Monday, August 6, 2018

How the World Elites are Going to Betray us: Lessons from Roman History

The more I study the story of the Roman Empire, the more I see the similarities with our world. Of course, history doesn't always repeat itself, but it is impressive to note how with the start of the collapse of the Western Empire, the Roman elites abandoned the people to build themselves strongholds in safe places. Something similar may be starting to occur in our times and our elites may decide to seek for safe havens while leaving us to drown, starve, or burn.

Rutilius Namatianus is known today for his "De Reditu Suo" (of his return). It is a long poem where he tells us of his travel along the Italian coast around 416 AD, during the last decades of the Western Roman Empire. We read in it a chilling report of the ongoing collapse: abandoned cities, wastelands, ruined roads, and more.

But who was Rutilius Namatianus, and what was he doing? A patrician, a powerful man, a rich man, and also a liar and a traitor. He was running away from Rome, probably taking with him gold, slaves, and troops with the idea of building himself a feud in Southern France, where he had some possessions. In doing so, he was abandoning the people of Rome to fend off for themselves. The people whom it was his duty to defend as praefectus urbi, the prefect of Rome, the delegate of the Emperor himself.

Namatianus was doing nothing worse than other rich and powerful Romans were. Emperor Honorius himself had run away from Rome, settling in Ravenna, protected by the marshes surrounding the city and with ships ready to take him to safety in Byzantium if things were to get really bad. When Rome was besieged and taken by the Visigoths, in 410 AD, Honorius did nothing, preferring to get busy with his chicken (a legend, but with elements of truth).

If you read the chronicles of the early 5th century AD, you get the impression of total mayhem, with barbarian armies crisscrossing Europe and few, if any, Roman nobles and commanders trying to defend the Empire. Most of them seemed to be maneuvering to find a safe place where they could find safety for themselves. We don't know what was the final destiny of Rutilius Namatianus but, since he had the time to finish his poem, we may imagine that he could build himself a castle in Southern France and his descendants may have become feudal lords. But not everyone made it. For instance, Paulinus of Pella, another rich Roman, contemporary of Namatianus, desperately tried to hold on his possessions in Europe, eventually considering himself happy just for having been able of surviving to old age.

We see a pattern here: when the rich Romans saw that things were going really out of control, they scrambled to save themselves while, at the same time, denying that things were so bad as they looked. We can see that clearly in Namatianus' poem: he never ever hints that Rome was doomed. At most, he says, it was a temporary setback and soon Rome will be great again.

Of course, history doesn't have to repeat itself, even though we know that it often rhymes. But the similarities of the last decades of the Western Roman Empire with our times are starting to be worrisome. Most of our elites aren't yet running away, but some of them seem to be thinking about that (see this article by Kurt Cobb). And some are starting to build sophisticated luxury bunkers where to take refuge.

What's most impressive is the change in attitude: as long as problems such as climate change were seen as needing just cosmetic changes, they were discussed and governments pledged to do something to solve them. Now that the problems start to be seen as impossible to deal with, they are ignored. The change is especially impressive for those regions where the climate threat is closer in time. The elites of the Maldives and the Kiribati islands (*) have reacted by denying the danger, while at the same time selling off what they have and getting ready to leave for higher grounds.

We have to be careful here: there is no conspiracy today (just as there wasn't in Roman times) of people getting together in a secret room to decide the fate of humankind. There is, rather, a convergence of interests. People who are sufficiently wealthy to buy themselves a survival bunker may decide to do so and, at that point, it is in their best interest to downplay the threats.

It is a very different attitude from that of middle-class people. We (I assume that most readers of this blog are middle-class people) don't have the kind of financial clout needed to plan for a future as feudal lords among the ruins of a collapsed civilization. That's why some of us keep catastrophistic blogs, "Cassandra's Legacy", for instance. Blogs can hardly save us from collapse but, at least, they are efficient means of communication and maybe that's what we need to plan for the future.

So, returning to Roman history, what happened to the Romans who couldn't run away and reach their castles? We know that not all of them survived, but some did. While the institutions and the state crumbled down, resilient communities started to appear, often in the form of monasteries or secular communities created around "overseers" (bishops).

