Theoretical Explanations of Two Prominent Pre-Industrial Civilizations: The Mayan Civilization and the Roman Empire from the Lens of Joseph Tainter and Arnold Toynbee
Civilizations have characterized much of human history and have laid the groundwork for several innovations on human organization. As humans have learned to congregate in societies, they have developed their respective ways of living based on their understanding on the natural and social environment enveloping them within a given geographical area. Human organization inevitably comes into play, in which positions of authority are recognized and tasked to maintain and improve the political, economic and religious affairs of societies. As societies become more complex, distinct in composition and politically dominant, they turn into civilizations.
One would initially attribute the growth of civilizations to the way societies develop. Day-to-day interactions within a common area encourage humans in societies to develop common understandings of the world manifested politically, economically and religiously. With relative societal stability, such would become legitimized and institutionalized over time, thus giving societies the incentive to spread their worldviews beyond their recognized common area. It is from those worldviews where societies gain their identities as civilizations. However, there is an understanding that civilizations do not last forever, with their temporal nature explained by various theoretical treatises.
This study seeks to explain how civilizations fall into decay and collapse through the two prominent theories – the societal response models critique by Joseph Tainter and the decay theory by Arnold Toynbee. The usefulness of the theoretical treatises of Tainter and Toynbee would further emerge from their application to the discussion and analysis of two pre-industrial civilizations situated in different parts of the world – the Mayan Civilization in Central American and the Roman Empire in present-day Italy and throughout several parts of Europe. As a conclusion, this study further elaborates the importance of the reasoning provided by Tainter and Toynbee on the downfall of civilizations without discounting the potency of various other theories.
Tainter (1988) arranged various scholarly explanations on the collapse of civilizations into three symbolically named models – the Dinosaur, the Running Train and the House of Cards, all of which he has analyzed and addressed in his critique. The Dinosaur pertains to a civilization whose depletion of resources is not met with immediate solutions due to the refusal of political authorities to adjust in accordance to the depleted amount of those resources. The failure of political authorities to adapt to the changing circumstances resulting from resource depletion prompts the collapse of the civilization they rule, given that their actions are deemed more costly relative to the capacity their depleted resources could avail them (Tainter, 1988).
The Running Train refers to a civilization that exists mainly on continued acquisitions for growth. For instance, a civilization that greatly relies on invading other lands or continuous accumulation of wealth is bound to collapse when particular circumstances interrupt their continuity on doing the foregoing. Capitalism, according to Tainter (1988), belongs to the Runaway Train model, in that its unsustainability rests on the inability of publicly listed companies to counter the pressure to generate growth and resource depletion and lack of innovation affecting both the supply and demand sides of the consumer market, among many others (Tainter, 1988).
The House of Cards relates to a civilization whose complex growth causes instability and its eventual collapse. Large civilizations that involve numerous social organizations, for instance, are most prone to collapse, given the inherent difficulties in the exertion of power by political authorities – too much authority could generate dissent, while relaxed levels of authority could lower legitimacy. Unless social organizations gain due allowance to thrive legitimately towards complementing the functions of political authorities, a civilization wrought in complexity is subject to a House of Cards-style of collapse (Tainter, 1988).
However, Tainter (1988) critiqued on the foregoing societal response models, noting that those imply the distinction of the collapse of civilizations based on the circumstances provided by each of the models, which he believes is erroneous. In response, Tainter (1988) noted that all of the societal response models may coexist in an interconnected fashion to explain the collapse of a civilization, given its complexity. Therefore, Tainter (1988) summarizes his critique on the societal models in four points: (1) the orientation of societies towards problem-solving, (2) the requirement of energy to maintain governing sociopolitical institutions, (3) increasing costs attributed to greater complexity and (4) weakening returns to investing on increasing complexity in sociopolitical institutions done to solve problems in societies. Overall, the four points noted by Tainter (1988) in his critique explains that the collapse of civilizations is best explained with the failure to maintain complexity due to loss of energy required for it. A civilization, therefore, collapses once complexity, productivity, social variations and communications from within and without declines – all of which involving the interplay of the Dinosaur, the Runaway Train and the House of Cards, in one way or another (Tainter, 1988).
