internal narratives and anxieties backward onto the enigma of why Rome fell. For medieval monks it was moral decline; for the eighteenth-century British historian Edward Gibbon it was "the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness." Gibbon was writing at the same time that the American colonies were breaking free of his own British Empire and establishing an independent union. Later, during the rise of German nationalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the role of Germanic enemies like Arminius of the first-century Cherusci nation became more important to the story of the Empire's fall.

I'll cheerfully admit that I'm no exception to this rule. I'm also far less qualified than Goldsworthy to explain how Rome fell, so that made it all the more surprising to me that he did such a bad job of it. Goldsworthy's argument is that Roman decline began at the top and spread downward: the late empire's strength wasted away in civil war after civil war due to a lack of strong and farsighted leadership on the part of the later emperors.

From my perspective as an apprentice wizard of earth, that's like telling someone dying of old age that their body's strength is wasting away due to a lack of resolve on their part. Depending on the individual there might be a grain of truth in that diagnosis, but it ignores all the other converging systems failures that characterize the old age of both humans and human societies. If you want a good introduction to the late Roman Empire I'd recommend How Rome Fell; it's a clean, straightforward narrative full of memorable anecdotes about the emperors and their courts. If you want a deep and nuanced explanation of how Rome fell, look elsewhere.

The story I want to tell can be approached from a few different angles, but I want to start with one that most of us will be familiar with: roads. Roads were one of the keys to the Romans' greatness, and they were quite good at building them. If you've ever stopped to watch a modern road being constructed then you have a fair idea of how it worked. Land had to be surveyed, then a trench dug and filled with stones or packed earth, and finally a concrete surface applied, ever so slightly arched in order to shed rain. (Did you know that the Romans invented concrete? They were good at that too, and if you try to imagine any building in your neighbourhood standing as long as the Coliseum has, you start to realize just how good). The first paved Roman road was built in 312 BCE in order to convey troops more quickly to rebellious neighbouring regions, and that logic extended outward as the Empire grew until most of Europe was linked by roads.

The problem with roads, as everyone knows, is that they need periodic maintenance in order to stay functional. This is especially true here in Canada, where it's said that we have two seasons in a year: winter and road work season. It's worth a chuckle, but it's also worth a moment of deeper reflection. Unless someone puts energy into their upkeep, roads always move from a state of ordered repair toward a state of disordered disrepair. Remember our old friend entropy from a couple of weeks ago? That's who's to blame for the potholes wreaking havoc on the suspension of your car or ox-drawn wagon, not the government. And that's where I respectfully disagree with Adrian Goldsworthy's analysis of the fall of Rome.

Maintenance is a part of every well-planned public works program because entropy is a part of every physical system in the universe. The second law of thermodynamics says that without additional energy inputs, roads and buildings always get more run down over time, never less so. That's just common sense, but its implications are less often explored. Consider, for example, that the more roads you build, the more roads you have to maintain. Likewise with temples, coliseums, aqueducts, bathhouses, forums, commemorative arches, lighthouses, assembly halls, country villas, dockyards, and public toilets. Have I made my point yet? The Romans built a lot of stuff.

During the expansion phase of the Empire this wasn't a problem, because the flow of energy inward from conquered provinces was growing faster than entropy was accumulating in Rome's infrastructure. The emperor Augustus' conquests made him wealthy enough to personally finance the rebuilding of Rome's most ancient roads, and he threw in some extravagant temple upgrades and a new public bathhouse for good measure. Before his death in 14 CE he boasted that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble, a claim which was meant to be taken figuratively but was not far from being literally true.

The trap for his successors lay in the combination of maintaining expensive infrastructure and intentionally limiting the Empire's growth. Later emperors went ahead and conquered some new provinces to boost their own prestige, but these didn't significantly alter the fact that the amount of entropy within the Empire was rising faster than its energy inflow. You can picture this by thinking back to our earlier comparison of the Empire with a human body. In early life our bodies are growing and replacing tissues faster than those tissues are aging, and as a result our strength and vitality increases up until our twenties. When we reach maturity our body checks its drive for growth and turns its focus toward maintaining what it's built up.

At age twenty-four I'm at the very peak of my physical condition, but already the mechanisms of aging are locking into place inside me. The slow build-up of entropy in my body over the next half-century or so will mark the milestones on my journey toward death, provided I don't hasten the process by falling under a bus before then. Does that sound grim to you? It doesn't to me, because I've known for a long time that one day I will kick the metaphysical can and there's absolutely nothing I can do to change that. Instead I've sought out teachings and companions that will aid me in my journey rather than distract me from it.

But you didn't come here to get a young guy's advice on aging well; you came to read about the fall of Rome. My human body metaphor is at best inexact and at worst an oversimplification of an exceedingly complex process. Human civilizations do have recognizable life stages, but they don't have predetermined lifespans in the way that human bodies do. In this sense they're- curiously- more organic than the body's machinery. Moreover, they can make collective decisions to revitalize themselves, on the one hand, or to rush headlong down the path of decline and fall, on the other.

The mechanics of growth and entropy buildup do hold true for both bodies and civilizations, however, because both are partially closed thermodynamic systems. How this works on the bigger scale is fascinating to explore, but perhaps best saved for another post. What I want to draw your attention to today is that people have a very hard time thinking about their own mortality, and an even harder time thinking about the mortality of the civilizations they inhabit. When stark reminders of these facts appear, people respond in many different ways, and not all of them are good ways. The best and most creative responses, however, become the foundation of what comes next, because in nature, the end of one thing is always the beginning of another. We'll go back into story mode next week as we look at the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of what came next.


  1. Brilliant! I like your use of analogies to explain concepts.

    Regarding the expansion of the Roman Empire, I would say that the returned energy obtained by conquering other territories followed the law of diminishing returns. Probably there was a point when the new provinces to be subjugated were so far away from Rome that it didn't make economical sense (in terms of energy) to conquer them.

    And regarding the creative responses to the mortality of civilizations, my guess is that in the next years we'll see a flourishing of a neo-stoicism philosophy. In fact, one of the main stoic philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, was Emperor of a declining empire.

  2. Thanks, Angel. I'll have to look deeper into Marcus Aurelius, because it's true that Roman decline first became apparent during his reign.

    You must have been reading Joseph Tainter on the law of diminishing returns, am I right? He mentions in an offhand way that the province of Britain was never able to pay for itself. Quite a thing to say about an entire nation!