Historical methods to understand the future from Ancient Roman history

History with a capital ‘H’: Many students know something about the philosophy of science, but is there a philosophy of History? Or different types of “Historical Methods”? Might we develop historical methods which take us from interpreting the past to understanding our future in new and different ways? What about cognitive computing applied to history?

Mathematics: This was well ahead of Science, an abstraction akin to Philosophy in that it is, or should be(!) driven by rock-solid logic. The ancient Greeks were straight into the notion of having to develop proofs for mathematical propositions. Indeed a mathematical proof is sufficient; once proven the job is done, no need to run and rerun the hypothesis on a zillion test cases. In Maths there is (nor was) any habit of performing as many sample calculations as possible in the hope of finding one which disproves the theory. Interesting to consider that perhaps modern computing will allow a new approach to maths? Certainly doing quasi-infinite numbers of calculations is less arduous now than it was then.  A famous example of such a situation is Riemann’s hypothesis for Prime Numbers (for which no proof exists yet). The computers hum away and find no dis-proof. But still it’s not enough since one may lie out there at quasi infinity-1. Perhaps this was part of the problem with Science…that maths was a model or system entirely developed through logic and so it might have been concluded that all perfect knowledge could be inferred in a similar way, without a need to pay excessive attention to the often misleading observational evidence.

This is quite the opposite of the notion of science which is rather more utilitarian. 

Science: Science relies on a theory followed by huge effort collecting a body of evidence, in search for that bit of evidence which negates the theory. But even if no such counter-evidence is found, it is clear that the evidence will never be infinite, so the exception could still occur. Science is more utilitarian, closer to ancient Rhetoric and the art of persuasion: if the body of evidence is sufficient and credible; if it ‘works’, then it’s good enough until proven otherwise. It’s a statistical play rather than a perfect mathematical proof.

Science in the ancient world was not even what we would term as science. It took a progressive turn during the Renaissance and the age of Enlightenment which followed it; knowledge was somehow ‘democratised’ rather than remaining the domain of a few. Great thanks to the printing press and advances in the printing of images through metal plate etching. Check out William Ivin’s book ‘Prints and Visual Communication’: Words are vague, images more precise and enable a new degree of communication and learning.

Society gradually came to new and different strategies to define ‘knowledge’ and to generate new learning. Names such as Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo spoke of things such as theory, experiment, Deductive and Inductive reasoning. ‘Science’ with a capital ‘S’.

The earliest efforts may have been a little odd at times, though we know the overall result has been a good one. See the example below taken from Francis Bacon discussing that very scientific notion of ‘Heat’ in the book ‘Novum Organum’:

“…all dung seems to carry potential heat … and the carcasses of animals likewise have such hidden and potential heat, so that in cemeteries where burials take place every day, the earth gathers a certain hidden heat which eats up any corpse newly interred”


But what if we translated this to the study of History?

Understanding History: History abounds with anecdotal evidence of events, each with multiple and imprecise interpretations and viewpoints. It’s like having the experimental results but without knowing what the experiment was in the first place. Rather like Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ where the answer was ’42’ yet the question had been forgotten. History is in this sense very much the opposite of mathematics. Closer to science in a way, but a science where you cannot run experiments to validate your theory, checking if the same outcomes will reoccur. It is difficult if not impossible to press rewind and re-observe from multiple viewpoints to have a precise cause-effect detail. Closer to a case in law, one hopes to find a sufficient body of evidence. Ideally evidence which is directly from the scene of the crime rather than hearsay.

Like law, it is possible to write and transcribe the various pieces of evidence and lay out a quasi-rhetorical logical interpretation of events and human motivations for the jury (public at large) to accept or refuse. The interpretation of historical events can sometimes be re-written or re-evaluated. Emperor Nero always the bad guy, but perhaps he got bad press by those who came after him? Perhaps he was too much of a threat to the upper classes who did much of the writing. For sure he was no friend of the Christians who picked up the pieces. The Romans themselves, like the Egyptians, were often pretty good at manipulating History. Erasing the name of one or another uncomfortable predecessor. Issued by Senatorial edict the so-called ‘Damnatio Memoriae’ implied erasing the disgraced individual’s name from public memorabilia. Emperor Domitian did it to his brother Titus out of spite.

But what about using history to learn about the future? Might there be a strategy which allows History to blossom into an era of self-understanding for society? An ability to use the knowledge to manipulate our social environment and futures?

Some philosophers might suggest that history is cyclic; that societies, like the individuals within them, go through some form of lifecycle. Marx developed a theory of ‘Historical Materialism’ which he suggested was an interpretation of real conditions in society of the day;  many of his followers preferred to see it as an interpretation of history, creating a quasi-destiny of social disruption. A theory of social development which some would like to consider a science and others as a misleading pseudo-science.

