Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Which Roman Emperor Would Donald Trump Be?

Comparing Donald Trump to Emperor Hadrian (76 – 138 CE) may seem ludicrous after that Marguerite Yourcenar presented Hadrian to us as a wise and enlightened emperor in her book "Memoirs of Hadrian". Yet, Hadrian found himself facing problems similar to those that all US presidents face nowadays. And some of Hadrian's solutions were not so different than those that Donald Trump is proposing today; for instance, building a wall to keep the Barbarians out. 

All empires in history have gone through similar trajectories: rapid expansion at the beginning, then stasis, then decline and collapse. That was the trajectory of the Roman Empire and there is no reason why the modern empire that we call "Globalization" would follow a different one. It seems clear that the Global Empire has reached its limits and it is poised for a decline in the future.

So, we find ourselves in the conditions that the Roman Empire faced during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. The turning point for the Romans may have been the battle of Teutoburg, 7 CE, where three Roman legions were annihilated by a band of German barbarians. That was a signal that something wasn't working so well any longer with the Empire. The cost of wars had simply become too much for an Empire that was short of resources and had reached its practical limits to expansion. Then, the Emperors faced a dilemma: keep an aggressive stance and try to continue the expansion or retrench and defend what the Empire already had?  

Different emperors gave different answers to the question. Most of them were prudent; engaging only in cautious and limited conquests. But some were ambitious; the best example being Emperor Trajan (53 – 117) who embarked on a difficult campaign against Dacia with the objective of gaining control of the gold mines in the region. The campaign was a success in military terms, but it was extremely expensive and it badly strained the finances of the Empire. Trajan's successor, Hadrian, hastened to stop all attempts of expansion, to retreat from areas that were not defendable, and to sign peace treaties with the traditional enemies of the Roman Empire. His legacy includes Hadrian's wall, a fortified line that defended the Roman territories in Britannia from the Northern peoples. He also built and reinforced other defensive lines that would become the standard defense element for the Roman Empire. Hadrian may have been a wise emperor, but it is dubious that the walls were a good idea, and their costs may well have bankrupted the Empire in the long run.

Now, fast forward to our time: the next Global Emperor may be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Both will face the same problem: defending the vast Global Empire has become terribly expensive in a phase of diminishing resources and with the threat of climate change looming. Trump seems to have understood, at least in part, that some limits have been reached. His foreign policy is non-interventionist. It also includes a reduction of the financing for NATO and negotiates with Russia. It is not unlike Hadrian's policy of retrenchment and, like Hadrian, Trump plans a defensive wall at the borders. Just as for Hadrian's fortifications, the wisdom of this idea is at least dubious. 

Conversely, Trump's adversary, Hillary Clinton, has been much more aggressive in the past as secretary of state and she will probably maintain that stance as president. If Clinton were a Roman Emperor, she would look more like Trajan in her attitudes, or perhaps like Germanicus, a Roman general and candidate emperor who led the legions into a dangerous military adventure in Germania in 15-16 CE, until a more cautious emperor (Tiberius) recalled him and probably got rid of him by poisoning. Where will President Clinton lead the Global Legions? As the Romans learned, victory is never guaranteed but it is always expensive. And excessive military expenses are, normally, what takes empires to their doom. 

Whatever it happens with the upcoming elections in the US, squandering our remaining resources in new wars or in defensive walls will not be a good idea. In addition to resource depletion, we are facing a problem that the Roman Empire didn't face: that of rapid climate change that may do to us much more damage than any Barbarian army did to the Romans. Neither Trump nor Clinton seem to have understood this point.

Will we ever find a wise Emperor who will lead us to fight against the real threat, that of climate change? The future will tell. 


  1. Do you really think things will develop differently when Hillary Rodham Clinton is selected as America's next Top President? Clinton and Trump are just puppets that will do whatever Wall Street and the oil companies tell them to do.
    Les jeux sont faits, cher ami, the dice is cast, whoever becomes president

  2. After Carter was replaced by Reagan, America was never going to lead the sustainable transition. It's always in America's short-term interest to push the world closer to a Seneca Trap/Olduvai Cliff model, and it seems that we really love short-term interest.

