Southerly by David Haywood

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Southerly: Energy Special, Part 3: Energy Crisis in the Roman Empire

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  • Kyle Matthews,

    An interesting theory David. I had never thought previously about people as a form of energy - it felt wrong.

    You jumped very quickly from 'running out of slaves' to 'empire had to contract to sustainable levels'. I know you did this a while ago, but where's the evidence that 'slave energy limits' was a prime factor? Is this something that anyone else has theorised on? I note no footnotes in that crucial point.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6147 posts Report Reply

  • rodgerd,

    I personally find the decline of the Roman Empire is kind of a Rorsharch test for people. It tells you more about what they think than the actual causes.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 512 posts Report Reply

  • Che Tibby,

    An interesting theory David. I had never thought previously about people as a form of energy - it felt wrong.

    i'm not so sure. from my distant study of classics (undergrad), it was slavery that prevented both the hellenes and the romans from developing machinery.

    they couldn't see past slavery as the primary method of adding value (i.e., have clay, have slave, slave make urn, i sell urn), and consequently they weren't pressured to develop new or more efficient means of production.

    so david is right, the romans seem to have gone "crap.. no slaves... need to find more (and distant) places to find slaves" instead of "i have limited labour, therefore i need to find a work around".

    the back of an envelope • Since Nov 2006 • 2024 posts Report Reply

  • Ben Austin,

    Interesting theory, I've seen it alluded to here and there but not to that degree. There seems to be a fair bit of "wotif" Roman scifi about these days too, on a vaguely related note.

    London • Since Nov 2006 • 869 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie,

    So - as long as it remains cheaper to get a kilowatt-hour from a wallsocket than it does from a slave, we're safe from slavery?

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 3325 posts Report Reply

  • Deborah,

    That child has a very, very, impressive squalling howl, with a terribly distressing top note of anguish. You should mark it NSFW. You should also market it, for car alarms.

    Colic? Reflux?

    The piece on the decline and fall of the Roman empire is also impressive.

    Didn't one of the emperors (Hadrian?) draw a line around the empire, build walls, and say, "No more expansion", thus limiting the supply of slaves?

    Manawatu City • Since Nov 2006 • 1296 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood,

    Kyle Matthews wrote:

    ... where's the evidence that 'slave energy limits' was a prime factor? Is this something that anyone else has theorised on? I note no footnotes in that crucial point.

    I've talked this interpretation (I wouldn't go as far as to say 'theory' -- except in an ironic sense!) over with my former Classics colleagues at UoC. As far as I've been able to discover, and as far as they've ever heard, no-one has ever suggested this interpretation before.

    Of course, plenty of people have noted that labour shortages were a factor in the collapse of the Roman Empire -- and that's obvious from the labour control regulations decreed by Diocletian and Constantine, etc. (see the Encarta article that I cite in the programme -- under 'Constantine'). And plenty of people have noted that Roman methods for harnessing animal labour and wind were inefficient (see any of the engineering history books cited in my programme). And loads of people have claimed that reliance on slavery hindered the development of labour-saving machinery, as Che points out (e.g. see 'A History of Engineering and Technology: Artful Methods' cited in my programme). But I don't think anyone has overtly put these things together to discuss them in terms of a possible energy crisis.

    I certainly don't think this in any kind of revelatory theory that will change history -- it's just a (mildly) interesting light in which to look at some of the established explanations for the Decline & Fall...

    Please note the cautious language used in the programme:

    Clearly, there were many contributory factors in the collapse of the Roman Empire. But I would argue that energy was a critical underlying cause -- often overlooked -- that ties together a number of other important factors.

    rodgerd wrote:

    I personally find the decline of the Roman Empire is kind of a Rorsharch test for people. It tells you more about what they think than the actual causes.

    Sure, I agree -- hence my facetious introduction: "every certified nutcase has a theory about the collapse of the Roman Empire -- you should hear mine..."

    On the other hand, I think (without claiming too much) that it is mildly interesting and mildly informative to look at history through the lens of energy. But, of course, as a former energy engineer, I would think that...

    P.S. And, yes, Kyle -- you're dead right -- it is bloody depressing to think of humans purely in terms of their potential energy output. Not something I would normally do, I assure you.

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 953 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood,

    Ben Austin wrote:

    Interesting theory, I've seen it alluded to here and there but not to that degree.

    Our posts seemed to have overlapped -- fascinating info! Would you be able to direct me to where this interpretation is discussed elsewhere -- I'd be very interested... (and marks off to me for not finding it myself).

    Deborah wrote:

    Colic? Reflux?

    Colic and reflux and cow's milk protein allergy, poor chap. He's really had a tough start.

