Rome: Hitting the Information Limit

Imperial Rome

Rome was the culmination of the tripartite elite world view that started with writing. Their empire has never been equaled.

Capital came from the various conquests and from tribute. Rome and Romans had an appreciation of science and technology especially when it facilitated war. Romans lived more comfortably than any people until the late 19th century with central heating and indoor plumbing. They had craftspeople and people with leisure to think and dream. They had a diverse population which could lead to synergy and they were tolerant of difference, including religious difference, providing that the people paid appropriate respect to Caesar. Rome was a bustling mercantile metropolis. Demand for wine, and many other commodities, was met by an open market. Aristides described Rome as “the emporium of the world.”[1] Rome had built roads that facilitated long distance trade and were in excellent repair. They were so well built that they were in use long after the empire fell. Henry Moss writes giving a picture of Rome at its best:

    Along these roads passed an ever-increasing traffic, not only of troops and officials, but of traders, merchandise and even tourists. An interchange of goods between the various provinces rapidly developed, which soon reached a scale unprecedented in previous history and not repeated until a few centuries ago. Metals mined in the uplands of Western Europe, hides, fleeces, and livestock from the pastoral districts of Britain, Spain, and the shores of the Black Sea, wine and oil from Provence and Aquitaine, timber, pitch and wax from South Russia and northern Anatolia, dried fruits from Syria, marble from the Aegean coasts, and – most important of all – grain from the wheat-growing districts of North Africa, Egypt, and the Danube valley for the needs of the great cities; all these commodities, under the influence of a highly organized system of transport and marketing, moved freely from one corner of the Empire to the other. [2]

The Romans appreciated innovation and technology and Pliny lists innovators by name honoring their innovations.

Typical Roman technology consisted of concrete, plumbing facilities, cranes, wagon technology, mechanized harvesting machines, domes, roman arches, wine and oil presses, and glass blowing. Romans had invented a steam engine used to open temple doors, an odometer to measure how far a vessel had sailed. [3] Figure 1 shows an idea for paddle wheel ship powered with oxen.[4]

Under construction

Figure 1 from The De Rebus Bellicis – an anonymous 4th or 5th century work on war machines

Yet, despite all these qualities, Rome fell. We shall take up the story of its fall with the crisis of the third century

The Crisis of the Third Century – Information Overload

The Crisis of the Third century (235 and 284 CE) brought important fundamental changes to all the institutions of society. It marks the boundary between the classical world (the world of late antiquity) and the early medieval world.

During this 49 year period the Roman Empire was ruled by roughly 20 to 25 people – many claimed the title at the same time so the exact number depends upon who is doing the counting. Most were prominent generals who were elevated to the imperial power over all or part of the Empire by their own troops, only to lose it by murder, death or defeat – most ruled an average of only 2 to 3 years.

There were three simultaneous crises that brought the Empire to point where it was crumbling and nearly collapsed:

External Invasion: The Empire was beset by external Invasion and raids by Carpians, Goths, Vandals, Visigoths and Alamanni.

Internal civil war: The provinces of Britain, Gaul, and Hispania broke off to form the Gallic Empire, in 258 CE and two years later the eastern provinces of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt became the Palmyrene Empire, so that only the middle Italian-states were left in the middle as the Roman Empire proper.

The Empire was divided by the emerging changes in identification and values from local context to Roman context and vice versa this created confusion between barbarian and Roman and contributed to both external and internal war.

Economic Collapse: The Empire was experiencing runaway hyperinflation caused by years of coinage devaluation. As each of the emperors acceded to power they needed ways to raise money quickly to pay an “accession bonus” to the military. The easiest way to raise money was by debasing the silver in coins with less valuable metals and since there were new emperors every few years this practice led to hyperinflation.

The Emperor Aurelian (ruled 270–275) was able to toward stability. He defeated a number of Rome’s enemies and was able to reunite the Empire. But war had taken its toll. Entire cities had been ruined, the economic system was in beyond repair, the freedom and safety of the roads, was gone. Merchants had to hire guards to safely travel to do business and cities, including Rome, now had thick walls to protect them.

