Ever since the BBC’s splendidly practical Adam Hart-Davis took up Monty Python’s challenge and answered Reg’s burning question:
Reg: But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
…something else has been niggling away at the back of my mind. Recently, it thrust its way to the front (generally rather a crowded place, mostly full of ‘when can I escape and go for a run?’, ‘how can people not be able to tell the difference between a squid and a cuttlefish?’, ‘I wish everyone would just stop talking for a bit’, ‘why isn’t there more cake?’ and ‘just how did Holmes escape Moriarty and fake his own demise at the Reichenbach Falls?’ type stuff) because of conversations I’ve been having with my Viking Sousaphonist about Peak Oil and its attendant woes.
With fossil fuel stocks – at least the relatively easily accessible ones – rapidly running out, our bubble-based economies in melt-down and the climate of our planet changing so dramatically that it is already messing with global weather patterns and adversely impacting crop-growing across the world, many people are predicting the collapse of our civilisation. Whether gradual or catastrophic, either way the end result is likely to be the same: we’ll have to give up our consumer-based culture in favour of a return to the kind of pre-industrial lifestyle of our great-great-great grandparents.
We will probably no longer be able to rely on (or afford) to draw endless electricity from our respective national grids to power our washing machines, dishwashers, tumble-driers, fridges, cookers, hoovers, treadmills etc – not to mention our TVs, DVD players, stereos, iPods, computers, games consoles and so on.
Gone will be the days of long distance travel, either for us on holidays or for the food, drink and consumer goods we currently import everyday. Even relatively short distances will undoubtedly have to be re-thought – we’ll have to use a bike or walk rather than automatically hopping in the car for journeys of just a few miles, for example.
Which brings me back to my original point – how did the people living in southeast Britain at the time the Romans pulled out in the early 5th century AD survive the collapse of their civilisation? We call the period of several hundred years that followed the Roman’s retreat ‘The Dark Ages’ for good reason: imported luxuries became scarce, roads fell into disrepair making communication and trade more difficult – especially away from coasts and rivers – centralised law and order disintegrated as local chieftains fought for land and resources while bandits preyed on unlucky travellers with impunity, literacy rates fell and childhood mortality rates jumped as aqueducts were left to crumble and sanitation became a distant memory, and without a steady flow of new slaves to work copper, tin and silver mines, and a central authority to assure quality, the coinage was debased and inflation rocketed.
So how did they survive?
Archeology shows us that as the large and sophisticated country villas of the Roman period were abandoned – with their underfloor heating systems, bathhouses, mosaics and frescos – more modest, but probably more practical in reduced circumstances, structures replaced them, often built right over the top of the earlier foundations.
Did families 1500 years ago face similar challenges to the ones we will shortly face? Did they tell themselves “Right, no more Italian wine? Fine, we’ll grow our own vines. The roads are more pothole than paved? Alright, we’ll give up the carriage and just ride or walk instead. The bathhouse, circus and arena are falling down? No problem, we’ll tell stories about a legendary king and his knights in a fabled city to entertain ourselves with folk memories of past glories. And the slave market is non-existant? Well, we need power so let’s give our powersource their freedom and the protection of our walls in exchange for their labour.”