    Oh, and you're right about Hadrian -- although Augustus said something similar at one point (they do cover a lot of ground in philosophy, don't they?).

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 953 posts Report Reply

  • Deborah,

    Colic and reflux and cow's milk protein allergy, poor chap. He's really had a tough start.

    And so have his parents...

    It's not so much the philosophy, as the nutter* I live with, who reads classics just for fun, and is inclined to sit and watch swords and sandals films and point out the anachronisms in the weaponry, and so on. He has his "interpretations" about the decline of the Roman empire too.

    *He's not really a nutter, but that's the word that's bring used in this thread.

    Manawatu City • Since Nov 2006 • 1296 posts Report Reply

  • Emma Hart,

    On the other hand, I think (without claiming too much) that it is mildly interesting and mildly informative to look at history through the lens of energy. But, of course, as a former energy engineer, I would think that...

    Which is exactly why it's so gosh-darned interesting, because specialists in Classical history all tend to be coming at it from an arts background. The different perspective is enormously interesting. I remember my classics teacher at varsity showing us an early steam engine they'd found in excavations from the Hellenic Egyptian period - it was used to make a circle of toy dolphins spin round. I think they used steam in temples to make doors mysteriously open and close, too, but I'm trying to remember back an embarrassing number of years now. But there was obviously a mental block with using other technologies rather than a technological one.

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2006 • 4327 posts Report Reply

  • Ben Austin,

    David, the most recent example that I can think of is sci fi - so perhaps not the scholarly work that would give me credibility. Now I am desperately trying to remember (while drunk) the name of a 1960s author who wrote this particular book of short stories. It might be a while.

    London • Since Nov 2006 • 869 posts Report Reply

  • Andrew Stevenson,

    Intersting interpretation, any other reference points for sources of slavery (energy) runs out and empire/entity contracts?

    There will have been other cultures that used slavery and then had the supply cut off. The one that leaps to mind is the US, or rather the confederacy. But this has technological changes as well, I seem to recall the invention of the cotton gin (its a [slave] labour saving machine, not a drink) had a large impact on the Southern economy.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 195 posts Report Reply

  • Andrew Stevenson,

    Technological solution for howling, class 5 ear muffs. You can still hear and attend, but the soul piercing component that makes you want to scream yourself is gone...

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 195 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    Thanks for that David. I'm not a student of the Roman Empire, or its rise and fall, so I couldn't comment on its correctness or vice versa, just found the angle interesting and wondered as to its source. If you're the source, well that's all good.

    An interesting theory David. I had never thought previously about people as a form of energy - it felt wrong.

    Che, as David noted I was meaning 'wrong' in a moral sense. From a purely clinical analysis, I'm sure it's probably correct. Another reason that I hate quantitative analysis of history!

    Since Nov 2006 • 6147 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    Intersting interpretation, any other reference points for sources of slavery (energy) runs out and empire/entity contracts?

    I'm trying to remember if one of the examples in Diamond's book focused on slavery. I'd need to look through it to check, having read it a whole year ago, it's been wiped from my mind.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6147 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    That child has a very, very, impressive squalling howl, with a terribly distressing top note of anguish. You should mark it NSFW. You should also market it, for car alarms.

    Colic? Reflux?

    A paediatrician at Starship once told me said he was forever giving new parents earplugs... he said they would think it was a joke and laugh, but he was quite serious that they were a valuable parenting tool... "it's not like I want parents to use them and leave to another part of the house" he said "it's just something that takes the edge off the screaming at 4:00am when you're right there anyway".

    Another paediatrician at Starship, Dr Cameron Grant, has done excellent research into the very bad effects of cows' milk on babies. He linked the protein in the milk to the terrible iron deficiency in children to the cows' milk -I think you can google his paper on Pub Med still - but the gist of it was, I think, that the protein causes the baby's stomach lining to bleed slightly and this in turn, over time causes an iron deficiency that is carried over though childhood (and from which a whopping 75% of children suffer)... one of the most common defiencies in children. And women.

    As for colicky babies - if you can find a Thai or Vietnamese mum to show you this method it would be better as I am not sure if I can describe their technique well - but hold the baby upright against your own body, support under the baby's armpits with one hand, and then they support the baby's feet with their other hand, and keep the baby's knees bent slightly, about 45 - 55 degrees. Then you both... bounce gently, sort of gently bouncing up and down on the spot. I have seen a Thai mum offer to take my friend's screaming (and screaming and screaming) colicky baby to show her, and in about 5 seconds Danny stopped screming and looked very contented. Relieved even. My friend Helen used the technique after that, always saying "I sure wish I'd known this trick for his older brother Jesse..."

