Friday, July 29, 2011

Ruminations About Why Empires Fall

A follow-up (that I actually started first) to Why Empires Last.

Historians have always been interested in why great nations fail and fall. The first historian, whether you regard him as Herodotus or Thucydides, was concerned with the failure of a great nation, Persia and Athens respectively. One of the most famous of all historical works is Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

I remember reading, 30-40 years ago, some of Arnold Toynbee’s massive work about the rise and fall of civilizations (A Study of History). Toynbee saw history as a series of challenges to individual civilizations, and meeting those challenges could make a civilization great. If the challenge was too great then the civilization’s development might be arrested. And while a failure was not inevitable--"civilizations die from suicide, not by murder"– sooner or later most civilizations fail.

This is a compelling notion, but I found as I read Toynbee that there were so many exceptions, so much that had to be explained away because it didn’t fit with his theory, that it just didn’t hang together.

I’ve not read any Oswald Spengler (Decline of the West), who viewed human history and individual nations and empires as having a natural cycle of (inevitable) rise and fall. As I’m not a determinist, I’m not in sympathy with these kinds of “it’s inevitable” theories.

What I’m going to do here is try to discern some of the reasons why great empires have declined, based on years of studying history. Insofar as one of my major interests in game design has been in “sweep of history games”, and insofar as my game Britannia founded a subcategory of sweep of history games (Britannia-like games), this subject is of particular interest to me.

Let’s begin with the longest series of empires, China. China suffered from external enemies just as other empires have. But much of the history of its empires can be explained by a periodic fluctuation. Chinese history is marked by periods of fragmentation and chaos, which tended to retard population growth and frequently reduce population, followed by unification which secured peace and allowed the population to grow, until the population could no longer be supported by the agricultural techniques of the time and the administrative strength of the state. At that point desperate people turned to banditry, which ultimately led to chaos whether purely internal or in conjunction with external enemies, which led to fragmentation, large numbers of deaths as a population plummeted, and the renewal of the cycle.

Good administration combined with the natural resilience of a successful system could delay this cycle for a long time, but sooner or later failures at the top led to collapse. In China those failures involved factionalism and reluctance of elites to support the government. Typically, land became concentrated in the hands of large landowners who were or became exempt from taxes, whether because of family connection, noble birth, distance from central administration, or sheer neglect during periods of factional paralysis at the top. When succession problems arose (as they always do) the elites would not support a strong character who might withdraw some of their privileges. When this happened enough to exhaust reserves, rebellions could overcome the current dynasty. If external forces were strong, they might overcome a dynasty at the end of a cycle, perhaps also overcoming rebels (as did the Manchu).

There have been many hypotheses about why the West Roman Empire failed. Each one needs to take into account that the East Roman Empire lasted another thousand years, for much of that time as the greatest empire in the West. Here are some ideas:

• Poisoning from lead pipes. If so, wouldn’t this have affected the East as well?
• Christianity led to an attitude of acceptance and pacifism
• Failure of the Republic’s ability to rely on the citizen soldier, combined with the empire’s failure to successfully conscript the indigent population of Rome, led to economic failure and a rush away from cities to avoid crushing taxes (which were collected in cities)
• Failure to establish a consistent means of succession led to periods of fragmentation and ultimately the Empire “ran out of luck” when faced with external threats
• The existence and strength of the Empire forced the barbarians to organize together in larger and larger confederations that ultimately threatened the Western Empire, but could not pass the Bosporus to the main parts of the Eastern Empire
• Depopulation of the West by disease. The East was always more populous with many more cities. It was able to withstand the diseases. It wasn’t until well into Justinian’s reign that plague debilitated the East Roman Empire, otherwise Justinian’s schemes to reunite East and West might have succeeded.

So often as I read history, great nations/empires fall because too much wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of the few. In effect, the middle class is squeezed more or less out of existence. Usually the “few” will be great landowners, since during most of history land equals wealth. Even Sparta fell on hard times because of this (only 700 wealthy citizens able to be Spartan elite soldiers), and when king Agis IV tried to redistribute the land in 4500 equal lots the landowners executed him.

