The large number of cities that formed the network of the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley nicely illustrates a concrete conception of civilization.

Some time ago in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being I discussed a famous passage in Plato that gives an explicit definition of being. The passage is as follows:

STRANGER: Let us push the question; for if they will admit that any, even the smallest particle of being, is incorporeal, it is enough; they must then say what that nature is which is common to both the corporeal and incorporeal, and which they have in their mind’s eye when they say of both of them that they ‘are.’ Perhaps they may be in a difficulty; and if this is the case, there is a possibility that they may accept a notion of ours respecting the nature of being, having nothing of their own to offer.

THEAETETUS: What is the notion? Tell me, and we shall soon see.

STRANGER: My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.

The Greek text of the Eleatic Stranger’s crucial formulation is as follows:

Ξένος: λέγω δὴ τὸ καὶ ὁποιανου̂ν [τινα] κεκτημένον δύναμιν [247e] εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ ποιει̂ν ἕτερον ὁτιου̂ν πεφυκὸς εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ παθει̂ν καὶ σμικρότατον ὑπὸ του̂ φαυλοτάτου, κἂν εἰ μόνον εἰς ἅπαξ, πα̂ν του̂το ὄντως εἰ̂ναι: τίθεμαι γὰρ ὅρον [ὁρίζειν] τὰ ὄντα ὡς ἔστιν οὐκ ἄλλο τι πλὴν δύναμις.

My extrapolation of Plato’s definition of being was to derive four permutations from this definition of beings, in this way:

1. Beings that act only and do not suffer

2. Beings that suffer only and do not act

3. Beings that both act and suffer

4. Beings that neither act nor suffer, which may be non-beings

Another way to extrapolate Plato’s definition of being would be the ability of some entity to act or to suffer in kind, that is, to engage in reciprocal relations with a peer, to interact with another entity of the same (or similar) kind in the same (or similar) way. With this extrapolation, the fourth permutation above — beings that neither act nor suffer — becomes meaningful, because a given entity might possess a minimal ontological status in regard to interactions of acting and suffering without the opportunity to engage in such relationships with a peer entity. Thus a contradictory, or at least problematic, permutation of Plato’s definition of being can be given meaning.

An entity might be analyzed in terms of the classes of relationships across which it interacts, and where a class of interactions is absent, the entity is a non-being in this respect even if it is clearly a being in other respects. For example, Robinson Crusoe, living alone as a castaway on a desert island, interacts with the island, its flora and fauna, but initially interacts with no other human beings. Crusoe has not been cast out of existence by being marooned on a desert island, but he has been deprived of human society; no human society exists on his island (at first). Crusoe has lost his status as a member of human society by being deprived of the kind of interactions that constitute human society, i.e., interactions with other human beings, even as he continues to interact with the world across broad categories of existence that have nothing to do with human society.

This example of Robinson Crusoe and his interaction with peers (or lack thereof) can be scaled up and applied to larger human societies. Human society at the level of organization of the hunter-gatherer band, such as characterized the human world of the upper Paleolithic, brought into being relationships between such bands, which relationships were almost certainly implicated in the human expansion across the entire surface of Earth. When, near the beginning of the Holocene, some bands settled down into agricultural villages, these villages would have interacted with each other, and when some of the villages expanded in size and complexity and became cities, these early cities would have interacted with each other. What I would like to suggest there is that interaction among cities as cities is what characterizes civilization.

Recently in Another Counterfactual: the Single City Civilization I discussed a couple of different definitions of civilization that I have been employing, particularly in my Centauri Dreams post Martian Civilization, one of these definitions abstract and the other concrete:

● Concrete — A network of cities engaged in relationships of cooperation and conflict.

● Abstract — A society with a central project that unifies its economic infrastructure and its intellectual superstructure.

My “concrete” definition of civilization interpreted in the light of Plato’s definition of being suggests that civilization comes into being when cities interact on the ontological level distinctive to cities, i.e., cities interacting on a civic level. Before this, isolated cities would not have had an opportunity to interact with ontological peers; a city would interact with the surrounding countryside, and perhaps also with hunter-gatherer bands that might pass by for raiding or trading, but these sub-urban interactions would not yet rise to the level of civilization.