Can we think of something like that for our future? Yes, it is an idea that's developing in several forms, transition towns, for instance. So far, it is just an embryonic idea, but it may grow into something important together with new ideas on how humans can relate to the ecosystem. The Romans, after all, developed a new religion to help them deal with the collapse of their society. And, as I said, history never exactly repeats itself, but it rhymes.


Some more details about the experience of ancient Rome with collapse. First of all, what was the origin of the 5th-century collapse? We have to go back to "peak empire" when the Romans reached the limits to their expansion. It was in 9 AD when three Roman legions were massacred by the Germans in the woods of Teutoburg. Their commander, Publius Quinctilius Varus, committed suicide.

How could it be that the Romans, no fools in military matters, sent three of their legions blithely marching into a thick forest were a large number of German warriors were waiting to cut them to pieces? The only possible explanation is that Varus was betrayed: someone wanted to see his head rolling, and they did. It is remarkable how fast and effectively Octavianus, emperor at that time, exploited the defeat for his personal political gain. He spread the rumor that he was so saddened by the news that he would walk in his palace at night, muttering, perhaps hoping to be heard by the Gods, "Varus, Varus, give me back my legions!" If there ever was a viral meme, this was one, still with us more than 2,000 years afterward!

Maybe Octavianus had Varus stabbed in the back, or maybe he just exploited Varus' incompetency as military commander. In any case, the Teutoburg disaster had the same effect as our 9/11 attacks on Roman society. It scared the Romans deeply. That sealed the role of Emperors as protectors of the people. Eventually, politics is mostly a racket: people pay to be "protected." Against whom? Typically, if there is no ready-to-use enemy, one needs to be fabricated on purpose. For the ancient Romans, the Barbarian menace (we would call them today, 'immigrants') was much exaggerated. The problems of the Empire were mostly internal and would have required deep reforms. Instead, the Emperors - and the Romans themselves - refused to admit that and they concentrated on military measures only. It was good business to keep troops and build defensive walls. Again, the similarities with our times are evident.

Things moved slowly in Roman times, so the strategy of concentrating all efforts on the military system seemed to pay, at least for a couple of centuries. If you read the memories of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, you get the impression of a person who genuinely believed that his duty was to defend the Empire. He couldn't understand that the excessive military expenses were ruining the Empire; most empires in history have destroyed themselves exactly in this way. Similarities with our times? Oh. . .

Things started going bad after Marcus Aurelius and the Empire all but collapsed during the 3rd century AD. It managed to get together again in a form that reminded more of a zombie than of the glorious empire of the early times. But the puls (**) really hit the fan with the end of the 4th century, when the Roman Elites started running for their lives. Many of them succeeded, while the poor were left in the puls - or not even that. Between 400 and 800 AD, the population of Rome fell by over 90%, mainly because of famine and the associated plagues.


(*) The fact that coral islands are "alive" gives them a certain capability of coping with the sea level rise caused by global warming. But there are limits to how fast the coral can grow and to the level the islands can cope with.

(**) If you are curious about what may be hitting the fan, you can see here a bowl of puls, a typical Roman food. It was a soup made with farro grains.


  1. It seems this is just a another form of dependence that doesn't work for either party. In a tourist town, or a mining town ( or one company/industry town ), or a military town, neither side seems to get along. The ones infusing money believe they are being taken advantage of and the locals resent the dependence and don't think they are compensated fairly. Perhaps the rich have encountered this first hand and think they are duplicating this dynamic. They think what they are offering in compensation is more fair than usual and so would work well. The workers providing security think this is a great deal since they can't afford to prepare themselves. Then of course it all goes south. We know it cannot work. Too much money tends to obscure common sense and knowledge of human nature. The rich would be better off investing now to duplicate a post-petroleum Dark Ages society rather than rely on buying a luxury lifeboat, but they can no more give up modern luxuries than the poor can ( I try to point out how easy it is to move to a genteel poverty but nobody wants to give up their car, for instance ). Anyway, great article. Thank you.

  2. Posted a link to this article under Kurt's article at Resilience.

    Thanks Ugo. I always like the stories from Roman history. (Maybe "like" isn't the right word though ... )
    - Bart

  3. Thanks for this, I always appreciate your forays into Roman history. But...while I appreciate your perspective I am also surprised at the basic mistakes that you are making. I would expect a more systemic view from you.
    The roman emperors focused on the military for the exact same reason as US does. An empire is just a wealth pump and you need the constant threat of force for that pump to continue to work. Why else would the world continue to use dollars when US has a trillion dollar yearly deficit?

    And your match between past and present is wrong too. Augustus lived at the peak of the empire and started a couple of centuries of incredible prosperity and riches. The US was at its peak in 1970 so the correct comparison would be with Kennedy maybe.

    We are much closer now to the time the roman empire split up - notice some NATO members are going their own separate ways (Turkey?)

  4. Thanks for this story from Rutilius Namatianus. I too find it interesting to compare the collapses of the past for what they bring forth about human nature and behaviour. Would it be presumptuous to say,'every man for himself',seems to dominate. I find the search for parallels in history fascinating but keep getting dragged back to the present - our modern world became highly dependent upon electromagnetism and benzene, not wood and dung but the past had the major benefit of lots of escape routes, to other lands, less populated places and still unexploited bountiful resources. Now we are in severe population overshoot, struggling with a damaged climate (read polluted atmosphere) and dwindling and depleted resources, so there is nowhere left to go that is not occupied and no more bountiful resources to be had, so this final collapse can only become the violent struggle to have and to hold onto what is left against all comers. This story will have a very different outcome for which there are few if any parallels to read about.

    As older societies collapsed so did the traditions of education and knowledge, they were forgotten or ignored, so what was the dark ages was not so dark but merely a reversion to a more rudimentary and more basic lifestyle without complex over arching social structures such as Empires. In time after this collapse, people will learn to read and communicate and travel but without electromagnetism and benzene and the wasteland of earth will have always been like that in anybody''s memory and what was just another fable. Having committed our memories and knowledge to magnetic recordings time alone will consign those memories to oblivion, so we will start again besides who will bother with anything as obtuse or arcane as bits and bytes or 0's and 1's it is not a human language that can be learned or spoken so it too will be lost.

  5. As a Biologist my view is, we are domesticated animals in a toxic Society. There is no way to see anything “normal” - how it should be. We create our own rules and laws and change them artificially. It is hard to understand, we are Slaves in a cage.
    We have this delusion of freedom, of democracy, of law and order. We ignore, anything can be changed very quickly. We had this in 1932 in Germany, when everything was still open - and possible. And the least desirable, with 70 % of the Voters against - the Hijack of Power succeeded by the least competent and least trustworthy.
    This can happen again anywhere. We are prone to be Hijacked by political terrorists. We are blind for reality and live like any Addict, yearning for the next high.
    The domesticated, conditioned Person is the Problem, not the frame of state or Politics. We are open for the next Caesar to become Emperor...We have already one in USA... and we become proud of the Great Kaiser...

    1. your thinking is the same as mine

      the vast majority are certain that the problems we face are entirely political, hence the vote for an idiot who promises what they want to hear

      A personal opinion on our mess is that we have brains that haven't evolved for 000s of years, trying to make sense of modern surroundings, but reacting as they would have done the threats faced as hunter gatherers

    2. Domestication is not Evolution. It is Conditioning to seek approved rewards by sticking to the rules-and avoiding pain and punishment - by dodging the rules...The emergence of a toxic Society came with the war on other tribes, who were forcefully integrated into ever bigger entities. As domesticated animals we accept this as the Kaiser says so. We accept terrible Monsters and do not dare to rebel. As a German I am stunned, how little and ridiculous resistance was against the Führer, who had a Godlike Aura...Thoreau may be a lone Man with Civil Disobedience. As we all beg for better cage care, we prefer to keep rowing the boat...The promise of the great Life we all can obtain...

  6. It never ceases to amaze me how ready everyone is to point out bad behavior then immediately condemn all humanity as just a bad behaving species without even trying to focus in on what it was that elicits the bad behavior.