Republican Rome was doomed when the attempts of the Gracci to redistribute land failed and they were murdered. In the end, there were too few citizen soldiers supported by modest land holdings, and Rome turned to essentially mercenary armies, landless men who served a popular leader for the prospect of gaining land when they retired. Unfortunately, such men looked to their generals, not to the Senate, when deciding who should govern.

In the Empire, soldiers were well paid, and the empire became a mechanism for paying the army. For lack of an agreed succession method, rebellions and civil wars became endemic, driving up costs. Taxation to support the army became so punishing, according to one view, that peasant farmers no longer went to the cities, where taxes were collected, and large cities could no longer be supported. The peasants effectively sold themselves to large landowners in order to gain protection, both from tax collection and from barbarians and bandits.

After the succession and invasion crises of the third century, with at least 20-25 claimants to emperors in 50 years, well-trained troops were scarce. At the same time, for whatever reasons, it became very difficult to recruit Roman citizens to become professional soldiers, so Rome turned to “barbarians”, Germans and steppe-Iranians (such as Sarmatians and Alans).

As western Rome crumbled, and suffered from the usual difficulties of succession, there were no more “Roman” troops to rely on. Whether the failure of western cities derived from taxes or disease, or both, when cities fail, the money economy tends to fail.

The wealthier and more populous east was able to continue to afford citizens as troops as well as use barbarians, and in the long run with the Theme system Byzantium restored something like the Republic’s reliance on citizen soldiers who were supported by modest lands. This system worked until the Turks conquered much of Asia Minor, the recruiting ground for Roman armies. (That conquest was the result of succession disputes, not of the failure of Byzantine armies.)

In the end, when citizens are no longer willing to defend their nation, defense becomes much more expensive; if there are failures of leadership, or climate changes for the worse (Harappan civilization in India?), or widespread disease further interferes with the economy, then the nation becomes vulnerable to outside forces that, in good times, it would withstand. When things went bad in the third century, the empire was able to survive because the barbarians were not highly organized, and ultimately because of good leadership (Aurelian and Diocletian). In the fifth century the barbarians were more organized, much more familiar with Roman ways of warfare, much more able to defeat “Roman” armies that were no longer highly trained; at the same time, Roman leadership was often poor.

While it’s hard to say how much Christian pacifism or fatalism might have contributed to Rome’s fall–again, the East Romans continued despite being highly contentious sectarian Christians-- Roman stability was helped by the church organization. Even after centralized West Roman administration disappeared, the more or less centralized church administration of bishops and archbishops persisted. (One reason why the Viking Age ended was that the recently-adopted Christian church, through its organized hierarchy, helped Scandinavian kings control their subjects.)

Barbarian empires
What about the empire of the GokTurks, the Mongols, the Huns and so forth?

I’m going to consider the Mongols as a separate case from the rest. Ghenghis Khan and his successors were happy to use the techniques and skills of civilized nations whenever possible, an unusual attitude that made a huge difference. They could conquer civilized and highly populated areas and use local administration to control their conquest. They could take cities because they used siege engineers from the conquered nations. They could contemplate action in vast non-steppe areas because their subordinates had experience of conditions in such areas.

As for other barbarian empires that did not hold large civilized areas, they tended to rest on weak foundations. There was no central administration to help hold the empire together in bad times. Frequently, barbarian empires included many different races and languages, though the steppe cultures otherwise did not differ so much. If there was a succession problem, or a weak leader, the “empire” (really a confederation) could fall apart. When Attila died, his sons could not agree on succession, nor could they cope with the uprising of subject nations (Ostrogoths, Gepids), and within a few years the surviving Huns streamed back into Russia, ultimately to the upper Volga (where they were known as Bulgars).

Attila’s empire, in particular, was largely the work of one man, just as Harsha’s empire was in India, and Charlemagne’s in western Europe. (Think of Napoleon’s empire, too.) When that man left the scene, the empire crumbled. Charlemagne’s took longer because he had built on the work of his predecessors, but in the end it faded away.