The Empire was ungovernable. It was too large, too complex and its rulers suffered from information overload or in cybernetic terms the variety of the thing to be controlled – the Empire – was greater than the variety of the controller – the Emperor. They were overloaded because of the wide diversity of peoples ruled by different agreements that came into the Empire when the people were conquered. For example, Franks had one treaty with Rome and the Goths had another.

Two emperors – Diocletian and Constantine – recognized the information overload or variety imbalance and took similar steps to deal with it.

Diocletian and Constantine – Introduction


Diocletian ruled as an autocrat appointed by god. He demanded people kneel to him. He expanded the imperial court, reduced the power of the Senate stripping away any remnants of republicanism, and gave himself the title of Dominus et Deus, or “Lord and God”. Figure 2

Under Construction
Figure 2 Image of the profile of the Roman Emperor Diocletian from a coin.

Diocletian persecuted Christians, destroying their scriptures and churches and mandated that all who did not make sacrifice, to Roman gods, be removed from government positions, imprisoned, and finally killed.

He also instituted much needed reforms to ensure the stability viability of the Empire. He split the Empire in two – Eastern and Western – then subdivided the two halves. This created a bureaucratic structure making the Empire more manageable. He created a system of Imperial succession and reorganized the military reintroducing conscription of Roman citizens. He reformed the tax system so that wealthy provinces paid more than poor ones, and introduced wage and price controls aimed at the problem of hyperinflation.

Then, after an illness Diocletian retired to his manor to grow cabbages. According to Arnold Hugh Martin writer of a narrative history of late Rome:

    “It is perhaps Diocletian’s greatest achievement that he reigned twenty-one years and then abdicated voluntarily, and spent the remaining years of his life in peaceful retirement”.[5]

Though Diocletian’s achievements are often overshadowed by Constantine’s his, reform formed the basis of Constantine’s reforms of Roman bureaucracy, economy, civil administration, and the military, extended the life of the Empire for several centuries.


Constantine received his political education in the court of Diocletian. His father – Constantius – was made one of the Caesars by Diocletian and became Augustus of the West after Diocletian (Augustus of the East) and Maximian (Augustus of the West) retired. Constantine was passed over for promotion to Caesar went off to war and, against all odds, had, been spectacularly successful. Constantius, on his death bed, declared his support for raising his son to the rank of full Augustus. Constantine’s troops supported him and declared him the Augustus. The entire proceeding was contrary to Diocletian’s new system of Imperial succession.

Diocletian’s reorganization was falling apart. There were intrigues, alliances forged and broken and jockeying for power amongst those seeking to rule the empire, and finally open civil war.

During this war Constantine had his famous vision. Eusebius, an early Christian biographer explains:

    He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, Conquer by this. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle. [6]

Constantine had his troops put the sign on their shields because of a dream he had that night.

Christians have claimed it was the labarum symbol, whereas, historians dispute whether this design was of Christian or solar pagan origins. Figure 3

Under Construction
Figure 3 The labarum and various sun signs.

Ramsey MacMullen, Constantine’s modern biographer doubtfully comments:

    If the sky writing was witnessed by 40,000 men, the true miracle lies in their unbroken silence about it. [7]

    Regardless, Constantine’s reign was a turning point for the Christian Church. He first passed an edict tolerating Christianity and then actively supported the church convening and presiding over the Council of Nicaea His long rule, conversion, and patronage of the Church redefined the status of Christianity in the Empire. [8]

His support for Christianity was repressive for other groups. He forbade the repair of pagan temples and imposed numerous regulations on the Jews; among which conversion from Christianity to Judaism was outlawed, Jews were not permitted to own Christian slaves, and Jewish entry to Jerusalem was strictly limited.

Constantine’s other great accomplishment was building. He rebuilt Byzantium and made it the capitol of the Eastern Roman Empire. He named it Nova Roma. It was renamed Constantinople after his death.

After the fall of the Western Empire Constantinople remained the capital of the Byzantine Empire where Roman legal and cultural traditions along with Greek and Orthodox Christian elements were continued until it fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.

The last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustus, was deposed and not replaced in 476. making a definjtive end of the Roman Empire in the West.