    Bad behavior always comes as a response to conditions. If you want to generalize on human behavior or most species for that matter it is a tendency toward mutual aid in order to survive.

    Create an artificial environment and you can bring out bad behavior from any species. The difference with humans is we have big brains and can make sure that those conditions don’t happen but then it would be impossible for the few sociopaths/psychopaths to have their way. Don’t condemn all of humanity for the actions of a few.

    1. "...then it would be impossible for the few sociopaths/psychopaths to have their way." One big problem is that societies always seem to elevate those few to positions of power, or at least not put up much resistance when sociopaths make a grab for power (which is part of their nature, after all).

      It's almost as if a large number who aren't sociopaths themselves find sociopaths to be admirable in positions of leadership!

    2. Peter Kropitkin vs. Darwin by way of Herbert Spencer.

    3. There is a behavior rooted in our very fabric, deep within our nature; the wish for power, driven by the desire for riches. It all starts in a primal instinct of intraspecific competition to seize all available resources and deny our competitor's access to them in order for our own individual genes to prevail. In our intelligent species, this primal instinct can take grotesquely degenerated forms like that of those powerful and filthy rich who have only one child or none at all.

      We are not going to eliminate our own “bad behaviors” because they sprout from our hearts and nature like weeds in a wild yard. We won´t keep neither our own excessive personal ambition nor our strong shellfish greed from wanting power and reaching the top of our political system; corruption and predatory behavior are in our veins. They can be moderated somehow for a while, mainly by pure fear, in the case of a truly global disaster bringing enormous shock and suffering, at the view of the outcome of our feats. But I guess this wouldn´t last longer than a few generations, and beyond that humans will be back to their Great Attractor. I´d bet my life…, except a absolute miracle happening.

    4. It is not Kropotkin vs Darwin. It is Darwin consistently mis-quoted to serve a purpose. Read Darwin and you will see that he and Kropotkin were more in agreement than not.

    5. All your replies are essentially "blame the victim" . Your pet dog has it in his "nature" to bite your hand or even go for the throat for many breeds. Explain why all dogs are not like that in fact few are, why dont we round them all up and extinguish them?

      Mankind does not want to be greedy, rapacious, selfish, etc. It is just in our best interest to be that way because our owners keep yanking the food bowl away and kicking us out into the rain.

      We know how to bring out the best and worst behavior in both dogs and man but we only accept that fact in dogs. We lie to ourselves and say we have "free will" so therefor we must be choosing to create the worst possible societal structure that brings out the worst in us.

      Its all BS and could be different if we say so.

    6. totally agree with Jet. There is no such a thing as "human nature". there is a nice short book on the topic "The western illusion of human nature" by Marshall Sahlins

  7. Domestication is NOT bad is conditioned, trained, enforced behavior with rewards and punishment. As long as we refuse to see that, we will be blind for the Slave Owners playing games ...

  8. A member of my family is a sociopath - they can be quite charming and modest-seeming, and they are even admired.....

    And in politics, not a few people do seem to want Leaders (and idols) incredible as it may seem.

  9. Apart from the utility of the army to the emperors and their essential role in the maintenance of empire, there was also the little fact that an angry emperor would soon result in a dead emperor.

    As Septimius Severus said to his sons: 'Look after the army, and stuff the rest!'

    The army, like the bankers of today, had become TBTF, and had the power to bring the house down.

    Which was why the opportunity to re-set the financial system, and make the super-rich swallow their losses, was lost in 2008 - even though that would not of course arrest our downward trajectory which has physical, not merely financial, causes.

  10. Ciao Ugo,
    nice article. Roman empire's collapse was not actually totally negative. It created the basis for many advances. For example the abolition of slavery. It's true that the long medieval times were not a paradise on earth but nothing compared to the romans' system of slavery. I wander if the collapse looming at the horizon will be bring new and better ways of living... for those who survive. What you think??

    1. As a German Biologist my view is, Nature has Phase Transitions. The new Phase in Emergence will destroy the actual Phase and create a global desert. A Purgatory. A new Biosphere will emerge like 65 Million years ago. We can never imagine how that will be. And it may take some time... God is patient.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)