It is both surprising and marvellous that men who existed long time ago went through exactly the same problems as us. At a first glance, we would say that the race for an unlimited economic growth is a trait characterising only the post-industrial society, and that talking of unlimited economic growth for pre-industrial societis is a nonsense. Yet not only the concept of unlimited growth was known in antiquity, but also the unnecessary sorrows that the unlimited growth brings along, its folly and its unsustainability were no mistery for men who came 20 centuries before us.
The late roman republic and the early roman empire (II sec. b.C. – II sec.A.D.) was also a system based on unlimited growth. It was not an economic growth the way we mean it (i.e. GDP), it was rather a geografical growth, but the underlying principle is the same. In order to thrive, Rome had to conquer new lands, as roman economy was based on a continuous conquest. New slaves, new tax payers to pay an ever growing army, more gold mines for minting more money, and more military triumphs for asserting the political power, were an absolute necessity for the roman state. Between the I and II sec. A.D., when the following speech is set, roman borders had reached an extent that is simply unimaginable to the modern man. Looking at a map of the age does not give an idea of the monstruous growth of the empire, because we are used to travel by airplanes, trains and cars, we are used to communicate over electromagnetic signals that are practically instantaneous, and buy and sell goods online. In those time there was nothing of all that. For an information to go from the scottish grasslands to the iranian desert, months or even years were necessary. And the same was for people, resources and taxes. To make an equivalent with nowadays distances, Britain was then distant from Parthia (Iran) roughly as today’s Europe is distant from Mars.
Then as well as now, unlimited growth caused the waste of many existences. Not only because of those who were killed in wars, but also for those whose lives were made an instrument of the unlimited growth. Taxpayers who could barely survive because of the heavy burden of taxation demanded by the unlimited growth, provincials who had to work all their lives to build and infrastracture network whose purpose was simply extension of domination, young recruits, who in order to have a piece of land to be able to feed themselves, had to fight for 30 years unecessary wars of expansion. Of course also non-human lives were destroyed as ecosystems have been ravished and animals of all kinds had bore the brunt of the growth. All existences were committed to the unlimited growth, not even the emperor himself was immune to it, because if he did not continue to expand the empire, he had a concrete risk of being eliminated by pretenders who were more committed to the cause. Every land was exploited for the growth, both rich and poor lands. Poor lands were not lands who could contribute less to the growth, but simply lands that had to suffer more to contribute. Pretty much as Africa today.
The words of Tacitus that are to follow convey an ultra modern question: ” if our existences are submitted to the ideal of unlimited growth, which is the point after which work is no more worth, and a outright slavery is prefereable? if one is slave or in jail is deprived of freedom, at least he/she does not have to pay for food and rent any more”. A system based on continuous growth, indeed, uses the access to basic vital needs, as food, water, and home, as a blackmail instrument to force people to contribute to the unlimited growth. Our actual system thrives on the mortgages of people who work half their life just to live under a roof, and it is not unlikely that in a not so remote future the same will happen to food, when the only way of producing food will be buying terminal seeds from companies that produce patented genetically modified organisms.
The pursuit of an indefinite growth was presented 20 centuries ago as well now, with the loftiest words. Expansion of the empire meant expansion of civilization, and those who were responsible of the destruction of entire ecosystems, cultures and cities were convinced that all that devastation was necessary for the good of mankind. It wouldn’t be surprising if someone today, pointing out the rest of roman infrastructures, some of them incredibly still in function up to this day, would agree with the imperial propaganda, saying that afterall it was all worth it in the end.
Then as well as now, unlimited growth was a dogma which could not be questioned. One could discuss about all the issues onewanted, as long as one agreed that unlimited growth is the supreme good of mankind and in order to improve the situation of mankind one has to grow faster, no matter the cost.
Tacitus follows a relatively common strategy among roman writers of the age to let his heart speak, circumventing censorship: putting his ideas in the speech of an enemy. The following excerpt is taken by Tacitus’ Iulius Agricola, a biography of Tacitu’s father -in-law, who was a military leader in the last phases of the roman conquest of Britain, under Domitian’s reign (I-II century A.D). Tacitus let his heart speak through the voice of Calgacus, a caledonian chief who fought against Agricola’s roman troops. Since Calgacus was an enemy of the roman state, and on top of that a defeated enemy, any blasphemy could be said by him: his defeat could prove how wrong he was, how deserved his punishment was, and how the ideal of unlimited growth triumphed once again for the greater glory of mankind. Moreover, having Calgacus been a personal enemy of Tacitus’ father-in-law, nobody could ever blame Tacitus of the slightest sympathy for this thoughtless enemy of the unlimited growth. Calgacus is not mentioned in other sources besides Tacitus, and if he were a fictional character, Tacitus’ defiance of the propaganda of the system would only be more mocking.
Calgacus’s word astonish for their modernity to such a point that we must think that either Tacitus could see future, or that in the last 20 centuries things have not changed at all in spite of all revolutions, progress, civilization, human rights and all the achievements of makind, that according to the system we should be thankful to.
But now enough of us. Let us give Calgacus the word. This is what he says to his men before the clash with the Romans:
Nunc terminus Britanniae patet, atque omne ignotum pro magnifico est; sed nulla iam ultra gens, nihil nisi fluctus ac saxa, et infestiores Romani, quorum superbiam frustra per obsequium ac modestiam effugias. Raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terrae, mare scrutantur: si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit: soli omnium opes atque inopiam pari adfectu concupiscunt. Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
-Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Agricola, 30
Translation. “Here, at the furthermost limits of Britain, the unknown passes for marvellous. But beyond us there is no one more, nothing but waves and stones, and then the ruinous Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. These robbers of the world, after having run out of lands to ravish (according to their universal plan of destruction), they turn their rapacious eyes toward the sea. They are greedy if their enemy is rich and haughy if he is poor; neither the East nor the West could satisfy their lust for domination. Along among all peoples, they covet with equal desider rich and poor lands. They steal, they massacre and they ravage under the false name of civilization and where they created desolation they call it peace.”
Bona fortunaeque in tributum, ager atque annus in frumentum, corpora ipsa ac manus silvis ac paludibus emuniendis inter verbera et contumelias conteruntur. Nata servituti mancipia semel veneunt, atque ultro a dominis aluntur: Britannia servitutem suam cotidie emit, cotidie pascit. Ac sicut in familia recentissimus quisque servorum etiam conservis ludibrio est, sic in hoc orbis terrarum vetere famulatu novi nos et viles in excidium petimur; neque enim arva nobis aut metalla aut portus sunt, quibus exercendis reservemur. virtus porro ac ferocia subiectorum ingrata imperantibus.
–Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Agricola, 31
Transl: “Our goods and the fruits of our work (lit. „one year of work in the fields“) are taken away from us in form of taxes, among lashes and insults our very bodies and hands are worn down for clearing woods and swamps. People born slaves are bought only once and then their food and lodging is at the expense of their masters: but Britain is sold everyday slave, and yet everyday she must provide for her food. As as in a houshold the last of the slaves is ridiculed even by the other slaves, in this giant prison that the whole World has become, they are now on after us, the last to be enslaved and thus the most insignificant. We do not even have fertile lands, or mines or wealthy harbours, for whose activity we could be necessary and thus saved. Courage and pride from now on will not be appreciated any more by rulers.”