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

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Romans and Us. Why State Violence is on the Rise

The Spanish police injured hundreds of people, including women and the elderly, during the referendum for the independence of Catalunya, in 2017 (image source). It was not the worst that states can do - and have have been doing - to their citizens, but it is an indication that state violence is on the rise. Perhaps we can find reasons for this trend if we look back at history, all the way to ancient Rome. The Romans were extremely cruel and violent, perhaps an effect of their reliance on slaves. In our case, we have replaced human slaves with fossil slaves (fossil fuels) but, as they are abandoning us, we risk to return to the violence of ancient times.

The more you study ancient Roman history, the more you realize how similar to us the Romans were. The economy, money, commerce, travel, bureaucracy, laws - so many things in our world find a parallel in the Roman world, even though often in a much less sophisticated form. So, if you were to use a time machine to be transported to ancient Rome, you would find yourself in a familiar world in almost all respects. Except for one thing: you would be startled by the violence you would encounter. Real, harsh, brutal violence; blood and death right in front of you, in the streets, in the arenas, in theaters. It was not the random kind of violence we call "crime," it was violence codified, sanctioned, and enacted by the state.

When we think of violence in Roman times, we normally think of gladiator games. Those were surely bloody and violent, but just part of the story of how the Roman state managed violence. The Roman courts meted capital punishment with an ease which, for us, is bewildering. Poor people, slaves, and non-Roman citizens were especially likely to be declared "noxii" (plural of noxius) and condemned to death.

In those times, there was no such thing as a "humane" way of killing the noxii. On the contrary, their suffering was supposed to be an example - the more they suffered, the better. They were tortured, beaten, flogged, crucified, chocked, dismembered, burned, and more. It seems that they could even be killed also for theater plays: when the plot involved the death of a character, the actor playing the role could be replaced with a noxius who would be killed for real for the pleasure of the audience. (Tertullian reports this, although it is not clear how common it was).

As another example, the Roman law said that when a slave killed a master, all the slaves of that household were to be executed, even those not involved in the murder. Tacitus, (Ann. 14.42.2) reports that the law was put into practice when the slaves of a rich patrician - hundreds, at least - were executed after that their master had been killed by one of them over, apparently, a love rivalry. That was justified because it was to be seen as an example.

How is it that a supposedly advanced civilization as the Roman one could behave in this way? One word: slavery.

That needs to be explained. First of all, all societies are based on some kind of social control. If humans were ants, cooperation would be coded in their genes. But, in humans, personal interest may go against the common good. To avoid that, there is a need for negative or positive enforcement: what we commonly call the carrot or the stick.

Positive enforcement may be food, sex, shelter, and other forms of gratification. Negative reinforcements can be the denial of all that, but also physical punishment: flogging, beating, torturing, etc.

In our society, we tend to believe that positive reinforcements are better than negative ones. For instance, we agree that our accountants, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and the like don't do their job because they are flogged or beaten if they don't. They do their best because they look for money, the primary form of positive enticement in our world.

Our society is possibly the most monetarized in history in the sense that we tend to believe that money can push people to do more or less everything. You probably know the joke about how economists hunt elephants: they don't, but they believe that elephants will hunt themselves if they are paid enough.

But how about the ancient Romans? In many cases, they used money just like we do. For instance, the Roman soldiers fought because they were paid: the very word "soldier" comes from a late Roman coin. Probably, the Romans knew perfectly well that negative reinforcements - beating, flogging, etc. - were not the best way to entice people to do their best. But they had a big problem with their slaves.

Slaves were the backbone of the Roman society, but how could they be motivated to work? By paying them money? Hardly. The majority of slaves were engaged in menial tasks, sometimes they were expendable manpower for mines and other dangerous tasks. Giving money to them would have had no sense: how could they spend it? The Roman economy couldn't produce the variety of toys and trinkets that we use to mark people's social status - a game we know as "keeping up with the Joneses."

It is true that some slaves formed an upper crust of professionals - they occupied the social space that's today occupied by the middle class. These relatively well to do slaves could own money, but that didn't change the fact that they were slaves and, in most cases, they were expected to remain so for life. Freeing slaves was maybe a positive stimulus, but it was rare and often just a way for a master to get rid of an old and useless slave.

So, negative enforcements - the stick - were used to control the slaves. Harsh punishments were lavishly applied not only to slaves, but the underclass of the libertii (freed slaves), the poor, and the foreigners. The Romans were so cruel because they had to constantly remind to the underclass what was their place and that they were always just one step away from being sent ad bestias, condemned to be eaten by wild beasts in the circus.