Constantine and Diocletian before him recognized that the Roman Empire was too big, too diverse, and too unwieldy to govern effectively.

The line between Roman and barbarian had become blurred and that many “New Romans” had mixed allegiances, idiosyncratic law and different ways of paying their taxes since each group had come in under their own treaty with the Empire.

Both Diocletian and Constantine turned to religion and autocracy in an attempt to ‘fix’ the diversity and unify the Empire. And both tried to address the unmanageability of the Empire with organizational, economic, and legislative reform.

Information Limit – Discussion

A major factor in the fall of Rome in the West was the inability of the executive power – the emperor – to govern that which needed to be governed – the empire. The Empire had outgrown its ‘information limit’. It could no longer be governed effectively with the existing information technology and practices. Therefore both Diocletian and Constantine took steps to make the empire governable – to increase the number of people processing administrative information and to decrease the amount of information needed.

They did what modern executives do when a company gets to unwieldly, they decentralized. Though this was a good solution for the crisis of the third century it also meant that the provinces learned how to govern themselves. The provinces and those who ruled them had mixed allegiances already. The benefits of membership of the Roman Empire had decreased and continued to do so and costs had risen and showed no sign of stopping. There was less safety, fewer services and more taxes. Therefore, Rome became less and less important to the provinces and those who governed them.

This localization trend continued over the next two centuries. It became less and less important to be a member of the Roman Empire as the focus of life withdrew to their manors and to their various provincial cities. In addition the traditions of Rome became so intermingled with local traditions that they became indistinguishable. As local rulers became more important the Empire more or less dissolved.

Tools for Dealing with Overload

Both emperors used similar tools to make the Empire more manageable and to their credit their attempts kept the Empire going for another 200 years. They used religion in an attempt to reduce the diversity of the citizenry, autocracy to streamline the decision making process and to rationalize law, and reorganization to permit delegation of administration without ceding too much control to local politicians.


As a consequence of seeking unity and uniformity in religion both Diocletian and Constantine persecuted members of other religious groups

Diocletian persecuted Christians in the support for the old Roman gods. It was the worst persecution since that of Nero. It is likely that Diocletian, like many people who are faced with too much information, and too much diversity, wanted to go back to simpler times. Religion seems to provide a path back to a simpler time. Diocletian simply used the power of his office to enforce his religious understanding. However, he departed from tradition when he based his reign on a mandate from the gods rather than on the military and that he claimed godhead for himself.

Diocletian’s persecution of Christians was not effective either in uniting the Empire or in stamping out Christianity.

Constantine supported Christianity and persecuted Jews and Pagans. His persecution was less severe than that of Diocletian and more effective.

Constantine, appointed Christian clergy to fulfill some government functions related to the welfare of his subjects. By doing so he made the church an agency of the imperial government. This simultaneously co-opted the clergy and changed the nature of Christianity. Christianity went from being a private religion that supported people through persecutions and difficulties to the dominant state religion. As a state religion took on the imperial theology – piety brings strength, strength brings victory. The church both became a secular power and learned how to exercise power as a consequence.


Since much of the problem with the Empire was that it was ungovernable and unwieldy, it made sense that Diocletian wanted to streamline the decision making process.

Before Diocletian, emperors owed their position to the military and the support they had from their troops. Therefore it was possible for the military to withdraw their support and overthrow or replace the emperor.

Diocletian’s claim that he ruled because he was chosen by god, and anointing himself as a god, freed him from dependence on the military and streamlined the administration of the empire. He could promulgate laws without the consent of the senate, the military, or the people. He invented the divine right of kings that became part of kingship in Europe.

It made the reorganization of the Empire possible. He no longer had to consult with the senate. This got rid of a layer of bureaucracy and reduced the complexity of governing.

The body of the law had become unmanageable. Starting with Diocletian all law came from the emperor. Jurists might advise the Emperor but they no longer had any official authority. Olivia Robinson writes about lawmaking in the later empire:

Society had changed, and the constitution had changed…, it is not surprising that the authority of the sources of law had also changed. … The vast output of the classical period needed pruning. Under Diocletian a start was made.[9]

Although Constantine owed his position to the military and to his success in laying siege to Rome, he took advantage of Diocletian’s notion of divine right in his own rule. He just changed the god responsible for anointing him from the old Roman gods – favored by Diocletian – to the Christian god. With this assumption of power based on divine right the various parts of the tripart-elite became clear and defined. Constantine was the executive, the Christian Church the information owner, and the military, now stripped of its power to make and break emperors, needed to work with members of the other two elites.

