Justplainbill's Weblog

August 27, 2017

The Fate of Empires, by Sir John Glubb, thanks to Butch [c]

THE FATE OF EMPIRES
and
SEARCH FOR SURVIVAL
Sir John Glubb
John Bagot Glubb was born in 1897, his father being a regular officer in the Royal Engineers.
At the age of four he left England for Mauritius, where his father was posted for a three-year
tour of duty. At the age of ten he was sent to school for a year in Switzerland. These youthful
travels may have opened his mind to the outside world at an early age.
He entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in September 1914, and was
commissioned in the Royal Engineers in April 1915. He served throughout the first World War
in France and Belgium, being wounded three times and awarded the Military Cross. In 1920 he
volunteered for service in Iraq, as a regular officer, but in 1926 resigned his commission and
accepted an administrative post under the Iraq Government.
In 1930, however, he signed a contract to serve the Transjordan Government (now Jordan).
From 1939 to 1956 he commanded the famous Jordan Arab Legion, which was in reality the
Jordan Army. Since his retirement he has published seventeen books, chiefly on the Middle
East, and has lectured widely in Britain, the United States and Europe.
William Blackwood & Sons Ltd
32 Thistle Street
Edinburgh EH1 1HA
Scotland
© J. B. G. Ltd, 1976, 1977
ISBN 0 85158 127 7
Printed at the Press of the Publisher
Introduction
As we pass through life, we learn by
experience. We look back on our behaviour
when we were young and think how foolish
we were. In the same way our family, our
community and our town endeavour to avoid
the mistakes made by our predecessors.
The experiences of the human race have
been recorded, in more or less detail, for
some four thousand years. If we attempt to
study such a period of time in as many
countries as possible, we seem to discover
the same patterns constantly repeated under
widely differing conditions of climate,
culture and religion. Surely, we ask
ourselves, if we studied calmly and
impartially the history of human institutions
and development over these four thousand
years, should we not reach conclusions
which would assist to solve our problems
today? For everything that is occurring
around us has happened again and again
before.
No such conception ever appears to have
entered into the minds of our historians. In
general, historical teaching in schools is
limited to this small island. We endlessly
mull over the Tudors and the Stewarts, the
Battle of Crecy, and Guy Fawkes. Perhaps
this narrowness is due to our examination
system, which necessitates the careful
definition of a syllabus which all children
must observe.
I remember once visiting a school for
mentally handicapped children. “Our
children do not have to take examinations,”
the headmaster told me,” and so we are able
to teach them things which will be really
useful to them in life.”
However this may be, the thesis which I
wish to propound is that priceless lessons
could be learned if the history of the past
four thousand years could be thoroughly and
impartially studied. In these two articles,
which first appeared in Blackwood’s
Magazine, I have attempted briefly to sketch
some of the kinds of lessons which I believe
we could learn. My plea is that history
should be the history of the human race, not
of one small country or period.
The Fate of Empires
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 wellbalanced
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 the 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.
_______________________________
Sir John Glubb, better known as Glubb
Pasha, was born in 1897, and served in
France in the First World War from 1915 to
1918. In 1926 he left the regular army to
serve the Iraq Government. From 1939 to
1956, he commanded the famous Jordan
Arab Legion. Since retirement, he has
published sixteen books, chiefly on the
Middle East, and has lectured widely.
The Fate of Empires
2
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 homecountry
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:
The nation Dates of rise and fall Duration in years
Assyria 859-612 B.C. 247
Persia 538-330 B.C. 208
(Cyrus and his descendants)
Greece 331-100 B.C. 231
(Alexander and his successors)
Roman Republic 260-27 B.C. 233
Roman Empire 27 B.C.-A.D. 180 207
Arab Empire A.D. 634-880 246
Mameluke Empire 1250-1517 267
Ottoman Empire 1320-1570 250
Spain 1500-1750 250
Romanov Russia 1682-1916 234
Britain 1700-1950 250
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
The Fate of Empires
3
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 lifespan.
The Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar,
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 transport
and of war have, however, affected the
shape of empires. The Assyrians, marching
on foot, could only conquer their neighbours,
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 subcontinents,
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.
III The human yardstick
What then, we may ask, can have been the
factor which caused such an extraordinary
similarity in the duration of empires, under
such diverse conditions, and such utterly
different technological achievements?
The Fate of Empires
4
One of the very few units of measurement
which have not seriously changed since the
Assyrians is the human ‘generation’, a period
of about twenty-five years. Thus a period of
250 years would represent about ten generations
of people. A closer examination of the
characteristics of the rise and fall of great
nations may emphasise the possible significance
of the sequence of generations.
Let us then attempt to examine the stages
in the lives of such powerful nations.
IV Stage one. The outburst
Again and again in history we find a small
nation, treated as insignificant by its
contemporaries, suddenly emerging from its
homeland and overrunning large areas of the
world. Prior to Philip (359-336 B.C.), Macedon
had been an insignificant state to the
north of Greece. Persia was the great power
of the time, completely dominating the area
from Eastern Europe to India. Yet by 323
B.C., thirty-six years after the accession of
Philip, the Persian Empire had ceased to
exist, and the Macedonian Empire extended
from the Danube to India, including Egypt.
This amazing expansion may perhaps he
attributed to the genius of Alexander the
Great, but this cannot have been the sole
reason; for although after his death everything
went wrong—the Macedonian generals
fought one another and established rival
empires—Macedonian pre-eminence survived
for 231 years.
In the year A.D. 600, the world was divided
between two superpower groups as it has
been for the past fifty years between Soviet
Russia and the West. The two powers were
the eastern Roman Empire and the Persian
Empire. The Arabs were then the despised
and backward inhabitants of the Arabian
Peninsula. They consisted chiefly of wandering
tribes, and had no government, no
constitution and no army. Syria, Palestine,
Egypt and North Africa were Roman
provinces, Iraq was part of Persia.
The Prophet Mohammed preached in
Arabia from A.D. 613 to 632, when he died.
In 633, the Arabs burst out of their desert
peninsula, and simultaneously attacked the
two super-powers. Within twenty years, the
Persian Empire had ceased to exist. Seventy
years after the death of the Prophet, the
Arabs had established an empire extending
from the Atlantic to the plains of Northern
India and the frontiers of China.
At the beginning of the thirteenth century,
the Mongols were a group of savage tribes in
the steppes of Mongolia. In 1211, Genghis
Khan invaded China. By 1253, the Mongols
had established an empire extending from
Asia Minor to the China Sea, one of the
largest empires the world has ever known.
The Arabs ruled the greater part of Spain
for 780 years, from 712 A.D. to 1492. (780
years back in British history would take us to
1196 and King Richard Coeur de Lion.)
During these eight centuries, there had been
no Spanish nation, the petty kings of Aragon
and Castile alone holding on in the
mountains.
The agreement between Ferdinand and
Isabella and Christopher Columbus was
signed immediately after the fall of Granada,
the last Arab kingdom in Spain, in 1492.
Within fifty years, Cortez had conquered
Mexico, and Spain was the world’s greatest
empire.
Examples of the sudden outbursts by
which empires are born could be multiplied
indefinitely. These random illustrations must
suffice.
The Fate of Empires
5
V Characteristics of the outburst
These sudden outbursts are usually
characterised by an extraordinary display of
energy and courage. The new conquerors are
normally poor, hardy and enterprising and
above all aggressive. The decaying empires
which they overthrow are wealthy but
defensive-minded. In the time of Roman
greatness, the legions used to dig a ditch
round their camps at night to avoid surprise.
But the ditches were mere earthworks, and
between them wide spaces were left through
which the Romans could counter-attack. But
as Rome grew older, the earthworks became
high walls, through which access was given
only by narrow gates. Counterattacks were
no longer possible. The legions were now
passive defenders.
But the new nation is not only distinguished
by victory in battle, but by unresting
enterprise in every field. Men hack their way
through jungles, climb mountains, or brave
the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans in tiny
cockle-shells. The Arabs crossed the Straits
of Gibraltar in A.D. 711 with 12,000 men,
defeated a Gothic army of more than twice
their strength, marched straight over 250
miles of unknown enemy territory and seized
the Gothic capital of Toledo. At the same
stage in British history, Captain Cook discovered
Australia. Fearless initiative characterises
such periods.
Other peculiarities of the period of the
conquering pioneers are their readiness to
improvise and experiment. Untrammelled by
traditions, they will turn anything available
to their purpose. If one method fails, they try
something else. Uninhibited by textbooks or
book learning, action is their solution to
every problem.
Poor, hardy, often half-starved and ill-clad,
they abound in courage, energy and
initiative, overcome every obstacle and
always seem to be in control of the situation.
VI The causes of race outbursts
The modern instinct is to seek a reason for
everything, and to doubt the veracity of a
statement for which a reason cannot be
found. So many examples can be given of the
sudden eruption of an obscure race into a
nation of conquerors that the truth of the
phenomenon cannot be held to be doubtful.
To assign a cause is more difficult. Perhaps
the easiest explanation is to assume that the
poor and obscure race is tempted by the
wealth of the ancient civilisation, and there
would undoubtedly appear to be an element
of greed for loot in barbarian invasions.
Such a motivation may be divided into two
classes. The first is mere loot, plunder and
rape, as, for example, in the case of Attila
and the Huns, who ravaged a great part of
Europe from A.D. 450 to 453. However, when
Attila died in the latter year, his empire fell
apart and his tribes returned to Eastern
Europe.
Many of the barbarians who founded
dynasties in Western Europe on the ruins of
the Roman Empire, however, did so out of
admiration for Roman civilisation, and
themselves aspired to become Romans.
VII A providential turnover?
Whatever causes may be given for the
overthrow of great civilisations by
barbarians, we can sense certain resulting
benefits. Every race on earth has distinctive
characteristics. Some have been distinguished
in philosophy, some in administration,
some in romance, poetry or religion, some in
The Fate of Empires
6
their legal system. During the pre-eminence
of each culture, its distinctive characteristics
are carried by it far and wide across the
world.
If the same nation were to retain its
domination indefinitely, its peculiar qualities
would permanently characterise the whole
human race. Under the system of empires
each lasting for 250 years, the sovereign race
has time to spread its particular virtues far
and wide. Then, however, another people,
with entirely different peculiarities, takes its
place, and its virtues and accomplishments
are likewise disseminated. By this system,
each of the innumerable races of the world
enjoys a period of greatness, during which its
peculiar qualities are placed at the service of
mankind.
To those who believe in the existence of
God, as the Ruler and Director of human
affairs, such a system may appear as a
manifestation of divine wisdom, tending
towards the slow and ultimate perfection of
humanity.
VIII The course of empire
The first stage of the life of a great nation,
therefore, after its outburst, is a period of
amazing initiative, and almost incredible
enterprise, courage and hardihood. These
qualities, often in a very short time, produce
a new and formidable nation. These early
victories, however, are won chiefly by
reckless bravery and daring initiative.
The ancient civilisation thus attacked will
have defended itself by its sophisticated
weapons, and by its military organisation
and discipline. The barbarians quickly
appreciate the advantages of these military
methods and adopt them. As a result, the
second stage of expansion of the new empire
consists of more organised, disciplined and
professional campaigns.
In other fields, the daring initiative of the
original conquerors is maintained—in
geographical exploration, for example:
pioneering new countries, penetrating new
forests, climbing unexplored mountains, and
sailing uncharted seas. The new nation is
confident, optimistic and perhaps contemptuous
of the ‘decadent’ races which it has
subjugated.
The methods employed tend to be practical
and experimental, both in government and
in warfare, for they are not tied by centuries
of tradition, as happens in ancient empires.
Moreover, the leaders are free to use their
own improvisations, not having studied
politics or tactics in schools or in textbooks.
IX U.S.A. in the stage of the pioneers
In the case of the United States of America,
the pioneering period did not consist of a
barbarian conquest of an effete civilisation,
but of the conquest of barbarian peoples.
Thus, viewed from the outside, every
example seems to be different. But viewed
from the standpoint of the great nation,
every example seems to be similar.
The United States arose suddenly as a new
nation, and its period of pioneering was
spent in the conquest of a vast continent, not
an ancient empire. Yet the subsequent life
history of the United States has followed the
standard pattern which we shall attempt to
trace—the periods of the pioneers, of
commerce, of affluence, of intellectualism
and of decadence.
X Commercial expansion
The conquest of vast areas of land and
their subjection to one government
The Fate of Empires
7
automatically acts as a stimulant to commerce.
Both merchants and goods can be
exchanged over considerable distances.
Moreover, if the empire be an extensive one,
it will include a great variety of climates,
producing extremely varied products, which
the different areas will wish to exchange with
one another.
The speed of modern methods of transportation
tends to create in us the impresssion
that far-flung commerce is a modern
development, but this is not the case. Objects
made in Ireland, Scandinavia and China
have been found in the graves or the ruins of
the Middle East, dating from 1,000 years
before Christ. The means of transport were
slower, but, when a great empire was in
control, commerce was freed from the
innumerable shackles imposed upon it today
by passports, import permits, customs,
boycotts and political interference.
The Roman Empire extended from Britain
to Syria and Egypt, a distance, in a direct
line, of perhaps 2,700 miles. A Roman
official, transferred from Britain to Syria,
might spend six months on the journey. Yet,
throughout the whole distance, he would be
travelling in the same country, with the same
official language, the same laws, the same
currency and the same administrative
system. Today, some twenty independent
countries separate Britain from Syria, each
with its own government, its own laws,
politics, customs fees, passports and
currencies, making commercial co-operation
almost impossible. And this process of
disintegration is still continuing. Even within
the small areas of the modern European
nations, provincial movements demanding
secession or devolution tend further to
splinter the continent.
The present fashion for ‘independence’ has
produced great numbers of tiny states in the
world, some of them consisting of only one
city or of a small island. This system is an
insuperable obstacle to trade and cooperation.
The present European Economic
Community is an attempt to secure commercial
cooperation among small independent
states over a large area, but the plan meets
with many difficulties, due to the mutual
jealousies of so many nations.
Even savage and militaristic empires
promoted commerce, whether or not they
intended to do so. The Mongols were some of
the most brutal military conquerors in
history, massacring the entire populations of
cities. Yet, in the thirteenth century, when
their empire extended from Peking to
Hungary, the caravan trade between China
and Europe achieved a remarkable degree of
prosperity—the whole journey was in the
territory of one government.
In the eighth and ninth centuries, the
caliphs of Baghdad achieved fabulous wealth
owing to the immense extent of their
territories, which constituted a single trade
bloc. The empire of the caliphs is now
divided into some twenty-five separate
‘nations’.
XI The pros and cons of empires
In discussing the life-story of the typical
empire, we have digressed into a discussion
of whether empires are useful or injurious to
mankind. We seem to have discovered that
empires have certain advantages, particularly
in the field of commerce, and in the
establishment of peace and security in vast
areas of the globe. Perhaps we should also
include the spread of varied cultures to many
races. The present infatuation for indepenThe
Fate of Empires
8
dence for ever smaller and smaller units will
eventually doubtless be succeeded by new
international empires.
The present attempts to create a European
community may be regarded as a practical
endeavour to constitute a new super-power,
in spite of the fragmentation resulting from
the craze for independence. If it succeeds,
some of the local independencies will have to
be sacrificed. If it fails, the same result may
be attained by military conquest, or by the
partition of Europe between rival superpowers.
The inescapable conclusion seems,
however, to be that larger territorial units are
a benefit to commerce and to public stability,
whether the broader territory be achieved by
voluntary association or by military action.
XII Sea power
One of the more benevolent ways in which
a super-power can promote both peace and
commerce is by its command of the sea.
From Waterloo to 1914, the British Navy
commanded the seas of the world. Britain
grew rich, but she also made the Seas safe for
the commerce of all nations, and prevented
major wars for 100 years.
Curiously enough, the question of sea
power was never clearly distinguished, in
British politics during the last fifty years,
from the question of imperial rule over other
countries. In fact, the two subjects are
entirely distinct. Sea power does not offend
small countries, as does military occupation.
If Britain had maintained her navy, with a
few naval bases overseas in isolated islands,
and had given independence to colonies
which asked for it, the world might well be a
more stable place today. In fact, however, the
navy was swept away in the popular outcry
against imperialism.
XIII The Age of Commerce
Let us now, however, return to the lifestory
of our typical empire. We have already
considered the age of outburst, when a littleregarded
people suddenly bursts on to the
world stage with a wild courage and energy.
Let us call it the Age of the Pioneers.
Then we saw that these new conquerors
acquired the sophisticated weapons of the
old empires, and adopted their regular
systems of military organisation and
training. A great period of military expansion
ensued, which we may call the Age of
Conquests. The conquests resulted in the
acquisition of vast territories under one
government, thereby automatically giving
rise to commercial prosperity. We may call
this the Age of Commerce.
The Age of Conquests, of course, overlaps
the Age of Commerce. The proud military
traditions still hold sway and the great
armies guard the frontiers, but gradually the
desire to make money seems to gain hold of
the public. During the military period, glory
and honour were the principal objects of
ambition. To the merchant, such ideas are
but empty words, which add nothing to the
bank balance.
XIV Art and luxury
The wealth which seems, almost without
effort, to pour into the country enables the
commercial classes to grow immensely rich.
How to spend all this money becomes a
problem to the wealthy business community.
Art, architecture and luxury find rich
patrons. Splendid municipal buildings and
wide streets lend dignity and beauty to the
wealthy areas of great cities. The rich
merchants build themselves palaces, and
money is invested in communications,
The Fate of Empires
9
highways, bridges, railways or hotels,
according to the varied patterns of the ages.
The first half of the Age of Commerce
appears to be peculiarly splendid. The
ancient virtues of courage, patriotism and
devotion to duty are still in evidence. The
nation is proud, united and full of selfconfidence.
Boys are still required, first of all,
to be manly—to ride, to shoot straight and to
tell the truth. (It is remarkable what
emphasis is placed, at this stage, on the
manly virtue of truthfulness, for lying is
cowardice—the fear of facing up to the
situation.)
Boys’ schools are intentionally rough. Frugal
eating, hard living, breaking the ice to
have a bath and similar customs are aimed at
producing a strong, hardy and fearless breed
of men. Duty is the word constantly drummed
into the heads of young people.
The Age of Commerce is also marked by
great enterprise in the exploration for new
forms of wealth. Daring initiative is shown in
the search for profitable enterprises in far
corners of the earth, perpetuating to some
degree the adventurous courage of the Age of
Conquests.
XV The Age of Affluence
There does not appear to be any doubt that
money is the agent which causes the decline
of this strong, brave and self-confident
people. The decline in courage, enterprise
and a sense of duty is, however, gradual.
The first direction in which wealth injures
the nation is a moral one. Money replaces
honour and adventure as the objective of the
best young men. Moreover, men do not
normally seek to make money for their
country or their community, but for themselves.
Gradually, and almost imperceptibly,
the Age of Affluence silences the voice of
duty. The object of the young and the
ambitious is no longer fame, honour or
service, but cash.
Education undergoes the same gradual
transformation. No longer do schools aim at
producing brave patriots ready to serve their
country. Parents and students alike seek the
educational qualifications which will
command the highest salaries. The Arab
moralist, Ghazali (1058-1111), complains in
these very same words of the lowering of
objectives in the declining Arab world of his
time. Students, he says, no longer attend
college to acquire learning and virtue, but to
obtain those qualifications which will enable
them to grow rich. The same situation is
everywhere evident among us in the West
today.
XVI High Noon
That which we may call the High Noon of
the nation covers the period of transition
from the Age of Conquests to the Age of
Affluence: the age of Augustus in Rome, that
of Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad, of Sulaiman
the Magnificent in the Ottoman Empire, or
of Queen Victoria in Britain. Perhaps we
might add the age of Woodrow Wilson in the
United States.
All these periods reveal the same
characteristics. The immense wealth accumulated
in the nation dazzles the onlookers.
Enough of the ancient virtues of courage,
energy and patriotism survive to enable the
state successfully to defend its frontiers. But,
beneath the surface, greed for money is
gradually replacing duty and public service.
Indeed the change might be summarised as
being from service to selfishness.
The Fate of Empires
10
XVII Defensiveness
Another outward change which invariably
marks the transition from the Age of
Conquests to the Age of Affluence is the
spread of defensiveness. The nation, immensely
rich, is no longer interested in glory or
duty, but is only anxious to retain its wealth
and its luxury. It is a period of defensiveness,
from the Great Wall of China, to Hadrian’s
Wall on the Scottish Border, to the Maginot
Line in France in 1939.
Money being in better supply than courage,
subsidies instead of weapons are employed
to buy off enemies. To justify this departure
from ancient tradition, the human mind
easily devises its own justification. Military
readiness, or aggressiveness, is denounced as
primitive and immoral. Civilised peoples are
too proud to fight. The conquest of one
nation by another is declared to be immoral.
Empires are wicked. This intellectual device
enables us to suppress our feeling of
inferiority, when we read of the heroism of
our ancestors, and then ruefully contemplate
our position today. ‘It is not that we are
afraid to fight,’ we say, ‘but we should
consider it immoral.’ This even enables us to
assume an attitude of moral superiority.
The weakness of pacifism is that there are
still many peoples in the world who are
aggressive. Nations who proclaim themselves
unwilling to fight are liable to be conquered
by peoples in the stage of militarism—
perhaps even to see themselves incorporated
into some new empire, with the status of
mere provinces or colonies.
When to be prepared to use force and when
to give way is a perpetual human problem,
which can only be solved, as best we can, in
each successive situation as it arises. In fact,
however, history seems to indicate that great
nations do not normally disarm from
motives of conscience, but owing to the
weakening of a sense of duty in the citizens,
and the increase in selfishness and the desire
for wealth and ease.
XVIII The Age of Intellect
We have now, perhaps arbitrarily, divided
the life-story of our great nation into four
ages. The Age of the Pioneers (or the
Outburst), the Age of Conquests, the Age of
Commerce, and the Age of Affluence. The
great wealth of the nation is no longer
needed to supply the mere necessities, or
even the luxuries of life. Ample funds are
available also for the pursuit of knowledge.
The merchant princes of the Age of
Commerce seek fame and praise, not only by
endowing works of art or patronising music
and literature. They also found and endow
colleges and universities. It is remarkable
with what regularity this phase follows on
that of wealth, in empire after empire,
divided by many centuries.