Everything has a logic and it seems that also being cruel has a logic - although not a pleasant one. And now we can apply this logic to our society. We don't have human slaves, but we have fossil slaves in the form of fossil fuels. We deal with fossil fuels in ways similar to those the Romans used toward their slaves (as noted also by Mouhot). Just like the Romans used their human slaves to build their civilization, we used the power of fossil fuels to build ours. One of the consequences is that we didn't need (so far) the kind of wanton cruelty that the Romans used toward their slaves. Our fossil slaves never complained about being burned inside boilers and engines.

But it is also true that fossil fuels are becoming gradually more expensive as we use them, because of the depletion of the best resources. Then, we badly need to reduce their use in order to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Our fossil slaves are leaving us; it is unavoidable.

The consequences are already visible: increasing inequality, extreme poverty, societal stress, and more. We haven't returned to the kind of formal separation among classes that defines some people as "slaves" in the Roman sense of the term, but we are seeing the rise of "debt slaves." In principle, debt is something that is supposed to be repaid by hard work. But, in many cases, it is becoming apparent that no matter how hard and for how long a person will work, they'll never be able to repay their debt. So, how can debt slaves be motivated?

The answer is the same that the ancient Romans had found: using negative enforcement methods, that is punishments, even harsh ones, meted by the state in its various branches: the police, the judiciary, the army, etc. And it seems to be exactly what we are seeing.

It is difficult to find reliable statistics on the increasing trend of state violence. Possibly, the most evident set of data we have is for the incarcerations in the US, showing an increase of a factor of five of the number of inmates from 1980 to 2014. Other forms of state-sanctioned violence can be judged only in qualitative terms, but it seems clear that we are in a historical phase in which states are more and more torturing, beating, shooting, and harassing unarmed citizens. The beating of Spanish citizens by the state police in Catalunya in 2017 is just an example.

So, here we are: seeing a spiral of violence that threatens to engulf all of us. To avoid that, I think we can learn a lot from the experience of the ancient Romans. Their source of energy was human slaves and that was the reason leading them to be so horribly cruel and violent. We have been lucky enough that we didn't need human slaves (so far) and so we could create a reasonably peaceful society - at least a society that was far less cruel than that of the ancient Romans. But if we have to revert to human slaves, we'll return to a cruel and bloody world, as it has been the rule for most of human history.

If we want to avoid this sad destiny, the only hope we have is to replace the fossil slaves with renewable, solid-state slaves who won't complain about staying in the sun to provide energy for us. A solar-powered society doesn't need human slaves and it can be reasonably peaceful. We can build a society based on solar energy, but we have to do it fast -- before the dark fossil slaves leave us forever.


A good book on violence in Roman times is "Spectacles of Death"; by Donald G. Kyle (1998) a paper on economic inequality during the Roman Empire is the one by Scheidel, W., & Friesen, S. (2010). "The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire", Journal of Roman Studies, 99 DOI: 10.3815/007543509789745223


  1. Ugo---I admire your optimism

    As our energy resources (fossil fuels that is) begin to fade away, there will be an increasingly desperate reaction on the part of the governing elite to prevent it, and maintain the status quo (or BAU).

    "renewables" won't do it. I think that has been clearly shown by people far cleverer than me---renewables deliver electricity---our society runs on far more than electricity---you know that.

    I offer you certainties...the only certainty I cannot offer you is a date. But they are nevertheless certain.

    Oil gave us what appeared to be an infinity of plenty. And gullible people believed that, and also believed that prosperity could be voted into office---they still do, for the most part. Hence the "Make America great again" hogwash.
    American is a construct of fossil fuel. As are all the industrial nations of the modern world.

    Without it, America will disintegrate into disparate regions. As will other major nations. The EU is an agglomeration of nations with common prosperity---remove that and we are at war again.

    And what did the wars of the last century throw up?

    Fascist dictators, who inflicted their crazed ideology on as many people as they could conquer. They were of course resource wars. Germany and Japan had to grab what they could, or collapse. They were both run as Ponzi schemes

    Now there are no more resources left to grab, but leaders are still driven to imagine there are.

    So---my certainties? Let’s deal with the USA. (it applies everywhere else too)

    A rapidly declining (ex fossil fuels) economy will lead to civil disorder, because employment cannot function in a debt based solar driven economy. Without fuel to drive employment, money must be borrowed to pay wages and ‘’prime’’ the economy. Without raw energy, money can have no value. Renewables will not alter that.

    As civil disorder inevitably takes hold, military intervention will become necessary because states threaten to secede. Whoever is president must assume dictatorial powers (to restore order). Trump will be inept, and will be removed. But Pence?---One of god’s chosen. (or someone like him) Where have we heard that before? Perfect dictator material. Armies fall in behind whoever pays their wages. People cheer their excesses—(refer to WW2) And believe themselves superior to “lesser peoples”.

    In short order you have theofascism, and the brutality that will bring. The USA will disintegrate, but not before civil wars speed up the mess. (again—fighting over resources)

    As you say, societies cannot function without energy. Until the advent of the steam engine, that meant muscle power. (basically serfdom) Remove the steam engine, and we are back to that.

