Looking Back to Move Forward, Part I:
Learning about Long-Term Strategy from the Romans
Blaine D. Pope, Ph.D.
This is the first in a brief series of articles on lessons modern human beings can learn from studying the distant past. It is an exercise in historical pattern recognition. This article implicitly asks, “To what extent do the events we are witnessing today resemble events seen in the past?” Broadly speaking, this article will compare and contrast socio-economic dynamics of the Roman Empire of Late Antiquity and/or the early Medieval/Byzantine period against 21st century America. This will focus on the era of collapse, resurgence, and subsequent re-collapse of the Roman Empire from the late 5th through the mid-7th centuries of the Common Era (CE).
This time period covers the Empire shedding much of its direct control of its increasingly costly and ineffective operations in western Europe. Instead the Empire would concentrate on more lucrative zones of operation in eastern Europe, western Asia and northern Africa (Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt specifically). It would then lose much of that Asian and African territory as a direct result the 7th century Islamic Revolution.
This study in global strategy has potential relevance for students, managers, and others interested in long-term organizational strategy, sustainability, and development, today. In heterodox fashion, I will combine modern notions of business strategy, public administration, organization development, with concepts from environmental science, political-economy, and history.
“Our Leaders Have Betrayed Us! Who Can We Trust?” — What’s Old is New Again
That portion of the Roman Empire that survived after the collapse in the west is known today as either the eastern Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire. By the early 7th century, these eastern-oriented, Greek-speaking Romans were once again in trouble — and they knew it. The old trope about “The Fall of Rome” seemingly started with this group of 7th century Romans.
What is interesting is that what follows in the quote below — with only minor adjustment — could have easily been pulled from modern news op-ed articles about the United States of America. In both 7th century Rome and 21st century USA we can see a similar rhetorical pattern in the murmurings of some intellectuals, wherein some would ask, in effect, “Is this the end of Rome?” This concept was frequently referred to by the Romans as either “the last days,” or “the end of days.” There were symptoms that revealed themselves during these times. What follows is from the 7th century text, The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius. The writer discusses his version of the Roman Empire’s symptoms of decay. In doing so, he quotes a passage from a much older document: the Second Epistle of Saint Paul to Timothy, Chapter 3, in the New Testament of the The Bible.
In the last days most savage times shall arise. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, useless, unclean, without natural affection, implacable, denouncers, incontinent, extravagant, lovers of evils, traitors, whisperers, puffed up, given to luxury more than to lovers of God, having a kind of godliness, but denying the power thereof (Garstad, 2012).*
Things were not going well for the eastern Roman Empire at that time. It was a kind of post-modern, end-of-an-era moment, ancient Roman-style. The cost of living had become extremely high. The Romans seemed to be bogged down in endless wars in the Middle East without any clear victories. Religious discrimination and bigotry were again on the rise. Citizens were angry and looking for scapegoats. Radical political factions on the periphery of the Empire were forming against Rome’s leadership, based in its new capital city of Constantinople.
If any of these issues sound vaguely familiar, they should. As I hope to demonstrate in cursory fashion in the following paragraphs, and in greater detail in upcoming articles, history tends to repeat itself. The key for modern readers is to understand the pattern and context under which such history has unfolded; and then to be able to discern any relevant patterns to modern times. The inference: if we don’t study our history appropriately, we may well be doomed to unconsciously repeating it.
The Imperative to Navigate Socioeconomic Turbulence
We are currently living through socially and economically turbulent times in many different parts of the world. Where and how might we begin to look for solutions to these seemingly complex problems? My contribution to this discussion starts by replying to this important question with another important question: How have other people from other times and other places coped with social and economic turbulence? What can the Roman Empire teach us about coping mechanisms during such times? From a perspective of grand strategy, how did the Romans adapt their institutions to accommodate evolving long-term circumstances? By studying this rich — but comparatively less well-known — era in world history there are valuable perspectives we might gain. This involves expanding our understanding of how various types of organizational systems succeed or fail. This includes broad concepts applicable to ancient kingdoms and empires as well as modern transnational corporations and state bureaucracies. This long-term, macro-social perspective can serve to enrich our current study of the challenges and opportunities posed by our own era now, in the 21st century.