The Khazars, being a more or less peaceful and settled group interested in trading rather than raiding, lasted for centuries, despite the shock of an Arab invasion, but finally succumbed to a foolish attack by Kiev followed by pressure from other steppe confederations. Though the story is confused, the Khazars may have converted to Judaism in order to remain neutral between the Muslim Arabs and the Christian Byzantines. This could be a case where religion helped sustain an empire.

Now what about the older empires of the lands east of the Mediterranean Sea?

There were three Assyrian empires, the Old one possibly of a different race than the Middle and Neo versions.

In some ways we can see this short-lived first Assyrian empire as the work of one man. The Old empire was overthrown by Hammurabi’s Babylon, which prevailed in a competition amongst as many as eight or nine states.

The centuries-later Middle Assyrian Empire diminished at the same time that the Western empires of the Hittites and Egyptians fell apart, owing to the Near Eastern “Dark Age”. This may have been caused by external invasion of the “Sea Peoples”, by a series of earthquakes, by the action of the Habiru (displaced and disaffected citizens who turned to banditry), or by a combination of those three.

Centuries passed again before the Neo-Assyrian Empire was the greatest and most feared of the pre-Persian empires of the ancient Near East. They relied on terror, on a more or less professional army, and on strong, ruthless leaders. When the succession was disputed the Empire hit a lull, and at the last, the Medes, Scythians, and Babylonians combined to destroy the Empire utterly in obscure chaos.

Unlike China, which was protected by difficult terrain and the sea, Assyria was “right in the middle of things”. Only strong leaders and a strong military could protect it. Yet the Middle and Neo Assyrian age lasted 700 years and more, longer than most empires.

And here is a another difference: the Assyrians virtually disappeared in all respects, political and cultural, while half the Roman empire survived, and bits of the rest persisted for many years. Rome was first sacked in 410, and again in 455, but the empire was not officially laid to rest until 476 or later, and Roman traditions persisted much longer. Chinese empires disappeared, but new ones arose, sooner or later, to take their place; and the culture always survived. The Assyrians disappeared so throughly that they were largely forgotten. We only know the Assyrians well now because excavated hardened clay tablets reveal so much about the times.

Egypt has a history of Empire, protected by very difficult border access. Unlike most empires, it’s internal problems had to fragment the empire without much influence of internal threats; though there were partial or full foreign conquests in later times, from the Hyksos, and from the Libyans and Nubians/Kush. Those internal problems often involved the priesthood in opposition to the Pharaoh. Gradually the priests came to control much of the land, through centuries of gifts. The priesthood could be richer, and consequently more powerful, than the pharaoh.

Egypt, too, may have been vulnerable to the cycle of population growth and resulting chaos that we see in China. Even more than the Chinese, the Egyptians did not want to leave Egypt (this involved religious reasons, more or less). And like the Chinese, the Egyptians were not seafarers. There was no practical outlet for excess population, nowhere for the discontented to go.

Persia (Iran) and Mesopotamia saw several empires in ancient times. At first these were confined to Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, but beginning with the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus the Great and its threat to Greece, then the Greek Seleucids, later the Parthians succeeded by the Sassanids, and then the Arabs, these empires covered much of the Near and Middle East. The Achaemenid empire was the largest ever to exist, in terms of the percentage of world population that lived within it.

Although some argue that the Achaemenid empire fell to the Greeks because of internal problems, it’s more likely that this was a case of pure foreign conquest, which is rare in the history of the fall of empires. The Persian leader was not a great man, though not clearly incompetent, either. He and his empire had no answer for the Greek phalanx, along with a little Greek good luck (Alexander the Great survived despite being in the thick of battles). Alexander and the Greek way of warfare proved to be too strong for the Persians.

While we might think that language differences would tend to shorten the lives of empires, both the Persian and Assyrian managed just fine. (It must be said the written language tended to be the same throughout the Near East, in Assyrian times.) Rome spread its language throughout the west, though in the east it was only a language of administration, finally abandoned in favor of Greek once west Rome was only a memory.

There is a language division between north and south China, Mandarin and Cantonese, and there have been times when the two areas were separate empires, for example the Jin and Sung before the Mongols attacked.

