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What did the Romans ever do for us? How the Covid-19 crisis compares to 410AD
by Prof. Mark K. Smith

In 410AD the Romans left Britain, 367 years after they arrived.

Imagine, if you will, you are one of the British Governors of, say, the northern part of modern-day England, part of the Votadini tribe, and let’s also say you are called Cunedda (Ned to your friends). It’s 410, April 27th about 8am.

You open the blinds (Roman you see…) look across to the Vicus. Empty. They’ve scarpered, vamoosed, beggared off – you are alone once more….

Having run out of market crashes to compare Covid-19 too, I reckon 410 is about right. It’s not 2008, it’s no 2000, it’s not a 1974, or a 1945, nor is it the whole of the 1930s and it ain’t 1918, that was just a royal family settling some old scores. It’s a bit like 1347 but…...

I reckon 410 will do nicely.

So back to Ned. The Romans have been good to you, you’ve got a lovely centrally heated villa with a bath house, your great, great, great, etc grandpa took to wearing a toga (a thick one, it’s cold up north) ages ago, you have lovely soft hands as your slaves do all the actual work, you have the latest tableware, the finest gold cutlery, your lovely wife and three lovely daughters have their hair done by a slave from Gaul who knows all the latest Roman fashions. She even posts it on insta-tablet.

So what happens next…

Now I’m banking on 2020 not being quite like 410, it was after all the beginning of the ‘Dark Ages’ where the beacons of civilisation were kept alight by the Irish and those in the Middle East – who instead of burning ancient literature and smashing their stuff up, kept it, copied it, translated it and stored it for later use.

BUT 2020 will, I think, have an equally seismic impact on civilisation. Zoom (bless their comedy backgrounds) has seen usage rise from 3 million annual meeting participants in 2013, to 30m in 2014, 100m in 2015 and in March - yup last month - they had 200 million meeting participants every single day.[1]


So the aviation industry is banjaxed, oil is so cheap now that the majors are paying people to store it (hmm….. leave it in the ground maybe, where it ruddy well belongs?). Retail has been turned upside down, shaken not stirred, and online deliveries have skyrocketed. Transport networks are mostly empty, what with social distancing on a packed bus or train being somewhat challenging.

And this post Covid-19 world will change us forever – in the US, pre-Covid-19, 3.6% of people worked from home, however next year estimates suggest 25-30% of the workforce will be doing so.[2]

And what of the tech industry?

Well think back to Ned in 410 - what had the Romans done for him? Roads, viaducts, security, education, wine, central heating. But the rest? Pah -- who cares about the latest fashions from Rome – those proto social media influencers can sell their wares to the Vandals (yup, they existed and smashed Rome right up), olive oil can soon revert to good old butter, and who doesn’t like a nice pint of real ale just like the good old days?

So here’s what I think will happen – any tech that makes life tangibly better, be that proactive communications like my company, or AI that optimises energy usage, or works out the best way to tackle say, a virus… they will win. But the ‘uber of’ or ‘marketplace of’ will return to their box – lose their stupid (over) valuations. Frippery in fashion, disposable fashion, or just fashion – will (maybe) return to the things that keep you warm, or dry and last ages. Food will be sourced locally and Kopi Luwak – the world’s most expensive coffee that consists of partially digested coffee cherries, which have been eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet – will return from whence it came. Poor civet.

Now I am not saying that we face the Dark Ages like poor old Ned – but rather I hope that we are entering into the ‘Light Ages’ – where we accept that post Covid-19 we are all in this together, we need to look after the planet better and we will be nicer and better people for it.

And rather than the latter-day Vandals that we had become, we will move into a nicer, better, safer and less angry world – and that, friends, Romans and countrymen, is a lovely thought, isn’t it?





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