The class of relationships that are distinctive of civilization come into being when multiple cities interact with each other as cities. Before this, individual cities may emerge and interact with their surroundings, but these relationships belong to another order of being.

This is, I think, a conception of civilization that is consistent with V. Gordon Childe and the “urban revolution” that I discussed in my Centauri Dreams post Martian Civilization, but also a definition that goes beyond Childe and fills in the gap between Childe’s formulations specifically concerned with the nature of cities but not yet with the nature of cities in mutual interaction.

This Platonic interpretation of my “concrete” definition of civilization transforms it into a theoretical definition that may yet point to implications that I have not yet fully realized.

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The large number of Mayan cities in Mesoamerica also illustrates a network of cities engaged in interaction.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A Civilized Countryside

21 February 2013


Tuscan countryside

When I returned from my recent trip to Tokyo my sister picked me up at the airport and on the drive she asked me about the weather. I said that it was cold and windy, but also very clear and sunny. How cold? I had to pause. I didn’t really know how cold it had been. I didn’t even know whether or not it had been below freezing. In a rural environment one would know immediately whether or not the temperature had dropped below freezing, but in the urban intensity of Tokyo there were no obvious (natural) signs of the temperature. One would only know that it was freezing if puddles in the street were frozen over; if there are no puddles, as when it is cold and clear, there are not obvious signs of the temperature. This made me think about the differences between urban and rural life, and ultimately rural and urban civilization.

In Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View the author introduces the idea of a civilized countryside, immediately after describing what he considered to be one of the high points of (urban) civilization in Urbino under Federigo and Guidobaldo Montefeltro:

“…there is such thing as civilized countryside. Looking at the Tuscan landscape with its terraces of vines and olives and the dark vertical accents of the cypresses, one has the impression of timeless order. There must have been a time when it was all forest and swamp — shapeless and formless; and to bring order out of chaos is a process of civilization. But of this ancient, rustic civilization we have no record beyond the farmhouses themselves, whose noble proportions seem to be the basis of Italian architecture; and when the men of the Renaissance looked at the countryside it was not as a place of ploughing and digging, but as a kind of earthly paradise.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, pp. 112-113, I have selectively Americanized Clark’s irritatingly British orthography

There are several themes in this passage that touch on concerns to which Clark returned repeatedly in his survey of civilization: his mention of “timeless order” invokes his earlier emphasis on permanence and the ambition to engage in monumental, multi-generational projects. Yet it is a bit odd that Clark should mention the romanticization of the countryside during the renaissance as an earthly paradise, as this points to older models of the countryside as an Arcadian paradise, as in Virgil’s Pastorals, in which shepherds play the lyre and sing poetry to each other. This is an idyllic picture of the Golden Age in which the countryside is most definitely not civilized, but rather a retreat from the corruption of civilization.

It would be easy to dismiss the whole idea of a civilized countryside both for its internal contradictions and romantic idealization of country life that has little to do with the reality of life in the country — however. However. The civilization of the European Middle Ages, which was a pervasively agrarian civilization, and especially in so far as it approximated pure agriculturalism, was essentially a rural civilization. The great manors or feudal lords were located in the countryside because this is where the food production activity that was the basis of the medieval economy was centered. In other words, the economy was centered on the rural countryside, and not on cities.

Certainly during the Middle Ages there were thriving and cosmopolitan cities engaged in sea-borne commerce with the known world, but these were at this time essentially centers of luxury commerce that touched the lives of only a very few persons. The vast majority of the population were peasants working the land; a few percent were landed nobility and a few percent were churchmen. This left only a very small fragment of bourgeoisie — people of the town, i.e., of the berg (bourg) — who were engaged in urban life year-round. This was important, but not central, to the medieval economy. What was central was agrarian production on great landed estates, which were the true measure of medieval wealth. Having money scarcely counted as “wealth.”

