Friday, April 9, 2021

How Resource Depletion Leads to Collapse. The Story of a Lost Kingdom

The Garamantes were a North-African civilization that grew at the time of the Roman Empire. They were powerful enough that the Romans had to build a system of fortifications to defend their possessions on the coast. But the Garamantes ran out of their water resources and they faded, leaving little trace in history, except ruins, some graffiti on rocks, and a few lines written by ancient historians

The idea that a civilization may collapse because of resource depletion is often hard to believe for historians. They seem to believe that society is such a complex entity that it is impossible to find a single reason for it to collapse. And, yet, it is typical of complex systems that an external perturbation generates a cascade of feedback effects that may mask their origin and make it appear as a series of events had somehow cooperated to bring down the whole structure. But it is all the effect of that initial perturbation unbalancing the whole system: it is the straw that brought down the overloaded camel. This is the basic idea of what I call the "Seneca Collapse." 

The Garamantes were a classic case of a civilization that collapsed because they ran out of an unreplaceable resource: in this case, water. They were an interesting case of a society that had grown and prospered in a barren land, in the middle of the Sahara desert. 

But they were able to prosper by means of a sophisticated irrigation system. It is called the foggara technology in North Africa, in Persian it is kārēz and in Arabic Qanat(image from Wikipedia)

It is a sophisticated technology but it has a defect: it uses a non-renewable technology, fossil water. When the Garamantes started deploying these systems of wells and channels, around the last part of the 1st millennium BCE, it may be that the Sahara still contained relatively large underground aquifers inherited from the time when it had been green a lush with forests, about 10,000 years ago. (image source)
The water bonanza led the Garamantes to become a major regional power, enough to force the Romans to build fortifications to defend their coastal possessions and to use as starting points to launch raids into the Garamantes territory. Caesar fought and defeated them, while the last confrontation we know of was a military expedition launched by Emperor Septimius Severus, who is said to have captured the capital city of Garama in 202 AD. But the Romans never settled in that region.

In the end, the prosperity of the Garamantes was short-lived and they declined in parallel with the Roman empire, even though for different reasons. The story is described by David Keys in his article titled "Kingdom of the Sands." Clearly, Keys understands perfectly well how resource depletion takes down kingdoms and empires. It is not so much a question of running out of the resource. It is that you run out of the means to exploit it (in the case of the Garamantes, slaves).

In the end, depletion of easily mined fossil water sounded the death knell of the Garamantian kingdom. After extracting at least 30 billion gallons of water over some 600 years, the fourth-century A.D. Garamantes discovered that the water was literally running out. To deal with the problem, they would have needed to add more man-made underground tributaries to existing tunnels and dig additional deeper, much longer water-extraction tunnels. For that, they would have needed vastly more slaves than they had. The water difficulties must have led to food shortages, population reductions, and political instability (local defensive structures from this era may be evidence for political fragmentation). Conquering more territories and pulling in more slaves was therefore simply not militarily feasible. The magic equation between population and military and economic power on the one hand and slave-acquisition capability and water extraction on the other no longer balanced.

The desert kingdom declined and fractured into small chiefdoms and was absorbed into the emerging Islamic world. Like its more famous Roman neighbor, the once-great Saharan kingdom became, little by little, simply a thing of myth and memory. Along with the rest of the world, Berbers living in the Fazzan today have all but forgotten their ancestors. The kingdom's legacy has faded so dramatically that local residents believe the vast water-extraction system--the pride of the Garamantes--is the handiwork of Romans.

It seems that the city of Garama still existed when it was conquered by the Arabs, during the 7th century AD but, after that, there are no more records about it. 

It is curious how little is left of a kingdom that, once, was powerful enough to challenge the mighty Roman Empire. We have only fragments of knowledge of a civilization that was considered already remote and mysterious during classical times. Today, the Garamantes are mentioned by Jorge Luis Borges in his masterpiece "El Immortal" as people who "keep their women in common and nourish themselves with lions." The Garamantes are one of the civilizations you can choose to play in Sid Meier's Civilization V. And we have a few more snippets, including a recent novel (2018) that features an archaeological search in the former land of the Garamantes. I figure that if there existed a list of the worst novels in history, this one would make it to the top (that's why I don't give you the link, but if you like to harm yourself, ask me privately!)

And so it goes, civilizations grow, become powerful, then they are lost in the sand. That was the destiny of the Garamantes. What will be left of ours, well, it is all to be seen. But they say that humans always march toward the forest, leaving the desert at their back. And the Earth is round.


Monday, April 5, 2021

Empress Placidia: The Mother of the Middle Ages

 I have been experimenting with videos: in the clip above, I tell the story of Galla Placida instead of writing it. I am not sure of which is the best way to tell stories, but maybe both have their logic and their advantages. Up to you to judge. (Versione in Italiano)


Galla Placidia was the last Empress of the Western part of the Roman Empire. Even though the data about her are scant, the more I learn, the more fascinating her figure becomes. I am seeing her more and more as the pivot point that marked the true end of the Empire and the beginning of what was coming afterward: the Middle Ages. Placidia may have been the last true Roman ruler and the first Medieval ruler in history. And I came to think that she pushed history in a certain direction knowing what she was doing. You can hear her story in the clip, above, or read it in a post that I published some years ago on "Cassandra's Legacy" (Slightly reworked in this version).

From "Cassandra's Legacy" 

 Chemistry of an Empire: the Last Roman Empress

by Ugo Bardi

A 5th-century medallion showing perhaps the only portrait we have of Galla Placidia (388-450 c.e.), the last (and the only) Western Roman Empress. The inscription says "Domina Nostra, Galla Placidia, Pia, Felix, Augusta," that is "Our Lady, Galla Placidia, Pious, Blessed and Venerable."  A contemporary of such figures as Saint Augustine, Saint Patrick, Attila the Hun, and – perhaps – King Arthur, Placidia had the rare chance of being able to do something that past Roman Emperors never could do; take the Empire to its next stage which was to be, unavoidably, its demise.

As I was preparing this essay on Empress Galla Placidia, I found myself giving an impromptu talk on the subject to my students in chemistry on the last lesson before Christmas. Later on, I thought that I could write my essay in the form of that talk. So, here it is. It is much expanded in comparison to what I said to my students on that occasion, but still, it maintains the essence of it. I have added headings and some figures.

Introduction: chemistry of an empire

I think there won't be a lecture in chemistry, today.  We are close to Christmas, there are just a few of you, and so it is better to skip a long and boring lecture; we'll have it after the pause for the holidays. So, we could simply leave for a coffee but, maybe, we could use this time we have in a different way. You know, there is a subject that I work on when I have some free time: Roman history. So, I was thinking that, instead of giving you a lecture in chemistry, I could speak to you about that. How would you like to hear the story of a Roman princess who married a barbarian king and then became Empress of Rome?

Now, I see from your faces that - yes - you would like to be told this story! But note that perhaps it is a subject that is not so far from chemistry as you might think. You see, civilizations can be seen as huge chemical reactions and you know that chemical reactions tend to flare up and then subside; it is what we call "chemical kinetics," you have studied that. The same happens for empires; they tend to flare up and then disappear; that's what happened to the Roman Empire, as you know.  So, civilizations and chemical reactions can be studied using similar methods; it is a field of science that goes under the name of "system dynamics". In a sense, there are forces pushing people to do things just like there are forces pushing molecules to react. In chemistry, we call those forces “chemical potentials”, about people we might use the term “destiny” or "karma" or something like that. But perhaps the difference is not so great.

But don't worry about equations. I said that today I was going to tell you a story, and I am going to do it. It is the story of Galla Placidia; born a Roman princess, then Queen of the Goths, and, in the end, Empress of Rome. It is a great story of love, sex, and war. So, let's start!

The fall of Rome.

To start, I am asking you to close your eyes and forget for a moment where you are. Forget that you are in a classroom, forget that you are students of chemistry, forget that you live in the 21st century. Try to imagine something that existed way back in time: ancient Rome in the first years of the 5th century of our era, fifteen hundred years ago.

Yes, Rome, the eternal city, the center of the world, the cradle of civilization, the place all the roads lead to. At the beginning of the 5th century, Rome is still the largest city in Europe; the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Think of the city as stretched over its seven hills; surrounded by the massive Aurelian walls, full of marble palaces, markets, amphitheaters, gardens, and fountains. The Roman Senate still holds sessions in the Curia and gladiators still fight in the arenas, as they have been doing for centuries.