Assumption 1: History Repeats Itself, but Never in Exactly the Same Way
If one studies enough history, one can gradually begin to discern rough outlines, or patterns of repetition in world events. In this essay, I will highlight some of the historical patterns I have discerned in studying late Roman history. This geographical and chronological entity has also been known variously as the Late Roman Empire, Late Antiquity, the eastern Roman Empire, and/or the Byzantine Empire. Different writers will sometimes use these terms slightly differently; however, one cannot easily use these terms without addressing the Roman world, writ large, in some way. Students shouldn’t be too confused by the various names. Each name or term attempts to define the Mediterranean world under the direct influence of Roman civilization, in one way or another.
Assumption 2: The USA isn’t the Roman Empire, but it Sometimes Mimics It
Just as citizens of the Roman Empire were able to influence events in their era and beyond, so citizens of the United States of America have likewise been able to influence world events in the 20th and early 21st centuries. So significant has been the influence and dominance of the USA in the 20th century that some historians and social scientists have actually labelled the it, “The American Century.” Whether or not the 21st century ends up being a second American Century remains to be seen, however. There is already some evidence to indicate that this will not (indeed, cannot) happen. This is so for a host of very normal historical reasons — both internal and external to the Untied States of America — as I hope to explain.
I will then draw some tentative conclusions about how we in the 21st century might adapt our own institutional and personal behavior to evolving world circumstances. Sometimes, the best advice on current or future courses of action can be drawn from how human beings have adapted to challenges in the past — even the distant past. The Roman Empire can provide a rich historical source for such analyses, if one is willing to take the time to conduct a focused study.
Literary comparisons between the Unites States of America in the 21st century and the Roman Empire of Late Antiquity are legion. There have been numerous books and articles on the subject. Here, I draw some rough parallels between managing ancient Roman institutions and organizations and modern American ones. Some of the factors once faced by the Roman Empire are, broadly speaking, the same factors faced by modern organizations, enterprises, and governments.
These include measuring the costs of operations; balancing internal strengths and weaknesses versus external opportunities and threats (SWOT analysis); assessing resource inputs and outputs (human, financial, material); gaining access to fuel or energy supplies and other factors of material-commodity production; utilizing and maintaining peaceful and reliable international trade routes; supporting leadership through times of crisis — especially during times of war; and the public perception and subsequent willingness to support each of these interlocking domains of activity, particularly over the long-term.
Rather than having any concept of management as some kind of precise science, ancient leaders tended to engage more openly in what Yale economics professor, the late Charles Lindblom, once called “the science of muddling through.” In short, the Romans of times past engaged in use of their common sense, based on past experience, to make (and possibly revise) their managerial and executive decisions. This article is less about Roman political and economic decision-making methodology, however. This article is about what the Romans had to decide upon. I assert that that “what” is the same “what” that many modern managers and leaders have to decide upon today, also.
At a very fundamental level, the ancient Romans confronted the same issues of public policy and business policy that most modern managers, executives, and world leaders confront today. It is at this level that we can speak in terms of the countries like the USA mimicking the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire in the Late 5th Century
Assumption 3: If We Can Understand How Systems Collapse or Fail under Certain Conditions, then We Can Better Understand How They Operate
To use a medical metaphor, this is a study in pathology. It is a study in how and why organizational systems can break down. It involves understanding where systems fail. It follows that if we can understand systems from a perspective of pathology, we can then explore how systems can best be maintained (assuming they should be maintained).
Methodologically, I will borrow in particular from the frameworks of Joseph Tainter and Sing Chew, and Nafeez Ahmed, in focusing on the dynamics of the political-economy of energy resources. I will focus in particular on their works, The Collapse of Complex Societies, World Ecological Degradation, and Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence, respectively.