It is a bias of industrial-technological civilization to assume that cities are the center of civilization, because cities are the centers of industrial-technological civilization, and the industrial city is the center of industrial production. This early paradigm of industrial cities is already changing as industrial production facilities move to industrial parks on the outskirts of cities, and we tend to identify the great cities as centers of administration, education and research, the arts and cultural opportunities, and so on. But whatever the function of the city, whether producing articles of manufacture or producing prestige requirements, the city is central to the kind of civilization we have created since the end of the Middle Ages and the end of medieval agrarian civilization.

The life of the countryside has its own complexity, but this complexity is of a different order and of a different kind than the complexity of life in the city; in the city, one finds that the primary features of the intellectual landscape are the actions of other human beings whereas in the country the primary intellectual landscape is that of the natural order of things. These differing sources of complexity structure lives differently.

A certain kind of mind is cultivated by urban life in the same way that a certain kind of mind is cultivated by life in the country, which latter of course Marx dismissed as rural idiocy. The mind and life of the country, as opposed to the city, results in its own distinctive institutions. The kind of civilization that emerges in the countryside is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by life in the country, and, contrariwise, the kind of civilization that emerges in the city is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by urban life.

At least for the moment, the tradition of rural civilization has been lost to us. The great demographic development of our time is the movement of mass populations into urban areas — and the corollary of rural depopulation — as though by a spontaneous agreement the world’s peoples had decided to attempt to prove Doxiadis right about ecumenopolis as the telos of the city and of human life. This demographic trend shows every sign of smoothly extrapolating into the future, so that we can expect even more urban growth and rural depopulation over time.

Nevertheless, it remains possible to consider alternative futures in which this trend is reversed or replaced by a different trend — or even a different civilization. Global networking means that anyone can live anywhere and be in touch with the world’s rapidly changing knowledge. If you have a connection to the internet, you can live in a rural village not necessarily be subject to the idiocy of rural life that Marx bemoaned. However, this doesn’t seem to be enough right now to keep people in the countryside, especially when all the economic opportunities are to be found in the world’s growing cities.

But there is nothing inevitable about the relentless expansion or indefinite continuation of industrial-technological civilization. Agrarian civilization, like the European Middle Ages with which it is identified, is a completed part of our past, which stands like a whole, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this way we can fashion a narrative of agrarian civilization, but we cannot yet fashion a narrative of industrial-technological civilization, since this is today a going concern and not a completed whole. There is a sense in which we can treat scientific civilization — what I have called modernism without industrialism — as a completed whole, a finished era of history. Although I do not regard it as likely, it is possible that our civilization may join the ranks of finished civilizations that have run their course and added themselves to the archive of human history.

I have touched on these possibilities in several posts, as when I have considered Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios and in my argument for Viking Civilization, which constituted a very different kind of civilization — neither rural nor urban, but mobile, i.e., a nomadic civilization. This latter is the possibility that seems so apparently remote but which most fascinates me. Other kinds of civilizations have existed in the past; distinct forms remain possible today, however unlikely.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The city plan of Timgad clearly shows the rationality of Roman town planning. The organic medieval cities that were eventually to house the successor populations of the former territories of the Roman Empire represent a very different approach to urbanism.

In Yesterday’s Why did Roman cities fail?, among several other assertions, I made the following claim:

“The prior success of Hellenistic cities is the conditio sine qua non of the collapse of an entire civilization, for without the civilization there is nothing to collapse. It was, then, at least in part, the scope and success of Roman civilization that contributed to scope and ignominy of the failure. There is a sense in which it was not merely an institution that failed, or a political system that failed, but that it was civilization itself that failed.”

I have no doubt that the dissolution of the Roman Empire will be discussed as long as human civilization endures, and because the discussion unquestionably endures in our own time, there is a lively debate over almost every aspect of Roman power and its eventual dissolution. It is a question that is endlessly fascinating, and that is one reason that I find myself returning to it.

An aerial photography of Timgad clearly showing the town plan as the most striking feature that remains of the city.

Moreover, a focus on cities in the ancient world can lend both clarity and focus to the discussion of Roman failure in the west, given the canonical status of city-states in classical antiquity. And it would add further clarity and focus to continue this concentration on urbanism into the medieval period in order to compare the ancient urban experience with the medieval urban experience. As I will sketch briefly below, there were some abandoned medieval cities, but most medieval cities of western Europe continued to grow and develop and were eventually transformed by this development rather than being abandoned.