Leading edge science and mathematics like Chaos Theory will tell us that the smallest change in events can cause the most extreme difference in outcomes. The famous butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane miles away. This would suggest there should be little if any repetition in history. Disaster Theory in Engineering will tell us that any disaster event is actually preceded by a repetitive chain of events, waiting for the fatal trigger to set of the unexpected disaster event: Spot the chain and defuse that trigger and you can avoid disaster. Perhaps the butterfly is the trigger…what was the repetitive chain of events which set up the disaster potential is the question! So are there repetitive chains of events in history? Surely, but at what scale are they to be found? Leading edge mathematics and quantum physics will suggest the possibility of infinite parallel universes, each with its own set of events. This notion featured in a couple of great Sci-Fi films like ‘Men in Black’ or more recently in ‘Avengers Infinity War’ where Doctor Strange checks out all the alternative futures. Enticing, but the antithesis of any sense of purpose and destiny. Why bother if everything is subject to random butterflies?

Without being so ‘futuristic’, what about using the evidence and accepting a ‘rough estimate’ of events to help the building of a hypothesis? How about using a similar event that is known about, to suggest some of the features in another event of which we have less direct evidence? A hypothesis built on a similarity of events to provide indications of where to look for fresh evidence. 

Could we use modern technology, “cognitive computing”, “learning machines”, to ingest unstructured data about historical events and spot patterns within them? To draw parallels in human events which have hitherto lain hidden to human eyes? Spot the chain of events which sets a war-in-waiting or an economic boom. The factors which set up an age of technological innovation or of social unrest. Wow.

Let’s make an example though I’m sure plenty more could be thought up: What might have been the effort and resource around the rearing and sustenance of animals, particularly horses, in ancient Rome?  Or more particularly within the ancient Roman army? What size of economy was driven by different aspects of trade? Could one consider taking the parallel of the animal industry during the industrial revolution for example? Could Victorian slaughter-house registers during the industrial revolution (ie when horses and work animals were suddenly unnecessary due to mechanisation) tell us something about the equivalent period in ancient Rome (where there was no industrial revolution)?  Perhaps we can draw some parallels back to ancient Rome or indeed other societies in a similar stage of development to understand the economy around animal husbandry?

A quick google search ‘horses slaughtered during the industrial revolution’ didn’t quite give me the answer I hoped for, but it did take me to a publication called “Historical Methods: A journal of quantitative and interdisciplinary history”. Interesting, so there is such a thing as ‘Historical Methods’. It’s not just about the interpretation of primary and secondary sources… Someone out there, has given this some thought; please tell us more!

All comments on the subject welcome. We love to learn and who knows perhaps we can learn to apply a new way of looking at history.

Our perception of time and scale: What ancient Rome can teach us

Understanding history is difficult and open to interpretation, no doubt. Much of this difficulty is due to the complexity of the factors involved. The further back we look and the more fragmentary the information. Documentary evidence, or lack of it, seems the main hindrance but it’s not the only one. Our perception of time and scale is also an issue.

As people grow older they will invariably complain about “time flying by faster and faster”. Rather than being an issue with time itself, it is obviously an issue with our cerebral mechanisms for the perception of time. Plenty of studies are ongoing on the matter, but I would say it’s incontrovertible that the mechanism we have for the perception of time is at best non-linear. Indeed the issue is not only with our perception of time, but also with our perception of scale and magnitude. Tests of our sensitivity to quantities such as light brightness suggest we behave in a logarithmic fashion. Perhaps the same applies to time also, somehow.

Slavery in the US was abolished in 1865, less than 200 years ago and racial division of society has barely been dealt with in the last 100 years. Votes for women across the Western world barely became common-place in the early-mid 20th century. I daren’t consider how it can be that in the last 100 years entire populations have been involved, directly or indirectly, in genocide and the most horrific tortures and exterminations. Looking back from our current vantage point we can see those behaviours were unacceptable and we reject them as something “in the distant past”. Other generations. Choices made by people who had little in common with us: “yes but that wasn’t me, I’m one of the victors who reformed the system”. 

A multitude of ancient Roman history themes are addressed as “ancient Roman…”. We rarely consider that ancient Rome spanned well over 1000 years. If we consider the extension of the term “ancient Roman” to include the Eastern part of the Empire, we would have to recognise it survived as far as the Renaissance. Mid 16th century, blasted by Turkish cannons. So the count would be something in the region of 2200 years from start to end. We are tempted and sometimes forced by necessity, to treat the highly fragmentary literary sources as is they were virtually contemporary. One or two hundred years between one literary source and another seem like an instant and taken as corollary proof of Roman behaviour.