Toynbee on Decay Theory
Toynbee (1934-1961) detailed his prominent premise on the life cycle of civilizations through his decay theory, passing through the following stages: genesis, growth, troubled times, universality and breakdown. For Toynbee (1934-1961), when a civilization becomes highly adept at solving problems it has encountered in the past without gaining the capability to solve emerging problems requiring new solutions, it begins breaking down. To that account, Toynbee (1934-1961) rejects the premise that loss of control over natural and social environments premeditates the downfall of a civilization. As long as humans remain capable of solving problems, they remain helpful to sustaining the survival of their civilization. Toynbee (1934-1961) has explained that remaining inflexible in terms of problem-solving causes a civilization its own peril. Lack of creativity in solving new problems by being inflexible towards innovative problem-solving measures could result to the eventual downfall of a civilization. For Toynbee (1934-1961), political authorities gain the tendency to stop being creative in problem-solving once they become overconfident and complacent with the solutions they have used in their previous problems. Without being aware of the ineffectiveness of old solutions to new problems, political authorities begin to usher in an era of decline for their civilization (Toynbee 1934-1961).
Toynbee (1934-1961) refers to political authorities successful at creatively solving problems as the “creative minority”, whereas their conversion towards pride and complacency turns them into the “dominant minority”. The dominant minority, with regard to the foregoing, stops from becoming more creative by reaching the so-called “universal state”. In reaching the universal state, the proletariat grows into two bodies averse to the dominant minority in different ways – the internal proletariat, consisting of people within the civilization that have grown bitter and discontented under the dominant minority, and the external proletariat, consisting of people outside the civilization that have grown envious towards the dominant minority. Together, the internal and external proletariats conspire with one another to make the universal state against the dominant minority of a civilization successful. As the universal state is reached and a new “church” – referring to the union in a social order, is formed, Toynbee (1934-1961) notes that people reach four stages, namely archaism, futurism, detachment and transcendence. People forming a new church, according to Toynbee, start pointing out ideal notions of the past (archaism), conceiving a favorable future (futurism), alienating themselves from the ongoing decay of their civilization (detachment) and responding to such decay with their own ideas. Decay, as Toynbee (1934-1961) views, happens when a civilization starts to overemphasize on its problem-solving measures that are initially creative but eventually becoming stagnant and impractical.
Two Prominent Pre-Industrial Civilizations: The Mayan Civilization and the Roman Empire
The Mayan Civilization
One of the earliest civilizations deemed highly advanced for its age, the Mayan Civilization is best known for its numerous temples and cities discovered within Central American rainforests. The vast expanse of the remnants of the Mayan Civilization located within the jungle tells several things of its demise, which is apparently caused by nature itself. Humankind within the Mayan Civilization struggled to come to terms with nature, with their ultimate diminishment taking place a little over three millennia since its establishment sometime around 2000 BC (Haug, 2003; Morris, 2013; Tainter, 1988; Wright, 2004).
The political complexity of the Mayan Civilization grew rapidly following its establishment, with its most dominant manifestation being the numerous massive architectural works people therein have erected. Cities during the Mayan Civilization gained massive power through constant construction of public works, temples, palaces and other buildings. Within the Mayan Civilization, people began creating their distinct forms of art manifested through sculptures, paintings and landscaping creations. The collapse of Mayan cities took place after 900 AD, given the unsustainability of their habitats, yet many people from the Mayan Civilization carried on to exist until Spanish conquerors came during the 1500s, who killed many of them in conquests (Haug, 2003; Morris, 2013; Tainter, 1988; Wright, 2004).
The Roman Empire
The Roman Empire emerged from the Roman Republic with the rise of the first Emperor, Augustus, in 27 BC. Supremacy in military affairs and vast wealth in resources characterize much of the Roman Empire, which once covered almost all of Europe and covered parts of Northern Africa. Yet, the very expanse reached by the Roman Empire in its zenith ultimately caused its eventual decline; its eastern spread throughout the meeting points of Europe and Asia entailed its division into two politically distinct areas – the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 BC, while the Eastern “Byzantine” Roman Empire lasted until the 1400s (Antonio, 1979; Baynes, 1943; Heather, 1995; Thiel, 1986).
The starting point of the Roman Empire was in the present-day city of Rome in Italy. The proximity of the Italian Peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea enabled the Roman Empire to dominate within the area, leading to the capture of Northern African territories and Mediterranean islands. The Roman Empire also occupied parts of Europe northwest of Italy, most notably France. Under Augustus and his early successors, the Roman Empire existed under a period of relative peace in its expansion called the Pax Romana. Yet, a series of plagues and invasions coming from barbarian forces came to destroy the peace in the Roman Empire. Economic maladies soon followed and further weakened the Roman Empire, with the legitimacy of its political authorities having gone through increasing threats due to the deepening dissatisfaction of the people. Losses to barbarians and the eventual division of the Roman Empire caused the downfall of its classical seat in 476 AD. The Byzantine Empire in the east continued for around a thousand years, albeit not as dominant as the west (Antonio, 1979; Baynes, 1943; Heather, 1995; Thiel, 1986).