View of Timgad with arch, colonnade, and theater clearly visible.

The decline of Roman cities was at the same time the rise of manorial estates, and with this transition from the city of the countryside, the socio-economic system of the city slowly gave way to the socio-economic system of the manorial estate. If we had good statistics from this period, we could identify the particular year in which the changing Roman Empire (or its former dominions) shifted from being primarily urban to being primarily rural, as today we can identify the particular year that humanity became a primarily urban species, such the more people live in urban areas than live in rural areas.

Henri Pirenne (23 December 1862 – 25 October 1935) formulated the eponymously known Pirenne Thesis.

Many distinct but interrelated process contributed to the failure of Roman cities and their institutions, which might also be called (if one would like to take a different perspective on the same historical events) the rise of the manorial system, which was already well underway (though not fully consolidated) in the later Roman Empire. With the diminution of Mediterranean trade, fewer and fewer grain ships came from Egypt to feed the urban masses; the country estates of the Roman aristocrats were forced to become productive farms in order to replace the other lost sources of food; the urban masses began to abandon the city for the sources of food in the countryside; small holders had to attach themselves to larger aristocratic households; and all the while the culture of the aristocrats and the former urban masses were becoming progressively more Christian, with genuine expressions of popular piety that broke the connections to traditional Roman festivals, which were often civic and urban events. When these several processes achieved near totality, the feudal system was complete, but it was already implicit in the socio-economic developments of the late Roman Empire.

Pirenne’s formulation of the Pirenne Thesis grew out of his analysis of medieval cities.

In yesterday’s discussion of Roman cities I didn’t make any attempt even to review the theories of Roman collapse. There are many such theories, most famously Gibbon’s contention that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire represented, “the triumph of barbarism and religion” — presumably a triumph over civilization and secularism — and the Pirenne Thesis, according to which it was the rise of Islam that signaled the end of classical antiquity. Recent thought focuses much more on the continuities than the discontinuities between the late Roman Empire and early medieval Europe, and I alluded to this yesterday when I quoted Gordon Childe’s account, which was an early example of emphasizing historical continuity.

Coulanges studied the ancient city prior to the model of iterated Roman civilization that transformed the Hellenistic cities of the ancient Mediterranean.

The Pirenne Thesis is particularly interesting in the present context, because Pirenne’s thesis, despite making the rise of Islam central to the ultimate collapse of Roman power, emerged from Pirenne’s study of medieval cities. I remarked yesterday that it would be interesting to take up the failure of Roman cities from the perspective of Fustel de Coulanges’ famous book The Ancient City. Such a project would consider Roman cities in their formative stage. If the inquiry were extended to include Pirenne’s Medieval Cities, we could close the parentheses on Roman cities, as it were, by also considering the medieval urbanism that was the successor institution to Roman urbanism.

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, 18 March 1830 – 12 September 1889

The expansion of medieval cities recounted by Pirenne, and of medieval civilization generally, which certainly as much as ancient civilization exemplified what Gordon Childe called…

“…the result of the superficial expansion of civilization and the suspension of attritional warfare…” (What Happened in History, p. 281)

…experienced a crisis nearly equal to the failure of the Western Roman Empire with the Black Death. By the middle of the fourteenth century, when the Black Death struck Western Europe, medieval civilization had been steadily expanding for several centuries — economically, demographically, socially, politically, intellectually — and it was devastated by a crisis unlike any other in Western history. Medieval civilization survived (unlike Roman civilization, which did not survive its catastrophe), but it was diminished and altered.

Gordon Childe gained renown as a prehistorian, but in his later work his scope expanded to include the ancient world up to its dissolution.

Medieval civilization was quite literally diminished, since the Black Death resulted in a dramatic contraction of the population of Europe, which led in turn to a contraction of the farming that was the basis of the medieval European economy, and this in turn meant that many medieval villages were abandoned. Some survive today as place names with no remaining structures, while others disappeared without a trace.