Switching our vantage point can be revealing: Will people looking back at us some 2000 years from now, conflate Slavery, women’s vote, WWII gas chambers and genocide as common elements of our modern society? We’d feel it unfair, so is it fair to bundle such fundamental themes as “slavery in ancient Rome” or the role of “ancient Roman women” as if it were a single social context?

Which leads us back to asking “Were the Romans in the year 500BC much the same as in year 300AD?” When we consider ourselves as modern men and women responsible for the pervasive slavery 200 years ago, the answer is a very likely “no”. We are not the same people or indeed feel personally responsible for the slavery way back when in the 19th century. It follows that the Romans in the year 300AD were not the same as their forefathers in 500BC or indeed as their ancestors in the year 0.

So why from our distant vantage point do we consider the Roman people as one cohesive society, one moral system, one collective responsible party?

Conclusion on the perception of time in ancient history:

Perhaps both answers are correct and we easily shut our eyes to our current moral responsibilities, or we have something to learn when judging societies of the distant path: our judgement of history is shaped by our non-linear perception of time and scale.

The above also raises the question of whether what we judge in a society, historically, is very different from the way we judge ourselves in the present. The priorities seem to change: “The ancient Romans, were all a nasty bunch who condoned slavery and mass murder, they were all collectively responsible for xyz”. But when we consider ourselves as individuals living the present moment, today, we invert the moral order of importance: Less able to influence the overall behaviour of society and greater focus on the personal ability to procure a steady life for our immediate selves and family. Somehow more moral in the long-term and more bent on basic egocentric survival aspects in the short term.

Either way, the sense is that our judgement of history is subject to a great deal of non-linear behaviour between present and past:

  • A different set of moral scales.
  • Non-linear treatment of time


Learning from Ancient Rome and social evolution

Can ancient Rome teach us something of social evolution?

This short article is little more than a structured collection of thoughts regarding ancient Rome and social evolution: How we can use ancient Rome as a reference for the understanding of social evolution?

The study of the evolution of societies is a complex thing. Lying somewhere between philosophy and science and prone to multiple contrasting theories. A quick glimpse at Wikipedia’s article on sociocultural evolution is a good starting point. It reminds us that the earliest meaningful attempts began in the 18th century.

The theories follow two main lines of thought:

  1. A single continuous line of social evolution. From Paleolithic through to the future.
  2. Multiple mini-lines of localised evolution, per society.


  • You might consider something of a mixture of these: Much the subject of some sci-fi fiction where aliens come and teach a given society certain advanced notions
  • The further thought would be that perhaps social evolution may follow some form of cyclic development rather than linear. Different models suitable for different situations.

Even these few very logical statements of possibility give rise to some fresh questions which in themselves are paths to a deeper understanding of how societies might evolve.

The images below give a simplified view of how ancient Roman social structure seems to have changed developed. It does not address (though it would be interesting) the gradual division of labour and evolution of ancient Roman jobs.


Major aspects of social evolution

The sorts of primary aspects which come to mind are:

  • Religion as a means of understanding and finding new answers to unfathomable situations. These need not only be of scientific nature but also related to personal social conditions.
  • The shift from hereditary to non-hereditary rulership and indeed democracy in rule
  • Social divide, to the extreme of the existence of slavery.
  • Morality and rights of the individual.
  • Development of legal systems to govern society
  • Trade and commerce, supported by currency and finance
  • Language, Arts and crafts seem to become an expression of a society’s evolution.

Even with these few notions, we can consider the different types of social model available, taking ancient Rome’s society as an example (see images below). What is less easy to consider is how a society changes from one model to another, what triggers such change, and the subsequent tensions generated.

An amazing aspect of ancient Rome was the relative decline of education and art as the empire’s economy hit harder times. This suggests that individual aspects of social evolution are not necessarily linear in progress. If it were, education and learning would simply have continued to increase. We may have developed ancient Roman inventions to discover the steam engine rather sooner! The likes of Gibbons placed a finger on the factor or religion and the growing sense of equality of all individuals, slaves and masters alike, as a determining factor in the fall of the ancient Roman model. However, we should consider how this was coming into full force at about at a time when the Empire was already meeting its economic troubles.

Can a society evolve? 

Roman Society Kingdom
Roman society during the early Kingdom of Rome

Roman Society Republic vote

A simple diagram of ancient Roman society and government during the Republic 


Roman Society Empire
Roman society during the late Empire

So, can Ancient Rome teach us about social evolution?

The concerning evolution of ancient Rome’s society was from Tribal and hereditary kingdom to what was a seemingly virtuous Republican approach and finally to an empire, at times hereditary, at times including virtuous leaders. Eventually marked by dictatorial military rule. The question is what might have gone wrong with republican, democratic politics, as to allow that third age of ancient Roman social structure and rule.

What seems evident is that population size, economic productivity, and communications must have had their fair role to play. The population of Rome reached unprecedented heights. The expanse of the Roman Empire reached an extent as to require its split into two halves.

Communications: The relatively modern work of the likes of Harold Innis, William Ivins and Marshal McLuhan can help with an enticing line of research around the significance of communication to social development:

  • William Ivins drew interesting attention to visual (printed) communication, essential for technological and economic development.
  • Harold Innis suggested that different societies are shaped by their modes of communications, be they of oral or written, spacial or temporal in nature.
  • McLuhan picked up from both that the mode of communication actually shapes the message and the individuals in society (see the Gutenberg Galaxy).

Indeed we can say automation and artificial intelligence are akin to the effect of slavery in ancient Roman times. Together with social media and hyper-communication these elements seem to come hand-in-hand with unprecedented population growth.

In conclusion, as a global society, we continue to progress in the 21st century with respect to the 20th and indeed the 19th century. The rights of individuals are increasingly respected, access to welfare seems to be above that available a century ago. But can that trajectory continue or is it destined to cycle in unexpected directions?





From Roman rhetoric to social media

Bring magic to Social Media with Rhetoric

Ancient Roman rhetoric and social media couldn’t be further apart. Or could they? Consider this: We feel a huge excitement and spend countless hours texting, messaging, posting and”tweeting”. We hope our followers will increase in numbers and click “like, like, like”! Yet the traditional frameworks of “debating society” and “rhetoric” are synonymous of “bore, bore, bore!”.

Consider that:

  • the figures of speech of ancient times lend power to our everyday communication.
  • figures of speech get used by marketers and wordsmiths every day to build those catchy soundbites.
  • you have great power at your fingertips by linking Roman rhetoric to social media!

Yet the magic seems to be in the grasp of the few. Why shouldn’t we, every day Joe’s of this world, learn and leverage that power too?

A “tricolon”, an “alliteration”, a “metaphor” may all sound like equivalents of the word “boredom”. But what happens when their products are applied to media?

  • “I came, I saw, I conquered” survived millennia.
  • “Yes. We. Can.” & “Make America Great” won presidential elections.
  • “Finger Licking Good!” made chicken (sales) fly.

“Hey, you and I are in tune. I wink. You smile.” An emoticon is nothing more, nor less than a means to emote and create a sense of “Ethos”.  …Aristotle wrote about it, we have it at our fingertips.

The rhythmic and rhyming, alliterative gems of musical minstrels, The Black Eyed Peas, seems miles from Roman literature.

“I took ur pictcha: with one particular; reason and its-tcha; capture ur charactcha.
I like to sit and stare-attcha.
Aint nothin’ wrong with stairin’atcha.”

So finally, you say, “So what? Rhetoric and social media?”

We conclude: Roman rhetoric and social media are not apart. If we learn how a few of the tools of rhetoric do their magic the result, amplified through social media, can be huge. 


Ancient Roman Jobs, slavery and artificial intelligence…

Ancient Roman Jobs and Artificial Intelligence

This brief blog post about ancient Roman jobs and Artificial Intelligence is a continuation of the article relating to ancient Roman jobs. It makes a first stab at considering the consequence of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence and using the perspective of ancient Rome to help us consider some of the possible ramifications

The comparison of jobs between the modern and ancient worlds, and in particular ancient Roman jobs is a subject of growing fascination:

A parameter of growing interest in assessing jobs in the ancient world is the very recent arrival of “Robotics” and “Artificial Intelligence” in our own modern era. The first stage of this was visible in the mechanisation which arrived during the Industrial Revolution. Undoubtedly a “good thing” when we look back, but a period of social change, recession and Dickensian poverty as massive sectors of society were displaced. New jobs were created but in highly impoverished areas such as cole-mining.  It is difficult to consider what could become the new job of the poor and illiterate when the age of Robotics arrives: A spade and bucket don’t make a Data Scientist!

From an ancient Roman lense, AI and mechanisation can be likened to the creation of a cheap labour source, very much like importing slaves during Roman times… which jobs will increasingly disappear in our own times? Will the modern day working and middle classes find themselves in the same predicament of their equivalents in ancient Roman society? Eventually literacy rates began to fall, people sell themselves into slavery for a better future, the class divide widened, not to mention the aspect of religion as people looked for new answers to the unfathomable social changes they were subjected to….there can be many aspects and debates to the reasons for the fall of the Roman empire. Are there lessons to be learned?

Please share your thoughts on ancient Roman jobs!


A see-saw of invention vs burning people at the stake

Lovers of Rome will know a square called “Campo de’ Fiori“: Today’s the day to remember it and all that it might symbolise. It’s in the dead centre of town, very quaint buildings with wonderful pastel colours, cobbled stones, a famous fresh fruit and vegetable market; and a scary statue of a hooded monk holding a book.

