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The punctuated collapse of the Roman Empire

The punctuated collapse of the Roman Empire.

The punctuated collapse of the Roman Empire

by Ugo Bardi, originally published by Cassandra’s legacy  | JUL 15, 2013


I defined as the “Seneca Cliff” the tendency of some systems to collapse after having peaked. Here I start from some considerations about whether the collapse could be smooth or an uneven process that we could define as “punctuated.” I am taking the Roman Empire as an example and showing that it did decline much faster than it grew. But the decline was surely far from smooth. 

The idea of an impending collapse of our civilization is already bad enough in itself, but it has this little extra-twist that collapse may be given more speed by what I called the “Seneca Cliff,” from the words of the Roman Philosopher who had noted first that, “Fortune is slow, but ruin is rapid“. The concept of the Seneca Cliff seems to have gained some traction over the Web and many people have been discussing it. Recently, I found an interesting comment on this point by Jason Heppenstall on his blog “22 billion energy slaves”. He summarizes the debate as:

“In the fast-collapse camp are the likes of Dmitry Orlov (who bases his assessment on his experience of seeing the USSR implode) and Ugo Bardi, who expects a ‘Seneca’s Cliff’ dropoff. James Kunstler, Michael Ruppert and any number of others can probably also be added to the fast-collapse camp.

By comparison, the likes of John Michael Greer reckon we are in for a drawn-out era of terminal decline punctuated by serious crises which, at the time, will seem rather severe to all involved but which will give way to plateaux of relative stability, albeit at a lower level of energy throughput.”

Actually, the two camps may not be in such a radical disagreement with each other as they are described. The idea of the fast (or Seneca-like) collapse does not necessarily mean that collapse will be continuous or smooth. The model that describes the Seneca effect does give that kind of output, but models are – as usual – just approximations. The real world may follow the curve in a series of “bumps” that will give an impression of recovery to the people who will experience the painful descent period.

So, collapse may very well be “punctuated: a series of periods of temporary stability, separated by severe crashes. But it may still be much faster than the previous growth had been. I discussed this point already in my first post on the Seneca Effect, but let me return on this subject and let me consider one of the best known cases of societal collapse: that of the Roman Empire.

First of all: some qualitative considerations. Rome’s foundation goes back to 753 BC; the end of the Western Empire is usually taken as 476 AD, with the dethroning of the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustus. Now, in between these two dates, a time span of more than 1200 years, the Empire peaked. When was that?

The answer depends on which parameter we are considering but it seems clear that, whatever choice we make, the peak was not midway – it was much later. The Empire was still strong and powerful during the 2nd century AD and we might take the age of Emperor Trajan as the peak (he died in 117 AD) as “peak empire.” We may also note that up to the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (who died in 180 AD), the empire didn’t show evident signs of weakness, so we could take the peak as occurring in mid or late 2nd century AD. In the end, the exact date doesn’t matter: the Empire took around 900 years to go from the foundation of Rome to the 2nd century peak. Then, it took just 400 years – probably less than that – for the Empire to wither and disappear. An asymmetric, Seneca-like collapse, indeed.

We also have some quantitative data on the Empire’s cycle. For instance, look at this image from Wikipedia.

It shows the size of the Roman military over the Empire’s span of existence. WIth all the uncertainties involved, also this image shows a typical “Seneca” shape for both the Western and the Eastern parts of the Empire. Decline is faster than growth, indeed.

There are other indicators that we can consider about the collapse of the Roman Empire. In many cases, we don’t have sufficient data to say much, but in some, we can say that collapse was, indeed, abrupt. For instance, you can give a look to a well known image taken from Joseph Tainter’s book “The Collapse of Complex Societies

The figure shows the content of silver in the Roman “denarius” which by the 3rd century AD, had become pure copper. Note how the decline starts slow, but then goes on faster and faster. Seneca himself would have understood this phenomenon very well.

So, the Roman Empire seems to have been hit by a “Seneca collapse” and that tells us that the occurrence of this kind of rapid decline may be commonplace for the entities we call “civilizations” or “empires”.