Tainter and Toynbee Vis-à-vis The Mayan Civilization and the Roman Empire
The Mayan Civilization. Applying the critique of Tainter (1988) on societal response models, one could say that the decline of the Mayan Civilization involved both the Running Train and Dinosaur models of collapse. Although the Mayan Civilization lasted for more than three millennia, its peak was followed by rapid downfalls because the people therein failed to apply measures for sustainability that would have enabled them to survive amidst harsh environmental conditions in Central American rainforests. The construction of too much public works and structures by people in the Mayan Civilization conflicted with the geographical and climatic features of Central America. Thus, the Mayan Civilization fell from its peak, Running Train-style; its survival up to the 1500s ushered its ultimate Dinosaur collapse in the face of Spanish conquerors. Overall, the analogous application of the Running Train and Dinosaur models of collapse explains how the Mayan Civilization has lost its energy to maintain the complexity of its political, economic and social structures due to environmental forces and the arrival of Spanish conquerors (Tainter, 1988).
Applying the decay theory of Toynbee (1934-1961) in analyzing the fall of the Mayan Civilization requires a closer look at its ultimate collapse in the hands of Spanish conquerors. Integrity was crucial to the leadership of Mayan political authorities as they maintained their civilization amidst its fall from grace before 1000 AD. While the survival of the people in the Mayan Civilization carried on until the 1500s, arriving Spanish conquerors were able to eliminate them completely through a series of conquests and takeovers. The inevitable result was the deaths of Mayan people, effectuated by false promises and deception by Spanish conquerors of Mayan political authorities – one that has formed somewhat a new “church” within the Mayan Civilization given the influence of the Spanish conquerors, who resemble the external proletariat in this case. The internal proletariat – Mayans who believed in the lies of Spanish conquerors, suffered greatly alongside the downfall of their entire civilization (Toynbee, 1934-1961).
The Roman Empire. Tainter (1988) could perhaps explain the downfall of the Roman Empire under his analogy by pointing out its sheer expanse – its territorial acquisitions at its peak has covered almost all of Europe, alongside parts of Northern Africa. Whereas the Roman Empire had a military that where undoubtedly skilled in combat, the lack of efficient means of centrally administering its numerous units throughout conquered territories has caused it to incur defeats under the barbarians, who vehemently rejected Roman imperialism over their lands. Moreover, political instability attributed to the end of Pax Romana and the spread of different plagues that killed several Romans slowly deteriorated the power of the Roman Empire. By around 305 AD, the division of the Roman Empire into the Western Roman Empire (based in Rome) and the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire (based in Constantinople) further involved greater political instability. The Western Roman Empire eventually lost all energy to maintain its complexity by 476 AD, while the Byzantine Empire went on towards the 1400s before being usurped by the Ottomans. Overall, the Roman Empire fell down both in the manner of the Running Train (continuous territorial acquisitions) and House of Cards (political instability) (Tainter, 1988).
In the case of Toynbee (1934-1961), the Roman Empire could perhaps find sensible explanations for its downfall from the fact that it eventually brown down towards a schism between the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. The Western Roman Empire, having collapsed early due to barbarian attacks and plagues, met its downfall earlier with the rise of Constantinople in the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Constantine ushered in the creation of a new “church” as he reformed much of the Roman Empire, with its split into two coming from the fact that he established his residence in Constantinople (then called Byzantium), which became known as the “new Rome”. While Emperor Constantine was by no means a divisive figure in the Roman Empire, his transfer of the capital from Rome to Constantinople, following the earlier move of his predecessor Emperor Diocletian to divide the empire into western and eastern halves, concentrated much of the power that supported the Byzantine Empire towards the 1400s, leaving the classical west to its deterioration and downfall in 476 AD. The external proletariat that is the Ottoman invaders eventually caused the Byzantine Empire to fall in the 1400s (Toynbee 1934-1961).
The downfall of civilizations, as premised by both Tainter (1988) and Toynbee (1934-1961) can be best explained through the failure of the people to maintain the complexity of their given civilization, in turn leading to political and social divisions coming from internal and external sources, alongside environmental factors. One could derive lessons from the Mayan Civilization and the Roman Empire – two preindustrial civilizations that seemed indestructible from the onset, and prevent the present globalized civilization from meeting any unwanted forms of demise. Tainter (1988) and Toynbee (1934-1961), in that case, adequately proved that maintaining complexity against political, social and environmental problems protects a civilization from collapsing – a concern that could definitely attract more improvements from future studies.
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