But, with the 5th century, things have changed a lot for the Empire. The victorious armies of old are gone; the Emperor himself doesn't even live in Rome any longer. He stays in the small town of Ravenna, protected by the marshes that surround it. And, in 410 A.D., Rome is under siege.

Imagine that: outside the walls of Rome, there is a whole nation: men, women, children, horses, and cattle. Tens of thousands of people who marched there all the way from the North: the Visigoths. They are led by their king, Alaric, and now they are besieging Rome. While the Emperor, Honorius, is hiding in Ravenna, the only barrier that keeps the Barbarians out of the city is the circle of the ancient Aurelian walls. But that cannot last forever. Without an army to defend the walls, the outcome of the siege could be only one. In August of 410, the Barbarians broke in and they sacked Rome. That date was to be remembered in history: the most powerful city in the world, the “eternal” city, had fallen. The shock generated by the event reverberated for centuries. Among other things, it inspired Augustine's "The City of God," still well known today.

Now, how was that the largest city in the world, the eternal city, had ended up taken and sacked by a band of Barbarians? It was the result of a decline that had been going on for centuries. You know that the peak of the Roman Empire had been at some moment during the first or the second century A.D. After that period, it had been all downhill: civil wars, Barbarian invasions, epidemics, famines, and all that. Not a smooth process, of course. There had been very difficult periods, and periods when the Empire seemed to be able to recover. On the whole, the Western Empire had managed to remain all in one piece up to the end of the 4th century. But, with the 5th century, things were to change. This time, the Empire would never recover.

Edward Gibbon gives us an especially poignant report of these events in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. In the year 405 (perhaps), Europe saw a very cold winter – so cold that it froze the waters of the Rhine river. That river had been the Eastern border of the Empire for centuries. It had been chosen after that the Romans had been defeated by the Germans at Teutoburg, long before. But when it froze, a great number of Barbarians crossed over. That was the end of the border fortifications; the Romans simply couldn't defend them anymore. The walls were abandoned and left to crumble to dust forever. It was an epochal change; from then on, the Barbarians were inside the Empire and they would stay there. 

In the great turmoil of those years, a large band of Barbarians marched directly towards Rome. In 406 AD, they were met at the foot of the Appennini Mountains, at the city of Faesulae, by what Gibbon calls "the last army of the Republic". The Romans had gathered there all the forces they could muster and they succeeded in stopping the Barbarians. Trapped in a narrow valley, the Barbarians were nearly all killed or taken prisoners and sold as slaves. Their King, Radagaisus, was captured and beheaded. These events are still remembered as legends in the area where the battle was fought.

It was a great victory for Rome and in particular for the general who had been leading the Roman army: Flavius Stilicho, magister militum, commander in chief of all the Imperial Forces. But there was a problem: successful generals are never liked by suspicious emperors. Besides, Stilicho was a Barbarian himself, a Vandal, and that didn't make him popular with the Romans. 

So, soon after the battle, Emperor Honorius had Stilicho executed for treason. That was a big mistake, a very big one; you might say that Honorius had shot himself in the foot with his crossbow. By then, the Roman Army was composed mainly of Barbarians and, with their chief, Stilicho, betrayed and killed, most of them deserted. The army melted away and many of those who had deserted joined the army of King Alaric. Now, you can understand how it was that Rome was left undefended and it ended up falling to the Barbarians.

Galla Placidia: Roman Princess

What I have been telling you is the history of the fall of Rome as we can read it in the texts of the chroniclers. Actually, very little is left of those events in terms of contemporary sources; most of what we have was written decades, if not centuries, after the events. So, we need to put together all the sources we have to try to understand what was happening. And there is a human side to the events that goes beyond the fact that Rome was in decline and that it eventually fell.  We can just barely imagine what was the atmosphere in Rome during the two years of the siege, what people thought, and how they saw an event that - by all means - they must have found incredible, impossible, incomprehensible. Rome had not been besieged for a thousand years, it was the greatest city in the known world. That it would fall to a petty Barbarian lord, that way.... come on. It just couldn't be!

The problem is that when people face something that doesn't fit with the way they think the world should be, they tend to ignore it. If they can't, they may go crazy. And the Romans went crazy. They tried whatever they could think of. They raised a new Emperor, someone named Priscus Attalus, with all the pomp involved in the circumstances. But the Barbarian King was unimpressed. Then, they sent to him a delegation of Senators with the idea of telling him how numerous the Romans were. To that, Alaric answered, solemnly (I figure) “The thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed” Now, tell me if this is not the stuff legends are made of!

At this point, the Romans really went crazy. Yes, they went nuts, bananas, watermelons, whatever you like to call that condition. They started looking for a culprit, a scapegoat, someone to blame. Now, you remember that Emperor Honorius had accused his general Flavius Stilicho of treason; that is, of being colluded with the Barbarians. That was already an effect of rampaging paranoia. But, in the besieged Rome, paranoia went up by a few notches. Someone noticed that Stilicho's widow, Serena, was in Rome. If her husband had been a traitor, well, she had to be a traitoress. Serena was the cousin of Emperor Honorius, a noblewoman of high rank. But when paranoia becomes the rule, it generates pure evil. Serena was accused of treason, sentenced to death by the Senate, and executed by strangling.

It is at this point that we have the first appearance of Galla Placidia in history as an adult, she was around 20 years old at that time. We are told by the chronicler Zosimus that the execution of Serena was done "with Galla Placidia's consent."

We have a little story to tell, here. Let's go back a few years, when Placidia's father, Theodosius 1st, "The Great" was the last Roman Emperor to rule over both the Eastern and the Western part of the Empire. He had two male children, Arcadius and Honorius, to whom he left the Empire. Arcadius took the East and Honorius the West. But Theodosius had a younger daughter, Galla Placidia, who got nothing. Then as now, being female is not an asset when it is a question of inheriting an Empire. But Theodosius may have understood that his two male children would not make good emperors (they didn't) and so he kept Placidia in reserve, sort of; something that turned out to have been a smart move. Theodosius left Placidia in the care of his best general, Flavius Stilicho, who raised her in his household, with his wife Serena who was also Theodosius' niece.

So, during the years of the siege, Placidia was in Rome, probably stuck there while staying with her foster mother, Serena. Now, we can barely imagine a situation in which the Senate decides to sentence to death the cousin of the Emperor, as Serena was. But Placidia was of even higher rank in terms of nobility. She had the title of "puella nobilissima." I think you know enough Latin to translate this as "most noble girl," which is, of course, the equivalent of what we call "princess" today. So, in a sense, the Senators got cold feet with their idea of killing Serena and they asked the highest rank noble in Rome, Placidia, to take the responsibility of what was, in effect, a legalized murder. And they were asking her to agree on the murder of someone who was both her foster mother and a close relative.

We can't say, of course, what passed in Placidia's mind at that time. We can't even be sure that she actually approved anything. We know about this story only from a line written by Zosimus, a Greek who wrote more than a century after the events. But, if it did happen, it was the first political decision taken by Placidia in her life; something that may give us some idea of her way of thinking. Possibly, she simply cracked under the stress of the moment. But she may also have reasoned that opposing the Senate would have made no difference. They had already decided on that crazy idea of killing Serena, what was to stop them if they were to get even crazier and decide to kill also Placidia? After all, she was Stilicho's foster daughter; she could have been a traitoress, too. So, maybe Placidia just didn't try to fight a battle she couldn't win. It was her style: don't fight the unavoidable. We'll see that it will resurface more than once, later on. Placidia could be flexible, adapt, and thrive even in very difficult situations.

After the execution of Serena, we may imagine that the Romans expected that the Visigoths would vanish in a puff of smoke. But, of course, that didn't happen. In 410 a.d. the Visigoths broke in, they sacked Rome, and not just that: they took a very big prize: Galla Placidia herself; half-sister of the ruling emperor. The chroniclers don't mention anything like Placidia being dragged away from her palace, kicking and screaming – actually, they are totally silent on this point. Probably, that means something. We don't have to think that Placidia was happy to join the Barbarians but, again, she didn't try to avoid the unavoidable. We can't even exclude that she may have felt safer with the Barbarians than with the treacherous Roman Senators. At least, as far as we know, the Visigoths treated Galla Placidia with all the honors due to a puella nobilissima, a Roman Princess.

The Visigoths stayed in Rome for just three days. As sackings go, this one was rather mild. They burned and sacked a few buildings but, mainly, they ransacked what gold and silver they could find and then they left, heading South, with the idea of reaching Africa and of settling there. They were taking Galla Placidia with them. 