Assumption 4: Everything Moves in Cycles
The Universe is dynamic. That is to say that it moves and evolves according to certain patterns over extremely long cycles of time — some of which modern humans have just begun to understand. The Earth, nested within that larger Universe, is also dynamic. That is to say Nature (e.g., ecology and geology) likewise move in broad and generalizable patterns over extremely long periods of time. However, within these very large cycles are also smaller ones, or epi-cycles. Where large cycles might be thought of in eons, millennia and centuries, epi-cycles might be thought of in years, months, and days. In each case, however, these cycles pulsate. That is to say, they move in a generalizable and repeating pattern of rise, peak (and/or plateau), and subsequent decline.
Such general patterns of rise-peak-decline can be documented in recording the rhythms of human heartbeats, pulse rates, and fertility cycles. They can be documented in annual seasonal changes on the Earth: Spring and Summer (rise-to-peak), followed by Fall and Winter (peak-to-decline). Traditionally, in the northern hemisphere, fall and winter have represented activity slowing down; while Spring and Summer have representing activity speeding up. Everything moves in cycles. So, it should come as no surprise that — in terms of human activity — we might also talk in terms like electoral cycles and business cycles. These terms simply reflect a larger pattern upon which they have been based.
This recognition of human-based activity’s links to the patterns found in the natural world I have referred to elsewhere as the concept of Terracentrism. In simple terms, Terracentrism refers to seeing the patterns found all around us in the natural world, and then using that pattern recognition as a kind of template or lens for understanding certain domains of human activity. More will be said of this, later.
For our purposes here, Terracentrism applies to the growth cycles of nations and empires, in terms of their ability to access physical resources. In simple terms, this mimics a kind of digestion process. Nations and empires must consume certain resources to survive. First among them are energy resources, without which nothing else can happen. For most of human existence, since the development of fire technology, this has involved the consumption of low-calorie trees-as-wood. In the modern era, on the other hand, this has involved the relatively recent consumption of extremely dense, high-calorie fossil fuels.
The recent human ability to access calorie-dense fossil fuels has, in effect, put human evolution and organization development on a protracted, high energy, Spring-to-Summer trajectory. As such, human organizational activities have blossomed in ways that would have been inconceivable 300 years ago. In spite of this, modern civilization still finds itself subject to the same basic constraints confronted by the Romans, albeit in modified form.
The Matter-Energy Matrix, Past and Present
Energy makes the world go around, both literally and figuratively. It is a fundamental driver of any economy. Without access to energy resources, nothing happens. Without access to stable and predictable supplies of energy resources, economic turbulence is often the result (consider the economic impact of the energy price spikes of 1973, 1979, and 2008). Using a study of energy resource utilization rates as a common denominator, I will draw some rough parallels between the challenges in energy resource acquisition faced by the Romans during the late 5th, 6th, and early 7th centuries, and the United States of America in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
Matter and energy are two sides of the same coin, however. Matter is energy in solid form. Energy is matter in dynamic form. It is therefore difficult to discuss one without any discussion of the other. We will also cover issues of some key, tangible commodities like wood, food, human resources (and the central role of human labor, in particular) as well as money. Having established a natural resources baseline, and only then, we will next look at the dynamic interactions between economy and ecology/environment.
The Special Role of the Military
The Roman Army had long established itself as a powerful military force. It was not unbeatable, however. It lost of number of key battles in its storied history, some of them highly significant to the future development of the Empire. In many ways, the Roman Army (plus allied military and paramilitary units) will serve as the focal point for an integrated study of the role of matter and energy resource utilization.