It is also true, however, that the Roman collapse was far from being smooth. It went through periods of apparent stability, interrupted by periods of extremely fast descent. The chroniclers of the time described these periods of crisis, but none of them seem to have connected the dots: they never saw that each crisis was linked to the preceding one and leading to the next one. Punctuated collapse seemed to be invisible to the ancient Romans, just as it is for us, today.


Sociocultural Breaking Point: Is There One and Are We Close?

Protest 0068

Protest 0068 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sociocultural Breaking Point: Is There One and Are We Close?

Watching the political class and their plutocratic masters spin events and the messages that come from them in an ever-increasing charade of optimism and self-aggrandizing statements, I can’t help but become more frustrated. Frustrated at the mainstream media for not performing its role as the Fifth Estate and engaging in more investigative journalism to uncover and report on the growing evidence of general malfeasance invading and controlling our institutions. Frustrated at the masses for failing to realise that all is not well in Wonderland and that we are all being fed a continual load of horseshit by the-powers-that-be. Frustrated at myself for not doing more than simply trying to educate and convince others of the growing possibility of a catastrophic, global collapse in finances that will inevitably lead to a collapse of trade and, finally, society; if we don’t find ourselves engaged in a Third World War first (although as some have warned, we may already be involved in the beginning of it).
History is replete with instances of social upheaval and possible turning points that led to such revolts. It would appear, however, that each instance evolves and manifests itself for varied reasons and never the result of a single grievance but a combination of several that build over time. It is like an avalanche building up snowflakes one at a time until that one particular one lands and sets off a cascading event that results in an avalanche of epic proportions (I discuss this in the first chapter of my novel). And, as I recently read in one of the articles I posted from zerohedge.com (see this), it is action on the periphery that eventually leads to social action: a few people start, some more join in, and then herd behaviour takes over and almost everyone follows suit.
Or, as Michael Ruppert discusses in the documentary Collapse, it is not the behaviour of the first couple of monkeys that try something new that changes group behaviour; it’s not even the action of the ninety-ninth monkey; but it is the response of the hundredth monkey that results in the eventual action of all (as an aside, I considered calling my novel The Hundredth Monkey when I first began contemplating its creation).
A current event that demonstrates this is the protest occurring in Brazil. The media has pointed to a rather innocuous bus fare increase as the tipping point for millions of people to fill the streets and protest the government. This, however, occurred within a broader and more complex background context of—wait for it—ongoing government and corporate malfeasance.
I fail to see how a social upheaval could be caused by a single event unless it is so offensive and outrageous that people cannot fathom not being up in arms; although given what I see around me I’m doubtful even that would happen here in Canada at this point in time. It is also unlikely to occur given the manipulation of the message by our overlords. We are spoon-fed propaganda on a regular basis. When lies are uncovered, deceptions laid bare, and malfeasance discovered, our leaders point to others, bang the table for change, and, basically, tell the public what they want to hear, no matter how far from reality the truth is.
If there is a breaking point for us in North America, my guess is that we are getting close, particularly south of the border.  And when that union begins to disintegrate we in Canada can be sure that it will be felt in a manner not pleasant at all. Preparing for this moment is not paranoid; it is precautionary and prudent. In fact, I would argue that it is far more prudent than spending one’s wealth on auto and home insurance that is rarely, if ever, used. Both can help alleviate anxiety and chaos when the moment of truth arrives.
Between my wife and I we spend close to $5000 annually on home, auto, and long-term disability insurance on the off-chance that a fire will erupt in our home, that we will be in a serious car accident, and/or be off work due to a long-term health issue. Spending an equivalent amount, or even half that, in emergency preparedness supplies seems only reasonable in this context and given the growing number of ‘signs’ of collapse all around us: candles, matches, flashlights, water, food, warm clothes, bug-out bags, gardening supplies, wood stove, etc., etc.. There are plenty of websites that provide the knowledge and skills to be self-sufficient.
My advice, for anyone who has doubt about the ability of the-powers-that-be to control an exceedingly complex global system or doubts their mantra of ‘we do this for the good of all’, is that you prepare yourself and your family for the coming collapse. It is better to be years early than minutes late…

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