In the eleventh century, the former Arab
Empire, then in complete political decline,
was ruled by the Seljuk sultan, Malik Shah.
The Arabs, no longer soldiers, were still the
intellectual leaders of the world. During the
reign of Malik Shah, the building of
universities and colleges became a passion.
Whereas a small number of universities in
the great cities had sufficed the years of Arab
glory, now a university sprang up in every
town.
In our own lifetime, we have witnessed the
same phenomenon in the U.S.A. and Britain.
When these nations were at the height of
their glory, Harvard, Yale, Oxford and
Cambridge seemed to meet their needs. Now
almost every city has its university.
The Fate of Empires
11
The ambition of the young, once engaged
in the pursuit of adventure and military
glory, and then in the desire for the
accumulation of wealth, now turns to the
acquisition of academic honours.
It is useful here to take note that almost all
the pursuits followed with such passion
throughout the ages were in themselves
good. The manly cult of hardihood, frankness
and truthfulness, which characterised
the Age of Conquests, produced many really
splendid heroes.
The opening up of natural resources, and
the peaceful accumulation of wealth, which
marked the age of commercialism, appeared
to introduce new triumphs in civilisation, in
culture and in the arts. In the same way, the
vast expansion of the field of knowledge
achieved by the Age of Intellect seemed to
mark a new high-water mark of human
progress. We cannot say that any of these
changes were ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
The striking features in the pageant of
empire are:
(a) the extraordinary exactitude with which
these stages have followed one another, in
empire after empire, over centuries or even
millennia; and
(b) the fact that the successive changes
seem to represent mere changes in popular
fashion—new fads and fancies which sweep
away public opinion without logical reason.
At first, popular enthusiasm is devoted to
military glory, then to the accumulation of
wealth and later to the acquisition of
academic fame.
Why could not all these legitimate, and
indeed beneficent, activities be carried on
simultaneously, each of them in due moderation?
Yet this never seemed to happen.
XIX The effects of intellectualism
There are so many things in human life
which are not dreamt of in our popular
philosophy. The spread of knowledge seems
to be the most beneficial of human activities,
and yet every period of decline is characterrised
by this expansion of intellectual
activity. ‘All the Athenians and strangers
which were there spent their time in nothing
else, but either to tell or to hear some new
thing’ is the description given in the Acts of
the Apostles of the decline of Greek
intellectualism.
The Age of Intellect is accompanied by
surprising advances in natural science. In the
ninth century, for example, in the age of
Mamun, the Arabs measured the circumference
of the earth with remarkable
accuracy. Seven centuries were to pass
before Western Europe discovered that the
world was not flat. Less than fifty years after
the amazing scientific discoveries under
Mamun, the Arab Empire collapsed. Wonderful
and beneficent as was the progress of
science, it did not save the empire from
chaos.
The full flowering of Arab and Persian
intellectualism did not occur until after their
imperial and political collapse. Thereafter
the intellectuals attained fresh triumphs in
the academic field, but politically they
became the abject servants of the often
illiterate rulers. When the Mongols conquered
Persia in the thirteenth century, they
were themselves entirely uneducated and
were obliged to depend wholly on native
Persian officials to administer the country
and to collect the revenue. They retained as
wazeer, or Prime Minister, one Rashid al-
Din, a historian of international repute. Yet
The Fate of Empires
12
the Prime Minister, when speaking to the
Mongol II Khan, was obliged to remain
throughout the interview on his knees. At
state banquets, the Prime Minister stood
behind the Khan’s seat to wait upon him. If
the Khan were in a good mood, he
occasionally passed his wazeer a piece of
food over his shoulder.
As in the case of the Athenians,
intellectualism leads to discussion, debate
and argument, such as is typical of the
Western nations today. Debates in elected
assemblies or local committees, in articles in
the Press or in interviews on television—
endless and incessant talking.
Men are interminably different, and
intellectual arguments rarely lead to
agreement. Thus public affairs drift from bad
to worse, amid an unceasing cacophony of
argument. But this constant dedication to
discussion seems to destroy the power of
action. Amid a Babel of talk, the ship drifts
on to the rocks.
XX The inadequacy of intellect
Perhaps the most dangerous by-product of
the Age of Intellect is the unconscious
growth of the idea that the human brain can
solve the problems of the world. Even on the
low level of practical affairs this is patently
untrue. Any small human activity, the local
bowls club or the ladies’ luncheon club,
requires for its survival a measure of selfsacrifice
and service on the part of the
members. In a wider national sphere, the
survival of the nation depends basically on
the loyalty and self-sacrifice of the citizens.
The impression that the situation can be
saved by mental cleverness, without unselfishness
or human self-dedication, can only
lead to collapse.
Thus we see that the cultivation of the
human intellect seems to be a magnificent
ideal, but only on condition that it does not
weaken unselfishness and human dedication
to service. Yet this, judging by historical
precedent, seems to be exactly what it does
do. Perhaps it is not the intellectualism
which destroys the spirit of self-sacrifice—the
least we can say is that the two,
intellectualism and the loss of a sense of
duty, appear simultaneously in the life-story
of the nation.
Indeed it often appears in individuals, that
the head and the heart are natural rivals. The
brilliant but cynical intellectual appears at
the opposite end of the spectrum from the
emotional self-sacrifice of the hero or the
martyr. Yet there are times when the perhaps
unsophisticated self-dedication of the hero is
more essential than the sarcasms of the
clever.
XXI Civil dissensions
Another remarkable and unexpected
symptom of national decline is the intensification
of internal political hatreds. One
would have expected that, when the survival
of the nation became precarious, political
factions would drop their rivalry and stand
shoulder-to-shoulder to save their country.
In the fourteenth century, the weakening
empire of Byzantium was threatened, and
indeed dominated, by the Ottoman Turks.
The situation was so serious that one would
have expected every subject of Byzantium to
abandon his personal interests and to stand
with his compatriots in a last desperate
attempt to save the country. The reverse
occurred. The Byzantines spent the last fifty
years of their history in fighting one another
in repeated civil wars, until the Ottomans
The Fate of Empires
13
moved in and administered the coup de
grâce.
Britain has been governed by an elected
parliament for many centuries. In former
years, however, the rival parties observed
many unwritten laws. Neither party wished
to eliminate the other. All the members
referred to one another as honourable
gentlemen. But such courtesies have now
lapsed. Booing, shouting and loud noises
have undermined the dignity of the House,
and angry exchanges are more frequent. We
are fortunate if these rivalries are fought out
in Parliament, but sometimes such hatreds
are carried into the streets, or into industry
in the form of strikes, demonstrations,
boycotts and similar activities. True to the
normal course followed by nations in
decline, internal differences are not
reconciled in an attempt to save the nation.
On the contrary, internal rivalries become
more acute, as the nation becomes weaker.
XXII The influx of foreigners
One of the oft-repeated phenomena of
great empires is the influx of foreigners to
the capital city. Roman historians often
complain of the number of Asians and
Africans in Rome. Baghdad, in its prime in
the ninth century, was international in its
population—Persians, Turks, Arabs, Armenians,
Egyptians, Africans and Greeks
mingled in its streets.
In London today, Cypriots, Greeks,
Italians, Russians, Africans, Germans and
Indians jostle one another on the buses and
in the underground, so that it sometimes
seems difficult to find any British. The same
applies to New York, perhaps even more so.
This problem does not consist in any
inferiority of one race as compared with
another, but simply in the differences
between them.