    The Thai woman said the upright/bent knees posture takes the painful pressure off the kid's digestive tract, and it must, because it can certainly turn a screaming baby into a relaxed baby in a matter of seconds.

    Good luck. Hope you get some sleep in the next 2 years.

    And I think the Romans just over extented themselves in their campaign to extent their empire - didn't they neglect life back in Rome at the expense of expansion?

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    Thanks for the transcript - I was starting to wonder.

    A comment on steam power. While steam power was known, the problem with it was the quality of the metals used for boilers. Steam engines need boilers that can tolerate high pressure and temperature and metalurgy just wasn't up to it till later. So while steam was used for some applications it was always low pressure and hence less useful.

    Maybe it's because I'm biologist but the idea of humans as a unit of energy doesn't bother me at all. BTW many modern energy saving approaches rely on getting the best use of human energy e.g. bicycle.

    One factor you haven't mentioned is that while horses may not have provided much more work per energy input than humans they can process food that humans can't. So horses actually increase the energy efficiency of the nation even if they are used inefficiently because they use an otherwise unused energy source.

    So if you accept the thesis that Roman energy use was so focussed on human/slave energy that they failed to develop more efficient energy sources/uses - the question becomes why was their society unable to see outside the box? That, I suspect, is more a cultural question than an engineering question. The technology to better use energy either existed or was fairly easy to develop at that time - but the Romans (who in other ways were very innovative) failed to develop alternative technologies.

    The parallels with late 20th century technology are easy to observe. Internal combustion of gasoline is not the most technologically advanced use of energy, particularly in the form of the car (especially the SUV:)). Yet our current society is finding it very difficult to adopt more efficient energy use. It makes one wonder if there wasn't the equivalent of "big oil" and "the car industry" in Roman society. Were there powerful lobby groups heavily invested in slavery that opposed alternative technology?

    cheers
    Bart

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3215 posts Report Reply

  • rodgerd,

    I remember my classics teacher at varsity showing us an early steam engine they'd found in excavations from the Hellenic Egyptian period - it was used to make a circle of toy dolphins spin round. I think they used steam in temples to make doors mysteriously open and close, too, but I'm trying to remember back an embarrassing number of years now. But there was obviously a mental block with using other technologies rather than a technological one.

    There's an interesting parallel to China, as well. When discussing the history of technology you'll always run into some Sinophile who'll pop in with, "Haha! The Chinese invented while you Caucasians were living in mud huts!" Which may be true[1], but inventing something and then not using it to any great degree (gunpowder) rather negates the value of the invention.

    [1] Allowing for the degree to which I trust nationalistic historians proving that they invented everything first. Talk to an American and you'll find them asserting they invented TV and digital computers, not some shabby Brits.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 512 posts Report Reply

  • rodgerd,

    The parallels with late 20th century technology are easy to observe. Internal combustion of gasoline is not the most technologically advanced use of energy, particularly in the form of the car (especially the SUV:)).

    Actually, for certain tasks - fast, ad-hoc travel over a distance - the car is a fantastic tool. The fact we use it as a form of mass-transit in rush hour is where it's a dreadful misapplication.

    It makes one wonder if there wasn't the equivalent of "big oil" and "the car industry" in Roman society. Were there powerful lobby groups heavily invested in slavery that opposed alternative technology?

    Well, if you were at the top of the Roman tree you were a landholder with a history of millitary service. You wealth and power didn't come from innovations in industry, trade, and transport.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 512 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    Actually, for certain tasks - fast, ad-hoc travel over a distance - the car is a fantastic tool.

    Good call. I guess what I was getting at is that there have been a lot of (sometimes small) innovations that could improve the efficiency of cars which are not taken up because they require retooling of factories and/or require a change in fuel which would require retooling of the oil industry.

    I agree the use of an internal combustion engine to move a wheeled vehical over a smooth surface is pretty damn efficient (although not the best we can do now). It's just that in some cases we are stuck with quite old versions of that technology.

    And no I don't subscribe to the secret water powered engines that big car companies have withheld :). But I do think there is considerable pressure to stay "within the box" in terms of innovation for efficiency. Some of that comes from within the business, equivalent to the ruling Roman classes no wanting to change their slave economy. But I wonder also whether some of that is a cultural thing and comes from the masses. A psychological resistance to change... we all know that SUVs are half as efficient as sedans but some folks still drive them in spite of the cost.

    cheers
    Bart

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3215 posts Report Reply

  • Andrew Stevenson,

    I'd say it's more that we don't care about the efficiency or energy use of a vehicle/appliance.

    Like Amory Lovins said, people care about cold beer, not the energy needed to run the fridge.