    1. Remember who put Reagan in place ? The mob. And it is now the mob controlling the white house.

  3. Interesting in this context Kennedys (Paul, not John Fitzgerald) "Rise and fall of the great powers", in which, a.f.a.i.r., the term "overstretched" is central.
    Neither Trump nor Clinton will preside over the empire named "globalization" but the US-empire, which is not exactly the same. The global network of production from highly concentrated resources, be they energy or raw materials, will certainly undergo a major transformation.

  4. Industrial civilisation is failing the 'long term sustainability' test on too many fronts to be able to avoid collapse now. Is there any field where the trend points the other way? The ramifications of climate disruption are enormous. Our 'Bubble' population of 7.4 billion can only be fed with industrial agriculture,which can only function with the use of fossil fuels,which in turn make climate disruption worse. Another problem the Roman Empire did not have was the pollution of ecosystems with the toxic,non-
    biodegradable products of an industrial civilisation. 'Poisoned Planet' by Julian Cribb provides ample documentation about the scale of this problem. The Ocean ecosystem is being devastated by the combination of this pollution,over-exploitation,and acidification . The rate of annual soil erosion (26 billion tonnes) versus soil formation (2.5 billion tonnes ) on the cultivated and grazing land worldwide is another enormous problem. Will changing to renewable energy infrastructure or nuclear power solve those problems on a planet where the human population is so large,and still increasing at over
    80 million each year? Remember that the enormous amount of renewable energy
    infrastructure required itself requires fossil fuel for the mining of the requisite minerals and for their manufacturing. All of that infrastructure
    doesn't last forever,all recycling require energy,and nothing can be recycled with 100% efficiency. The magnificent biodiversity of this planet is being
    annihilated,and we have now reached the stage where an urbanised populace have lost any appreciation of how important that natural world is to their own survival,and actually regard the possibility of colonising a lifeless,inhospitable rock in space to be an exciting prospect.

  5. One more parallel that can be drawn from Roman times is the cost of nation building. The Roman conquests were a good business when they conquered a developed society --for the time--, as Greece, Syria, Mediterranean Hispania, etc. For they could rapidly extract taxes. When the conquered lands containing less developed societies, as Germania or Mauretania, they needed to make "nation building" to be able to extract taxes, and the yield was much lower.

  6. Interesting. However when you say "but it is dubious that the walls were a good idea, and their costs may well have bankrupted the Empire in the long run", I had to pause and reflect: is that really true or just some kind of hasty superficial writing?

    First, how do you know that " it is dubious that the walls were a good idea"> What kind of data or references do we have to conclude on this "dubious " status? Or is it just written to set it as a good match with Trump's tentative wall?

    Second, how on earth do you know that "their costs may well have bankrupted the Empire in the long run"? I have been reading the big book of Oxford on "The Roman World" (John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, Oswyn Murray, Oxford Un. Press, 1988), and also the big "History of the World" (J.M. Roberts, Oxford Un. Press,1993), which includes a thorough review of Rome from its beginnings to Emperor Justinian (p. 180 - 250). Nowhere was I able to find a suggestion that the costs of Hadrian's walls "may have bankrupted the Empire in the long run." To me, this sounds like glib writing, with no real historical reference or evidence, written just for the need of your argument comparing Hadrian to Trump. Do you really have data to support those claims? Or are they simply invented for the needs of the argument?

    1. RB, of course we don't have copies of the bills that the builders of the great walls sent to the emperors! But we do have some good idea of the overall military expenses of the Roman Empire. Citing from memory, we are close to 5% of the GDP, which is a lot for an agricultural economy, And the percent of the state expenses was around 70% or more. Then, if you read Tainter's "The collapse of complex society", there is almost an entire chapter dedicated to show how emperors constantly found themselves short of the money they needed to pay for their military expenses. So, overall, I think we can say that military expenses were what bankrupted the Roman Empire; nothing surprising, it is what happened to the Soviet Union. And, to the core of your question, we don't know what fraction of the military budget went for building and maintaining the wall, but I am sure it was not small. Besides, manning a static fortification is a huge fixed expense; there is not much that you can do: either you keep troops on the wall (and you pay them) or the wall is useless. So, I think my statement can be reasonably defended although, of course, when dealing with these matters there are always zillions of different opinions. But thanks for your interest!

  7. Definitely Caligula.....unfortunately.

  8. Well, he is not Roman, but Italian, but I would say Berlusconi.




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)