In the age of the first outburst and the
subsequent Age of Conquests, the race is
normally ethnically more or less
homogeneous. This state of affairs facilitates
a feeling of solidarity and comradeship. But
in the Ages of Commerce and Affluence,
every type of foreigner floods into the great
city, the streets of which are reputed to be
paved with gold. As, in most cases, this great
city is also the capital of the empire, the
cosmopolitan crowd at the seat of empire
exercises a political influence greatly in
excess of its relative numbers.
Second- or third-generation foreign
immigrants may appear outwardly to be
entirely assimilated, but they often constitute
a weakness in two directions. First, their
basic human nature often differs from that of
the original imperial stock. If the earlier
imperial race was stubborn and slowmoving,
the immigrants might come from
more emotional races, thereby introducing
cracks and schisms into the national policies,
even if all were equally loyal.
Second, while the nation is still affluent, all
the diverse races may appear equally loyal.
But in an acute emergency, the immigrants
will often be less willing to sacrifice their
lives and their property than will be the
original descendants of the founder race.
Third, the immigrants are liable to form
communities of their own, protecting
primarily their own interests, and only in the
second degree that of the nation as a whole.
Fourth, many of the foreign immigrants
will probably belong to races originally
conquered by and absorbed into the empire.
While the empire is enjoying its High Noon
of prosperity, all these people are proud and
The Fate of Empires
14
glad to be imperial citizens. But when decline
sets in, it is extraordinary how the memory
of ancient wars, perhaps centuries before, is
suddenly revived, and local or provincial
movements appear demanding secession or
independence. Some day this phenomenon
will doubtless appear in the now apparently
monolithic and authoritarian Soviet empire.
It is amazing for how long such provincial
sentiments can survive.
Historical examples of this phenomenon
are scarcely needed. The idle and captious
Roman mob, with its endless appetite for
free distributions of food—bread and
games—is notorious, and utterly different
from that stern Roman spirit which we
associate with the wars of the early republic.
In Baghdad, in the golden days of Harun
al-Rashid, Arabs were a minority in the
imperial capital. Istanbul, in the great days
of Ottoman rule, was peopled by inhabitants
remarkably few of whom were descendants
of Turkish conquerors. In New York,
descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers are few
and far between.
This interesting phenomenon is largely
limited to great cities. The original conquering
race is often to be found in relative
purity in rural districts and on far frontiers.
It is the wealth of the great cities which
draws the immigrants. As, with the growth of
industry, cities nowadays achieve an ever
greater preponderance over the countryside,
so will the influence of foreigners increasingly
dominate old empires.
Once more it may be emphasised that I do
not wish to convey the impression that
immigrants are inferior to older stocks. They
are just different, and they thus tend to
introduce cracks and divisions.
XXIII Frivolity
As the nation declines in power and
wealth, a universal pessimism gradually
pervades the people, and itself hastens the
decline. There is nothing succeeds like
success, and, in the Ages of Conquest and
Commerce, the nation was carried
triumphantly onwards on the wave of its own
self-confidence. Republican Rome was
repeatedly on the verge of extinction—in 390
B.C. when the Gauls sacked the city and in
216 B.C. after the Battle of Cannae. But no
disasters could shake the resolution of the
early Romans. Yet, in the later stages of
Roman decline, the whole empire was deeply
pessimistic, thereby sapping its own
resolution.
Frivolity is the frequent companion of
pessimism. Let us eat, drink and be merry,
for tomorrow we die. The resemblance
between various declining nations in this
respect is truly surprising. The Roman mob,
we have seen, demanded free meals and
public games. Gladiatorial shows, chariot
races and athletic events were their passion.
In the Byzantine Empire the rivalries of the
Greens and the Blues in the hippodrome
attained the importance of a major crisis.
Judging by the time and space allotted to
them in the Press and television, football and
baseball are the activities which today chiefly
interest the public in Britain and the United
States respectively.
The heroes of declining nations are always
the same—the athlete, the singer or the
actor. The word ‘celebrity’ today is used to
designate a comedian or a football player,
not a statesman, a general, or a literary
genius.
The Fate of Empires
15
XXIV The Arab decline
In the first half of the ninth century,
Baghdad enjoyed its High Noon as the
greatest and the richest city in the world. In
861, however, the reigning Khalif (caliph),
Mutawakkil, was murdered by his Turkish
mercenaries, who set up a military dictatorship,
which lasted for some thirty years.
During this period the empire fell apart, the
various dominions and provinces each
assuming virtual independence and seeking
its own interests. Baghdad, lately the capital
of a vast empire, found its authority limited
to Iraq alone.
The works of the contemporary historians
of Baghdad in the early tenth century are still
available. They deeply deplored the
degeneracy of the times in which they lived,
emphasising particularly the indifference to
religion, the increasing materialism and the
laxity of sexual morals. They lamented also
the corruption of the officials of the
government and the fact that politicians
always seemed to amass large fortunes while
they were in office.
The historians commented bitterly on the
extraordinary influence acquired by popular
singers over young people, resulting in a
decline in sexual morality. The ‘pop’ singers
of Baghdad accompanied their erotic songs
on the lute, an instrument resembling the
modern guitar. In the second half of the
tenth century, as a result, much obscene
sexual language came increasingly into use,
such as would not have been tolerated in an
earlier age. Several khalifs issued orders
banning ‘pop’ singers from the capital, but
within a few years they always returned.
An increase in the influence of women in
public life has often been associated with national
decline. The later Romans complained
that, although Rome ruled the world, women
ruled Rome. In the tenth century, a similar
tendency was observable in the Arab Empire,
the women demanding admission to the
professions hitherto monopolised by men.
‘What,’ wrote the contemporary historian,
Ibn Bessam, ‘have the professions of clerk,
tax-collector or preacher to do with women?
These occupations have always been limited
to men alone.’ Many women practised law,
while others obtained posts as university
professors. There was an agitation for the
appointment of female judges, which,
however, does not appear to have succeeded.
Soon after this period, government and
public order collapsed, and foreign invaders
overran the country. The resulting increase
in confusion and violence made it unsafe for
women to move unescorted in the streets,
with the result that this feminist movement
collapsed.
The disorders following the military takeover
in 861, and the loss of the empire, had
played havoc with the economy. At such a
moment, it might have been expected that
everyone would redouble their efforts to save
the country from bankruptcy, but nothing of
the kind occurred. Instead, at this moment of
declining trade and financial stringency, the
people of Baghdad introduced a five-day
week.
When I first read these contemporary
descriptions of tenth-century Baghdad, I
could scarcely believe my eyes. I told myself
that this must be a joke! The descriptions
might have been taken out of The Times
today. The resemblance of all the details was
especially breathtaking—the break-up of the
empire, the abandonment of sexual morality,
the ‘pop’ singers with their guitars, the entry
of women into the professions, the five-day
The Fate of Empires
16
week. I would not venture to attempt an
explanation! There are so many mysteries
about human life which are far beyond our
comprehension.
XXV Political ideology
Today we attach immense importance to
the ideology of our internal politics. The
Press and public media in the U.S.A. and
Britain pour incessant scorn on any country
the political institutions of which differ in
any manner from our own idea of
democracy. It is, therefore, interesting to
note that the life-expectation of a great
nation does not appear to be in any way
affected by the nature of its institutions.
Past empires show almost every possible
variation of political system, but all go
through the same procedure from the Age of
Pioneers through Conquest, Commerce,
Affluence to decline and collapse.
XXVI The Mameluke Empire
The empire of the Mamelukes of Egypt
provides a case in point, for it was one of the
most exotic ever to be recorded in history. It
is also exceptional in that it began on one
fixed day and ended on another, leaving no
doubt of its precise duration, which was 267
years.