After a long and slow trip, they arrived at the southernmost tip of the Italian peninsula, but they couldn't cross to Africa because a storm destroyed the ships they had assembled on the coast. Then, King Alaric died and legend has that he was buried under the riverbed of the Busento river, together with his share of the gold sacked in Rome. Another event that rings of legend. People are still looking for that gold, today!

At this point, stranded in Southern Italy and short of food, the Visigoths had no choice but to go back, slowly retracing their road. They were led by their new king, Athaulf, half-brother of Alaric. The travel to Southern Italy had weakened them considerably and, when they arrived close to Rome, they couldn't even dream to sack the city again. They kept moving on and, eventually, they stopped in Southern France, by then largely abandoned by the Roman Empire. And, on the way, Placidia married Athaulf in Narbonne, in France. That was in 414, four years after the fall of Rome. Placidia was around 25 at that time.

The Royal Marriage

So, we have arrived at the royal marriage. I think you are all visualizing Galla Placidia and Athaulf getting married and, indeed, it must have been something special. It was celebrated with great pomp and high Roman festivities. We even have a description of the magnificent gifts that were given to Placidia from the booty that the Goths had captured in Rome. The wedding speech was given by a Roman Senator, Priscus Attalus, who had been claiming the title of Emperor sometime before. Attalus even sang a song at the wedding; you know, that was something: think of having an Emperor singing at your wedding!

Galla Placida, the Roman Princess, now gladly took for herself the title of “Queen of the Goths”. I say “gladly” because she never reneged that title later in life, no matter what happened to her – and we'll see that a lot of things happened to her. But why that? I mean, she already had the title of Roman Princess, she had good possibilities to marry an emperor and become Empress herself. Why would she want to become Queen of a Barbarian nation? In addition, think that Athaulf was the brother of Alaric, the king who had sacked Rome. If you can imagine the daughter of an American president marrying the brother of Osama Bin Laden, well, then you can get some idea of what kind of decision Placidia took.

Of course, 1500 years after the event, we can't say what passed in Galla Placidia's mind and we can't exclude that there was a romantic element in her decision. That brings up the question of whether Athaulf was a handsome man, but we have no portraits of him. We don't even know how old he was at the time of this marriage. We know that he had been married before, he had four children from his first wife, but we have no idea of what had happened to her. So, we can only say that, probably, he was older than Placidia, but that's about it. We know much more about Placida, but we don't have a portrait that we can attribute to her, either. Nevertheless, if we want to understand this story, we have to figure out in our minds the faces of these characters. I am sure that you have been “seeing” in your minds both Placidia and Athaulf – our minds are made in this way.

So, what could Athaulf and Placidia have looked like? About Athaulf, the fact that he was a Barbarian King doesn't mean that you should imagine him as Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie “Conan the Barbarian.” Athaulf surely didn't go around dressed in a bearskin and with a horned helmet on his head. The best we can do to visualize him is to think of the one contemporary portrait of a high-rank Barbarian we have: Flavius Stilicho; the Vandal general who was Placidia's foster father. We have an ivory diptych of him and of his wife, Serena, and their son, Eucherius. In this image, Stilicho is shown as tall and handsome; a bit solemn while wearing Roman clothes. Athaulf could have looked much like him: tall, handsome, and bearded.

And how about Placidia? Well, as I said we don't have a portrait of her. We might try to get some idea of what she looked like from the portrait of Serena, her cousin. She is shown almost as tall as her husband, Stilicho, and as a handsome and imposing lady – she must have been in her forties when that portrait was made. She wears a heavy pearl necklace. At that time, pearls were the fashionable thing to wear for ladies of high rank. Pearls were more expensive than gold, and no refined Roman lady would even dream of wearing gold on herself, it was considered tacky. And two rings of pearls were the top: they indicated a true high rank -- in this case of a woman who was the niece of Emperor Theodosius. 

You know, there is a legend that says that Serena was cursed when she took a necklace from a statue of the goddess Rhea Sylvia – maybe it is just that necklace. Actually, the whole household of Stilicho seems to have been cursed; he and his wife both died of violent death, and that was the destiny of their son, Eucherius, too. Maybe the Goddess really cursed them. But that's another story; let's just say that the portrait of Serena tells us, at least, how Placidia would dress in formal occasions; an elaborate garment that was called a “Palla”.

But we do know something about Placidia's face. We can see it in some coins minted during her later reign as Empress. The problem is that these portraits are not supposed to be realistic. It is the same problem we have with Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen. We tend to think of Cleopatra as a very beautiful woman, but we don't have a portrait that we can attribute to her for sure. So, looking at her face on coins, well, she looks frankly ugly. But, of course, those portraits on coins were just icons; not supposed to be a realistic depiction of the Queen's face. So we can happily continue imagining Cleopatra with the face of Elizabeth Taylor, who interpreted her in an old Hollywood movie.

Now, about Placidia, it is the same problem. If Placidia looked the way she is shown on some coins, well, ahem...... we might pity poor Athaulf who had to marry her. But different coins show different faces for Placidia; so we can reasonably be sure that, in most cases, whoever made the portrait never saw the Empress' face.

In the end, the closest thing we have to a portrait of Placidia is a gold medallion; one of a couple, the other showing her half brother, Honorius. I think we can say that it gives us at least some idea of what Placidia looked like. Looking at it, we see that she had fine features and a slender neck under her elaborate hairdo. Note that she wears two rings of pearls, just like her cousin, Serena. But she also wears pearls also on her hair, probably a mark of even higher nobility. Surely, we have good reasons to imagine Placidia as a beautiful woman; after all, her mother, Galla, had been said to be the “fairest woman in the Roman Empire.” And it makes sense that beautiful women tend to marry powerful men, as Theodosius, Placidia's father was -- to the point that he was nicknamed "The Great." In the end, if you like to imagine Placidia as Audrey Hepburn playing the role of the princess in that old movie, "Roman Holiday," I'd say, why not?

So, let's go back to the Imperial marriage. We have two handsome people getting married: Athaulf and Placidia, but, of course, that can't be the whole story. What we can say is that people do things for many reasons: sometimes because of logic, sometimes they act on impulse. But don't forget that real life is not a fairy tale. You know that love is a chemical reaction and that chemical reactions have a way to go on by themselves if there is a chemical potential driving them. And, as we said before, this potential is something that we may call “destiny.” And I think that in this case there was a very strong potential that was leading Athaulf and Placidia to react with each other, to marry. But we need to explain a few more things before getting to that point.

King Arthur and Placidia

Now, I would like to ask you a question. Can you think of another figure who was trying to do something similar to what Placidia was doing, just in that period; that is, a Roman marrying a Barbarian? It takes a small jump of imagination to connect Galla Placidia to this figure. Think about that for a moment and the name will come to your mind. That name you know very, very, well: it is King Arthur!

Yes, King Arthur, the legendary hero. We can't say for sure that he actually existed. At least, historians say that there is no proof that he ever existed. But that doesn't mean that he didn't exist, and if he existed there is a reasonable chance that he was a contemporary of Galla Placidia, during the 5th century. At that time, Britain had ceased to be part of the Roman Empire and it is likely that Placidia never came to know the name of a petty Barbarian King – Arthur – who ruled part of a remote northern island. Arthur, on his part, surely knew little of the events that took place in the remote lands still controlled by the Roman Empire. But, curiously, Arthur and Placidia – contemporary or not – may have followed similar paths in their lives.

You know that the core of the Arthurian cycle is the love of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. The way we often interpret the story is that Arthur was Roman and Guinevere was British (actually, Welsh). You may have seen the movie “King Arthur,” the one that was released in 2004. You don't have to take that movie as anything faithful to history, movies rarely are. But it does something right at the end with the scene of the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere. It is a stunningly beautiful scene and it symbolizes the whole theme of the film. It is the marriage not of just a man and a woman, but of two civilizations. So, their marriage implies the fusion of the Roman and the British culture, which was the basic theme of the Arthurian saga and, if he had existed, perhaps of Arthur himself. That was happening in Britain earlier than in the rest of Europe because, there, the Roman Empire had ceased to exist already during the 4th century AD.

I am mentioning this movie to you just to show how we can still “feel” quite a lot about an age as remote as the 5th century. The Arthurian cycle pervades our culture still today even though, as I said, we can't even be sure that a king named Arthur ever existed. But the fifth century was a great generator of legends. Think of the Nibelungenlied, the saga of the Nibelungs. You know that story; you know the names of the characters: Siegfried, Hagen, Kriemhild. It comes from the same period, the 5th century AD and it echoes of events of that age, including the presence in the story of historical personages, such as Attila the Hun, who also was a contemporary of Galla Placidia.