    People rank the factors like capital cost, running costs, appearance, fitness for purpose, street cred etc in making these decisions. And more often then not the energy component is down the list...

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 195 posts Report Reply

  • Malcolm,

    Well, I really liked that podcast. Thanks. And here's my certified theory about the fall of the Roman Empire ...

    Ultimately, the Roman empire fell because they lost the battle of Adrianople, when the Goths wiped out the Roman field army. But the interesting thing is that Rome had suffered whole series of such awful defeats in the past - notably against Hannibaal, and also against Cimbri and Teutones. So what really happened is that that they lost the reslience to deal with such setbacks. Their society had become ossified, for whatever reason (I have my own right-wing theories on that). I've no doubt that energy shortages, and failure to innovate in response, played a role. However, perhaps slavery and conquest also engendered a moral corruption that undermined their moral and institutional virtue.

    What is really interesting is that the Eastern Roman Empire went on for another one thousand years. That is, three times the age of the USA, or as long as post-1066 Britain. So despite all their many failings, a strong city with impregnable walls and the key Eastern trade route (and Greek fire) was enough to prop them up - well, forever, despite their corrupt political and economic system. Amazing.

    So I think the Roman Empire fell because its institutions failed. But I guess you're right; cheaper energy could have propped them up for longer. Or maybe I should say, cheap energy and military might propped them up for 250 years before the overdue collapse finally came. Or maybe the collapse only came because Constatine gutted the west to feed the east? A flight of capital could also explain it - although that boils down to pretty much your argument; that is, about relative productivity and cost of production.

    Our societies do have cheap oil at the moment, but that is just a blip. More generally, we keep our energy cheap and production costs low through innovation. If innovation stops, then I think our societies will decline.

    Really thought-provoking podcast David. Thanks.

    Since Apr 2007 • 66 posts Report Reply

  • john shears,

    Thanks for that very interesting instalment David.

    Sorry to hear about the pride and joy having a hard time , I think I have mentioned before that the first 21 years are the worst .

    Re slaves the most recent example must of course be Russia & the Soviet Union. The concept of exporting criminals to Siberia started in the Czar's times and did not finish till after the Stalin era.

    This was the energy source that built the Trans Siberian Railway and mined the Yellow Cake for Nuclear energy for example.

    Looking forward to the next instalment,

    John

    North Shore City • Since Nov 2006 • 21 posts Report Reply

  • daleaway,

    Really enjoyed the transcript. Thank you.

    For some reason it made me remember Joan Didion's "Where I was From" in which she contemplates why California is the way it is. Settled by people who were not used to staying put and solving problems, but whose solution was always to cut and run, cut and run, moving further west each time. At last a statefull of such people all washed up on the Pacific coast when they had no further west to run. There they continued to behave the only way they knew how.

    Not a parallel with Roman history,of course, but they both made me contemplate the way resource use depends on the human attributes and values of the people who are in control of the resources. When expansion/resource extraction hits its straps, societies based on one set of attributes can fail, whereas another type of person/society can adapt, reinvent, or compromise.

    How adaptable were the Romans? One memorable aspect of Terry Jones' The Barbarians was his emphasis on the extent to which Romans annexed not only other countries' resources but their technological brainpower, not being the most original of thinkers themselves. Seems to me whatever they imported from others, their chief export was the Roman admin model (aka "Law and order"), along the lines of "when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

    It's tempting to think there's some hope for New Zealand, then, us being settled by self-starters who really struggled to get here because they wanted to manage things better than in their country of origin. Fingers crossed.

    Since Jul 2007 • 178 posts Report Reply

  • Anarchangel,

    There will have been other cultures that used slavery and then had the supply cut off. The one that leaps to mind is the US, or rather the confederacy. But this has technological changes as well, I seem to recall the invention of the cotton gin (its a [slave] labour saving machine, not a drink) had a large impact on the Southern economy.

    There have been many other slave using societies in human history, but there are only a handful for which the economy was based and dependent on slavery, the Roman's being one and the Southern US being another (I think there's meant to be a third but I'm drawing a blank).

    It makes one wonder if there wasn't the equivalent of "big oil" and "the car industry" in Roman society. Were there powerful lobby groups heavily invested in slavery that opposed alternative technology?

    As rogerd said, Roman society was based on land ownership. In addition, under the Empire in particular, provincial elites don't seem to have invested profits back into their economic activities to a large degree, rather, it was spent on civic euergetism as a display and duty of status. And if an innovative businessman became successful, he would probably join this elite and adopt their attitudes. So it's not so much opposition to alternative technology as a lack of concern with it.

    (I'm a graduate student in Roman history, but this isn't my main area of research)

    Hamish

    Since Sep 2007 • 8 posts Report Reply

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