Southerly by David Haywood

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

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  • Anarchangel,

    However, perhaps slavery and conquest also engendered a moral corruption that undermined their moral and institutional virtue.

    I think it's safe to say that ideas of moral decline as the basis for the collapse of the Western Empire have been left in the early twentieth century.

    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."

    The Romans were both inclusive and traditionalist. They had a deep respect for their past, but "the past" was a flexible notion which was open to constant reinterpretation. They were constantly incorporating ideas from cultures they encountered and adapting them to a Roman context. They were technologically innovative when it came to military matters (including logistics, medicine) and some aspects of trade (they invented underwater concrete allowing the construction of deep water ports on sandy coastlines), but perhaps not so much as regards agriculture and other "elite" activities.

    Hamish

    Since Sep 2007 • 8 posts Report Reply

  • Malcolm,

    I think it's safe to say that ideas of moral decline as the basis for the collapse of the Western Empire have been left in the early twentieth century.

    I don't mean moral decline in terms of alcholism, sex and cruelty. The point I'm trying to make is a bit more subtle; that easy times and brutalism undermined their committment to shared values and the institutions that created the empire.

    It may also be worth bearing in mind that Roman history includes tens of millions of people in dozens of countries for 1000 years in the west and another thousand years in the east. So generalisations about character can be a bit dangerous.

    Since Apr 2007 • 69 posts Report Reply

  • Malcolm,

    Ooops. Hit Post Reply instead of preview. The second part of my post was meant for the later comment. The key thing I was really trying to say was that I prefer explanations in terms of institutions to explanations in terms of character. Not that I deny character is important, but rather that I think we need some deeper explanations as well. There has been some great work from Marx through to Petitt on institutions as key features of society. Sorry for the incomplete fragment before.

    Since Apr 2007 • 69 posts Report Reply

  • daleaway,

    Aah, but don't people/nations choose their institutions according to their character? Institutions don't grow from bare ground.

    And didn't nations derive from alliances of tribes (at the time of which we speak), and tribes derive from family groupings?

    How deep do you want to go? I've a hunch that DNA's going to end up responsible for more history than we think at present.

    Since Jul 2007 • 198 posts Report Reply

  • Ben Austin,

    Still looking for a link, but till then you can all learn about ham.

    Delicious Ham

    London • Since Nov 2006 • 1019 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    And no I don't subscribe to the secret water powered engines that big car companies have withheld :).

    I don't either.

    But that movie 'Who killed the electric car?' was interesting viewing.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    But that movie 'Who killed the electric car?' was interesting viewing.

    I'm a big fan of the connections series which explored the relationships between technologies over time and the neat ways one discovery can trigger something apparently unrelated.

    I think the above is the other side of that coin. As interesting as how technologies develop is the question of how technologies fail to develop. Betamax vs VHS and the history of music recording technology are nice examples. Sometimes it's tempting to believe in sinister motives and sometimes a technology is not developed simply to make someone richer.

    But what is really interesting is when cultures seem to simply not "get" a technology. Whole societies just ignoring technology or innovation. As David points out the Romans seem to have done precisely that with energy efficient technology.

    The fascinating question is what are we ignoring now? How does one step far enough back from the assumptions of the society we live in to see what we are missing?

    cheers
    Bart

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood,

    Apologies for falling behind on questions in this thread... our bad baby (good on the inside, of course) has kept me away from my computer for anything except deadlines...

    Andrew Stevenson wrote:

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

    As Anarchangel points out, it's surprisingly difficult to find any other well-documented examples of a large empire/entity with such a reliance on slavery as the Romans (maybe 25 per cent of the empire were slaves in 150 AD). Some of the Greek city-states approached (or perhaps exceeded) this figure, but they weren't on the scale of the Roman Republic/Empire. You could maybe talk about modern examples such as Brazil or the US confederacy, but to a certain extent it depends on where you draw the boundaries of the empire/entity, and also your definition of slavery (e.g. are serfs also slaves?).

    I think, however, that the collapse of empires/entities by conquest can often be attributed to better (or more efficient) use of energy. 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' could almost be restated 'Energy, an Unexpected Side-effect of Energy, and Energy'.

    dyan campbell wrote:

    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...

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

    Thanks for the kind advice, Dyan. We've already discovered this technique -- but, alas, it only has limited success. Losec/Omeprazole seems to have produced the best results (although not all that good, frankly).

    Your explanation of the collapse of the Roman Empire would certainly have saved Edward Gibbon a few million words! But (ignoring the dubious claim that the Romans "neglect[ed] life back in Rome") it doesn't really answer the interesting questions. What does 'over-extension' actually mean? What made them continue to expand -- was the Empire reliant on continual growth for survival?

    The inimitable Bart Janssen wrote:

    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.

    I didn't mention it, but I did think about it! I'm not sure (a) if grass was an otherwise unused energy source i.e. do grass crops displace other food crops? (b) How much of the Roman horse and oxen fleet was fed grass as opposed to hay/oats/etc. (c) What are the energy implications of 'storing' grass (as hay, etc) for winter. I don't know the answer to these questions, but I am trying to find out more.

    But what is really interesting is when cultures seem to simply not "get" a technology. Whole societies just ignoring technology or innovation.

    A fascinating question. Why haven't some of the greatest modern engineering societies perfected simple technology e.g. why hasn't the US managed to develop the flushing (as opposed to blocking) toilet; why has China (one of the greatest engineering nations throughout history) stayed with the chopstick when the population eats so much rice.

    Any answers gratefully accepted.

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 1156 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    why has China (one of the greatest engineering nations throughout history) stayed with the chopstick when the population eats so much rice.

    I believe this one is to frustrate non-Chinese people who like Chinese food and think they should eat it the traditional way.

    They of course don't necessarily abandon western eating methods, and leave their plate two feet from their mouth on the table while waving around the two sticks.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report Reply

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