V.(ere) Gordon Childe, 14 April 1892 – 19 October 1957

The expansion of medieval villages, and the organic nature — both in terms of structure and material — of medieval urbanism meant that most medieval villages founded during the period or Europe’s medieval expansion consisted of timber-framed, wattle-and-daub structures, which when abandoned during the Black Death were rapidly re-absorbed into the damp, rain-soaked landscape of Western Europe. The Robust towns built of durable stone were among those that survived. Even if abandoned, squatters could return to inhabit the most permanent dwellings, which I expect happened with some frequency in the aftermath of the plague.

Regardless of the relative merits of continuity theories and discontinuity theories of the transition from antiquity to medievalism, one point that can be made more clearly than debating the decline and fall (or, if you like, transformation) of an entire civilization, is this: Roman urbanism failed. Even if we maintain that Roman civilization continued on in altered forms, Roman cities failed.

The tradition of Roman town planning was lost; the new cities that eventually emerged after the abandonment of so many Roman cities emerged centered on a monastery or a cathedral. As I have observed on several occasions, these medieval cities were organic in composition and conception. The medieval successor institution to Roman urbanism simply happened; it was not designed and it was not planned. New social and political institutions meant that the cities functioned differently from Roman cities. The way of life of Roman cities was lost and it was not recovered. There were no more great public baths, or sacred prostitution at ancient temples, or syncretistic religious pluralism. For all the analogies between Roman cities and medieval cities, the central institutions of public life were distinct.

Thus whatever we may say of Roman civilization, Roman urbanism failed, and the urbanism that replaced it when medieval Europe returned to the building of cities (after a period of several centuries in Western Europe that saw almost no urban construction at all) was an urbanism based on different principles and different institutions. (Again, as Gordon Childe put it, “…old Mediterranean towns were replaced by new cathedral cities.” What Happened in History, p. 291) This fact alone makes the study of the failure of Roman cities singularly interesting. However, I must also point out the Roman urbanism only “failed” after having endured for more than a millennium, which means that Roman urbanism was also one of the most successful institutions in human history.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Jerash in modern Jordan

Throughout Europe, North Africa, and West Asia you will find the ruins of ancient Roman cities. These abandoned ruins haunt the Western historical imagination, and not only the modern imagination. The Middle Ages were possibly even more haunted by the vanished Roman Empire than are we. There is a remarkable early poem in Anglo-Saxon — one of the earliest of all surviving poems in Anglo-Saxon — that communicates the sense of loss and mystery that abandoned Roman structures had for the peoples of the Middle Ages, who imagined them as the work of giants. Here are the first few lines of The Ruin (in a modern English rendering):

This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen,
the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations
of people have departed. Often this wall,
lichen-grey and stained with red, experienced one reign after another,
remained standing under storms; the high wide gate has collapsed.

The Fall of the Roman Empire remains still one of the central points of reference in Western historiography. Italian historian Aldo Schiavone called it, “…the greatest catastrophe ever experienced in the history of civilization.” (The End of the Past, p. 2) The ruined cities that dot the landscape of the Old World offer mute testimony to this catastrophe. (On a personal note, here I am, a Westerner on the far western edge of the New World, where no ancient cities dot the landscape, and there is scarcely a day that passes that I don’t think of the Romans and their accomplishments.)

Aphrodisias in modern Turkey

We cannot make a clear and unambiguous distinction between Roman cities and Roman civilization when we ask why Roman cities failed. It has been said that Mediterranean civilization is essentially urban, centered in its cities, so that the failure of Roman cities was the failure of Roman civilization, and vice versa. We could even take a term from economics to express this, and say that the fall of the Roman Empire in the west involved the co-movement of failure across Rome’s western cities.

Heliopolis, or Baalbek, in modern Lebanon.

When I previously wrote about Failed Cities I realized later that I had failed to make any basic distinctions between classes of failure suffered by cities. Some instances that I cited couldn’t even be called “failure” in the strict since, as these cities were destroyed by natural disasters (here I am thinking of San Juan Parangaricutiro in Mexico, which was covered by lava and volcanic ash, but any city destroyed by a natural disaster and not subsequently rebuilt and repopulated would serve equally well as an example, such as Pompeii). Even among destroyed cities we ought to distinguish between those destroyed by natural disasters, those destroyed purposefully in war, and those destroyed by their inhabitants. Once these distinctions are made, it can be observed that there will be no clear and unambiguous distinction between some cases of failure sensu stricto and some cases of the destruction of a city by its own inhabitants.

