About two thousand years ago, the Romans had developed the most effective military apparatus seen before in history and, with it, they had created a vast empire. However, with the first century before our era, they found that they had a problem: their stupendous military power was going out of control. One of the warlords of that time, Julius Caesar, had staged a successful military coup in 49 BCE. Even before that, the Roman legions had started fighting each other, led by one or another warlord: Marius against Sulla, Caesar against Pompey, Octavianus against Anthony, and more. And when the warlords were not fighting each other, they were engaging their forces in reckless military adventures that were putting the Roman state at risk. For instance, in 53 BCE, Marcus Licinius Crassus led the army in a disastrous expedition against the Parthian empire from which not even he came back alive. In short, the Romans were discovering that power is nothing without control.
The solution to the problem came from a man of exceptional military and political skills: Gaius Julius Octavianus. And it was a straightforward solution: the system had become unstable because it was too complex, it had to be drastically simplified by having only one warlord in command. So, Octavianus took the title of “emperor,” that so far had meant just “commander,” and added to it the title of “Augustus” (venerable) and that of “Caesar” to link it with the prestige of his predecessor. Most importantly, he started to link the imperial rule to religion. In time, the Roman Emperors were turned into semi-divine rulers, the porphyrogenites (“born in the purple”), people on whom the Roman Gods (and later on, the Christian God) had bestowed absolute power over their subjects. Rebellion against an emperor was not just a crime against the state, but a crime against God Himself.
Did it work? On the whole, yes. After Octavianus, the Roman Empire was turned into a remarkably resilient structure that was to last about half a millennium in the Western part of the empire, that was eventually doomed only by the collapse of its gold-based financial system. And Octavianus’ idea of taking the title of “Caesar” was so successful that the Russian Emperors still called themselves “Czars,” about two thousand years later. Not that Octavianus’ idea stopped the rebellions completely and, in times of grave crisis, more than an individual at the same time would claim the title of Emperor of Rome. But, on the average, the Roman experience shows that a semi-divine (or even fully divine) ruler is a good way to keep the state together. As another example, we can think of Japan, where the military dictator of the country, the Shogun, though no divine ruler himself, ruled in the name of the divine emperor, the Tenno.
Now, move forward to our times and consider the recent events in Turkey, where we saw the Turkish army splitting in two and the local warlords fighting each other. Turkey is not an empire but it is (or perhaps was) part of the large empire that we call today “globalization.” So, the struggle in Turkey was probably just a reflection of a deeper struggle within the empire, even though we’ll probably never know the details of what exactly led to the coup. Outside Turkey, we are not yet seeing independent warlords fighting each other, but we are seeing that the Global Empire is engaging its military forces in reckless adventures that put the whole system at risk. The case of Iraq is just an example, to say nothing of the risk of a confrontation against a nuclear-armed state. For sure, the Global Empire has the most powerful military force ever developed in history, but all this power is nothing without control.
We seem to be facing the same problems that the Romans faced two thousand years ago: how to maintain control over a complex system that turns out to be unstable and prone to fighting against itself? The Romans solved the problem by drastically simplifying the system. Possibly, something similar can take place in the modern Global Empire, with the emperor in Washington becoming a divine ruler, taking up all the related trappings: crown, scepter, purple clothes, and the like. More than that, a divine ruler cannot be elected by the people: his power can only be the result of the divine will. We aren’t yet seeing the Washington emperor claiming to be a divine being, but we may note how Mr. Erdogan played the religion card to gain the upper hand in the struggle in Turkey. Clearly, we are moving toward something new in the way the global empire is ruled, it is a slow and uncertain motion, but the general direction is clear. (*)
If there are similarities of our world with the ancient Roman one, we must also be careful to consider the differences. The complex system that we call “globalization” is much vaster than the Roman empire and it faces additional challenges. The Romans didn’t have to face resource depletion, nor climate change, at least not in the same degree as we do, today. The Roman maritime transportation system kept working and supported the economic structure of the empire up to the very last decades of the existence of the Western Roman Empire. In the case of the Global Empire, the gigantic maritime transportation system that we call “containerization” is vulnerable to financial crisis, to a fuel supply crisis, and to sea level rise. A long-lasting interruption of the vital supply of goods carried by this system would rapidly kill the empire, no matter what the Global Emperor could order his armies to do. Then, a nervous warlord with nuclear weapons could bring the empire to an even faster end.
Overall, what we are seeing is all part of the behavior of complex systems, something that we still don’t understand completely. We know that these systems are thermodynamical dissipative structures that evolve and change in order to maximize the dissipation rate. This is a phenomenon that goes on along an irregular path, sometimes taking the shape of the “Seneca Cliff“, an abrupt and uncontrollable decline that often marks the end of those stupendous structures that we call “empires.” Will we ever be able to overcome these cycles of boom and bust? So far, we haven’t. At present, we are in full overshoot and it will be impossible to avoid some kind of collapse in the near future. We can only try to soften the blow, but the ongoing debate shows that the global elites really have no idea of what they are facing.
(*) Mr. Trump is clearly not the kind of person who can position himself as a semi-divine emperor. However, is probable incompetence as president may very well lead to a military coup of the same kind that led Julius Caesar to become emperor in Roman Times
On the loss of control that led to the demise of the Western Roman Empire, see also this post of mine: http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.it/2014/03/power-is-nothing-without-control-how-to.html
Ugo Bardi is a professor of Chemistry at the Department of Chemistry of the University of Firenze, Italy. He also has a more general interest in energy question and is the founder and president of ASPO Italia. This article was first published in his blog Cassandra’s Legacy