Fruit and veg at Campo de' Fiori square in Rome
Yummy fruit and veg at Campo de’ Fiori square
Statue of Giordano Bruno in Rome
The philosopher monk Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake on 17th Feb 1600.

It’s the only square in Rome that doesn’t have a church: The monk was an intellectual called Giordano Bruno, and this was the place where he was burned at the stake, a victim of the inquisition.

He was also contemporary to Galileo and surprisingly, it was he who suggested that the stars were other suns like our own, not Galileo or Copernicus. Bruno embraced the Copernican system of the solar system and went further to tear down the medieval barriers of astronomy. He opened up the mind to the notion of an infinite universe. In his view, the universe had no centre: not the Sun, nor the Earth. His thinking led him to propose that all of existence must be infinite as well as made of atoms: Notions which had been forgotten since the fall of Roman hegemony. Interestingly, all these ideas came to him through logic and metaphysics, rather than maths and astronomical observation. He was a strong proponent of the scientific method.

The date was 17th February 1600. The trailing end of the Renaissance and ante-chamber to “The Enlightenment”, but not without a set of intellectual battles with evidently material effects:

  1. Biblical authority: Diverging points of view on Biblical authority and what kind of truth is to be had from it – yes there are various kinds of truth, and Einstein seems to have stretched things even further. Theological interpretations over words such as “...and I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it…” (Matthew 16:18). The issue here being that “Peter” in Latin means “Rock”, hence the sentence can be read as explicitly saying that it is Peter, and hence his successor the Pope, who should be the foundation of the Church. Others might have had a more symbolic interpretation.
    • ie Power and a desire to maintain the status-quo was at play: “I am the pope, and therefore, you will do as I say!”.
  2.  Scientific method: The clash of learning based on classical thought based largely on logic and pre-established dogma vs. the growing Scientific method based on evidence, supported by the likes of Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes. Induction and Deduction.
    • ie another angle on how to gain greater access to learning; with a ricochet hit on Biblical authority.

Ironically, the Fathers of the Church had gone to great lengths to reconcile the Old and New Testaments with (parts of) Greek Philosophy. Discovery that some of that doctrine like the earth being the centre of the universe and planets revolving around it, caused interpretative issues, if taken at face value.

The control on power, social order, and knowledge were all stirred up in one dangerous soup.

So back in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, the monk-cum-philosopher Giordano, got too close to the edge of the pot and fell into the flames of a very man-made hell. We all know that Galileo made the faux-pas of getting on the wrong side of authorities on the theme of scientific method and motion of the planets, but he steered clear of having anything to do with numero uno. Galileo repented and got away. Giordano didn’t. Both contributed to free thinking and foundational understanding of the universe we live in. Both are deservedly remembered.

Having noted the importance of today (17th Feb) we could stop here, but the ambition of this short essay is to scratch a little further to investigate the see-saw of capital punishment and scientific progress. Perhaps we may learn something of our future?

Invention vs. Divine Inspiration?

A step further in our journey of discovery could be taken by looking at the preceding Biblical phrase to the one already quoted: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father in heaven.” hmmm many will have a sense of doubt at this point. But let’s dig…

For sure we have a nice merger of the above stake-burning themes; it suggests learning coming from divine inspiration, rather than human effort (aka the scientific method). But if we remember to focus our interest on Scientific Progress & Invention, put Simon’s specific case to one side, and indeed put aside the idea that inspiration is necessarily Divine; you could play the sentence ambiguously:

  • The scientific method based on theory and experiment has brought us much progress and invention. No doubt.
  • On the other hand, invention never seems to be the result of someone stumbling on it as a result of an institutionalised path of research. This is a very generic statement, but you can collect intelligence and knowledge as they did in ancient Alexandria or communist Russia and countless other states, without it easily translating into actual results of progress and innovation.
    • It’s an ongoing, unresolved, modern political debate: Institutionalised approach <> invention and progress. Never solved.

It’s as if the true inventor sees a peak in the distance, a flash of inspiration, and then methodically works a path towards it, NOT the other way around. It’s not a random ramble, stumbling across an invention, but a definite path with an end-point in mind which no-one has mapped out before!!! Call it pre-cognition, or even Divine inspiration if you will, but something weird is happening before the scientific method actually turns that inspiration into something worthwhile. The scientific method is a powerful tool; it is not the source of invention.

Divine or not in source, at this point the conclusion would be that the key to a future of revelatory scientific discovery lies closer to the message for Simon than that for Peter and the argument contained in those two phrases and the subsequent arguments they lead to is somehow reflective of the eternal see-saw of innovation and learning vs burning people at the stake.