It is curious that, of those characters, the one for which we do have the most historical data, Galla Placidia, is the one who didn't generate epic poems. I feel a bit sorry for Placidia because of this, but so is life. I think it is because civilization stymies creativity. Placidia's foster-father, Stilicho, was rich enough that he could keep a house poet, a "panegyrist;" someone whose job was to sing the deeds of his masters. The name of Stilicho's panegyrist was Claudian and he did exactly that; he wrote poems praising Stilicho and the members of his family, but almost nobody remembers those poems today. When I was studying Placidia's life, I made an honest effort to read Claudian's poems. I found that he is refined, clever, cultured, and unbelievably banal. And when I say “banal” I mean real silly. You know, Claudian sounds a little like our TV advertising: it is clever and often visually stunning but, in the end, it is just about eating hamburgers. As a note, Claudian mentions Placidia once, as a child, all clad in gold, at the imperial coronation of her half-brothers. A glimpse we have of that time, so remote that even a small detail is to be treasured as much as possible.

Queen of the Goths

In marrying Athaulf, Placidia may simply have ceded to the unavoidable; as it was her typical style. But in following her destiny, Placidia may also have had a specific plan; surely she had a way to seize an opportunity when she saw one. You see, she was a Roman princess and she had the potential of becoming Empress. She couldn't do that as long as her half-brother, Honorius, was alive, but Honorius was childless. So, Placidia must have had something in mind when she married Athaulf. And we can imagine what it was when they married their son "Theodosius", the same name as his grandfather, Theodosius “The Great.” It seems clear that Placidia's idea was nothing less than taking over the throne from her half-brother, Honorius, and starting a Gothic-Roman dynasty that would have ruled the Empire. A bold plan, if ever there was one.

But there was much more in Placidia's plans than simply ruling an Empire. You see, the fifth century looks like our times for many reasons; one was the great migrations. It was a time when peoples marched on and on, searching for a place to settle, and that brought many contrasts, battles, and wars. For the Romans, the people who had entered their empire were invaders or, in some cases, immigrants. The term "Barbarian" meant simply "foreigner". Legal or illegal, they were looked at with suspicion – just like, today,  we look at our immigrants. At that time, just like today, there were people who wanted to send the immigrants back home or just get rid of them one way or another. But that wasn't easy and, as we saw, the immigrants had become numerous and powerful enough that they had been able to sack Rome. So, the Romans would have had to learn how to live with their immigrants; but at the time of Placidia, many Romans just couldn't resign to the idea they had to do that. As I said, there are remarkable similarities with our times!

In a way, what was happening was a big chemical reaction: the two “reactants”, Barbarians and Romans, had come together on that fated winter of 405 when the border fortifications of the Empire had collapsed. Now, the reactants were mixed together, the reaction was going on. It could not be stopped and Placidia's idea was to favor it. Again, we see her style: don't fight the unavoidable, let it happen. In this case, the unavoidable meant anticipating something that in actual history would take several centuries to happen: the merging of the Roman and German peoples in Europe. Placidia was taking this merging on herself by marrying a Barbarian and bearing a child to him. According to the chroniclers, it was she who convinced her husband, Athaulf, of this idea. Athaulf is reported to have said that, initially, he had planned to destroy Rome and the Romans, but after he had met Placidia, he said that he wanted to live in peace with them. Maybe it is a fancy story, but it gives us some idea of what was passing in the minds of the characters of this story.

It would be nice, at this point, to say that Athaulf and Placida lived happily ever after and that their son, Theodosius, became Emperor of the Romans and, at the same time, King of the Goths. But things didn't go that way, of course. It was a beautiful dream, but also an impossible one.

The military situation was changing. The Romans had rebuilt their army under the leadership of a new commander in chief: Constantius. He seems to have been a competent general. He never fought big battles but almost always he obtained what he wanted. The Visigoths started feeling the pressure and they had to leave Southern France and move to Spain. Their retreat must have been rather hasty since they had to abandon Attalus, the usurper who had sung at Placidia's marriage. He was captured by Constantius and he suffered the humiliation of having a hand cut off before being sent to exile.

In Spain, the Visigoths settled in Barcelona which, at that time, was a fortified stronghold. There, everything went wrong. Little Theodosius died before being one year old. Then, Athaulf was killed in a conspiracy. Maybe it was the result of the loss of prestige that he had suffered from the retreat from Southern France. Surely, there were Visigoths much more aggressive than Athaulf in the way they thought they should deal with the Romans; there may well have been something like a “war party”. The new king was one of them. He was named Sigeric and, just to give some idea of what he had in mind, let me tell you that he forced Placidia to march for miles on foot, while following her, riding his horse. Fortunately, as I said, she was strong and in good health.

But Sigeric ruled for just one week; I think that the Goths were afraid of what he was planning to do – and correctly so. As I said, the Romans were now much stronger than before. So, as the Roman army was approaching Barcelona, someone got rid of Sigeric, and a new, more diplomatic king was installed - someone named Wallia. The new king started negotiations with Constantius and, eventually, he sent Placidia to him in exchange for food and a peace treaty. That was the end of Placidia's time with the Goths. For all her life, she maintained the title of “Queen of the Goths,” but she would never be with them again.

Galla Placidia: the Empress

The story of Galla Placidia seems to be the plot of an adventure movie. It is full of events and it swings up and down like a rollercoaster. We saw that Placidia started as a Roman princess, then she was a prisoner of the Goths, then she became their Queen, then she was again their prisoner. A series of oscillations that were to go on for quite some time.

So, With Placidia back with the Romans, things changed again. It seems that Constantius had something in mind about her; actually, he may have been an early suitor of hers. So, the two arrived in Ravenna, at the time the capital of the Western Empire. And, almost immediately afterward, they got married. We can't say whether Placidia was happy about that (some say she wasn't) but, as usual, she didn't fight the unavoidable and she followed an opportunity when she saw one. 

Marrying Constantius had a lot of advantages for Placidia, just as it had for Constantius. He controlled the army, but he wasn't a nobleman of the same rank as her. On the other hand, being noble but without an army wasn't of much help for Placida. In Ravenna, there was her half-brother, Honorius, who was ruling as the Western Emperor and we may imagine that he wasn't so happy to see her half-sister appearing there, potentially robbing him of his title. But there wasn't much that Honorius could do since, as I said, Constantius was in control of the Army.

So, Placidia and Constantius settled in Ravenna, and Constantius, as the husband of a member of the Imperial family, managed to be raised to the title of “co-emperor” of the Western Empire. Surely Honorius was not happy about that but, as I said, there wasn't much he could do. At this point, Placidia obtained the title of "Augusta." It was not exactly the same title as “Imperator” which means “commander” and has to do with leading armies. But, for all practical purposes, she was Empress of Rome. The couple had two children, Valentinian and Honoria. Of two, Valentinian was destined to become emperor one day, since Honorius had no children. You see? A big swing upward of the rollercoaster. Now Placidia was empress and mother of a potential emperor. 

Now, there is a lot to say about Placidia's life as Empress and the rollercoaster was to go through a few more swings up and down. But let me go on quickly with the story because, as you perhaps have heard, “the art of boredom consists in telling everything.” So, Constantius died a few months after having been raised to the Imperial Purple and the situation in Ravenna evolved into a squabble where Honorius and Placidia, Emperor and Empress, started behaving like the characters of old western movies; you know, when they say, "this town ain't big enough for both of us."

There are many curious details about the fight of Honorius against Placidia. One is that Placidia was accused of incest with her half-brother. That's a curious facet of Placidia's personality, considering that she was a devout Catholic and she was always said to be an exemplary spouse and a chaste widow. Was this one true or false? We'll never know. It may have been just bad press against her but, who knows, maybe she was using all the means she had to try to control him. Then, there is mention of Placidia's Gothic bodyguards. They had accompanied her since the time when she was Queen of the Goths (which she still was – she never wanted to abandon that title!). So, the fight got ugly in the streets of Ravenna. But it seems that, after the death of Constantius, the Roman army had sided with Honorius. So, no matter how brave Placidia's bodyguards were, her brother Honorius managed to get the upper hand.

