Thursday, August 7, 2014

A tale of a powerful empire and of a riotous kingdom

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. 


  1. If the parallel is (more or less) the U.S.A. = Rome, The Middle East = Jerusalem; Russia = Dacia; and Parthia = China. then the world is almost certainly doomed by nuclear war. But if Dacia is only Iran and Parthia is the BRICS, then we may be spared. (though the Iranians will not be).

    Naturally NONE of us anywhere are or will be spared by the ever increasing amount of mind-numbing and "critical-thinking-obliterating" propaganda and its assorted exercises in deception and their attendant creation of cozy and nonsensical "ideological and cultural bubble worlds" ready to pop.

    I am now in the middle of this classic on PROPAGANDA

    and (in line with the latest up to date propaganda system creations) "I LIKE IT" . So it either could be well argued and sensible and great, or total baloney. But since I am not totally brainwashed yet (including at the meta level of what propaganda is or is not) nor am I working for Mark Zuckerberg, if "I like it" , it means that it is probably at least half way o.k.

    1. P.S. Is this Dacian propaganda or is it the truth about Rome?... and where does this ex Australian prime minister REALLY come from?

    2. You might also check out 'Public Opinion' by Walter Lippman. Another classic. Did these men have innocent intentions? That's a debate; so perhaps it is enough to know they did much to shape the world we live in and that they opened a Pandora’s box of organized deceptions that informed citizens need to know about.

    3. We have almost nothing left of Dacian propaganda. The winners erased the language and the traditions of the country they had conquered. We only have some gold coins that the Dacians had started minting on their own. It is interesting that these coins carry inscriptions in Greek, not in Latin. An embryonic for of propaganda to diffuse the message "we are not Romans"

  2. "The way humans behave is determined by the way their brain works." And mostly they repeat what they know, internal stories. Unaware that the stories they know drive what they do. Thus when change is demanded, inflexibility makes stupid choices.

    Canadian troops in Ukraine? A reckless gamble. Perhaps the herald to enormous costs and destruction to come. Old rules no longer fit; but there are no new among the powerful. Once again the growth model fails and new steady state rules will not be tried. The imperial zealot knows know other way but to flex muscle and now bullies from weakness, but is determined not to show it.

    History rhymes, but in a very bad way.

    Ultimately the citizens of the cities were turned out to wander the countryside by their barbarian conquerors. Multitudes walking until they dropped from starvation and died. Their bones bleaching white in fields across a desolate and deserted countryside.

    Lets hope it doesn't rhyme too much.

  3. I think what you posted was interesting, but...

    Peter Temin's "The Roman Market Economy" adds a lot in the way of data points to the point about gold depletion (it shows a consistent debasement of silver coinage 20 to 260 ad) but also brings all sorts of other possible contributing factors: the economic disruption of civil unrest, the Antonine Plague, et al. It also notes that the data points don't always show a consistent inflationary effect over time. The inflation seems to be jumpy rather than smoothly progressive.

    The Romans did send precious metals east. But they also sent manufactured goods. In particular, translucent colored (stained) glass. and purple dye, were apparently popular items. The Romans also were able to trade to the portions of Africa below the Sahara (the Sahel) which had access to silver mines. The salt to West Africa for precious metals trade appears to go a long way back.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)