Economic historians have estimated that, at its high point, the Roman Army accounted for approximately 60% of all Roman government expenditures. Interestingly, that figure roughly corresponds with budgeted early 21st century defense expenditures in the United States of America. For every dollar in government expenditures in the USA, roughly 60 cents will be spent for military purposes alone. That leaves roughly 40 cents for everything else — roads, schools, healthcare, communications, heavy infrastructure, etc. Are such ratios of expenditure sustainable? If yes, by what means? What did the ancient Romans do? What will modern Americans need to do in upcoming decades? In many ways, the condition of the military highlights the overall condition of these two influential societies.
Demographic Shifts Confronting the Roman Empire
By the 5th century C.E., the western portion of the Roman Empire had already been in a state of economic decline and transformation for many, many decades. During this period, many western Roman elites had simply “retreated” from their former roles in the mostly urban-based, public sphere of Roman life. They withdrew much of their participation in government and professional guild activities and subsequently withdrew to their countryside villas or latifundia. They bolstered their resources there, allowed small villages to settle near them for both security and labor purposes; and they even raised their own small, private armies to defend them against brigands and highway robbers. This concept has some interesting parallels with modern notions of private security services, today.
This was sometimes combined with certain tax benefits for those land-owning Romans who technically “sold” their rural properties to the newly powerful Catholic Church. In an arrangement somewhat akin to a reverse mortgage today, they were then allowed by the Church to occupy those same properties for the remainder of their lives. This, in turn, helped them to evade the increasingly high tax burden used to support the Roman government bureaucracy. After the residents either died or moved out, the Church would take over the property and convert it to some form of church-oriented, communal function. What may have started out as a single wealthy family villa would often be repurposed for public purposes. This could result in a private villa being turned into a multifamily commune, or cooperative commercial operation, or even a partially redesigned government office of some sort.
The Costs of Empire
Adaptions and Reformulations: Outsourcing
The overarching economic context of this time was the gradually diminishing marginal utility (gradually diminishing benefits and satisfaction) garnered in paying to sustain the Roman state bureaucracy. For reasons I hope to explain in greater detail in upcoming articles, Roman citizens were gradually paying more to their government yet receiving less from it. The administrative overhead costs associated with maintaining the western Roman state bureaucracy and selected industries (e.g., weapons manufacturing) had grown ever more costly with progression of time. This, in turn, was reflected in increasingly heavy tax burdens, imposed on private citizens from all walks of life.
But why was that so? To understand this question, we have to analyze the material inputs used by the Romans to run and maintain their expansive empire. The most essential resource input in the process: trees-as-wood, the critical (and in the west, increasingly scarce) energy source needed for all Roman heavy industry. In so doing, we must also analyze some of the economic and resource dynamics that help define what it means to be an empire.
Meanwhile, to defray costs, the Roman state had also long since discovered the utility of outsourcing military and security services to so-called “barbarian” (foreign) peoples. These foreign military laborers could be significantly cheaper to hire and provision as compared with training and provisioning more expensive, indigenous Italian/Roman labor sources. By the 5th century, this utilization of Roman-affiliated foreigners for military service was already a long-established tradition. This process worked so well that the very words “foreigner” and “soldier” eventually became synonymous among many western Roman citizens. Gradually, many of those Germans became “Romanized,” and many Romans on the Italian Peninsula likewise became “Germanized.”
Adaptations and Reformulations: Downsizing
Gradually, the German elements in this emerging Germano-Roman hybrid state of Italy captured the commanding heights of the old Roman state apparatus in the west. This is the story of the rise of the Goths in Italy, during the 5th and early 6th centuries. In many respects, the collapse and transformation of the western Roman Empire (often misunderstood as a singular event known as “The Fall of Rome”) was not so much an invasion as it was a gradual transition, over many decades, involving huge demographic and cultural shifts, facilitated by this ancient example of outsourcing of selected professional services and product fabrication. This early example of outsourcing — just like today — seemed the most practical, efficient, and cost-effective thing to do at the time. Likewise then, just like today, the decision to outsource services was driven by cost concerns.