Leptis Magna in modern Libya

This last observation, which may seem a bit overly-subtle (and, believe me, I could go into in a much greater detail if I cared to do so), is germane to the present concern of why Roman cities failed. If Roman civilization may be identified with the network of Roman cities, then the failure of Roman civilization in the West may be identified with the systemic failure of Roman cities. Since a natural disaster may destroy a few cities but it not likely to cause the failure of many diverse cities over a wide geographical range of distribution (unless that natural disaster is global climate change), the across-the-board failure of Roman cities would not seem to be due to natural disaster. Similarly, cities destroyed in war tend to be localized to the theater of war, and this leaves definite signs that archaeologists can uncover. Similarly, again, cities intentionally destroyed by their own inhabitants is a measure of considerable desperation and is not likely to have occurred on a large scale, and it would moreover leave traces for archaeologists. This leaves us with the failure of Roman cities ambiguously related to the unintentional self-destruction of cities by their own inhabitants.

Volubilis in modern Morocco

In the most famous case of a Roman city — the city of Rome itself, the Eternal City — its fall was as slow and as gradual as its rise. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, Rome didn’t fall in a day. And the “failure” of Rome was not complete, although at its nadir Rome had gone from being a cosmopolitan city of more than a million souls, and the largest megalopolis if the ancient world (possibly the only megalopolis of classical antiquity) to being a city of fewer than 50,000, stripped of its population, its power, its wealth, its public art, and its central place on the world stage. Domestic animals grazed in the Forum Romanum as the great temples and public structures were looted as quarries for stone to build ramshackle huts nestled in among the interstices of the ruins.

Rome itself, the Eternal City.

It was in the Eternal City itself that Gibbon was inspired to write his justly famous account of the fall of the Roman Empire, as he recounted in a beautiful passage from his Autobiography:

“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind. But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the city rather than of the empire…”

Gibbon’s literary ambition grew as he worked, and he eventually would write the entire history of the fall of the Roman Empire, not excepting the history of Byzantium until that Second Rome had fallen to the Grand Turk in AD 1453. There have been others who have taken a more tightly circumscribed focus in recounting the fall of Rome itself, the city, but it would be another project again to retain Gibbon’s original concrete and particular interest in writing the fall of Rome, and iterating this to all the Roman cities, recounting their joint and cumulative decline.

Perge in modern Turkey

For Rome, the Eternal City itself, was not the first or the only Roman city to have animals grazing in the marketplace where once the business of an empire was transacted. Here, from Dio Chrysostom, is an account of haw far and how quickly some cities had already declined in classical times:

“ ‘At the present moment even the land just outside the city gates is quite wild and terribly unattractive, as though it were in the depths of a wilderness and not in the suburbs of a city, while most the land inside the walls is sown or grazed. It is therefore surprising that orators trump up charges against the industrious people of Caphereus in the remote parts of Euboea, and yet hold that the men farming the gymnasium and grazing cattle in the market-place are doing nothing out of the way. You can doubtless see for yourselves that they have made your gymnasium into a ploughed field, so that the Heracles and numerous other statues are hidden by the corn, some those of heroes and other those of gods. You see too, day after day, the sheep belonging to this orator invade the market-place at dawn and graze about the council chamber and the executive buildings. Therefore when strangers first come to our city, they either laugh at it or pity it.’”

Dio Chrysostom, this is taken from a long passage which Dio quotes in the Seventh, or Eoboean, Discourse, 38-39, pp. 307-309 in the Loeb volume. The Original is in Greek.

Many cities, Rome and Caphereus among them, experienced depopulation, declining industry, declining trade, failing infrastructure, failing institutions, and the whole panoply of problems that simultaneously exacerbate each other when systematic failure compounds local failures in a vicious circle.

Timgad in modern Algeria.

