Civilisation And The Roman Effect
by Nigel Feetham (This article was first published on 30th November 2016)
The Greeks were extremely advanced in mathematics, philosophy, engineering, astrology and medicine. For over 150 years Hellenic ideas and culture spread right across southwest Asia and northeast Africa after the death of Alexander the Great when his empire was divided among his generals. The library at Alexandria stood as testimony of man’s innate hunger for learning. Then came the Roman Empire and with it a civilisation that lasted for over 500 years and a Roman system of law that is still in evidence today. When the Empire crumbled much of the fabulous infrastructure the Romans had built disappeared and although Europe did not fall into darkness overnight, it gradually did in the period known as the Dark Ages. Much Greek and Roman learning was lost forever. Some survived or was only rediscovered during the Italian Renaissance over a thousand years later. Unfortunately for us they say history tends to repeat itself. This has less to do with abstract notions of science or religion than to the fact that human behaviour (based on known factors) is quite predictive.
In a previous article I have postulated that if more information and knowledge had survived throughout the ages, it is possible (if not probable) that modern technology would have been invented hundreds of years before our time. A modern day comparison of what it might have felt like to be Roman could well be this. Let us suppose that gradually all global electronic systems were to fail (internet, electricity or computers), public libraries were destroyed, natural resources no longer available in any large quantities (hitting factories, transport or commercial airlines), and that social order collapsed (riots and looting). An apocalyptic scenario indeed but civilisation as we know it today would change dramatically. Whatever knowledge is then lost might take many years to rediscover. True, mankind would still retain the ability to harness the power of wind and sunlight provided social order could be restored quickly but the effects on global commerce, local industries and the financial system would be immense and make this much harder. We would probably see the end of large nations in favour of smaller regional states and regional conflicts caused by population migration or the grab for whatever resources are available (if not for reasons of ideology or religion). This is as near a comparison as we will get to the collapse of Roman civilisation.
Of course, this modern day comparison is misplaced to the extent that advanced centres of knowledge would be much more likely to survive in modern times than would have been the case in the Roman era, especially given the level of knowledge now available. Nevertheless, without many of the things which we currently take for granted in every day life, we would be living in a very different world (for example, if private and public transport ceased). Clearly, we all know that this will never happen in exactly this way. It would take a huge global catastrophe (or series of large events) for that to be so, probably climate driven or pandemic. Other scenarios are, however, quite plausible, such as the decline of civilisation from the spread of regional wars for reasons of ideology and religion or conflicts for natural resources. But assuming for the sake of academic debate that our base scenario did occur, an interesting question is, how long would it take for civilisation to be restored to the current level? We could expect that with the remnants of whatever civilisation flourished would come new inventions and inevitably new ideas (political and otherwise). But unlike 1,500 years ago, today’s scientific knowledge and technical know-how cannot be eradicated to the same extent because it is far more accessible than it was back then due to modern levels of education and the huge number of printed materials available. The challenge would be to keep that knowledge alive from one generation to the next and to create the social (including law and order) and economic (including trade and commerce) conditions that underpin civilisation.
It does not necessarily follow, however, that once know-how exists that technological development will advance quickly. One stark illustration is steam power. Although the ancient Greeks harnessed the technology of steam power, it was only developed on an industrial scale in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The use of steam engines for transport by land (train) and sea (steamboat) became the backbone for the industrial revolution but the power of steam was already known to the Greeks and Romans many hundreds of years earlier. Indeed, we know that Heron of Alexandria in the first century invented numerous apparatus for personal amusement that used the power of heated air and water. The engineering for the steam engine could therefore have been invented at least several hundred years before if the social and economic conditions had existed for it. Why then was it not? Because neither the Greeks nor Romans had any interest in the development of industrial scale commerce. They had no need for it. Cheap labour was also abundant through an over-supply of slaves from conquered lands and continuous wars to expand the Empire or defend its borders. Unfortunately, slavery, in one form or another, existed for the next eighteen hundreds years. As economic and social conditions deteriorated following the collapse of the Roman Empire, things then became more localised. Large cities (previously under the protection of Roman garrisons) declined and towns emerged in the provinces supported by local agriculture and produce. Roman roads became unsafe for travel and borders collapsed. Pirates took to the seas in large numbers and commercial activity in the Mediterranean was only seen again in the Middle Ages when regional powers offered merchants maritime protection. The collapse of Roman Imperial power inevitably brought with it the collapse of Roman globalisation.
Some scientists have tried to mathematically model why societies collapse but in my view one cannot reduce this to an equation, especially when historians and social scientists have attempted to do precisely that in large volumes of books and studies. The best that can be done I think is identify factors that create the conditions for societies to collapse and pre-empt times of crisis using computers to capture the massive amounts of data available (internet news, Facebook, Twitter) that evidence the possibility of social unrest, regime change, regional conflicts and shocks to the financial system, and model the risk of medium and large scale events happening. Of course, when large scale events do happen they might not do so over a matter of days or even months. This capability actually exists already and as more sophisticated technology and algorithms are developed we might one day be able to make some confident predictions of possible future events and outcomes.
Absent a global catastrophe, such as climate change or pandemic, we know that the fall of civilisation is never going to occur in a single event. It is far more likely, as in the case of corporate/state bankruptcy, to manifest itself gradually over many years and then suddenly (witness the financial crisis in modern day Greece). The challenge is to maintain levels of social order (including, most importantly, the rule of law) that are a prerequisite for civilisation and technological advancement.
Postscript to the Article: In many of my writings I try to bring together my fascination for history (including why things happened the way they did and what lessons can be learnt) with my professional and academic interest in risk and commerce. Interestingly, the ancient Greeks were aware of the concept of risk and reward. Herodotus, the Greek historian widely known as the ‘father of history’, coined the phrase “Great deeds are usually wrought at great risks”.
Originally published at www.mondaq.com. (November 2016)