    Remember---Democracy is the child of prosperity. Poverty makes it an orphan and it starves to death

    Soon, as economies enter the serious collapse phase, the battle will begin for the very last of everything. And stil our leaders won’t know/accept the real reason.
    To discuss the Middle East mess would make this comment far too long, but I think you get my drift.
    Post oil, new tyrannies are inevitable.

    I’ve tried to clarify that here:

    1. Which means, I think, that there exists a moral case for renewables. We should at least try.

    2. agree

      the problem is that the vast majority will expect and demand BAU

      And get very nasty when there's anything less than that

    3. How true: we can see in retrospect that the Third Reich was modelled on the the Roman Empire - slavery, conquest, population movements, mass tribal extermination, (Gypsies, Jews, Slavs, etc) wealth pump,citizen soldiers and foreign legionaries - but all over in a flash, a mere six years.

      Neither Hitler nor Stalin, nor the US in Vietman, did anything that the Romans (or Persians) would have batted an eyelid at: Caesar ordered the massacre of 100,00 tribespeople and went whistling to his breakfast...

      However, there is no possibility at all -with apologies to our host,and I would dearly love to believe otherwise -that solar panels and wind/wave turbines can make up for fossil fuels, that supreme, intoxicating nectar of Industrialisation.

      Our only consolation is that the Soul remains untouched by all of this -see Marcus Aurelius.

    4. Well renewables may not work out long term, but if they just buy us more time that is very valuable. The faster the decline the higher the suffering.

    5. I should add, is the assumption I have that the greater the social distance between the state/wealthy elite and the lowest classes the higher the state sanctioned violence?

      I imagine this has been looked into by others.

    6. A likely form of "violence" might be neglect as plagues run their course(s) through populations. It is said that within a few years the ability to produce novel diseases (as weapons) will be within reach of many non-state actors. Non-productive people will eventually be recognized as a drag on state resources. I'm an old man, but I tell my children to prepare.

    7. Ive given up telling my grandkids about it---they are very successful young people and I'm very proud of them, but effectively they are burning through resources as fast as possible---one has just taken her private pilots licence, another is a succesful architect helping rich people to spend their money

      who am I to say stop---even if they could?

  2. In Europe and the US a wave of iconoclastic indignation wants to destroy monuments to former slave owners, including American presidents, Dutch stadhouders and traders, British generals, and Cristopher Columbus.

    Maybe a way to ritually kill a part of human nature that is rearing its head again?

    Slavery has by the way reappeared in Lybia and in Southern Italian plantations.

    1. Probably they want to destroy these monuments as a desperate voodoo incantation to avoid the return of those times - that they probably undesrstand are coming.

  3. >It is difficult to find reliable statistics on the increasing trend of state violence.

    You could look into the growth of SWAT operations in the US, which increased 20-fold over the past 30 years. The Wikipedia article mentions a number of books and research studies:

    Things have gotten so bad that "to swat" has become a transitive verb, meant as a prank. Sometimes with deadly consequences:

    The phenomenon is much less pronounced in Europe. The Dutch police, for example, does its best to diffuse tension and almost never uses violence.

    However, the French police has consistently reacted to terrorist attacks by shooting the suspects on the spot, or even after hunting them down. This amounts to execution without due process which, I was taught in school, is something we civilized Europeans do not do, and certainly not the most civilized Europeans of us all, the French.

    But I am sure I missed something and shooting suspects is perfectly ok.

    Then of course the Patriot act is the pure form of state violence against its own citizens.

    1. Thanks. These are both qualitative and quantitative evidence of increasing state-managed violence

    2. On the other hand, french policemen and firemen get regularly chased, stoned or beaten by groups of wrongdoers with almost no reaction from the state.

  4. Very interesting post, as usual. Although I think the Romans were not particularly violent for their time. They were just more organised than others. The idea that all human lives are sacred and cannot be killed at will is relatively recent in human history, and it is not enforced everywhere even today.

    1. Yes, indeed. Even relatively modern societies, such as the US until 1860, used slavery and engaged in bloody demonstration of violence against the slaves - in this case called "lynching"

  5. “Colonel” Drake drilled his first oil well in 1859. In 1861 the United States engaged in a civil war that successfully led to the end of slavery. I often wonder if the fact that these two events occurred at virtually the same time is altogether a coincidence.

    1. An interesting point, although the transition took a lot of time. The last reports of lynching in the US are from the 1980s.

    2. The oil/slavery thing has occurred to me too, the coincidental dates

      The following clips are from the same edition of Scientific American in 1859

      “In 1820 the number of ships engaged in whale fisheries in the Arctic was 156 and the amount of oil obtained was 18,725 tuns (a tun is roughly 1000 litres). Owing to the increased difficulty of catching whales, and the rapid extension of lighting streets and factories with gas, the whaling business was almost extinguished.”