Constantine appointed clergy to government posts making the church dependent on the executive – on the emperor. This strengthened the church vis a vis the populace and, because churchmen owed their bureaucratic positions to the emperor, weakened it vis a vis the Emperor.


Both Diocletian and Constantine made organizational changes in hopes of dealing with information overload, thereby, insuring greater stability for the Empire.

Diocletian divided the Empire in two and then in four. Each of the four rulers – tetrarchs had an aide called a praetorian prefect. Thirteen dioceses, were created, each ruled by a vicarious, who reported to the praetorian prefect. Diocletian also doubled the number of provinces reducing their size so it was almost impossible for a governor of a province to launch a rebellion. [10]

Constantine changed the organization of the rural areas. The rights of individual peasants were reduced. The coloni – free tenant farmers – became serfs, bound to the land and its owner. Here too, by binding the people to the land they had less opportunity to foment rebellion or to join malcontents.


The attempts of Diocletian and Constantine didn’t ultimately preserve the Empire but it did buy time. Different scholars define the fall differently but most agree that the changes bought the Empire an additional 200 years in the West when the last Western Roman Emperor was overthrown by Odoacer, a Germanic chieftain in 476, and even more time in the East. The Eastern Roman Empire continued until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Economic Crisis or, Why didn’t Rome Invent Capitalism?

Part of the crisis of the later Empire that started Rome’s long decline was economic. Coinage was debased and the tax base was eroding. The rich had passed laws that protected them from taxation while requiring more and more money from the provinces. This economic crisis has prompted some scholars to ask why Rome didn’t invent capitalism which might have helped with the perennial economic crisis.

Later in the book we will talk about the actual beginnings of capitalism and the role of information and information technology. But for now, to help us understand both Rome and capitalism we will look at why capitalism wasn’t invented by the Roman Empire.

When scholars have discussed the beginnings of capitalism they have put forward various reasons why it begins where it does. They cite things like the accumulation of capital, improved transportation, use of technology, or the rebirth of learning. The problem is that all of these various things Rome had in abundance.

To us it would seem natural to simply streamline and automate production and hence invent capitalism of some sort. Aldo Schiavone asked the same question. His answer is multifaceted but it boils down to:

The Romans had built their empire on a foundation of free-owned agricultural production. With greater prosperity the land owners turned to slaves to run their farms and devoted themselves to building an empire. As the Empire grew, the elite that governed Rome gained wealth in the form of booty, tribute, and slaves through conquest. Labor was not done by elites.

Schiavone tells how Roman attitudes changed after the conquest of the Sabines in 290 BCE in response to wealth:

    It was then that for the first time the Romans became aware of wealth, when they conquered this population,” we read in a brief passage from Quintus Fabius Pictor…The parameters and values of the entire aristocratic culture of the first republic… were altered. It began to separate its own self-image and objectives from the needs and hopes of the world of small landholders, who until that time had formed the military and political backbone of the city, but for whom (paradoxically) the very frequency of wars was causing ever greater difficulties. [11]

The new attitude, the awareness of wealth, meant a life of leisure and luxury. So the members of the elite, who certainly had capital at their disposal, did not see any need to put it into production but they saw every reason to continue wars of conquest that would increase their wealth.

Part of the “new consciousness, of the aristocratic class of the Roman world was their awareness of philosophy and the arts. So, they, following the Greek philosophers, divorced their notion of the soul from the materiality of the world. Their idea of freedom changed from the earthy freedom of tilling one’s own soil to the following from Schiavone:

    Freedom consisted of mastering the techniques of social intercourse in the polis: writing and its precepts, music and poetry, rhetoric, self-awareness, travel and the conquest of new lands.[12]

Those who did not have hereditary access to capital, but managed to accumulate it through labor, trading, or capture did not put it into production, instead they bought land so they could eventually become part of the land owning elite who benefited from the frequent wars of conquest but did not need to fight them.