Here we have another swing down of the rollercoaster. Placidia, thrown out of Ravenna, could only take refuge in Constantinople; the capital of the Eastern Empire. There, her nephew, the son of her half-brother Arcadius, had become Emperor with the name of Theodosius II. Placidia arrived in front of him with little more than the clothes she had on. But the rollercoaster swung up again: while Placidia was there, Honorius died and a usurper took his place. At this point, Theodosius II thought that he couldn't lose the Western Empire to his dynasty; so he gave to Placidia an army to go back to Italy and reconquer Ravenna. Nice gift, right? An entire army including an expert general -- someone named Aspar -- to lead it. It was bad for the usurper; the poor guy didn't have a chance. He was defeated, captured, had one hand cut off, then he has paraded around on a donkey, and finally beheaded. We don't know if Placidia ordered all that herself, but those were hard times and if you wanted to be an emperor (or an empress) you had to take the risks involved. No one ever said that Placidia was Ms. Nice Girl, anyway.

Then, in 425 AD, Placidia was in charge in Ravenna and she took the title of Augusta for herself alone, although theoretically on behalf of her son, Valentinian. That was the end of her rollercoaster ride in life – no more swings up and down from now on. She was to rule as Empress for 12 years and she maintained a strong influence at court as Empress Mother for 13 more years; until her death, in 450 AD, when she was 62 years old.

Ruling an empire.

Now, let's play a little game, a game that I think all of us have played inside our minds. If you were the absolute ruler of the world, the Emperor of Earth, what would you do to solve the world's problems? I am sure you have plenty of ideas that you would put into practice; you know, how to eliminate hunger, reduce pollution, stop global warming, make everyone happy - all that. Of course, that is only a dream for us, but there have been people in the past who really had tremendous power in their hands. Not on the whole world, of course, no single person has ever ruled it. But there existed people who ruled sizable parts of the world and their power was absolute and subjected to no rules. The Roman Emperors of the last period of the Empire were of that kind. They were called porphyrogeniti, “born in the purple,” they were semi-divine rulers. You know, if you were emperor at that time, you couldn't turn your head left or right when you walked; your subjects could speak to you only if you addressed them first, you had to wear heavy clothes all the time, and God knows what else the imperial protocol would impose on you. There is a curious detail about Constantius, Placidia's second husband. He said that becoming Emperor had been a terrible experience for him: too much protocol! Apparently, that was the price of absolute power.

Actually, “absolute power” is an exaggeration. Galla Placidia, as all the emperors before her, had limits to what she could do. One was that she couldn't lead armies herself -- women were not supposed to do that. She had to rely on generals and that was a big problem: as it always happens in history, successful generals tend to take all the power for themselves and, of course, unsuccessful generals are useless. So, during her career as Empress, Placidia's main task was to control assorted generals and warlords by balancing one against the other. One of the Roman generals of the time was named Aetius, you may have heard the name as "the last Roman general." He was quite a character, a Roman raised with the Huns, so they were his allies and they would fight for him (not that he didn't need to pay them, though). But Aetius was also the general who led the army that stopped Attila the Hun from invading Europe at the famous Battle of Chalons, in 452 AD. So, Aetius and Placidia were often at odds but, on the whole, they managed to get along together. After that Placidia was gone, her son, Valentinian, killed Aetius, repeating the mistake that Honorius had done earlier on with Stilicho. Again, by killing his best general, Valentinian nearly destroyed the empire. But that's another story.

So, the story of Placidia as Empress would take an entire book but, as I said, the secret of boredom is to tell everything, so let's just say that Placidia managed to keep the Empire more or less together as long as she was Empress. One of her achievements was securing the supply of grain to Rome from Africa. That was despite the fact that North Africa had been taken by the Vandals; yes, but they kept shipping grains to Rome as long as Placidia was Empress. After the death of Placidia, they stopped sending grain and not just that; they took Rome and sacked it in 455 AD. I think it means that Placidia made a difference as long as she was in Ravenna; she was really ruling the Empire; she was not just a doll wearing expensive clothes.

But, from our viewpoint, we know that the Western Empire was doomed and that it would disappear a few decades after Placidia. The question is whether she understood that the Empire was going to fall. If she did, what did she do to avoid that? Think of being in her shoes: if you were Placidia, what would you do to save the Empire?

So, let's see if we can understand in what kind of troubles, exactly, was the Western Roman Empire at the time of Placidia. We said before that empires are like chemical reactions and chemical reactions subside when they run out of reactants. In the 5th century, the Roman Empire had been running out of reactants. It had been growing on the profits made from military campaigns but, at some point around the 2nd century, it had reached its limits. With no more easy conquests in sight, the Empire had to live on its own resources and it never really learned how to do that. The empire, simply, could not tax its subjects high enough to support the troops it kept. Over and over, the Empire continued to spend more than it could afford for defense. It is typical of empires all over history: empires destroy themselves by spending too much on their military apparatus.

Managing any large structure is difficult and we tend to do it badly; a whole empire may be an especially difficult case. To do it well, we would need to use a method that I mentioned before: system dynamics; which is a way to describe systems and the relation of the various elements that compose them. But it is rare that people can understand systems in this way. What happens instead is that, in most cases, we understand what are the critical points ("levers") that are causing troubles, but we tend to act on them in the wrong way. It is something that we learned in our times from Donella Meadows (like Placidia, a strong woman, although not an Empress) who has taught us a lot about system dynamics. It is a very general trend: almost always we pull the levers in the wrong direction and we worsen the problems that we are trying to solve. That is even too clear for the case of the Roman Empire, at least from our viewpoint. During the decline phase, the Roman Emperors struggled to keep the Empire safe from Barbarian invasions and they understood that their problem was that they didn't have enough resources to do that. But their answer was always the wrong one: they kept trying to raise as many troops as they could. That was a self-defeating idea: every time that the Romans fought the Barbarians, they could win or lose, but each battle made the Empire a little poorer and a little weaker. The empire was using resources that could not be replaced; non-renewable resources, as we would say today. One was the gold that the Romans were mining in Spain: it was, indeed, a non-renewable resource and without gold, the Romans couldn't pay their troops. It was probably the main cause of the fall of the empire

So, wasn't there a solution to the troubles of the Roman Empire? Well, there was one if you think in terms of system dynamics. It is a question of pulling the levers in the right direction. By raising troops and fighting battles, the Roman Emperors were pulling the levers in the wrong direction. They had to invert the direction: the solution was not more troops but fewer troops. It was not more imperial bureaucracy but less, not more of a tax burden but less. In the end, the solution was right there and it was simple: it was Middle Ages.

Middle Ages meant getting rid of the suffocating imperial bureaucracy; transforming the expensive legions into local militias; having people paying taxes locally, in short transforming the centralized empire into a decentralized constellation of small states. Without the terrible expenses of the Imperial court and of the Imperial bureaucracy, these small states had a chance to rebuild their economy and start a new phase of prosperity, as indeed it happened during the Middle Ages. The Empire was going in that direction. it was unavoidable and one could as well favor that movement. And that meant dismantling the empire.

Of course, when the Empire was still strong and powerful, no emperor had the power of disbanding the legions, nor the imperial bureaucracy. But that was happening anyway during the 5th century and what an emperor (or empress) could have done was to give to the events just a little push in the right direction. Don't fight the change, ease it. It is the way of pushing the levers in the right direction. Could Placidia have done just that? Incredibly, perhaps she did.

What Placidia could do as an Empress was, mainly, to enact laws. The Empire still had a functioning bureaucracy and so the edicts from Ravenna were not ignored, at least in the regions that the Empire could still control. So, the law was the playground of Placidia and she did enact a number of laws, many of which are still existing in the “Codex Theodosianus,” a collection of laws compiled on behalf of Placidia's nephew, the Emperor of the East, Theodosius the 2nd. 

The Codex Theodosianus is not an easy document to peruse; there are some 2500 laws in it. Well worth giving a look, because it is full of hints and glimpses of what was life in the Roman Empire at that time. But it is impossible to go into any depth in it unless you are a specialist in this matter – it is just too much. So, I learned about Placidia's laws mainly from the report written by Stewart Oost, who wrote her biography in 1966.

Now, of course, we cannot say who was exactly the mind behind a certain law. But there seems to be a certain logic in what the Imperial Court in Ravenna was doing. That logic looked a bit like the policy of Mikhail Gorbachev for the Soviet Union. Gorbachev consistently refused to use force to keep together an empire that was disintegrating – although he could have done that. In Roman times, the court of Ravenna, it seems, took the same approach during the first half of the 5th century. The Roman Empire still had an army, they could have used to try to destroy the Barbarian nations that had settled within the Empire's borders. But that would have meant only squandering away those few resources that the Empire still had. It would only have greatly hastened collapse.