What about the See-Saw of stake burning and innovation throughout time?

That biblical conversation was written down in ancient Roman times. Already then, the issue of invention, new knowledge, and the impact it could have on the establishment were a major concern setting hierarchies and social orders. Irrespective of your religious views or even the Biblical example, it is easy to find other instances. Another curious example is found in a few ancient Roman texts, also including Pliny’s Natural History (NH36.66): “In the reign of Tiberius, it is said, a combination was devised which produced a flexible glass; but the manufactory of the artist was totally destroyed, we are told, in order to prevent the value of copper, silver, and gold, from becoming depreciated.” Suetonius tells a similar story in his “12 Caesars” as do other writers, also telling of how emperor Tiberius assured himself that the information of the invention’s recipe was unknown to anyone else, and then proceeded to have the inventor beheaded. I guess beheading is better than burning at a stake.

So what of today and tomorrow? Is the see-saw of invention and persecution still at play? Surely yes. Even setting aside the world of industrial espionage, hacking and space-age encryption, there are countless stories of regimes muffling the voices of those who might spread unwelcome information and learning. The debate is increasingly strong particularly in times of free-flowing boundary-less information. The reality is likely more disturbing and entering an evolutionary stage with fresh mutations.

The new set of questions seems very mixed up and confusing, perhaps getting difficult to distinguish the “good” from the “bad”:

  • There is no doubting that data, analytics and artificial intelligence is able to see your every move and predict your every need before you even know it; opening up the gates to a veritable future of Orwellian control, and yet on the flip side the need to defend ourselves from irrational radicalism seems to lead to a public demand for the authorities to know every move of hitherto non-suspectable 16 year-olds gone awry. 
    • Question: Will the see-saw reverse so-to-speak? Will the fighters of truth and liberty be fighting a battle, not for the freedom to spread new knowledge, but to contain our personal information?
  • What will happen when we instill that uniquely human or indeed Divine “inspiration” which lies at the heart of invention into Artificial Intelligence “engines”? An interview with Gary Kasparov the mighty chess-player might allay our fears: “Type A” artificial intelligence is about brute force of numbers and variables within a confined set of rules; it’s not actually able to think… It will aid us and free us to do greater and better things. But what about “Type B” or C or X for that matter? Steven Hawking might tell us to watch out and fear the future as machines surpass “us”. The jury is still out as to whether AI will be good or bad. Most say good, rather like the Industrial Revolution has had definitely positive aspects for all of us – though we should remember that the Industrial Revolution came with its upheavals and a generation of job displacement which even today would be difficult to deal with. Just like it was difficult to deal with on the 17th February 1600.
    • You can’t suddenly convert the taxi, cleaning, bricklaying, shop-attending jobs to “data scientist” degrees (though London cab drivers do seem to have the brain the size of a planet).
  • Question: Will there be a day when humans will be burning the AI machines at the proverbial stake, out of that self-same fear of our being displaced?

History has much to teach.

The column which made history, defied gravity, and warped space-time

One of the most iconic monuments of all time was erected by emperor Trajan; it is now better known as “Trajan’s Column”. As columns go, it defines the very essence of defying gravity, transforming its purpose into a historical artifact, a vehicle of political propaganda,  a pedestal for a statue and much more (not to mention housing for pigeons).

Many readers will know of it and for sure we can hardly do it justice with just a few lines. Nevertheless, I can’t help myself but to jot a few thoughts down because of the realisation that it made history for a number of reasons of which the below are just a tiny few. As I write I realise that perhaps there’s more to it than I at first thought…

Trajan’s column made history because:

  • It was a monument which commemorated Emperor Trajan’s victory over the Dacian’s: including the region spreading across Romania, Moldovia, Hungary, and Poland. Impressive, but that’s almost an excuse for its existence.
  • The column’s spiral architecture was inspired by the construction of a scroll narrating a story. Cool. And for those who say Roman art was a copy-cat trick please note, it was a truly Roman invention. An eclectic transformation of a column into a quintessential architectural artifact.
  • True to it’s literary inspiration it was located in the centre of Trajan’s library, built in the Roman forum, it’s story being (roughly) legible both as a spiral as well as vertically from a single vantage point.
    • For some reason, it reminds me of Erik Verlinde’s theories of gravity being a resulting phenomenon of the entropy (information) associated with the position of material bodies… hmmm. That’s the beauty of classical architecture for you!
  • It was of such a size that you could walk up the inside.
  • The sculpted lettering on the column’s pedestal is widely regarded by lovers and professionals of Font and Type as the true representation of ancient Roman lettering. A version of this was made into ‘Trajan’ typeface at the beginning of the 20th century, surprise surprise. 

