How the Roman elite betrayed the people. Could that happen to us, too?
The more I study the story of the Roman Empire, the more I see the similarities with our world. Of course, history doesn’t always repeat itself, but it is impressive to note how with the start of the collapse of the Western Empire, the Roman elites abandoned the people to build themselves strongholds in safe places. Something similar may be starting to occur in our times and our elites may decide to seek for safe havens while leaving us to drown, starve, or burn.
Rutilius Namatianus is known today for his “De Reditu Suo” (of his return). It is a long poem where he tells us of his travel along the Italian coast around 416 AD, during the last decades of the Western Roman Empire. We read in it a chilling report of the ongoing collapse: abandoned cities, wastelands, ruined roads, and more.
But who was Rutilius Namatianus, and what was he doing? A patrician, a powerful man, a rich man, and also a liar and a traitor. He was running away from Rome, probably taking with him gold, slaves, and troops with the idea of building himself a feud in Southern France, where he had some possessions. In doing so, he was abandoning the people of Rome to fend off for themselves. The people whom it was his duty to defend as praefectus urbi, the prefect of Rome, the delegate of the Emperor himself.
Namatianus was doing nothing worse than other rich and powerful Romans were. Emperor Honorius himself had run away from Rome, settling in Ravenna, protected by the marshes surrounding the city and with ships ready to take him to safety in Byzantium if things were to get really bad. When Rome was besieged and taken by the Visigoths, in 410 AD, Honorius did nothing, preferring to worry about his chicken (a legend, but with elements of truth).
If you read the chronicles of the early 5th century AD, you get the impression of total mayhem, with barbarian armies crisscrossing Europe and few, if any, Roman nobles and commanders trying to defend the Empire. Most of them seemed to be maneuvering to find places where they could find safety for themselves. We don’t know what was the final destiny of Rutilius Namatianus but, since he had the time to finish his poem, we may imagine that he could build himself a stronghold in Southern France and his descendants may have become feudal lords. But not everyone made it. For instance, Paulinus of Pella, another rich Roman, contemporary of Namatianus, desperately tried to hold on his possessions in Europe, eventually considering himself happy just for having been able of surviving to old age.
We see a pattern here: when the rich Romans saw that things were going really out of control, they scrambled to save themselves while, at the same time, denying that things were so bad as they looked. We can see that clearly in Namatianus’ poem: he never ever hints that Rome was doomed. At most, he says, it was a temporary setback and soon Rome will be great again.
Of course, history doesn’t really repeat itself, even though it often rhymes. But the similarities of the last decades of the Western Roman Empire with our times are starting to be worrisome. Most of our elites aren’t yet running away, but some of them seem to be thinking about that (see this article by Kurt Cobb). And some are starting to build sophisticated luxury bunkers where to take refuge.
What’s most impressive is the change in attitude: as long as problems such as climate change were seen as needing just cosmetic changes, they were openly discussed and governments pledged to do something to solve them. Now that the problems start to be seen as impossible to deal with, they are ignored. The rise of Donald Trump in the US and of Joel Bolsonaro in Brazil are good examples.
We have to be careful here: there is no conspiracy today (just as there wasn’t in Roman times) of people getting together in a secret room to decide the fate of humankind. There is, rather, a convergence of interests. People who are sufficiently wealthy to buy themselves a survival bunker may decide to do so and, at that point, it is in their best interest to downplay the threats and to keep their escape strategy as secret as possible.
It is a very different attitude from that of middle-class people. We (I assume that most readers of this blog are middle-class people) don’t have the kind of financial clout needed to plan for a future as feudal lords among the ruins of a collapsed civilization. That’s why some of us keep catastrophistic blogs, “Cassandra’s Legacy”, for instance. Blogs can hardly save us from collapse but, at least, they are efficient means of communication and maybe that’s what we need in order to plan for the future.
So, returning to Roman history, what happened to the Romans who couldn’t run away and reach their castles? We know that not all of them survived, but some did. While the institutions and the state crumbled down, resilient communities started to appear, often in the form of monasteries or secular communities created around “overseers” (bishops).
Can we think of something like that for our future? Yes, it is an idea that’s developing in several forms, transition towns, for instance. So far, it is just an embryonic idea, but it may grow into something important together with new ideas on how humans can relate to the ecosystem. The Romans, after all, developed a new religion to help them deal with the collapse of their society. And, as I said, history never exactly repeats itself, but it rhymes.
Reproduced with some modifications from “Cassandra’s Legacy”