Innovators did not think of making money by putting their innovations into production because they held the same world view. They gave their innovation to their local ruling elite, the military, or, if possible, to the emperor who rewarded them directly. Thus a link was forged between innovation and war but not between innovation and production.

But what about the merchants, trading was rationalized and most commodities were bought and sold in a free market so they ought to have been ready for capitalism? Schiavone writes:

    …In accord with Cicero’s guidelines, the highest aspiration of the most important merchants throughout the empire, from Syria to Spain, was to convert their profits into land and take their place among the ranks of the lower nobility engaged in local careers, whose prestige seemed undisputed. Thus was perpetuated in an insurmountable disjunction between the perpetuation of the “non-industrial” characteristics of production and the stimulus of mercantile growth, which despite its strength was unable to impose its own rationality on the entire system of production. [13]

Schiavone is saying that the logic of investing in production did not become alienated from creating wealth. People who obviously knew how to make money did not generalize and use that knowledge to invest in production instead they used the money generated to “buy” into the lower nobility


In addition, the entire Roman economy relied on slave labor for production. There were some people who were hired labor but these were exceptions. Never again, in the history of the West would an economy of such scale rely so heavily on slave labor as did Rome.


Karl Marx noted that the economic and social relationships of wage labor and slave labor are different even if the oppression is similar. With slave labor it appears that all the labor is “surplus labor” that, in effect there is no cost to the owner for the upkeep of the slave. With wage labor it appears that all the labor is paid labor that there is no cost to the laborer for his/her upkeep.[14] This, at first seems a trivial difference however it has profound impacts.

First, for the slave owner it appears that labor costs are fixed – the cost of the slave and his or her upkeep – and the only way to increase profit is to get more work for the same cost – the cost of labor is not alienated from its use.

On the other hand, for the wage payer it appears that labor costs are flexible so it makes sense to get the maximum effect from as little labor as possible – the costs of labor are alienated from its use.

Therefore, it is obvious to the wage payer that it makes sense to invest in labor saving machinery to reduce labor costs. This is not obvious to the slave owner because the investment in the purchase and keep of the slave remains the same over the life of that slave – there is no reason to invest in labor saving technology.

Second, is the difference in the way the parties under either system see their relationship.

Under slavery, labor is compelled as part of the master, slave relationship which is inherently unequal.

Under wage labor, there is a negotiation of an implied or real contract between the two parties, which is inherently a relationship between social, if not economic, equals.

So, though both wage labor and slave labor may be cruel and exploit the laborer, wage labor has in it the seeds of perceptual equality in a way that slavery does not.

Finally, under different forms of production, a different perception of labor as an activity develops in the whole society.

In a society where the labor to produce goods is done by slaves, labor is perceived as debased – not fit for free people. Because labor is not honorable people avoid thinking about it making it unlikely that they will think of better ways to use labor to produce goods.

In a society where labor to produce goods is done by free people labor is perceived as an honorable pursuit fit for free people. Because labor is honorable people think of better ways to use labor to produce goods.

Therefore, in an economy based on slave labor there are few incentives to use technology and work is not an honorable pursuit done by free people. Therefore, individuals with capital to invest don’t invest in technological innovation or production.


In the vocabulary we have been developing here we could say that the existence of the tripart-elite constrained how success was defined and that definition did not lead to capitalism.

We will see in the next chapter how the perception of money, and labor changed during The Middle Ages.

War Money and Status

The perception of the members of the elite was that war was the only legitimate and honorable source of wealth, therefore war became an addiction. The addictive loop worked like this:

    Financial crisis -> more tribute & slaves needed -> war -> conquest -> more administration -> increased information overload and military cost -> financial crisis -> more wars.

On top of this, the members of the elite of Rome, the wealthiest people in the Empire, the very people who needed continual war to support their life style, passed laws that gave them tax loopholes and exemptions. These laws exacerbated the need for money and conquest and put an additional burden on the small holder, free poor, and the people of the provinces.