So there we have it:

A column which surpassed the very meaning of column, located in a library, used a typeface which defined fonts for the next 2000 years and was structured to deliver a (commemorative) message irrespective of your position in space and time. Wow. A veritable time machine.


From ancient Roman roads to living on the moon

This is a map of the North Eastern part of the ancient roman world. Printed in 1789.

The title has great opportunity to be both dramatic and romantic….”All roads lead to the moon” or “A straight road from Rome to the moon”. Hmmm

An interesting article on the UK DailyMail about NASA studies into a cheap base on the moon led me to my usual consideration: Surely there are some parallels with past events in history which can help us consider this futuristic event? Surely Ancient Rome will have something to teach us about colonising the Moon and indeed Mars?

Here are a few ideas which quickly sprang to mind:

  1. The expansion of the Roman empire, it’s military with their great engineering skills and their famous Roman roads were usually preceded by Roman merchants on the search for new markets. Perhaps SpaceX is just one of many such mercantile enablers of our space future?
  2. When the Romans went about colonising a new region they’d establish military camps and build roads to enable movement of goods and troops. These engineering projects used local slaves and building materials.
  3. Logistics and strategy around getting goods and people to the new location to set up a stable site.
  4. Choosing the strategic location and indeed the design of appropriate settlements would surely have developed over time. The Romans would surely have learned much from the Greeks who had been great colonisers and founders of cities before them. A great example being Alexander the Great and Alexandria itself. Might this imply a new era of settlement planning and architecture?
  5. And of course, there must have been great savvy in ancient Rome around how to render such expansionist initiatives economically feasible… In the earliest days of the Roman Kingdom wars were only waged in certain times of the year, not only for weather reasons but also bearing in mind the need to tend the land and harvests. It was later in time that Marius thought of setting up a professional army and going against the past social etiquette.

The parallels could be that in the modern age:

  • Much like the ancient Roman merchants, modern private firms are investing heavily: Not only in space travel itself but also in the technologies which are essential for colonisation. First and foremost I think of robotics, self-driving vehicles and so on. All of this brings down the cost of the would-be colonising agency since much of the innovation is being done for them. Perhaps self-driving or remote controlled mining and tunneling machines….
  • The robots we build would then be used to go and do much of the work up there, using local materials to build the basic 2D structures like roads. I wonder whether the technique would remain the same of layering materials starting with the finest and pounding the larger blocks into them. The material used happens to be the same as the Romans are best known for: Basalt! However, as mentioned above they would have used what materials were most available locally to avoid lengthy transportation.

So at this point, we have two elements: Slaves (robots) and Roads (using local basalt), but surely we can look further….

  • Might the comparison go further? Perhaps the journey is as risky as it was back in the Roman age and the travel times are similar, especially when considering travel to Mars (9 months apparently). To this, we might add the strategy around sending out increasingly stable groups of personnel, trained and capable of differing jobs. The social relations and personal motivations at work when setting up a colony are probably similar too.
  • And last but not least, it may be worth thinking of what factors were at play when the empire began to shrink. For example, once the Romans withdrew, the cities and settlements in ancient Roman-Britain began to fall into disuse again…so again, reminding us of various factors at play, such as culture, communications, and support from home-base as fundamental necessities for a distant outpost to be functional.

All of this leads us to consider the often forgotten obvious: Simply getting out there is not sufficient and that multiple factors, many less obvious than others are necessary to the successful establishment of a distant outpost.

Etruscan Tombs

Etruscan tombs are extremely fascinating, particularly the ones dating back to around the sixth century BC due to their architectural detail and decoration. Clearly the types of tomb employed throughout Etruscan civilisation varied somewhat and included solutions such as cremation, burial in chambers or even in deep wells.
The tombs at Tarquinia and Cerveteri are particularly interesting because they are of the chamber type: a large mound would be piled on top of a circular wall with an entrance to it. The entrance would often lead downwards into a passageway and into a number of chambers, rather like a house. The one in the image below is particularly well known for the large number of relief sculptures showing the different types of implements and tools one would have had in one’s own home at the time. This tomb is also interesting for the ceiling, which has obviously been sculpted to mimic the ceiling of housing of the time.

Reasons for the collapse and fall of the roman empire

The reasons for the collapse and fall of the roman empire can be approached in different ways, none of which can be demonstrated to be the right one. Answering the question goes to the core of philosophy:


  • historical events can be considered in a cause-effect structure, which has the nasty hitch of removing the idea of human free will and after all what is history if not a description of human affairs, presumably free thinking humans? Ie if every event in the timeline of Roman history is the result of the preceding event (its cause) then the event must be considered as pre-destined. So the fall of the Roman empire was predestined from the very beginning. Yuck!
  • On the other hand we could take a “teleological” approach which considers that events are driven by a final goal (whatever that might be) and hence permit some human free will (phew, I’m not a robot). In this model of Roman history we can actually allow the question of “what might have been done to avoid the decline and fall of the Roman empire”.


