By the beginning of the fourth century AD, The Roman Empire resembled Marlon Brando in his waning years; a ghost of its former self, bloated and unstable. The new emperor Diocletian inherited the throne amidst a series of unpopular wars, a wrecked economy and an empire teetering on the edge of ruin.
Also, he was not attractive.
Faced with the burden of having to fix Rome's economic woes, Diocletian decided what the system needed was a little bit of batshit insanity.
What Went Wrong?
Diocletian introduced a new currency that was literally worth less than the material it was printed on. If you're not clear why that's a problem, it'd be like if you found out that a $1 gold coin actually had $2 with of gold in it, and that you could thus double your money by just melting down your money and selling it at a pawn shop.
Note: Dollars don't melt easily.
Of course, if the pawn shop paid you in gold coins, they would be giving you back twice as much gold as you just gave them. By stamping something, say "one dollar," on the coin, it actually lowered the value of the metal by half.
It gets worse. Although his advisers undoubtedly urged him to take a break from fixing Rome for just a little while, Diocletian decided to control inflation by introducing the "Edict on Maximum Prices," which essentially established a price ceiling for every single tradable good in the empire. This meant that merchants could not legally sell their togas, slaves and toga-wearing slaves beyond a certain arbitrary price, even if that meant it cost more to manufacture those things than you'd make selling them.
The sculptor of this piece would have carved a dong, but the cost of
carving the dong was more than the dong-profit would have been.
Yes, he actually implemented a policy that a small child could have spotted the flaws in.
Two things saved the system from total collapse: First, huge chunks of the empire simply refused to follow the laws, figuring they were all part of some huge practical joke the emperor was playing. Second, Diocletian became the first Roman emperor to ever voluntarily leave office, having the wisdom to realize the whole thing really was kicking his ass.
Pop quiz: What is the most ridiculous thing you can think of that could cause an entire civilization to collapse? Did anyone say "gigantic stone heads"? Because that's exactly what caused the near-extinction of the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island more than 350 years ago.
It's a long-term investment.
Recent archaeological records have shown that the population of native peoples on Easter Island was in full swing as recently as 1600. But sometime between then and 1722 (when the island was first discovered by European explorers) the once flourishing society had suddenly collapsed, and its entire population relegated to a tiny starving few.
Nobody could understand how a healthy society of people could vanish in just a hundred years, but the bigger mystery was the disappearance of all the trees. Soil samples reveal that the barren Easter Island was once rich in resources: Robust forests and fertile land that allowed the Rapa Nui civilization to thrive for so long.
What Went Wrong?
They cut it all down.
Wait a second. Didn't ancient peoples live in harmony with their ecosystem? Like the Native Americans, and the blue people from Avatar? They weren't like the greedy Captain Planet villains we have today, right?
Fuck you, Verminous Skumm.
Well, no doubt the inhabitants of Easter Island understood the importance of nature, but something else was far more important to them: carving and moving hundreds of gigantic stone heads around for no reason.
We can only speculate as to what led the Rapa Nui people to convert every red cent of their island bounty into a bunch of dopey-looking rocks. Perhaps they were a status symbol, or an offering unto a god. Maybe they were just determined to keep carving that thing until they got it right. But most scholars seem to agree that the stone heads were far and away the most significant factor in the civilization's collapse.
But just look at their funny hats.
The Rapa Nui usually carved the heads out of huge boulders in quarries, but apparently they didn't just want a quarry full of stone heads. They wanted stone heads that stared imposingly over their rose gardens. After beating their protesting common sense into submission, they decided that apparently the only reliable way to move something that weighed over a hundred tons was to cut down trees and roll the cumbersome things along atop the felled logs. With each new statue completed, down came another chunk of forest until -- after almost 1000 statues were made -- there was literally no tree left alive.
When the forest was gone, the soil eroded and a devastating game of dominoes took over that eventually reduced the Rapa Nui to cannibalism, and inevitable eradication.
Think about that. At some point, a guy actually looked upon the last tree in existence, and made the conscious decision to cut that bastard down. What was he thinking? That surely there were more trees elsewhere on the island? That they would all grow back?
Actually, it just looked silly standing there by itself.
But of course, we know what he was thinking; we still see it today. "Environment? Sure, I care about the environment. I'll be happy to discuss that with you after I cut down this here tree." The big picture is just an abstract idea; you need the tree now. It's so hard for humans to connect the two.
And so the islanders' mortal obsession with long faces, big chins, and little hats made of rock is now forever on display... so that dudes in loud shirts can take pictures of themselves wackily humping the grim stone mouths of heads more famous than the entire society they murdered.
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Check out some more foreign craziness in The Insane Histories of the World's 6 Tiniest Nations and 6 Tiny Nations That Kicked Ass.
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated 2.26.2010) to see Cracked's brand new dong-centric currency.
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