It seems that Placidia was acting according to her style; ease the unavoidable, don't fight it. Not that she knew system dynamics but, after all, system dynamics is just formalized common sense and it seems that Placidia had plenty of it. So, consistently, we see in her acts the tendency of reducing the power of the Imperial court. You see it in some details, such as when she gave back to the Senate, in Rome, the gift of gold that was customary for the senators to present to the Emperor every year. It meant that the Empire had to reduce its expenses and keep a lower profile. 

But she did much more than that. Placidia forbade the coloni, the peasants bound to the land, to enlist in the army. That deprived the army of one of its sources of manpower and we may imagine that it greatly weakened it. Another law enacted by Placidia, allowed the great landowners to tax their subjects themselves. This deprived the Imperial Court of its main source of revenues. All that meant just one thing: dismantling the Imperial State and ushering in the Middle Ages.

If the purpose of Placidia really was to take the Empire to the Middle Ages, we can say that she was successful. After that she was gone, the Empire melted away. Her son, Valentinian managed to get killed in a palace conspiracy a few years after the death of her mother. Then, Rome was sacked by the Vandals in 455 AD and that was a deadly blow. If we could use the term  "scientific sacking" for what the Vandals did, it was appropriate. They took back with them everything valuable that was left in Rome, gaining a good amount of gold and a bad reputation that lingers around them still today. 

After the sack of Rome, for a few decades, there were individuals in Ravenna who claimed the title of Western Emperor, but nobody seemed to care about them. We only remember the name of the last Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, who was deposed in 476, and that is just because he was the last. After that, Europe officially entered the Middle Ages – as it had to.

This is just a possible interpretation of what Placidia did and I am the first to say that it is just speculation. These laws may have been enacted simply because the Imperial Court was forced to. And, of course, we will never know what passed in Placidia's mind. She left us only some letters that miraculously survived in the Vatican's archives, but nothing that we could use to penetrate her inner thoughts. We can only say that staying with the Goths, although for just a few years, could have opened her mind. Because of that, she might have gained have a vision that no Emperor, before her had. And so she did something that no emperor, before or after her, could do. Push the empire towards its destiny, fulfilling its chemical potential, if you like. In a way, Placidia was the catalyzer that made it happen.

Galla Placidia's legacy

Now, I'll ask you another small feat of imagination. Close your eyes again for a moment and imagine something that took place a long, long time ago; 15 centuries before our time. Imagine a young princess. Imagine that she has lived all of her life inside beautiful palaces; that she has been wearing splendid dresses and expensive jewels, that she has been walking inside closed gardens, rich of statuary and fountains; always protected, always secluded, as it is the usual lot of princesses. 

And then imagine her in a completely different situation: kidnapped by the Barbarians, she is somewhere in the mountains; around her, the slow, winding column of wagons has stopped. The nation of the Goths has stopped for the night. It is a cold night of early winter and the women have lit campfires while the warriors are sitting around, singing their songs. These tall warriors are Christian, but they are Arians, while the Princess is Catholic, and that makes a lot of difference. Then, there is more. It is likely that in one of those wagons they still carry the wooden statues of their pagan gods: perhaps Hertha the goddess of Earth, and perhaps other gods of fire and thunder. Maybe, the prayers being recited for these ancient divinities can be heard as a distant whispering in the night. 

Now, imagine the Princess, Placidia, listening to these distant songs and then looking at the stars above her as she has never seen them. These are the same stars that we can see today; dimly, because we have dirtied the sky with our waste. But Placidia sees those stars in a sky of a clarity that today we can’t even imagine; the sky of a world that was shrinking to nearly nothing, its cities depopulated, its roads abandoned, its farmland left to transform into a forest. Just during those years, Rutilius Namatianus gave us an unforgettable image of the lights of Rome in the night, lights that he saw for the last time as he was abandoning the city, to seek refuge in Gallia. But, around Placidia, there was no human light, except the fires lighted by the Visigoths, and so she could see that fantastic sky.

Now, of course, this is fantasy, but I am mentioning to you stars for a reason. You see, I said that Placidia left us almost nothing in terms of written worlds. But she left us a message that is perhaps even clearer than a written diary. It is the mausoleum that takes her name in Ravenna, and it is there that you can find a triumph of stars in the mosaics of the ceiling. Big, bright, wonderful stars that remind us a little those that Vincent van Gogh painted in that famous painting of his.

You know, those stars in Placidia's mausoleum always reminded me of "Christmas", in the sense of the way we celebrate it today. Not, of course, the commercial holiday that it has become nowadays, but the atmosphere of the "nativity scene" that is still commonplace in Southern Europe and South America. Of course, in the mausoleum, you won't find the baby Jesus and not even the Virgin Mary. These figures would become commonplace much later. At the time of Galla Placidia, Christianity was something different than it is for us. But there is no doubt that Placidia was a convinced Christian; she was a believer and she always saw Christianity as an important part of her life. The mausoleum is just part of this attitude of hers.

No one can say, of course,  that these stars in the mausoleum in Ravenna are there as a memory of Placidia's travels with the Visigoths, but I think we can take this small creative license and see those stars as exactly that. It is, as I said, a way to get a feeling on the matter we are discussing. We need it; you see, I could mention something that Marguerite Yourcenar says in her “Memoirs of Hadrian,”. She had this tremendous feeling of kinship with the long-gone Emperor when she could hold in her hands a jewel that, most likely, Hadrian had held in his hands, long before. We don't have a jewel that Placidia may have held or worn, but we have that building, her mausoleum.

The building in Ravenna is not a "mausoleum" in the sense of something built over one's tomb. It is reasonably certain that Placidia was never buried in there; she probably died in Rome and her tomb has been lost long ago. We can't even be sure that Placidia had a role in the design of that building; it is just a later tradition. Yet, if the tradition exists, it has to be for some reason. In my opinion, that building was built under her influence. There are many details in it that are absolutely clear to me. So, if you walk inside the mausoleum, you know that you are walking in a place where Galla Placidia has walked. And there is more: I can tell you that the mausoleum is a message from her. A message that comes to us from those remote times.

By now, Placidia is almost a creature of the mythical universe of Gods and Heroes, just like Cassandra and Helen of Troy. Yet, she has not completely vanished from our memory. Her voice is faint but, if we listen carefully we can hear it. And you can still hear it if you go to see that small building in Ravenna, her message to us. It is simple and unprepossessing in the exterior, but it is a triumph of colors inside. That’s already a message in itself that comes from an age when whatever there was that was beautiful had to be kept hidden to be saved from destruction. It could be seen and enjoyed by those who had the key to it. That building is like a woman who may show you something intimate of herself, but only if you deserve it. Everything in there has a meaning; it is in the figures and the images in it: it is her story, Placidia's story – that building will tell it to you, but only if you deserve it.

I told you that the art of boredom consists of telling everything so I won't tell you the details of the decoration of the building and how each detail fits so well with Placidia’s story. I'll let you just imagine that and, if one day you'll have a chance to go there and visit that mausoleum; do it in silence and listen. It is a faint, faint voice, but you can hear it if you pay attention. After all, a Latin poet who lived centuries before Placidia, Terence, said that "nothing human is alien to us."  Placidia was one of us.

In her 62 years of life, Placidia was princess, queen, and empress. She did reasonably well in these roles and, during her reign as Empress, the Western Empire remained relatively safe and the Romans had the food they needed. She had defects; for sure. She failed to save her foster mother from death when, perhaps, she had a chance to do that. She was ruthless with her enemies and her way of being Christian may have veered on bigotry. But she played her role as well as she could in those difficult times and she may have played a fundamental role in closing an era in which the very concept of “Roman Empire” had become anachronistic. A judgment by a later chronicler, Cassiodorus, may say it all about her rule, "too much peace," even though it was intended as a criticism. In the end, she was a human being like all of us and she followed her destiny, her chemical potential, if you like.

And, if Placidia's destiny was to be empress, yours, boys and girls, seems to be to study chemistry. Then, my destiny – my chemical potential, if you like - is to teach chemistry to you. That's what we'll do next time we meet in this classroom. Now, thanks for having listened to me, and we can leave and have that coffee!

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Neutrino Tunnel Under the Alps Will be Finally Built, Declares Italian Minister Mariastella Gelmini.


The new neutrino tunnel from Central Italy to Switzerland will be based on gender parity hiring practices. Here, four young miners are ready to start their work at a tunnel that will be about 750 km long (image source)


Ms. Mariastella Gelmini, currently Minister of Regional Affairs and Autonomies of the Italian Government, has announced today that the Neutrino Tunnel from the CERN in Switzerland and the Gran Sasso National Laboratory, Italy, has been approved by the Italian Government as part of the actions financed by the European Recovery Funds.