In the first part of the thirteenth century,
Egypt and Syria were ruled by the Ayoubid
sultans, the descendants of the family of
Saladin. Their army consisted of Mamelukes,
slaves imported as boys from the Steppes
and trained as professional soldiers. On 1st
May 1250, the Mamelukes mutinied,
murdered Turan Shah, the Ayoubid sultan,
and became the rulers of his empire.
The first fifty years of the Mameluke
Empire were marked by desperate fighting
with the hitherto invincible Mongols, the
descendants of Genghis Khan, who invaded
Syria. By defeating the Mongols and driving
them out of Syria, the Mamelukes saved the
Mediterranean from the terrible fate which
had overtaken Persia. In 1291, the Mamelukes
captured Acre, and put an end to the
Crusades.
From 1309 to 1341, the Mameluke Empire
was everywhere victorious and possessed the
finest army in the world. For the ensuing
hundred years the wealth of the Mameluke
Empire was fabulous, slowly leading to
luxury, the relaxation of discipline and to
decline, with ever more bitter internal
political rivalries. Finally the empire collapsed
in 1517, as the result of military defeat
by the Ottomans.
The Mameluke government appears to us
utterly illogical and fantastic. The ruling
class was entirely recruited from young boys,
born in what is now Southern Russia. Every
one of them was enlisted as a private soldier.
Even the sultans had begun life as private
soldiers and had risen from the ranks. Yet
this extraordinary political system resulted
in an empire which passed through all the
normal stages of conquest, commercialism,
affluence and decline and which lasted
approximately the usual period of time.
XXVII The master race
The people of the great nations of the past
seem normally to have imagined that their
pre-eminence would last for ever. Rome
appeared to its citizens to be destined to be
for all time the mistress of the world. The
Abbasid Khalifs of Baghdad declared that
God had appointed them to rule mankind
until the day of judgement. Seventy years
ago, many people in Britain believed that the
The Fate of Empires
17
empire would endure for ever. Although
Hitler failed to achieve his objective, he
declared that Germany would rule the world
for a thousand years. That sentiments like
these could be publicly expressed without
evoking derision shows that, in all ages, the
regular rise and fall of great nations has
passed unperceived. The simplest statistics
prove the steady rotation of one nation after
another at regular intervals.
The belief that their nation would rule the
world forever, naturally encouraged the
citizens of the leading nation of any period to
attribute their pre-eminence to hereditary
virtues. They carried in their blood, they
believed, qualities which constituted them a
race of supermen, an illusion which inclined
them to the employment of cheap foreign
labour (or slaves) to perform menial tasks
and to engage foreign mercenaries to fight
their battles or to sail their ships.
These poorer peoples were only too happy
to migrate to the wealthy cities of the empire,
and thereby, as we have seen, to adulterate
the close-knit, homogeneous character of the
conquering race. The latter unconsciously
assumed that they would always be the
leaders of mankind, relaxed their energies,
and spent an increasing part of their time in
leisure, amusement or sport.
In recent years, the idea has spread widely
in the West that ‘progress’ will be automatic
without effort, that everyone will continue to
grow richer and richer and that every year
will show a ‘rise in the standard of living’. We
have not drawn from history the obvious
conclusion that material success is the result
of courage, endurance and hard work—a
conclusion nevertheless obvious from the
history of the meteoric rise of our own
ancestors. This self-assurance of its own
superiority seems to go hand-in-hand with
the luxury resulting from wealth, in
undermining the character of the dominant
race.
XXVIII The welfare state
When the welfare state was first introduced
in Britain, it was hailed as a new high-water
mark in the history of human development.
History, however, seems to suggest that the
age of decline of a great nation is often a
period which shows a tendency to
philanthropy and to sympathy for other
races. This phase may not be contradictory
to the feeling described in the previous
paragraph, that the dominant race has the
right to rule the world. For the citizens of the
great nation enjoy the role of Lady Bountiful.
As long as it retains its status of leadership,
the imperial people are glad to be generous,
even if slightly condescending. The rights of
citizenship are generously bestowed on every
race, even those formerly subject, and the
equality of mankind is proclaimed. The
Roman Empire passed through this phase,
when equal citizenship was thrown open to
all peoples, such provincials even becoming
senators and emperors.
The Arab Empire of Baghdad was equally,
perhaps even more, generous. During the
Age of Conquests, pure-bred Arabs had
constituted a ruling class, but in the ninth
century the empire was completely
cosmopolitan.
State assistance to the young and the poor
was equally generous. University students
received government grants to cover their
expenses while they were receiving higher
education. The State likewise offered free
medical treatment to the poor. The first free
public hospital was opened in Baghdad in
The Fate of Empires
18
the reign of Harun al-Rashid (786-809), and
under his son, Mamun, free public hospitals
sprang up all over the Arab world from Spain
to what is now Pakistan.
The impression that it will always be
automatically rich causes the declining
empire to spend lavishly on its own
benevolence, until such time as the economy
collapses, the universities are closed and the
hospitals fall into ruin.
It may perhaps be incorrect to picture the
welfare state as the high-water mark of
human attainment. It may merely prove to
be one more regular milestone in the lifestory
of an ageing and decrepit empire.
XXIX Religion
Historians of periods of decadence often
refer to a decline in religion, but, if we
extend our investigation over a period
covering the Assyrians (859-612 B.C.) to our
own times, we have to interpret religion in a
very broad sense. Some such definition as
‘the human feeling that there is something,
some invisible Power, apart from material
objects, which controls human life and the
natural world’.
We are probably too narrow and
contemptuous in our interpretation of idol
worship. The people of ancient civilisations
were as sensible as we are, and would
scarcely have been so foolish as to worship
sticks and stones fashioned by their own
hands. The idol was for them merely a
symbol, and represented an unknown,
spiritual reality, which controlled the lives of
men and demanded human obedience to its
moral precepts.
We all know only too well that minor
differences in the human visualisation of this
Spirit frequently became the ostensible
reason for human wars, in which both sides
claimed to be fighting for the true God, but
the absurd narrowness of human
conceptions should not blind us to the fact
that, very often, both sides believed their
campaigns to have a moral background.
Genghis Khan, one of the most brutal of all
conquerors, claimed that God had delegated
him the duty to exterminate the decadent
races of the civilised world. Thus the Age of
Conquests often had some kind of religious
atmosphere, which implied heroic selfsacrifice
for the cause.
But this spirit of dedication was slowly
eroded in the Age of Commerce by the action
of money. People make money for
themselves, not for their country. Thus
periods of affluence gradually dissolved the
spirit of service, which had caused the rise of
the imperial races.
In due course, selfishness permeated the
community, the coherence of which was
weakened until disintegration was
threatened. Then, as we have seen, came the
period of pessimism with the accompanying
spirit of frivolity and sensual indulgence, byproducts
of despair. It was inevitable at such
times that men should look back yearningly
to the days of ‘religion’, when the spirit of
self-sacrifice was still strong enough to make
men ready to give and to serve, rather than
to snatch.
But while despair might permeate the
greater part of the nation, others achieved a
new realisation of the fact that only readiness
for self-sacrifice could enable a community
to survive. Some of the greatest saints in
history lived in times of national decadence,
raising the banner of duty and service
against the flood of depravity and despair.
The Fate of Empires
19
In this manner, at the height of vice and
frivolity the seeds of religious revival are
quietly sown. After, perhaps, several
generations (or even centuries) of suffering,
the impoverished nation has been purged of
its selfishness and its love of money, religion
regains its sway and a new era sets in. ‘It is
good for me that I have been afflicted,’ said
the psalmist, ‘that I might learn Thy
Statutes.’
