Sir John Glubb’s The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival is an essay well worth reading. It can be found in its entirety here. Empires rise and fall. It appears that we are in the early stages of the downfall period of America’s current reign. One does not choose which time period they are a part of but that doesn’t mean we cannot learn, prepare, and still thrive even during a downfall. There is always a place for optimism. And that is yet another one of Christianity’s great gifts; it always provides hope.
I Learning from history
‘The only thing we learn from history,’ it has been said, ‘is that men never learn from history’, a sweeping generalisation perhaps, but one which the chaos in the world today goes far to confirm. What then can be the reason why, in a society which claims to probe every problem, the bases of history are still so completely unknown?
Several reasons for the futility of our historical studies may be suggested.
First, our historical work is limited to short periods—the history of our own country, or that of some past age which, for some reason, we hold in respect.
Second, even within these short periods, the slant we give to our narrative is governed by our own vanity rather than by objectivity. If we are considering the history of our own country, we write at length of the periods when our ancestors were prosperous and victorious, but we pass quickly over their shortcomings or their defeats. Our people are represented as patriotic heroes, their enemies as grasping imperialists, or subversive rebels. In other words, our national histories are propaganda, not well- balanced investigations.
Third, in the sphere of world history, we study certain short, usually unconnected, periods, which fashion at certain epochs has made popular. Greece 500 years before Christ, and the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire are cases in point. The intervals between the ‘great periods’ are neglected. Recently Greece and Rome have become largely discredited, and history tends to become increasingly and parochial history of our own countries.
To derive any useful instruction from history, it seems to me essential first of all to grasp the principle that history, to be meaningful, must be the history of the human race. For history is a continuous process, gradually developing, changing and turning back, but in general moving forward in a single mighty stream. Any useful lessons to be derived must be learned by the study of the whole flow of human development, not by the selection of short periods here and there in one country or another.
Every age and culture is derived from its predecessors, adds some contribution of its own, and passes it on to its successors. If we boycott various periods of history, the origins of the new cultures which succeeded them cannot be explained.
Physical science has expanded its knowledge by building on the work of its predecessors, and by making millions of careful experiments, the results of which are meticulously recorded. Such methods have not yet been employed in the study of world history. Our piecemeal historical work is still mainly dominated by emotion and prejudice.
II The lives of empires
If we desire to ascertain the laws which govern the rise and fall of empires, the obvious course is to investigate the imperial experiments recorded in history, and to endeavour to deduce from them any lessons which seem to be applicable to them all.
The word ‘empire’, by association with the British Empire, is visualised by some people as an organisation consisting of a home- country in Europe and ‘colonies’ in other continents. In this essay, the term ‘empire’ is used to signify a great power, often called today a superpower. Most of the empires in history have been large landblocks, almost without overseas possessions.
We possess a considerable amount of information on many empires recorded in history, and of their vicissitudes and the lengths of their lives, for example:
This list calls for certain comments.
(1) The present writer is exploring the facts, not trying to prove anything. The dates given are largely arbitrary. Empires do not usually begin or end on a certain date. There is normally a gradual period of expansion and then a period of decline. The resemblance in the duration of these great powers may be queried. Human affairs are subject to many chances, and it is not to be expected that they could be calculated with mathematical accuracy.
(2) Nevertheless, it is suggested that there is sufficient resemblance between the life periods of these different empires to justify further study.
(3) The division of Rome into two periods may be thought unwarranted. The first, or republican, period dates from the time when Rome became the mistress of Italy, and ends with the accession of Augustus. The imperial period extends from the accession of Augustus to the death of Marcus Aurelius. It is true that the empire survived nominally for more than a century after this date, but it did so in constant confusion, rebellions, civil wars and barbarian invasions.
(4) Not all empires endured for their full life- span. The Babylonian Empire of Nebucha- dnezzar, for example, was overthrown by Cyrus, after a life duration of only some seventy-four years.
(5) An interesting deduction from the figures seems to be that the duration of empires does not depend on the speed of travel or the nature of weapons. The Assyrians marched on foot and fought with spears and bow and arrows. The British used artillery, railways and ocean-going ships. Yet the two empires lasted for approximately the same periods.
There is a tendency nowadays to say that this is the jet-age, and consequently there is nothing for us to learn from past empires. Such an attitude seems to be erroneous.
(6) It is tempting to compare the lives of empires with those of human beings. We may choose a figure and say that the average life of a human being is seventy years. Not all human beings live exactly seventy years. Some die in infancy, others are killed in accidents in middle life, some survive to the age of eighty or ninety. Nevertheless, in spite of such exceptions, we are justified in saying that seventy years is a fair estimate of the average person’s expectation of life.
(7) We may perhaps at this stage be allowed to draw certain conclusions:
(a) In spite of the accidents of fortune, and the apparent circumstances of the human race at different epochs, the periods of duration of different empires at varied epochs show a remarkable similarity.
(b) Immense changes in the technology of transport or in methods of warfare do not seem to affect the life-expectation of an empire.
(c) The changes in the technology of trans- port and of war have, however, affected the shape of empires. The Assyrians, marching on foot, could only conquer their neigh- bours, who were accessible by land—the Medes, the Babylonians, the Persians and the Egyptians.
The British, making use of ocean-going ships, conquered many countries and sub- continents, which were accessible to them by water—North America, India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand—but they never succeeded in conquering their neighbours, France, Germany and Spain.
But, although the shapes of the Assyrian and the British Empires were entirely different, both lasted about the same length of time.