Diversity of the Empire

The continual need for wealth made it expedient to make treaties with the barbarians instead of actually fighting them so more and more “barbarians” became Roman and were incorporated into the Empire. There was a far reaching Romanization of the ‘barbarians’ we learn from Patrick Geary:

This deep penetration and transformation is clearly seen in such evidence as the third century funerary inscription erected for a soldier in Pannonia: Francus ego cives, miles romanus in armis (“I am a Frank by nationality, but a Roman soldier under arms”)

Whole tribes of Goths and Franks were incorporated into the military and fought under their own leaders, often against their former compatriots and allies.

Again Geary writes:

    Whenever possible, local tradition was assimilated into or equated with that of Rome. However, one did not need forget one’s pre-Roman family position in earlier tribal or cultural traditions. These could and did become points of pride for provincial notables. Thus, becoming Roman didn’t mean abandoning old ways for new; rather, it meant discovering the old in the new.[15]

The vastness of the Empire required troops to be quartered in the occupied territory for many years. In theory, men on active service weren’t allowed to marry, in practice though, men took “partners” and raised families with “barbarian” women. They built houses, manors, and towns based on the Roman model. Once these men retired they married and stayed in the area. Thus both the soldiers were subject to influence by the people they occupied and the occupied people were influenced by Rome. Further, even the categories of “Roman” and “Barbarian” were more simplifications than reality.

In brief, Roman was … not an ethnic category in any meaningful sense of the term. Barbarian, by contrast, was an invented category, projected onto a variety of peoples with all the prejudices and assumptions of centuries of classical ethnography and imperialism. Nor… were they necessarily mutually exclusive. One might be both a Roman and a barbarian. [16]

In short the weaknesses in the Roman Empire inherent in the tripart-elite form of governance were exacerbated over time and contributed to its fall.


This chapter has taken us to the end of the Roman Empire.

We have established that the Empire had reached its information limit with the crisis of the third century CE. Diocletian and Constantine both addressed the information limit by trying to reduce the information load due to diversity through mandating a state religion. They reduced the administrative information load by autocracy which streamlined the decision making process and allowed for rationalization of laws. They both reorganized the empire to reduce administrative information overload through delegation.

Though these measures bought the Empire another 200 years in the West and kept the Eastern Empire viable until the 15th century they also initiated the conditions for the dissolution of the Empire.

We have also seen that economically the people of the Later Roman Empire did not see production as a viable way to produce wealth. Though there were innovative individuals they did not innovate for production. This was because of the limitations of vision inherent in slave production and the tripart-elite form of governance.

[1] Oliver, J.H.
1953 The Roman Oration of Aristides The Ruling Power, originally, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, N.S. 43. 4. now Published online by Cambridge University Press 13 Feb 2009 doi: 10.1017/S0009840X00166223 URL:

[2] Moss, H. St. L. B.
1969 The Birth of the Middle Ages, Oxford University Press, Oxford UK p.1

[3] Schiavione, A.
2002 The End of the Past: Ancient Rome and the Modern West, translated by Schneider, M.J., Harvard University Press, Cambridge. P.96, 145

[4]De_Rebus_Bellicis from Wikipedia

[5] Jones, A.H.M.,
1986. The Later Roman Empire, 284–602: A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, p. 40.

[6] Eusebius,
1955 Vita Constantini 1.28 from Volume I, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, (Edinburgh: repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955) the digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD. Available from The Medieval Source Book

[7] MacMullen, R.
1969. Constantine New York, Dial Press. P 71-97

[8] Brown, P.
2003. The Rise of Christendom 2nd edition Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, p. 60 – 61

[9] Ibid. p19

[10] Robinson, O.F.
1997. The Sources of Roman Law: Problems and Methods for Ancient Historians, London Routledge. P.17-18

[11] Schiavione p.58-59

[12] Schiavione p. 161

[13] Schiavione p.104

[14] Marx, K.
1867 A Critique of Political Economy (I): The Process of Capitalist Production. Down load from McMaster University Archive for the History of Economic Thought in its series History of Economic Thought Books with number marx1867 Chapter 16 including note 1.

[15] Geary, P.
2003 The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. Princeton University Press, NJ p. 67

[16] , Ibid. p. 63