But it was not always thus. The Hellenistic period was a time of bustling, wealthy cities surrounding the Mediterranean, and it was this network of cities (connected by a transportation network) that made the civilization of this period vital. Townspeople took pride in the status and beauty of their cities, their local gods and festivals, and the famous men who hailed from them. Here is a description of ancient Taras, modern Taranto, from Strabo’s Geography:

“…at the city there is a very large and beautiful harbor, which is enclosed by a large bridge and is one hundred stadia in circumference. In that part of the harbor which lies towards the innermost recess, the harbor, with the outer sea, forms an isthmus, and therefore the city is situated on a peninsula; and since the neck of land is low-lying, the ships are easily hauled overland from either side. The ground of the city, too, is low-lying, but still it is slightly elevated where the acropolis is. The old wall has a large circuit, but at the present time the greater part of the city — the part that is near the isthmus — has been forsaken, but the part that is near the mouth of the harbor, where the acropolis is, still endures and makes up a city of noteworthy size. And it has a very beautiful gymnasium, and also a spacious market-place, in which is situated the bronze colossus of Zeus, the largest in the world except the one that belongs to the Rhodians. Between the marketplace and the mouth of the harbor is the acropolis, which has but few remnants of the dedicated objects that in early times adorned it, for most of them were either destroyed by the Carthaginians when they took the city or carried off as booty by the Romans when they took the place by storm. Among this booty is the Heracles in the Capitol, a colossal bronze statue, the work of Lysippus, dedicated by Maximus Fabius, who captured the city.”

The booty that Strabo mentions was a symbol of civic status, and it true that when Rome or any other empire conquered a famous city they often took the most famous monuments and moved them to their capital. While this transfer of status represented a form of honoring tradition, this already points to a fundamental problem in the ancient political system, in which the strong did as they pleased and the weak suffered what they must — the famous formulation of Athenian hubris in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Serjilla in modern Syria

The renowned prehistorian Gordon Childe painted a compelling picture of the prosperity and comfortable circumstances of ancient cities in his What Happened in History:

“For all Roman cities, like the Hellenistic poleis, enjoyed the amenities of a public water supply, now often laid on to every block, handsome public buildings, baths, theatres, colonnades, market halls, and assembly places adorned with statues and fountains. The private dwellings were tasteful and commodious. In a provincial watering place like Pompeii with at most 30,000 inhabitants archaeologists have uncovered street upon street of mansions with mosaic pavements, frescoed walls, colonnaded courts, glazed windows, running water, bathrooms, and latrines.”

And to account for this relative wealth:

“Trade circulated freely throughout the Empire. The cities were united by a network of superb roads. Harbours were everywhere improved or constructed, and the seaways were now free from pirates.”

This is a picture that rivals our best cities today. I encourage the reader to read the entire last chapter of Childe’s book (i.e., What Happened in History, the last chapter of which is, “The Decline and Fall of the Ancient World”), as Childe gives in a few pages a summary of his own views on the collapse of Western civilization, as seen from the perspective of a non-dogmatic Marxism. Childe emphasizes the continuity of arts, industry, and institutions, and says that, “Progress is real if discontinuous.”

Dougga in modern Tunisia

To speak in terms of historical “discontinuity” is a polite way to speak of failure followed by subsequent recovery, and if the recovery surpasses the former peak of civilization, then we have “progress.” But the ruined cities that still stand vacant today never recovered. Civilization continued elsewhere in other modes, but it abandoned the dead cities that had once been prosperous and comfortable. And the wealth was not incidental. The failed cities of Roman Hellenism that surround the Mediterranean basin are only there because they were first built and grew and thrived, only later to fail systematically and catastrophically. The prior success of Hellenistic cities is the conditio sine qua non of the collapse of an entire civilization, for without the civilization there is nothing to collapse. It was, then, at least in part, the scope and success of Roman civilization that contributed to scope and ignominy of the failure. There is a sense in which it was not merely an institution that failed, or a political system that failed, but that it was civilization itself that failed.

The Porta Nigra (Black Gate) of Trier in modern Germany

In Complex Systems and Complex Failure I wrote the following:

“Complex systems fail in complex ways. Moreover, the scope of a catastrophic failure of a complex system is commensurate with the scope of the complex system. This is easy to see intuitively since a catastrophic cascading failure in a complex system must penetrate through all levels of the system and encompass both core and periphery.”

This is what happened in the Roman world. Each city is a complex system, and the network of cities that constituted the Roman Empire was an even more complex system. Moreover, each city is a micro-center of civilization, with its hinterlands as its periphery; and the clusters of cities tightly connected by roads and shipping networks were in turn larger centers of civilization, with the outlying networks of further cities as their periphery.

Emerita Augusta in modern Spain.

There is a systematic way to discuss these complexities, and that is in terms of metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality, though here, in the present context, I will not ascend to metaphysical concerns, leaving the idea of the ancient city aside for the time being. Simply employing the bio-ecological levels of Bronfenbrenner without further extension, we can see that the city is a meso-system, or, rather, that the city is at the center of a meso-system which also includes a peripheral region. A network of cities constitutes an exo-system, with further meso-systems at its periphery.

Conimbriga in modern Portugal

These bio-ecological and bio-social systems collapse in reverse order as they emerged and grew. As the growth of complexity is attended by expansion, differentiation, and dynamic equilibrium, their collapse involved contraction, homogenization, and disequilibrium. Now, exactly what accounts for the ability of a complex social whole to achieve both internal differentiation and equilibrium is a problem that is widely recognized, but also unsolved. One would easily suppose that greater differentiation (as in craft specialization, division of labor, and social stratification) would lead to disequilibrium, but in a healthy and growing ecological system the opposite is the case. The healthiest ecosystems embody biodiversity, as the healthiest societies embody social diversity. Somehow it works, but no one quite knows now it works. But the very fact that it is not fully understand how complex and internally differentiated systems maintain an equilibrium is as much as to admit that the equilibrium is a balance, and a balance can be thrown out of balance and into disequilibrium.

Serjilla in modern Syria

The impressive world of the Hellenistic cities of Rome’s Mediterranean empire somehow passed beyond the point of balance and into disequilibrium. The apparent stability of the Roman world began to change, and it did not change for the better. The center could not hold. Things fell apart. Perhaps the interconnected ancient cities were drawn into a vicious spiral of a failure cycle. When I discussed The Failure Cycle recently I identified criminal exaptation of institutional weaknesses as a crucial part of this cycle. However, in the failure of the Roman cities, criminal exaptation does not seem to have played a major role. Perhaps I could re-formulate the failure cycle in order to account for the circumstances of Roman urbanism. when I wrote The Failure Cycle I was thinking of contemporary nation-states and their institutions, but I realize now that there is a fundamentally different relationship between center and periphery in the case of ancient cities and contemporary nation-states. In classical antiquity, failing institutions were exploited by elements in the external periphery rather than by elements internal to the center; and whereas the contemporary failed state may receive assistance from the external periphery, the ancient city was helped, if it was helped at all, by its internal core. Thus, when the core failed, there was nothing else upon which the ancient city could fall back.

Thus I previously laid out the failure cycle as follows:

1. A state with weak institutions begins to fail.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by criminal enterprises, exacerbating state failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that outside powers intervene.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a state with weak institutions vulnerable to failure.

Whereas the institutional failure of classical antiquity looks more like this:

1. A city with weak institutions begins to fail.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by external elements (e.g., barbarians), exacerbating city failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that traditional powers intervene, seeking to restore rule and order from the center.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a city with weak institutions vulnerable to failure.

In either case, the iterated failure cycle can become a vicious spiral that grows beyond the ability of traditional guardians of traditional order to contain.

This way of looking at the problem suggests that the interconnected nation-states of today (which interconnection is often referred to as “globalization”) are analogous to the interconnected cities of classical antiquity. And given that the Roman world of classical antiquity grew out of the earlier world of city-states, with the expanded possibilities of today, the nation-state stands in a relation to other nation-states today that the city-state stood in relation to other city-states in classical antiquity.

Fustel de Coulanges, in his classic study The Ancient City, argued that the expansion of Rome destroyed the municipal institutions of the city-state, and replaced it universally with something Roman that was not the city-state as it was known in earlier antiquity. This would be an interesting thread to pursue in analogy to the present day, and as an extension of the thoughts above, but this inquiry will need to wait for another day.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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