Indonesia has seen a succession of empires, but always of a maritime nature, much like the short-lived Athenian empire. While the sea normally serves as a barrier, it provided much better communication, in southeast Asia, than was available by land in the jungles and difficult terrain of the Indonesian islands. The sea worked similarly for Athens. But such empires are always terribly vulnerable to naval reverses. The Indian Cholas fatally weakened Srivijaya, and the Spartans weakened Athens. (Not long after the end of the Peloponessian War, Athens was independent once again; but it could never again quite dominate the way it had as the champion of the war against Persia.)

Similarly, the first British Empire fell in part because their sea dominance was successfully contested (e.g. the French kept the British fleet from rescuing Cornwallis in 1780-1). But they retained their stake in what became the crown jewel of the second empire, India, even as they lost the United States.

So, military reverses can lead to loss of empire, but it's much more common for a sea-based empire.

Summary of possibilities:
• Succession problems/poor leadership
• Disease leading to depopulation and economic failure
• Language differences
• Cultural differences
• Lack of a tradition of empire
• Weak administration
• Climate changes
• Military reverses


DHBoggs said...

Long post Lewis - I'll confess it will have to wait till I have a little more time for a close look. I just wanted to mention that if this is a topic you are truly interested in, then let me point you toward the work of archaologists and historical ecologist on this topic.

I'd highly reccomend the works Carl Butzer, for example, as well as Carol Crumley. Also, one of the most highly respected works in the field is the collection of papers edited by Norman Yoffee and George L. Cowgill - "The Collapse of Ancient States and Civilizations"

More later as I have a chance...

DHBoggs said...

Oh, a second quick thought... Archaeologists, generally have questioned the entire notion of collapse as originally posited by historians. These days we talk about the collapse of institutions, not civilizations. As of yet, there are very few known example of a civiliztion collapsing in the classic sense. Instead, what we see are the collapse of certain core institutions and the reordering or not of others. For example: When did Rome Collapse? 405? 1453? 1803? (1803 IIRC is the last date there was an officially recognized Roman emporer - a Hapsburg who was forced to relinquish the title by Napoleon). The answer to the question depends on what is "Rome"; many roman institutions had collapsed prior to 405. 405 marks the end of the Roman senate but not of Roman Law. More importantly, there is one central and powerful institution of the Roman empire that is as powerful as ever - the Roman Church (Catholic).

Lewis said...

Historian Henri Pirenne (IIRC) said many many decades ago that the Roman economy persisted long after the political fall, finally being disrupted by the Arabs. Many have said that the barbarians used Roman administration long after the Roman political institution was gone. So suggesting that the fall of a few institutions does not equal the fall of a civilization is not new.

In the end, historians or archaeologists can only highlight fragments of the whole of life, which is too complicated to fully comprehend even for contemporaries.

I'll look for the papers on Collapse.

The author of Guns, Germs, and Steel has written a book called Collapse that I have not yet read.

DHBoggs said...

Collapse - Jared Diamond. Yes, well familiar with that one. What I find valuable about Jared Diamond is that he brings anthropological theory to the masses as few anthropologists seem to be able to do. Unfortunetely, his presentations are a mixed bag of old and new; both Collapse and Guns Grems and Steel at times rely on theoretical approaches that have been disproven or generally abandoned decades ago. For ex, the idea that Gunpowder weapons were so decisive prior to the 19th century, (it wasn't flintlock muskets that made the difference, it was disciplined military organization) or as with Norse Greenland, there is 0 evidence for mass starvation as he imagines it, instead the demeagraphics indicate a community that slowly dwindled itself out viability. Having said that, his books are still great reads.

Keith418 said...

This is a must-read for those invested in this topic.

Marc G said...

Hi, I posted this over on the BGG mirror, not realizing this was probably a better place. I apologize in advance to those who end up reading it twice.
To me, there may be a much simpler reason (easy to tear apart though) and that is that the trappings of empires are expensive to maintain and they simply cease to be (either peacefully or violently) when their existence is no longer worth the cost.

As you commented, many of the reasons given explicitly for empires falling may not support scrutiny, as such empires at an earlier time, or other empires, may have survived such problems relatively unscathed.

Just a quick thought for a Wednesday!

- Marc