This text was originally part of the book that I am writing, "The Seneca Effect", where it was meant to illustrate how new technologies can worsen problems, rather than solve them. Then, the book took an aspect and a structure where this piece wouldn't fit, so I removed it. But it can fit in the Cassandra Blog. Image above, Merlin advising King Arthur, from "mythencyclopedia"
Have you ever been dreaming of living in Roman times? Yes, those ancient and glorious times when the Romans had conquered all the known world and were ruling it by means of their legions, their laws, and their culture. But, if you were an ancient Roman, you would have known that you had a problem: the Roman Empire has often been under threat: rebellions, barbarians, all that. And, as a 21st-century person dreaming of those ancient times, you know that, eventually, the empire will fall. You know that Rome will be taken and sacked, that the Roman legion will be defeated and scattered, that the Roman ways will be lost and forgotten. It was the way history went but was it really unavoidable? Or could a wise emperor have done something to avoid that?
So, imagine that some powerful magic has you transferred to those remote times in the form of a Druid living in foggy Britannia, an ancestor of Merlin the wise, smart enough to figure out that something is rotten in the Roman Empire. Then, you know that it is a tradition of Druids to alert kings and rulers of the dangers ahead. After al, it is what Merlin did that for King Arthur. So, you want to do the same for the Roman Emperor. You want to use your 21st-century knowledge in order to save the empire.
Let's imagine that this druid lives during the golden age of the Empire, the time of the wise emperors. And let's imagine that the ruling wise emperor is actually Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor who left us his thoughts that we still read today. So, you, as that druid, leave your town of Eburacum (that today we call York) in foggy Britannia and you march all the way to Rome. Your fame has preceded you and, when you arrive in Rome, the Emperor receives you, happy to meet such a wise man from a remote province of the Empire. So, you are in front of the emperor. He looks wise, too, with his gray beard and his solemn “trabea” toga, all dyed in the sacred purple, as it befits to a reigning emperor. Maybe you would tell him something like this.
Emperor, greetings from remote Britannia! Greetings from a druid whom more than a few say is wise. Good Marcus, I walked all the way from Eburacum to Rome to advise you; hear my words! The Empire is in trouble, in great trouble. The gold mines of Iberia do not produce any more gold in such an abundance as they did long ago and the coffers of the state are becoming empty. And, without much gold and silver to pay the legionnaires, the legions are not any more so numerous as they used to be. And the people of the Empire suffer under weight of the taxation that's needed to keep manned the fortifications that protect the Empire from its enemies. Emperor, the legions are becoming smaller, the people poorer, and the fortification less safe. And the barbarians surrounding the empire are numerous and warlike and everyday they become more numerous and more warlike. Emperor, if you don't do something, one day the barbarians will overrun the fortifications, they will defeat and disperse the legions, and they will besiege and take Rome. And the great Roman Empire will be no more.
But, Emperor, I have wisdom that I can access by the powers I have as a druid, and it is wisdom that can help the empire! First of all, I can tell you that there are lands on the other side of the Great Ocean. It is a long travel to there, but if you send ships to those remote lands, you can find gold in abundance and replenish the coffers of the empire and with this gold you can pay the legionnaires and the Roman Army will be again as strong as it was in the old times. Then, Emperor, I can tell you that in the land I come from, there are black stones that burn. And these black stones are incredibly abundant. If you can send people to dig for them, with these black stones you can build great metal machines which, in turn, will build bigger and bigger machines. And these machines will do the work of many men and bring prosperity to the Empire. And, finally, emperor, I can tell you how to create a powder that burns; and it burns so fast that it makes a great noise and a great gust of wind comes out of it. And this powder can be made to catch fire inside a metal tube. And if one side of the tube is kept sealed and the other is open, you can place a lead ball into the tube, and the fire of the powder will project the ball fast and at a great distance and kill your enemies. And with this weapon your legions will easily defeat the barbarians. And this is the wisdom that i am bringing to you, Emperor. ”The emperor looks at you, perplexed. He caresses his gray beard for a while. Then he speaks:
“Druid, I see that you know many things, and some of these things are truly wondrous to hear. And maybe, Druid, you are truly wise as some say you are. Yet, I daresay that this knowledge of yours may not be wisdom, after all. Let me tell you something about what you propose. First of all, it may be true that there are lands on the other side of the Great Ocean. And it may also be true that there is gold in these lands. But, Druid, there is gold also in much closer lands; and you should know that my predecessor, the good Emperor Trajan, may the Gods bless his memory, endeavored to invade the land that we call Dacia in order to obtain the gold that we knew was there. And you should know, druid, that the Roman legions fought hard and for a long time and covered themselves in glory and conquered that land and brought back much gold to Rome, But, druid, let me also tell you that the effort was great and the gold that could be brought to Rome was not so much that it could justify it. And so, if getting gold from a close land was so difficult and so expensive, how much more effort will take to get it from a much more remote one, on the other side of the Ocean, as you propose?
Then, druid, let me tell you something about the great machines that you propose to build and to power using those black stones that indeed I know exist in remote Britannia. Yes, maybe that would be possible. But the work of many men would be necessary to dig out the black stones. Would we have to weaken our fortifications or take men from farming to do that? And to bring the stones here, we would need a fleet of ships, but the fleet we have is engaged in bringing grain to Rome in order to feed the Romans. And, if we send the fleet to Britannia to load the black stones and carry them to Rome, what will the Romans eat? Would you want them to eat stones?
And, finally, druid, about those metal tubes that can kill people at a distance; yes, I understand that they could be a powerful weapon. But, druid, what would prevent our enemies, the barbarians, from getting those tubes themselves and using them against us? And if they were to build truly large ones, would they use them to bring down the great walls that defend the empire and the city of Rome?The emperor keeps caressing his gray beard, looking at you. He remains silent for a while, then he speaks again, looking very solemn in his purple toga.
Druid, I understand that you may be sincere in telling me the things you told me and that you may really wishing to help the empire. Yet, I think that this pretended wisdom of yours is not useful to the empire and perhaps it is even dangerous for it. And, Druid, you should understand that I am the emperor of the Romans and I have power of life and death on everyone in the city of Rome and also on everyone within the limes of the Empire. And if I use my power it is to protect the empire from things that I judge dangerous for the empire. And so I was thinking that I could use this power to have your head lopped off, so that this knowledge of yours would not be a danger anymore for the Empire. But since I am steeped in the ways of philosophy and I know the sacredness of life, I will not do that. So, let me offer to you an escort that will lead you back to the town of Eburacum, in remote Britannia, where I trust you will stay and from where you will never come back here again.