      “The First Oil Wells. Recent news on Pennsylvania rock oil: in most countries a troublesome process must be undergone to extract oil from mineral substances, such as from coal or asphalt; but Pennsylvania seems to be favourably dealt with by Dame Nature, that the very rocks distil oil into her lap. The North western part of the State seems to contain quite a number of subterranean springs which yield a limpid oil, some of which we have examined, and quite recently there was a considerable excitement caused by the discovery of a rich oil spring while sinking a shaft to find a salt spring. The yield of the Seneca oil spring near Titusville, up to the period of the recent fire, was up to 1600 gallons per day. The excitement is unabated.”

      There's another odd coincidence too.

      that the viable steam engine was patented and the American nation was created in the same year, 1776.

  6. Excellent post, Ugo. I made similar but less erudite comments in a blog some years ago about the likely return of slavery. At the tail end of the Roman empire I read that the slave to free men ratio had climbed to 9:1. The comments that followed here are very cogent, especially by Norman Pagett.Solar energy will be an important source of energy going forward but the type of solar energy envisioned by some proponents, solar and wind farms cannot be scaled up nor maintained without fossil energy subsidies. Utilizing solar/wind energy to heat buildings and water and to do mechanical work directly is a no brainer but I don't see any wind farms set up to grind grain or pump water. In addition, from a military standpoint(my background), they are fragile and highly visible. A successful military action usually involves exploiting vulnerabilities and destroying energy assets is primary along with of course fuel/ammo depots and command and control facilities. Giant sprawling wind and solar farms cannot be made secure.It should be mentioned that most of the large military bases are in Flyover Country and not along the wealthy populated E and W coasts. If Balkanization of the US develops, the military assets in Flyoverville
    will dominate the conversation on how and where the disintegration evolves.

    1. elites must eat

      without mechanical means to obtain food, there will only be muscle---either human or animal.

      sufficient food for 7.5bn people cannot be produced by muscle power alone, neither can it be produced by solar panels.

      Therefore around 6bn people don't have much of a future---which takes us right back to the human condition that existed before the industrial revolution.

    2. Biodiesel isn't difficult to produce from either animal fat or vegetable oil. It can and does power diesel powered equipment like tractors and combines. Yes it means there is crop acreage that would otherwise feed animals and humans instead being devoted to mechanical slaves but that surely beats the return of human slavery. I run my farm tractors on homemade biodiesel produced from pig fat. My water wells are solar powered. Profit and crop subsidies are an impediment to progress on sustainable agriculture and could be remedied. Maybe we should aim to harvest low hanging fruit before we acquiesce on the fate of " billions." Electrics have their part to play as do alternative fuels. We need to get corporate agriculture out of the lobby business and into solutions to climate and sustainable food systems.

    3. "I" is not enough

      7.5 bn people represent "we"

      and until you can figure out a way of feeding the half of the world's population who live in cities, while your personal efforts are laudable, they will count as nothing when those city dwellers get hungry.
      those 3.5 bn people are kept alive by (mainly) fossil fuels.

      It is not possible to feed that many using solar panels. Few people have your skills. (me included)

      We've already harvested the low hanging fruit---it was the cheap oil of the 30s/40s. and the cheap coal of an earlier era

  7. The episode of the spanish police beating the catalan separatists as they tried to vote, while I admit it is significant, it is way below the average daily violence of police in many countries. The whole episode is more of an epic show for the media.

    1. In the 1960's and 70's, the Spanish police would simply have shot some of them them -no exaggeration.

      It does actually represent an improvement in Spain, all things considered....

  8. I agree completely with the basic idea.
    However, at least here in Europe, I see something else.
    1) the more energy slaves we have, the less cruel we are, the more individuals feel themselves important (after all, everybody today is a proud slave owner).

    2) This creates an ideological momentum which is growing stronger and stronger, as it takes some decades for everybody to start thinking that way.

    3) However, while the psychological momentum grows and grows, resources are going the other way.

    This leads to a contradictory motion: for example, just as the state has to start saving on heating in schools, people start suing the state because the heating is not warm enough for their kids at school.

    This contradiction of course accelerates the situation that Ugo describes, but at least in Italy we are not yet there.

  9. Continuing with my agreement on the basic idea... whatever we may think about "culture wars", "gender issues", "political correctness", "minority rights" etc. as such, it is interesting to consider why they are exploding now.

    Masses of people have suddenly discovered they are slave owners, and as aristocrats, they are not going to let anybody else boss them around.

    The problem is that just as they are becoming aware of this, and are transmitting the same feelings to their children, the (fossil) slaves are running away...

  10. What were the Romans thinking? We must not revert back to the incredibly violent no slave holding people. We all must have slaves!



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)