XXX New combinations
We have traced the rise of an obscure race
to fame, through the stages of conquest,
commercialism, affluence, and intellectualism,
to disintegration, decadence and
despair. We suggested that the dominant
race at any given time imparts its leading
characteristics to the world around, being in
due course succeeded by another empire. By
this means, we speculated, many successive
races succeeded one another as superpowers,
and in turn bequeathed their
peculiar qualities to mankind at large.
But the objection may here be raised that
some day the time will come when all the
races of the world will in turn have enjoyed
their period of domination and have
collapsed again in decadence. When the
whole human race has reached the stage of
decadence, where will new energetic conquering
races be found?
The answer is at first partially obscured by
our modern habit of dividing the human race
into nations, which we seem to regard as
water-tight compartments, an error responsible
for innumerable misunderstandings.
In earlier times, warlike nomadic nations
invaded the territories of decadent peoples
and settled there. In due course, they
intermarried with the local population and a
new race resulted, though it sometimes
retained an old name. The barbarian
invasions of the Roman Empire probably
provide the example best known today in the
West. Others were the Arab conquests of
Spain, North Africa and Persia, the Turkish
conquests of the Ottoman Empire, or even
the Norman Conquest of England.
In all such cases, the conquered countries
were originally fully inhabited and the invaders
were armies, which ultimately settled
down and married, and produced new races.
In our times, there are few nomadic
conquerors left in the world, who could
invade more settled countries bringing their
tents and flocks with them. But ease of travel
has resulted in an equal, or probably an even
greater, intermixture of populations. The
extreme bitterness of modern internal political
struggles produces a constant flow of
migrants from their native countries to
others, where the social institutions suit
them better.
The vicissitudes of trade and business
similarly result in many persons moving to
other countries, at first intending to return,
but ultimately settling down in their new
countries.
The population of Britain has been
constantly changing, particularly in the last
sixty years, owing to the influx of immigrants
from Europe, Asia and Africa, and the exit of
British citizens to the Dominions and the
United States. The latter is, of course, the
most obvious example of the constant rise of
new nations, and of the transformation of
the ethnic content of old nations through this
modern nomadism.
The Fate of Empires
20
XXXI Decadence of a system
It is of interest to note that decadence is
the disintegration of a system, not of its
individual members. The habits of the
members of the community have been
corrupted by the enjoyment of too much
money and too much power for too long a
period. The result has been, in the
framework of their national life, to make
them selfish and idle. A community of selfish
and idle people declines, internal quarrels
develop in the division of its dwindling
wealth, and pessimism follows, which some
of them endeavour to drown in sensuality or
frivolity. In their own surroundings, they are
unable to redirect their thoughts and their
energies into new channels.
But when individual members of such a
society emigrate into entirely new surroundings,
they do not remain conspicuously
decadent, pessimistic or immoral among the
inhabitants of their new homeland. Once
enabled to break away from their old
channels of thought, and after a short period
of readjustment, they become normal
citizens of their adopted countries. Some of
them, in the second and third generations,
may attain pre-eminence and leadership in
their new communities.
This seems to prove that the decline of any
nation does not undermine the energies or
the basic character of its members. Nor does
the decadence of a number of such nations
permanently impoverish the human race.
Decadence is both mental and moral
deterioration, produced by the slow decline
of the community from which its members
cannot escape, as long as they remain in
their old surroundings. But, transported
elsewhere, they soon discard their decadent
ways of thought, and prove themselves equal
to the other citizens of their adopted country.
XXXII Decadence is not physical
Neither is decadence physical. The citizens
of nations in decline are sometimes
described as too physically emasculated to be
able to bear hardship or make great efforts.
This does not seem to be a true picture.
Citizens of great nations in decadence are
normally physically larger and stronger than
those of their barbarian invaders.
Moreover, as was proved in Britain in the
first World War, young men brought up in
luxury and wealth found little difficulty in
accustoming themselves to life in the frontline
trenches. The history of exploration
proves the same point. Men accustomed to
comfortable living in homes in Europe or
America were able to show as much
endurance as the natives in riding camels
across the desert or in hacking their way
through tropical forests.
Decadence is a moral and spiritual disease,
resulting from too long a period of wealth
and power, producing cynicism, decline of
religion, pessimism and frivolity. The
citizens of such a nation will no longer make
an effort to save themselves, because they
are not convinced that anything in life is
worth saving.
XXXII Human diversity
Generalisations are always dangerous.
Human beings are all different. The variety
in human life is endless. If this be the case
with individuals, it is much more so with
nations and cultures. No two societies, no
two peoples, no two cultures are exactly the
same. In these circumstances, it will be easy
The Fate of Empires
21
for critics to find many objections to what
has been said, and to point out exceptions to
the generalisations.
There is some value in comparing the lives
of nations to those of individuals. No two
persons in the world are identical. Moreover
their lives are often affected by accidents or
by illness, making the divergences even more
obvious. Yet, in fact, we can generalise about
human life from many different aspects. The
characteristics of childhood, adolescence,
youth, middle and old age are well known.
Some adolescents, it is true, are prematurely
wise and serious. Some persons in middle
age still seem to he young. But such
exceptions do not invalidate the general
character of human life from the cradle to
the grave.
I venture to submit that the lives of nations
follow a similar pattern. Superficially, all
seem to be completely different. Some years
ago, a suggestion was submitted to a certain
television corporation that a series of talks
on Arab history would form an interesting
sequence. The proposal was immediately
vetoed by the director of programmes with
the remark, “What earthly interest could the
history of medieval Arabs have for the
general public today?”
Yet, in fact, the history of the Arab imperial
age—from conquest through commercialism,
to affluence, intellectualism, science and
decadence—is an exact precursor of British
imperial history and lasted almost exactly
the same time.
If British historians, a century ago, had
devoted serious study to the Arab Empire,
they could have foreseen almost everything
that has happened in Britain down to 1976.
XXXIV A variety of falls
It has been shown that, normally, the rise
and fall of great nations are due to internal
reasons alone. Ten generations of human
beings suffice to transform the hardy and
enterprising pioneer into the captious citizen
of the welfare state. But whereas the life
histories of great nations show an unexpected
uniformity, the nature of their falls
depends largely on outside circumstances
and thus shows a high degree of diversity.
The Roman Republic, as we have seen, was
followed by the empire, which became a
super-state, in which all the natives of the
Mediterranean basin, regardless of race,
possessed equal rights. The name of Rome,
originally a city-state, passed from it to an
equalitarian international empire.
This empire broke in half, the western half
being overrun by northern barbarians, the
eastern half forming the East Roman or
Byzantine Empire.
The vast Arab Empire broke up in the
ninth century into many fragments, of which
one former colony, Moslem Spain, ran its
own 250-year course as an independent
empire. The homelands of Syria and Iraq,
however, were conquered by successive
waves of Turks to whom they remained
subject for 1,000 years.
The Mameluke Empire of Egypt and Syria,
on the other hand, was conquered in one
campaign by the Ottomans, the native
population merely suffering a change of
masters.
The Spanish Empire (1500-1750) endured
for the conventional 250 years, terminated
only by the loss of its colonies. The homeland
of Spain fell, indeed, from its high estate of a
The Fate of Empires
22
super-power, but remained as an independent
nation until today.
Romanov Russia (1682-1916) ran the
normal course, but was succeeded by the
Soviet Union.
