Wise Czar

Forward in Time, Backwards in Life

Posted on: June 8, 2013

We have, in the modern world, an expectation of continual progress. Society, technology and knowledge always seem to be improving and moving forward. We seem to believe that things can only get better in the future, never worse.

            Unfortunately, history has revealed that such optimism is not always backed by reality. In a previous article on the Indus Valley civilization, I mentioned that the Indus drainage system was very advanced for its time, and that centuries later people had reverted to dumping excrement out of their windows. This is just one example of society actually devolving.

A Roman Aqueduct

A Roman Aqueduct: An example of ancient technology that was lost.

            We pride ourselves on being so much more advanced than those who came before us, but we forget that, like the business cycle, human civilization has had its expansionary and recessionary periods. We need only look at the fall of Rome, a collapse that brought the end of the ancient world, for an example of a severe societal recession.

            The Roman Republic, beginning in 509 B.C., almost immediately became obsessed with expansion. Over the next few centuries, Rome conquered the rest of Italy, Greece, Carthage, Gaul, Iberia, North Africa, Macedonia, Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria and Palestine. In 31 B.C., Octavian reorganized the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire and took on the title of Augustus. The empire continued to expand, conquering Britannia, Armenia, Dacia and parts of Germany.

            Now, there is nothing civilized about bloodshed, and in that respect Rome was no more civilized than any other period in human history. However, Rome brought a number of technological advances to its imperial holdings which, after its collapse, were not seen to the same degree again for centuries.

            Among these advancements was the road. This might at first seem like a simple accomplishment, but there is more to it.  It is true that primitive roads and paths had already existed for centuries, but they were not in any sense orderly or systematic. They might have connected points A and B but not points A and C. At its peak, Rome had 53,000 miles of roads connecting its entire empire. Furthermore, many of these roads were paved, making them extremely durable. Rome, therefore, brought an interconnectedness to its world that had not been seen before and was not really seen again for many centuries.

A Roman Road

A Roman Road

            Another amazing technological development by Rome was the aqueduct. Aqueducts brought water from distant locations into a city or town and could carry waste out. Built in Rome itself and in other major centers of the empire, they stretched for thousands of miles and brought fresh water to millions of people. Construction was not simple, requiring years of land surveys and advanced engineering skills. The Romans even had a water purification system. Rome’s aqueduct system was actually analogous to a modern day water supply network in its sophistication, reach and effectiveness.

            Finally, Rome’s government administered its territory so effectively that it brought about the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, during its golden age. Granted, there was plenty of bloodshed occurring on the frontiers, but the average Roman citizen could traverse the empire without fear of harassment. A strict legal code created order, while cooperation with local authorities allowed for far flung control.

            All of this began to collapse with the Germanic invasions in the third century B.C., and by 476 B.C. the Western Roman Empire had fallen. What followed is what historians have dubbed the Dark Ages. Rule and order was decentralized, the old Roman roads and aqueducts, still in use for centuries after, began to deteriorate, and people could no longer get around safely. Indeed, the Romans, who had served as the police force, were gone. Now if you wanted to go from France to Spain, you were on your own. A few people began to consolidate local power, hiring warriors to fight for them and peasants to work for them—this was the beginning of feudalism and knighthood.

            Essentially, with the collapse of Rome, Europe lost the only central authority powerful and wealthy enough to create and maintain technological advancements and widespread order. Just think if the U.S. government disappeared. The interstate highway system would fall into disrepair along with commerce; the various states would fight over water supply, land and access to goods. Investment in new technology, in our case NASA and other such organizations, would cease. We would suffer a severe societal recession just like fifth century Europe.

            So although it is good to be optimistic, we should understand that we are not entitled to a brighter future. Societies like ours have come and gone. It is up to us to ensure our own survival and development.


Encyclopedia Britannica

Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc.,   1996.




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