Direct Democracy Made Rome, The Middle Ages, More Inventive


Roman engineering is still amazing: the Pantheon in Rome is still the largest unreinforced concrete building. We are still trying to duplicate Roman concrete, some varieties of which were much more energy efficient to make, could settle under water, etc… CO2 is massively produced by concrete making, and a big problem as we decarbonize our energy production. After the Roman state collapsed, buildings got built in a more ephemeral manner…

Ian Miller responded:
In fairness, one of the better ones used a pozzolan from Vesuvius (and burnt lime) so in a sense Vesuvius did much of the heating. Another interesting one was the testa, effectively from heated kaolin, but unlike the clay cements we use, it only had to be heated to 600 degrees C (and with added burnt lime.)

Roman engineering was not the only engineering around: for centuries, the Romans purchased their better weapons among the Gauls, who had superior metallurgy.

In either case, the (relative) superior inventiveness was caused by (relatively superior) direct democracy. That may surprise: Rome is not known for its direct democracy… And it was a strange one, as it reflected the addition of further “tribes”, over the centuries, to those which founded the city itself. So older tribes had priority in voting in the so-called “Centuriate Assembly”… which was actually the National Assembly of the “Populus Romanus”.

Rome was known for its inventiveness in engineering, and it generally happened because some Roman soldier or more typically, an officer, had a bright idea, which quickly went up the chain of command. Other bright ideas were debated politically, sometimes for centuries, sometimes in the fiercest fashion (say taxation of the hyper wealthy and confiscation of said wealth by the Ager Publicus, the public agricultural lands). This makes obvious that debates were intense and their interest beyond any suspicion.

The cathedral and the Brunelleschi dome at sunset, Florence Italy. The balcony at the very top is around one hundred meters in circumference (personal estimate), and the dome is 115 meters high. It was begun in 1296 CE. The Republic invented bonds to finance itself and its army…

The situation changed completely during the empire. Emperors started to pay inventors to NOT divulge their inventions. The idea was that machines took away employment. The reality was that emperors did not want a dynamic society. The most terrible consequence was that the barbarians caught up, or even surpassed, Roman military engineering, with the otherwise incomprehensible results that tiny Germanic bands came to defeat the empire on the battlefield… another cause, tied in directly to the lack of direct democracy in the Late Empire, is that Roman armies were then smaller than at the apex of the Republic, when the Roman population was less than a tenth of what it was in the Late empire… Emperors and their attending plutocrats did not want the proverbial, levée en masse, the mass national military conscription, which would have toppled them… And which had been the rule already under king Servius Tullius, (assassinated 535 BCE) a generation before the formal inception of the Roman Republic…

Fast forward six centuries and now the great leader of the Franks, mother to three kings, queen Bathilde, fierce and absolute regent of the Frankish empire in 657 CE, outlaws slave trading when said slaves reside in Francia, thus are “Franks”. That demolished the Roman latifundia system (giant agribusinesses manned by slaves) which had risen its ugly head towards the end of the Roman Republic, helping to kill it (form the powers it conferred to the plutocrats who owned it). next thing which happened is that Gallic metallurgy, already second to none, became even better. Combined with mechanical advantage (replacing the waning slave workforce), it brought hydraulic hammers, which were then used to give metallic skeletons to great buildings (for example cathedrals and domes.

To build the Duomo in Florence, architect Brunelleschi came up with an impressively complicated design that featured two domes, one on top of the other, using a special herringbone brick pattern. he also used an system of internal iron chains that ringed the outer dome like the metal rings on a barrel to help evenly distribute the weight. Up until that point the only option to make such a dome was to using flying buttresses, a Frankish invention (Italy was part of the Frankish empire, now rebaptized the “Renovated Roman Empire” since 800 CE). The same method was used in Frankish cathedrals, especially after they bulged out and threatened to collapse (see Amiens).

Florence was a resurgence of People Power, as it became a republic in the middle of the Middle Ages. One of many in Italy. The Franks had been favorable to Republics: Venice was one of them, and the spawn of Roman refugees from the Hunnic and Germanic invasions. Charlemagne put it under his wing, but did not subdue her, in spite of the fact she had a gigantic fleet the rest of the empire sorely depended upon.

The Feudal system itself was both a degenerescence of empire, but also a resurgence of local democracy: the Roman empire was united by the Roman army, and communications, plus some basic laws in common, and enough tax base redistribution to keep the army fed, trained and equipped… But otherwise it was pretty much a galaxy of cities… When Caesar invade Gallia Comida (Long Haired Gaul), it has 60 states… the exact same number, in exactly the same region as it would have, a millennium later…

When people talk about Western Europe, and they ponder what made it different, they should pay more attention to the local democracy character it long possessed, and how it generate technological innovation.

Why it failed in Rome has to do with the absence of a revered, endogenous intellectual class. Greece had it, and Rome imported brains from Greece. Higher thoughts are different from engineering, but neither of them can live without the other, and progress, as they must, in always degenerating ecological circumstances…

Patrice Ayme

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4 Responses to “Direct Democracy Made Rome, The Middle Ages, More Inventive”

  1. ianmillerblog Says:

    In my opinion, once the republic was down, the emperors did want the army, BUT only those troops loyal to them. Once the emperors were chosen on the grounds of who had the most ruthless troops, the chance for advancement was probably lost. Military dictators are seldom very bright or interested in developing society.

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    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Indeed. But that doesn’t explain why the Franks, who were even fiercer than the Romans, rose and ultimately advanced, although wars were constant.

      My explanation is that the Franks were more open to intelligent debate. They may kill you for it, but they had it… more than the Roman… Catholics. So they instituted mandatory secular education and outlawed slavery… while discontinuing completely the Christian terror laws of 381 CE. The first burning for heresy under the Franks happen in 1026 CE in north west France. So more than 5 centuries with religious tolerance (Jews and Pagans and atheists welcome…)
      The greater freedom of expression, knowledge and shunning of slavery facilitated innovations in biotechnology (various plants and animals, beans), and machines, mechanical advantage.

      Reciprocally, the mental terror festering in Rome, starting with Commodus, after the relative accalmy of the Antonine emperors, did not favor mental eccentricity and innovation.

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  2. Gmax Says:

    You mentioned the Franks to Ian. So did direct democracy progress under the Franks? Thus innovation?

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