It is unnecessary to labour the point, which
we may attempt to summarise briefly. Any
regime which attains great wealth and power
seems with remarkable regularity to decay
and fall apart in some ten generations. The
ultimate fate of its component parts,
however, does not depend on its internal
nature, but on the other organisations which
appear at the time of its collapse and succeed
in devouring its heritage. Thus the lives of
great powers are surprisingly uniform, but
the results of their falls are completely
diverse.
XXXV Inadequacy of our historical
studies
In fact, the modern nations of the West
have derived only limited value from their
historical studies, because they have never
made them big enough. For history to have
meaning, as we have already stated, it must
be the history of the human race.
Far from achieving such an ideal, our
historical studies are largely limited to the
history of our own country during the
lifetime of the present nation. Thus the timefactor
is too short to allow the longer
rhythms of the rise and fall of nations even to
be noticed. As the television director
indicated, it never even crosses our minds
that longer periods could be of any interest.
When we read the history of our own
nation, we find the actions of our ancestors
described as glorious, while those of other
peoples are depicted as mean, tyrannical or
cowardly. Thus our history is (intentionally)
not based on facts. We are emotionally
unwilling to accept that our forbears might
have been mean or cowardly.
Alternatively, there are ‘political’ schools of
history, slanted to discredit the actions of
our past leaders, in order to support modern
political movements. In all these cases,
history is not an attempt to ascertain the
truth, but a system of propaganda, devoted
to the furtherance of modern projects, or the
gratification of national vanity.
Men can scarcely be blamed for not
learning from the history they are taught.
There is nothing to learn from it, because it
is not true.
XXXVI Small nations
The word ‘empires’ has been used in this
essay to signify nations which achieve the
status of great powers, or super-powers, in
the jargon of today—nations which have
dominated the international scene for two or
three centuries. At any given time, however,
there are also smaller states which are more
or less self-contained. Do these live the same
‘lives’ as the great nations, and pass through
the same phases?
It seems impossible to generalise on this
issue. In general, decadence is the outcome
of too long a period of wealth and power. If
the small country has not shared in the
wealth and power, it will not share in the
decadence.
XXXVII The emerging pattern
In spite of the endless variety and the
infinite complications of human life, a
general pattern does seem to emerge from
these considerations. It reveals many
successive empires covering some 3,000
years, as having followed similar stages of
The Fate of Empires
23
development and decline, and as having, to a
surprising degree, ‘lived’ lives of very similar
length.
The life-expectation of a great nation, it
appears, commences with a violent, and
usually unforeseen, outburst of energy, and
ends in a lowering of moral standards,
cynicism, pessimism and frivolity.
If the present writer were a millionaire, he
would try to establish in some university or
other a department dedicated solely to the
study of the rhythm of the rise and fall of
powerful nations throughout the world.
History goes back only some 3,000 years,
because before that period writing was not
sufficiently widespread to allow of the
survival of detailed records. But within that
period, the number of empires available for
study is very great.
At the commencement of this essay, the
names of eleven such empires were listed,
but these included only the Middle East and
the modern nations of the West. India, China
and Southern America were not included,
because the writer knows nothing about
them. A school founded to study the rise and
fall of empires would probably find at least
twenty-four great powers available for
dissection and analysis.
The task would not be an easy one, if
indeed the net were cast so wide as to cover
virtually all the world’s great nations in 3,000
years. The knowledge of language alone, to
enable detailed investigations to be pursued,
would present a formidable obstacle.
XXXVIII Would it help?
It is pleasing to imagine that, from such
studies, a regular life-pattern of nations
would emerge, including an analysis of the
various changes which ultimately lead to
decline, decadence and collapse. It is
tempting to assume that measures could be
adopted to forestall the disastrous effects of
excessive wealth and power, and thence of
subsequent decadence. Perhaps some means
could be devised to prevent the activist Age
of Conquests and Commerce deteriorating
into the Age of Intellect, producing endless
talking but no action.
It is tempting to think so. Perhaps if the
pattern of the rise and fall of nations were
regularly taught in schools, the general
public would come to realise the truth, and
would support policies to maintain the spirit
of duty and self-sacrifice, and to forestall the
accumulation of excessive wealth by one
nation, leading to the demoralisation of that
nation.
Could not the sense of duty and the
initiative needed to give rise to action be
retained parallel with intellectual development
and the discoveries of natural science?
The answer is doubtful, though we could
but try. The weaknesses of human nature,
however, are so obvious, that we cannot be
too confident of success. Men bursting with
courage, energy and self-confidence cannot
easily be restrained from subduing their
neighbours, and men who see the prospect of
wealth open to them will not readily be
prevented from pursuing it.
Perhaps it is not in the real interest of
humanity that they should be so prevented,
for it is in periods of wealth that art,
architecture, music, science and literature
make the greatest progress.
Moreover, as we have seen where great
empires are concerned, their establishment
may give rise to wars and tragedies, but their
periods of power often bring peace, security
and prosperity to vast areas of territory. Our
The Fate of Empires
24
knowledge and our experience (perhaps our
basic human intellects) are inadequate to
pronounce whether or not the rise and fall of
great nations is the best system for the best
of all possible worlds.
These doubts, however, need not prevent
us from attempting to acquire more
knowledge on the rise and fall of great
powers, or from endeavouring, in the light of
such knowledge, to improve the moral
quality of human life.
Perhaps, in fact, we may reach the
conclusion that the successive rise and fall of
great nations is inevitable and, indeed, a
system divinely ordained. But even this
would be an immense gain. For we should
know where we stand in relation to our
human brothers and sisters. In our present
state of mental chaos on the subject, we
divide ourselves into nations, parties or
communities and fight, hate and vilify one
another over developments which may
perhaps be divinely ordained and which
seem to us, if we take a broader view,
completely uncontrollable and inevitable. If
we could accept these great movements as
beyond our control, there would be no
excuse for our hating one another because of
them.
However varied, confusing and contradictory
the religious history of the world may
appear, the noblest and most spiritual of the
devotees of all religions seem to reach the
conclusion that love is the key to human life.
Any expansion of our knowledge which may
lead to a reduction in our unjustified hates is
therefore surely well worth while.
XXXIX Summary
As numerous points of interest have arisen
in the course of this essay, I close with a brief
summary, to refresh the reader’s mind.
(a) We do not learn from history because
our studies are brief and prejudiced.
(b) In a surprising manner, 250 years
emerges as the average length of national
greatness.
(c) This average has not varied for 3,000
years. Does it represent ten generations?
(d) The stages of the rise and fall of great
nations seem to be:
The Age of Pioneers (outburst)
The Age of Conquests
The Age of Commerce
The Age of Affluence
The Age of Intellect
The Age of Decadence.
(e) Decadence is marked by:
Defensiveness
Pessimism
Materialism
Frivolity
An influx of foreigners
The Welfare State
A weakening of religion.
(f) Decadence is due to:
Too long a period of wealth and power
Selfishness
Love of money
The loss of a sense of duty.
(g) The life histories of great states are
amazingly similar, and are due to internal
factors.
(h) Their falls are diverse, because they are
largely the result of external causes.
(i) History should be taught as the history
of the human race, though of course with
emphasis on the history of the student’s own
country.

[The Heartland Plan and the same section in The Albany Plan Re-Visited offer solution to some of these problems. Ex. the article creating a federal university from which the federal government must get its statistics and facts solves some of the problems listed above as does the Article on federal citizenship. Another example is the section that requires the death penalty for official corruption.

Along with this essay, should be read Chittum’s Civil War Two and Sowell’s The Vision of the Anointed.]

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