Roman-style Gated Communities, Communes, Coops, and Alternative Lifestyles
Another kind of retreat was also taking place. People had started giving up many of their worldly possessions and retreating to monasteries (these were essentially Church-managed communes) in various desert oases, and other remote locations. Here, people would engage in collective work for the greater good (for “God’s Glory!”) whilst simultaneously being “forgiven” for any outstanding taxes owed to the Roman state. The Church had become a kind of tax haven, while also brokering early versions of debt-for-equity swaps, acquiring huge land holdings in the process. It was in the deserts of Roman Egypt that the Christian monastic movement is said to have begun — spreading throughout the Empire thereafter. One of the most famous of these being the 6th century monastery of Saint Catherine, on the Saini Peninsula, in Egypt.
One of the great ironies of this world is that the seeds of failure seem to be planted inside every success. The Roman Empire typified this. The Romans had become so successful at conquering and absorbing peoples that, eventually, those peoples were demographically numerous enough (and well-trained enough) to capture the very same Roman state that had previously captured them. Add to this the rising marginal costs of basic inputs to keep the Empire operating (e.g., having to go farther and farther away from the City of Rome to import much needed wood for Roman industry), and the attendant environmental destruction inherent in this ancient industrialization process, and a flat-lining or decline Roman population growth trajectory — and what you end up with is what historians call imperial overreach. Indeed, those high-value, low-cost barbarian workers allowed many of the institutions of Rome to continue, even if in a new and slightly altered barbarian guise. Even after Theodoric-the-Great assumed the throne as “King of Italy” in 493 A.D., he still formally declared loyalty to the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, Rome’s new capital city in the east (and since 1930, known as “Istanbul,” in modern Turkey).
But what was fundamentally driving those increasing costs? Here, I assert that it is nothing other than a classic case study in overshoot, sometimes also called imperial overreach. In order to maintain a continuous supply of resource flows into the economic centers of the Roman Empire, starting with the old city of Rome itself, together with Roman industry the military would gradually have to extend its reach further afield. This would be necessary in order to access fresh zones of resource extraction, after older zones of extraction had been depleted. However, this would gradually result in reducing the efficacy of Roman military forces, as they would be stretched ever thinner, to defend resource extraction points and related transportation networks. Nowhere is this more striking than in the extraction of trees-as-wood from the forests zones north of Italy, in central and northern Europe.
Nowhere is the concept of overshoot or overreach better demonstrated than in eastern Roman Emperor Justinian’s ambitious plan to restore the ancient Roman political and military status quo — only to oversee the economic and physical hollowing out a large swath of imperial territory, in the process of trying to make Rome great again. Additionally, much like the Bush Administration’s ambition to re-make the Middle East through regime change, Justinian had inherited a huge budget surplus from his predecessor, Emperor Anastasius. Justinian eventually exhausted that surplus on multiple foreign wars and a domestic building boom, however. If any of this sounds remotely familiar, it should. History is like a very big ellipsis or spiral. Trends tend to loop back around.
These and other Roman social trends will be explored, in future installments, as we look backward in order to explore how we might best move forward. There are important lessons to be learned from the past, for those willing and able to take the time to study them. The key is to not simply study the past, however; they key is to empower ourselves — through pattern recognition — to see (and hopefully guide) our potential future trajectories.
Blaine D. Pope
 Unlike the modern reverse mortgage which involves a system of payments that goes from a lender to the current occupant of a home, the old Roman system would simply relieve occupants of the burden to pay any taxes. The Roman home was technically Church property after it was “sold,” and therefore not subject to any taxes.
 The majority of those government revenues would go toward supporting the sprawling and politically influential Roman military and security apparatus, and its allied foederati (foreign legion) forces.
 Here, I consciously borrow and paraphrase the campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” or MAGA, used by US President Donald Trump during his successful 2016 campaign. The slogan implied the United States of America was somehow diminished, and should be restored. In many ways, Emperor Justinian slogan of “Renovatio Imperii” (the Imperial Restoration) was the 6th century Roman equivalent of MAGA.