Example - Ancient Roman Empire

Image created by Julie Fowler. Images within (clockwise from top-right): Roman Colosseum by Piranesi, Giovanni Battista, 1756. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain per PD-US-expired. Destruction from The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole, 1836. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain per PD-US-expired. Rome: Ruins of the Forum, Looking towards the Capitol by Canaletto, 1742. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain per PD-US-expired. A View of the Roman Campagna, a Villa and Aqueduct in the Distance by Edward Lear, 1841. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain per PD-US-expired.

We can use the rise and fall of the ancient Roman Empire as an example of a system moving through the phases of the adaptive cycle. The “adaptive cycle” of the Roman Empire centers around the development of the first town that organized on the site of what would become ancient Rome, the center of the Roman Empire, in central Italy (ca. 8th century B.C.E.). This was a time when effort had to be concentrated in creative and innovative ways to accumulate key resources that fulfilled citizen needs, and set the town as a centerpoint for trade and urban development in the coming centuries. This illustrates the “r” (exploitation or growth) phase of the adaptive cycle.

The next phase for the Roman Empire adaptive cycle came gradually, culminating in ancient Rome (the city as the center of the Empire) at the peak of its power and expanse (second century C.E.). This illustrates the “K” or conservation phase, when the system is more stable and rigid and usually means the system is engineered towards maintaining the status quo in social, political, and cultural senses. However, as we see over the course of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, this stability makes the system less adaptable to disturbances. It makes the system more likely to tip into the next phase, the “?” or release phase.

The “?” or release phase, which follows some disturbance to the system, is defined by a collapse of system structure and process. Collapse occurs when systems can’t withstand a disturbance in their present form and collapse, releasing conserved energy accumulated during the “K” phase. The collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century C.E. in response to multiple disturbances (corruption, far-flung extension of its borders, and foreign invasions) illustrates this.

The “α” phase is an especially critical point in the adaptive cycle, because it is defined by system reorganization, which can only occur after a broad scale collapse or release of the structures and processes of a system. In sociopolitical examples (like ancient Rome’s collapse), this is also commonly termed a “vacuum”. When a major player falls or is removed, something else takes its place. This reorganization and rise of the next adaptive cycle can look similar to the pre-collapse adaptive cycle, but it can also look so different from the previous system as to be unrecognizable. The transition of the collapsed Roman Empire to what we now call the Middle Ages period in Europe after the 5th century C.E. illustrates a shift in the overall structures and processes of that part of the world. These new, unrecognizable systems are called  “alternative states”, and are covered elsewhere.