Ms. Mariastella Gelmini is on record for having mentioned the tunnel in a 2011 press release, when she was minister of Public Education and Scientific Research. She was heavily criticized for that, since no such tunnel existed at that time. But now, 10 years later, it appears clear that Gelmini's statement was prophetic.

The construction is expected to start before the end of 2021. It will involve a considerable financial effort since the distance between the two laboratiories is about 750 km. But the challenge, declared Ms. Gelmini, is worth the effort since it opens the way to attain speeds higher than light. These speeds, she added, could be especially useful for the members of the current Italian government were to need to leave Rome in a hurry.

Mr. Mario Draghi, prime minister of the Italian government, praised Ms. Gelmini statement and hinted that the new tunnel may be named in her honor when it will be completed. He added that superluminal speed may be a welcome feature for monetary transfers all over the world.

Mr. Roberto Speranza, Italian ministry of health, also praised the construction of the new tunnel, but declared that the superluminal neutrinos arriving in Italy will have to be quarantined for a certain period as they could be carriers of viral infections.

 Mr. Roberto Speranza and Ms. Mariastella Gelmini at the press conference announcing the plans for the new neutrino tunnel.




Monday, March 29, 2021

Running out of Ice on the Moon. How we Forgot the Problem of Resource Depletion


"The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert A. Heinlein, (1966), translated into Italian as "La Luna è una Severa Maestra." It was probably the first science fiction book for adults I ever read in my life, I still remember buying it and taking it home in awe, as if I had in my hands a religious relic. It was also, possibly, the first time that I read about resource depletion. It was mentioned in the novel as a problem for the inhabitants of the Moon but, clearly, also as a metaphor of the limits to growth of Earth.

Thomas Huxley said that "it is the customary fate of new truths, to begin as heresies, and to end as superstitions." It is a sentence that describes the cycle of ideas, you can call them memes, which tend to have a life-cycle similar to that of living creatures. They are born, grow, and disappear. 

The popularity of ideas is not necessarily linked to reality. The virtual world of ideas (the memesphere) may well be completely disconnected from the real world. So, the fact that an idea is forgotten or rejected doesn't mean it is false or wrong. It is just the effect of memes going in cycles, growing and declining.

So, during the past few years, the idea that resource depletion was a serious problem for humankind became thoroughly unmentionable. In parallel, the memesphere got infected with a completely different set of memes. If things don't go as well as they should, that's now supposed to be due to such things as peak demand, the Russians, China, terrorism, capitalism, or anything else, but nothing ever related to mineral depletion. Obviously, eventually, reality will get the upper hand, whether we recognize it or not. But, for the time being, resource depletion is unnameable and incomprehensible. 

At this point, you may ask the question: why did the cycle start? What caused resource depletion to be recognized as a problem?

Ideas are born out of the data available, and the finiteness of our planet was not part of the average worldview (the memesphere) until relatively recent times. That we could run out of some important resource started being discussed only in mid-19th century by William Stanley Jevons, the British economist. He was probably the first who had a clear idea of the depletion process of a mineral resource, coal. But, in this field, Jevons never really had an impact on modern economics. His ideas were too advanced for the times when they were expressed.

The possibility that we would eventually run out of oil or other mineral resources popped up occasionally after Jevons, but it never was part of the mainstream views. Things changed in the 1960s. It was probably the result of the space explorations of the time that produced many impressive pictures of a spherical and limited Earth. Kenneth Boulding was the first to articulate these ideas in a well-organized form with his article of 1966, “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth,” still worth reading today. Boulding coined the well-known statement "anyone who thinks that economic growth can go on forever is either an idiot or an economist."

An idea needs more than an article written by an economist if it has to make inroads into the memesphere. It needs to become a story. And, in the 1960s, science fiction was a lively form of literature dedicated to exploring the future. In principle, it was there that the concept of resource depletion could have had an impact. 

That never really happened. Think, for instance of Isaac Asimov's famous series "Foundation," published from 1942 to 1953. Asimov dealt with the future history of the collapse of the Galactic Empire, but nowhere in the story, you will find a hint that the Empire had a resource problem. In other publications, Asimov clearly stated that he was worried about human overpopulation, but it doesn't seem that he ever articulated the concept of "resource depletion." You may also think of Robert Silverberg's "The World Inside" (1971) where you can read of a world of some 200 billion inhabitants living in Urban Monads (Urbmons), huge thousand-floor skyscrapers. The world described by Silverberg is resource-constrained, but population continues to grow!

That was typical of science fiction. Not that, as a genre, it would always produce an optimistic view of the future. On the contrary, it widely explored themes such as nuclear wars, famines, pestilences, and overpopulation. Yet, the science fiction of the "golden age" (the 1940s-1970s) was basically technology-oriented. It was hard for authors to include limits to growth in a worldview that saw atomic energy and space travel as an obvious feature of the future. 

True, overpopulation was often seen as a big problem in science fiction, see for instance John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar," published in 1968, but not because humans were running out of resources. It was mainly a question of overcrowding leading to all sorts of political and social problems. If humankind were to face a dire destiny, it was because it had failed to properly use the technological tools that were available: nuclear energy being the clearest example.

In the large number of stories that were published during the golden age of science fiction, there must have been some that dealt with resource depletion. Most have been forgotten, but one stands out: Robert Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," published in1966. 

The novel covered several themes, one being resource scarcity. The story revolves around an interplanetary conflict: the Earth's governments have established a lunar colony to host criminals and undesirables. At the same time, the lunar dwellers, the "Loonies"  are exploited to cultivate and ship grain to Earth to feed a population that would not survive otherwise

Heinlein had very clear the concept of "overshoot" even though he didn't use the term in the novel. The problem of resource depletion was cutting both ways: the lunar colony was not as overpopulated as Earth, but it had limited water resources (in the form of mineral ice). The revolutionaries of the novel who fight for an independent Moon do so because they realize that soon the lunar ice will run out and the Loonies will face death by starvation. 

The story is complex and fascinating, with many twists and unforgettable characters. "Mike" is an artificial intelligence that develops moral views and fights alongside the revolutionaries. Although conceived in the 1960s, Heinlein perfectly understood the role of controlling the communication system for a political force to succeed in changing the status of a society.  

As it happened also for other stories by Heinlein, the story of the Loonies also originated terms that are still in use today. "Tanstaafl" ("there ain't no such a thing as a free lunch") is a refrain that summarizes the message of the novel. It is not clear if Heinlein invented the term but, when it is used today, it is often associated to the novel (see also "to grok"). 

Yet, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" didn't originate a specific line of stories exploring the theme of resource depletion, at least not until the late 1990s and the 2000s. It seems that the same rules that apply to economics apply to science fiction: depletion is a concept so hard to accept that it is normally ignored. It is an effect of our tunnel vision that prevents us from seeing more than one problem at a time. And, unfortunately, that's the way we face the future.   




Friday, March 26, 2021

Phrasing the Question Right is the First Step to Find an Answer. How to Prevent Nuclear War



Professor Bernard Lown died this February at 99. A great man by all means: Physician, cardiologist, professor at Harvard University, and a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He was the inventor of the defribrillator, the proposer of many successful ways to help people suffering from heart failure. He was also the recipient of the Nobel prize for peace for his activity against nuclear war.
It was in the 1980s when I attended a seminar in Berkeley given by a member of the group called "International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War." Some decades later, I am not sure the talk was given by the founder of the group, Dr. Bernard Lown, but it may have been him. In any case, I was impressed by the clarity of the talk. The speaker said it very simply: "it is not a question of being left or right: nuclear war is the greatest medical emergency I can imagine." 
It is the way you frame a problem that gives you the tools to solve it! Just like "The Seneca Effect" gives a name to a typical behavior of complex systems, that of collapsing, framing the nuclear confrontation as a medical emergency and not as a political struggle brought it to the realm of concrete problems that people could understand. We might also frame nuclear war as an especially nasty kind of Seneca Cliff affecting humankind and the whole planet. 
Probably because the problem was framed right, the Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War had a remarkable success. At some point, it had some 200,000 members, and Bernard Lown, its Western founder, was invited to Moscow to meet the newly elected secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev (an encounter that the Western Media refused to cover). One of the results was the group was awarded the Nobel prize for peace in 1985. Whether their work was one of the reasons why we remained free from nuclear war up to now, it is hard to say. But efforts in a good cause are never wasted.

The Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War is still active, nowadays. The interest in preventing a nuclear war faded with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but we may be actually closer to war today than we were in the 1980s -- it is just that we haven't been thinking so much about the matter. 
So, I missed the news of the death of Dr. Bernard Lown, less than one month ago.
You can read Lown's thoughts on his blog that he kept until 2012. It is a fascinating read, it was this blog that had made me rediscover him more than 30 years after that (perhaps) I had met him. In the blog, he describes his career and how often he had to fight with the medical establishment to make them accept that some traditional healing methods were not only useless but harming the patients. A case in point was the habit of keeping bedridden people who had suffered a heart attack. It took a remarkable effort to convince physicians that setting patients on a chair was a way to give them the psychological comfort they needed to heal themselves. Lown was a man who always did his best to do what he thought was right.  We would need people like him, now, but where have they gone?
Lown died at 99 this February. Gaia was gentle with this son of hers who did so much for all of us and she gave him a long life that I can imagine was full of satisfactions. May he rest in peace.
Bernard Lown's Blog: worth reading as an unending source of wisdom on the practice of medicine.

Monday, March 22, 2021

The Hydrogen Myth: Technology and Religion in the Decline of Civilizations


I just started a new blog titled "The Hydrogen Skeptics." It is about the hydrogen economy and hydrogen as a fuel and it is a little technical as a subject. So I thought it was not appropriate to discuss it in a somewhat philosophical blog like "The Seneca Effect." Yet, there are points in common, as I am arguing in this post. Above: the nuclear-powered car "Ford Nucleon", unfortunate technological prodigy of the 1950s, that never was turned into anything practical.

The Romans of imperial times found themselves in a situation not unlike ours. Gradually running out of resources, they found themselves more and more in trouble with keeping together a vast empire that was enormously expensive to defend and govern. Already at the time of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (1st century AD), it must have been clear to everyone that something was not running right in the very bowels of the giant organism that was the Empire. But what was wrong, exactly?

All societies are based on a fundamental "founding myth" that forms the justification of everything that was done and is being done. The Romans were not a technology-based civilization, and they would have been puzzled by our fixation on new gadgets. They were a military civilization that built its founding myth on the prowess of their soldiers and the efficiency of their armies. That, in turn, was believed to be the result of the Gods' benevolence who had rewarded the Romans for their virtues. The Romans were supposed to be brave, strong, and pious, and they never failed to perform the sacrifices that were due to please their Gods. 

You can understand this attitude if you read Virgil's "Aeneid," (1st century AD), truly the foundation of the Roman view of the world. The hero and the central protagonist of the story is the Trojan warrior Aeneas, who goes through a series of adventures always careful to follow the advice of the Gods. He is neither dumb nor insensitive, but he never loses track of his mission. And the Gods, in turn, help him to achieve his goal. Being the son of a Goddess (Aphrodite) helps him a lot, too!

So, the Romans saw themselves as still performing Aeneas' mission when they conquered new lands and new peoples. The idea was to bring them civilization, (similar to our slogan "bring them democracy.") The Romans were genuinely convinced to be a superior civilization and that the manifest destiny of  Barbarians was to become Romans. But things started going wrong and many Barbarians stubbornly refused to surrender to the glorious Roman armies. So, what was the problem? Had the Gods abandoned the Romans? Maybe it was because they were not anymore so virtuous as they used to be during the good times. Maybe the Romans had become lazy, maybe they had forgotten the proper sacrifice rituals. 

One reaction was to return to the ancient virtues and to the ancient religion. We see this tendency during the whole period of decadence of the Empire, from the 1st century onward. We see it in the Stoic school of philosophy -- of which Seneca was a prominent member. Just like the mythical hero, Aeneas, Stoics emphasized personal virtue in difficult times. They would find their reward just in being virtuous, independently on whether they had succeeded or not in their task. 

Stoics were not so convinced about the religious practices and the many deities of their times. They tended to replace what they saw as silly beliefs with a loftier vision of a single, all-powerful spiritual entity. But they weren't iconoclasts. They were supporters of the traditional religions for those who didn't have the culture and the intelligence necessary to understand a higher level of spirituality. It is also possible that cultivating one's virtues, as Stoics were doing, was seen as a way to convince the Gods that they should continue to support the Romans, or maybe restart supporting them.

Despite many efforts, the diffusion of Stoicism didn't seem to help very much, and the situation moved from bad to worse. That may have been one of the reasons why the Romans tended to try to fix their founding myth by switching to new religions. So, they tended to deify their emperors, that is, to turn him into a God to be worshiped just like all the other Gods. Surely, being led by one of the members of the divine coterie would surely mean that the Gods won't let their brother in Rome alone to fight those hordes of bad-smelling barbarians. It was not an easy task to turn the man at the top into a God, since he normally was a homicidal psychopath, or a sexual predators, or a pervert -- often all these things together. And the effort didn't seem to help so much, either. 

Another strategy, a little more radical, was to import new religions from abroad. During the first two centuries of the Empire, Rome was truly a supermarket of Oriental religions. In some cases, new deities were incorporated into the existing Pantheon: Cybele, Isis, Mithras, and more. In other cases, entire new cults were transplanted into the Empire: Manichaeists, Zoroastrians, Mithraists, Jews, Christians, and more.

Eventually, one of these Oriental religions, Christianity, managed to get the upper hand over the others and it merged with the Emperor's cult. Constantine "The Great" (272 – 337 AD) saw himself as a divinely appointed emperor, but also a supporter of Christianity. From then on, apart for brief intervals, the Roman Empire was ruled by Christian Emperors. Theodosius "The Great" (347 – 395) officially banned Paganism from the Empire. 

As we all know, these efforts didn't work so well. Despite the new faith and the divine emperors, the founding myth of the Roman Empire was hopelessly obsolete. The Empire faded away. It had to: God's benevolence was not enough to keep it together. The new founding myths were Christianity (without divine emperors) for Europe and Islam for the Middle East and Northern Africa. They ushered new kinds of societies, better adapted to the new times.

In time, Christianity lost its role as the founding myth of the European society. We tend to see the European world dominance as the result not of God's benevolence, but of our technological prowess. Our technological tricks are what keeps the modern Global Empire together and we seem to be convinced that, if we have problems, all we need to do is to invent new tricks -- new founding myths. The consequence is that all the problems we face can be removed by more technology.  

But, in this phase of decline, it is clear that the Global Empire has enormous problems: running out of fossil fuels, pollution, global warming, social unrest, economic crisis, and more. So, we are trying to revamp and keep alive our founding myths. 

Just like in ancient Roman Times, we are in a phase of a plethora of new myths that compete to get the upper hand as the new, improved founding myth. Our equivalent of Stoicism is the idea that we should be virtuous by saving energy and separating household waste. Another "mythlet" is the idea that our problem with fossil fuels, can be solved by switching to another fuel (hydrogen) supposed to be both more abundant and cleaner. 

The hydrogen myth is on a par with others that try to repair a damaged machine on the run. Some of these ideas are purely mythological, including the various nuclear technologies supposed to create energy out of nothing (the nuclear water boiler, the e-cat, is a good example). But some of these ideas are technically valid, just don't expect them to be the new founding myths for something that has to disappear anyway. Just as Christianity survived the end of the Roman Empire, some technologies that we are developing nowadays will survive the collapse of the Global Empire. Wind, solar, hydro, and others can provide energy, but they'll support a society that will be completely different from the current one. 

So, why couldn't hydrogen be one of these technologies that will survive? It is because of technical reasons: hydrogen as a fuel has many problems that make it unsuitable for uses other than niche applications. Thinking of hydrogen on a grand scale as supporting a society as complex and wasteful as ours is simply a dream. Nevertheless, hydrogen remains popular nowadays just because of this impossible promise -- it is like a politician that gets elected by promising things that he will never be able to deliver. 

For this reason, we need an in-depth discussion to understand what hydrogen can, and cannot, do and avoid that it becomes a stumbling block in the transition away from fossil fuels that we are facing. That's why I created a new blog titled "The Hydrogen Skeptics" In the introduction to the new blog, I write: 

I am not against hydrogen in itself, which is just a natural element among 92 others. And I am open to the possibility that energy technologies based on hydrogen may find applications in the future. I am skeptical about the hype that surrounds hydrogen technologies. Not all technologies turn out to be feasible, no matter how hyped. Just think of the Ford Nucleon, nuclear powered car of the 1950s, shown in the cover image.
So, if you want to take a look at the new blog, click on the image of the unfortunate Ford Nucleon, taken as an example of technological hubris, one more revolutionary idea that never worked.

Right now, there is only one post on the new blog, but I plan new posts soon and the blog is open for discussion. If you are interested to contribute, just write to me.