To get another angle at understanding the issue it is interesting to consider St.Augustine who was a Christian fore-father who furthermore happened to be alive at the time when the Roman empire was falling. The Christians played a big big role at the time of the roman empire’s collapse and are certainly one of the factors at play, although it’s difficult to say whether they were a cause as such. One of St. Augustine’s issues was this: if humans behave according to cause-effect in a causal kind of world then we cannot say we are free to choose because everything is predestined, and if so we cannot be blamed (by God) for our sins! As you can see, digging into historical events and the roles of people within them requires us to use a variety of tools.

A Teleological approach to explaining the reasons for the collapse of the Roman empire

So the teleological (the second) approach to the fall of the Roman empire seems an obvious choice – but it’s also tough to unravel as it’s like answering the question “why did the chicken cross the road” and possibly getting the unreasonable answer “to get to the other side“. If we tried it on the reasons for the fall of the Roman empire we might get a weirdly esoterical answer like:


  • Actually if you look at the timeline of Ancient RomeRoman society had already run its course and died long before the 4th century AD. Roman society had found a degree of equilibrium for its “Jungian” tensions of collective unconscious when “panem et circenses” proved to be a suitable answer for “happiness” and eliminated the cause for tension between poor Plebeians and rich Patricians. What we consider as the fall of the Roman empire only happened after “true” Roman society had already died out and been quietly replaced by a “civitas” where foreign barbarians with foreign values, foreign cultures and foreign personal aims far outnumbered true Romans and failed to use the Roman system to find their own social goal.“This made-up goal-ended answer is clearly full of broad unprovable statements but it is suggesting some intriguing ideas:
    • What we consider the fall of the Roman empire is simply the outwardly, delayed and visible effect of a society which had reached its “goal” (if such an concept really existed).
    • Roman society died out when it had evolved to its nirvana and the Roman empire fell because of the squatters who moved in in search of their own nirvana (and evidently didn’t find it)
    • This answer is pretty much in line with what the Christians of the time were saying – ie that pagan roman society was a decaying corpse; except they were blaming it on paganism as a religioius system rather than considering the demise of the empire as the aftermath of ancient Roman society having achieved its peaceful goal.


The Teleological (goal based) approach seems to give some interesting insights and it allows for free will but takes us into uncharted esoterical waters. Using it more extensively would require many pages worth of unqualifiable conjecture; the causal approach is easier and academically less dangerous to chat about.

A mechanistic-causal approach to explaining the reasons for the fall of the roman empire

I suggest that whoever is approaching the subject should start by taking the causal path, use it to learn the factors involved as if the result really were an inevitability and then step back and consider it all over again from a social- teleological standpoint. Very difficult and inevitably takes you into deep philosophy and psychology; I personally found Carl Jung and Myers-Briggs an interesting way to go (not discussed further in this article).

Returning to the “simple” causal approach….The reasons for the collapse and fall of the roman empire are broad and varied. As with other cataclysmic events it is not a single action, but rather a set chain of events coupled with a “final” trigger which takes history in a new direction. The chain can be there for a while and the final event may have failed to trigger a few times, but in the end statistical chance won the day:


  • Economic decline: all the wealth lay in the East. Nasty imbalance of trade.
  • Mutated social conditions, in terms of values, morals, individual objectives.
  • A shift in religion to Christianity which underpinned the failure of the “old” model of Romanity and rule. Perhaps it was a cause, perhaps a catalyst.
  • Overly extended boundaries created unsurmountable logistical and resource issues.
  • Increasing threat from outside the empire’s borders and indeed from her own allies and provinces ie geopolitics of a scale never encountered before.
  • Increasing power of the military. Strong link between military and ruling power made for highly unstable politics and hence lack of true government.
  • Ruling class’ increasing stranglehold on Roman society and trade. In spite of a series of adequate social, economic and technological conditions being place, comparable to those of pre.industrial revolution England, the ruling class (Roman Emperor) had great interest in maintaining the status quo – even as a means of avoiding social unrest. One way or another, social unrest or social dismemberment seems to have been structural and unavoidable…. sounds rather like a recipe for Hegelian historical cycles and Marxist social revolutions doesn’t it? I guess it’s a danger of the causal approach.


Having chosen the causal approach, and trying to remember that the approach itself will have a bias for a certain kind of conclusion (a little like the paradox of Schrodinger’s cat in physics), we will ponder the variety of factors both internal and external, which made up the chain of internal events leading to the collapse of ancient Roman civilisation: social, military, political, economic and religious as well as geopolitical (external to the empire).

These aspects of the fall of the Roman empire will be given some further consideration in the following sections:


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