Gibraltar: Civilisation And The Roman Effect

Last Updated: 30 November 2016
Article by Nigel Feetham

The Greeks were extremely advanced in mathematics, philosophy, engineering, astrology and medicine. For over 150 years Hellenic ideas and culture spread right across southwest Asia and northeast Africa after the death of Alexander the Great when his empire was divided among his generals. The library at Alexandria stood as testimony of man's innate hunger for learning. Then came the Roman Empire and with it a civilisation that lasted for over 500 years and a Roman system of law that is still in evidence today. When the Empire crumbled much of the fabulous infrastructure the Romans had built disappeared and although Europe did not fall into darkness overnight, it gradually did in the period known as the Dark Ages. Much Greek and Roman learning was lost forever. Some survived or was only rediscovered during the Italian Renaissance over a thousand years later. Unfortunately for us they say history tends to repeat itself. This has less to do with abstract notions of science or religion than to the fact that human behaviour (based on known factors) is quite predictive.

In a previous article I have postulated that if more information and knowledge had survived throughout the ages, it is possible (if not probable) that modern technology would have been invented hundreds of years before our time. A modern day comparison of what it might have felt like to be Roman could well be this. Let us suppose that gradually all global electronic systems were to fail (internet, electricity or computers), public libraries were destroyed, natural resources no longer available in any large quantities (hitting factories, transport or commercial airlines), and that social order collapsed (riots and looting). An apocalyptic scenario indeed but civilisation as we know it today would change dramatically. Whatever knowledge is then lost might take many years to rediscover. True, mankind would still retain the ability to harness the power of wind and sunlight provided social order could be restored quickly but the effects on global commerce, local industries and the financial system would be immense and make this much harder. We would probably see the end of large nations in favour of smaller regional states and regional conflicts caused by population migration or the grab for whatever resources are available (if not for reasons of ideology or religion). This is as near a comparison as we will get to the collapse of Roman civilisation.

Of course, this modern day comparison is misplaced to the extent that advanced centres of knowledge would be much more likely to survive in modern times than would have been the case in the Roman era, especially given the level of knowledge now available. Nevertheless, without many of the things which we currently take for granted in every day life, we would be living in a very different world (for example, if private and public transport ceased). Clearly, we all know that this will never happen in exactly this way. It would take a huge global catastrophe (or series of large events) for that to be so, probably climate driven or pandemic. Other scenarios are, however, quite plausible, such as the decline of civilisation from the spread of regional wars for reasons of ideology and religion or conflicts for natural resources. But assuming for the sake of academic debate that our base scenario did occur, an interesting question is, how long would it take for civilisation to be restored to the current level? We could expect that with the remnants of whatever civilisation flourished would come new inventions and inevitably new ideas (political and otherwise). But unlike 1,500 years ago, today's scientific knowledge and technical know-how cannot be eradicated to the same extent because it is far more accessible than it was back then due to modern levels of education and the huge number of printed materials available. The challenge would be to keep that knowledge alive from one generation to the next and to create the social (including law and order) and economic (including trade and commerce) conditions that underpin civilisation.

It does not necessarily follow, however, that once know-how exists that technological development will advance quickly. One stark illustration is steam power. Although the ancient Greeks harnessed the technology of steam power, it was only developed on an industrial scale in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The use of steam engines for transport by land (train) and sea (steamboat) became the backbone for the industrial revolution but the power of steam was already known to the Greeks and Romans many hundreds of years earlier. Indeed, we know that Heron of Alexandria in the first century invented numerous apparatus for personal amusement that used the power of heated air and water. The engineering for the steam engine could therefore have been invented at least several hundred years before if the social and economic conditions had existed for it. Why then was it not? Because neither the Greeks nor Romans had any interest in the development of industrial scale commerce. They had no need for it. Cheap labour was also abundant through an over-supply of slaves from conquered lands and continuous wars to expand the Empire or defend its borders. Unfortunately, slavery, in one form or another, existed for the next eighteen hundreds years. As economic and social conditions deteriorated following the collapse of the Roman Empire, things then became more localised. Large cities (previously under the protection of Roman garrisons) declined and towns emerged in the provinces supported by local agriculture and produce. Roman roads became unsafe for travel and borders collapsed. Pirates took to the seas in large numbers and commercial activity in the Mediterranean was only seen again in the Middle Ages when regional powers offered merchants maritime protection. The collapse of Roman Imperial power inevitably brought with it the collapse of Roman globalisation.

Some scientists have tried to mathematically model why societies collapse but in my view one cannot reduce this to an equation, especially when historians and social scientists have attempted to do precisely that in large volumes of books and studies. The best that can be done I think is identify factors that create the conditions for societies to collapse and pre-empt times of crisis using computers to capture the massive amounts of data available (internet news, Facebook, Twitter) that evidence the possibility of social unrest, regime change, regional conflicts and shocks to the financial system, and model the risk of medium and large scale events happening. Of course, when large scale events do happen they might not do so over a matter of days or even months. This capability actually exists already and as more sophisticated technology and algorithms are developed we might one day be able to make some confident predictions of possible future events and outcomes.

Absent a global catastrophe, such as climate change or pandemic, we know that the fall of civilisation is never going to occur in a single event. It is far more likely, as in the case of corporate/state bankruptcy, to manifest itself gradually over many years and then suddenly (witness the financial crisis in modern day Greece). The challenge is to maintain levels of social order (including, most importantly, the rule of law) that are a prerequisite for civilisation and technological advancement.

Postscript to the Article: In many of my writings I try to bring together my fascination for history (including why things happened the way they did and what lessons can be learnt) with my professional and academic interest in risk and commerce. Interestingly, the ancient Greeks were aware of the concept of risk and reward. Herodotus, the Greek historian widely known as the 'father of history', coined the phrase "Great deeds are usually wrought at great risks".

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Nigel Feetham
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions