The “Fate Of Empires and Search For Survival” is an essay written by Sir John Glubb and published in 1977. Sadly, The Fate Of Empires is no longer in publication, but there are second hand copies on eBay and a free pdf version online.
The Fate Of Empires
It is important to note that what Sir John referred to as an empire is what we now call a superpower. Sir John stated in his essay that the rules of empires were also applicable to the United States and the Soviet Union.
Sir John made some observations regarding the lifetime of empires.
“Empires do not usually begin or end on a certain date. There is a gradual period of expansion and then a period of decline. Human affairs are subject to many chances, and it is not to be expected that they could be calculated with mathematical accuracy.”
“Nevertheless, it is suggested that there is sufficient resemblance between empires to justify further study.”
“Not all Empires endured their full lifespan.”
“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 the weapons. The Assyrians marched on foot and fought with spears, bows and arrows. The British used artillery, railways and ocean-going ships. Yet the two empires lasted approximately the same periods.”
“Empires last an approximate 250 years”
In “The Fate of Empires“, Rome is divided into two periods. The Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, a notion many here will oppose. From this, he made the following conclusions.
“…the periods of duration of different empires at varied epochs show a remarkable similarity.”
“Immense changes in the technology of transport and warfare do not seem to affect the life-expectation of an empire.”
“The changes in technology of transport have, however, affected the shape of empires.”
“One of the very few units of measurement which have not seriously changed since the Assyrians is the human ‘generation’, a period of about 25 years.”
“The period of an Empire, 250 years, represents about ten generations of people.”
By looking at the differences in people across generations, Sir John concluded that empires are built and destroyed by their own people due to these very differences. As time progresses in the life of an empire, the citizens priorities shift across the ages and these priorities in turn transform the empire.
The different ages in which empires change is remarkably similar. These are characterised by a series of interlinking events which led from one age to another. The ages in empires are the age of pioneers, the age of conquest, the age of commerce, the age of affluence, the age of intellect and the age of decadence. These ages come in the sequence denoted and often overlap with one another as time progresses.
The Age of Conquests
In the article “The Age of Pioneers“, based on “The Fate of Empires” essay, we looked at the kind of people who pioneer empires. These people, strive to make a mark on the world. The people are hardy and enterprising, they take large risks and often come from societies dismissed as backwards by the contemporaries of the time. Of all the empires of human history, there were none more backwards than the Mongol people.
The story of Genghis Khan begins with the assassination of his father at the age of nine. Genghis Khan had seen the hardship of life at an early age, something that marked him for life.
“The first stage of the life of a great nation, therefore, after 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 by reckless bravery and daring initiative. The ancient civilisation thus attacked, will defend 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 consist 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 contentious 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 it happens in ancient empires. Moreover,the leaders are free to use their own improvisations, not having studied political tactics in schools or textbooks.”
Genghis Khan defeated his enemies with cunning and then proceeded to unite the clans of the steppe into a single nation.
Khan understood that neighbouring China would see this as a threat and proceeded to take the offensive. Based Khan fought and fucked his way through China, making a mockery of the defensive wall that the Chinese constructed to keep out the Mongols.
The Chinese had fallen for the defence trap that Sir John recognised early on the fate of empires.
“In the times of the 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 counterattack. 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.”
Being permanently on the defensive will only tell your enemies that you are weak. As Tsun Tzu said “he who cannot conquer takes the defensive“. When facing a determined invader, the Chinese barred themselves inside the city walls. What ensued is a classic siege warfare. The Mongols camped and waited. They feasted on the supplies they captured whilst the Chinese starved themselves within the walls. Disease spread and the Chinese resorted to cannibalism in desperation.
Following the initial outburst, a tribe or nation will capitalise on the momentum gained, regroup and proceed to eliminate their enemies.
Genghis Khan, when faced with the walls of the Chinese city, employed Chinese architects that had defected out of starvation, and had them build siege weapons. (5:35)
After defeating the Chinese, Genghis Khan established a law system and pushed for teaching reforms for his people. He sent ambassadors, far and wide. One of those ambassadors was sent to Persia, where the Sultan, bemused by the demands that the strange man from an unknown land was making. The Sultan had him killed and his head sent back to Mongolia. This was a serious misjudgement. What ensued was the Mongol invasion of the Arab world. Baghdad was plundered and its 800,000 citizens killed. The Mongols did what the Crusaders could not.
Not all age of conquests are taken against old empires.
“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.”
For example, after the pioneers of America expelled the British from the colonies, the Americans proceeded to conquer the rest of what is now known as the United States of America. There were conquests against people; the native Americans, but they were not an empire.
Recently, I wrote a blog post about this subject. The post explain how the era of the Shogun ended. In short, when the Americans forced Japan to open her ports for trade by force, the Japanese were held back by their traditions, and were unable to modernise quickly enough to face the new threats of the modern world. Their politics were equally inflexible, hampering efforts from reformists who wanted to modernise Japan to fight the growing threat of the new western empires at its doorstep.
Infighting in an existing empire leads to the weakening of the nation. This is capitalised by the Pioneer nation which gains land and resources from the empire at first, and then uses the new technology and momentum to conquer it whole.
Such was the case of the Spanish:
“The vast Arab Empire broke up into many fragments, of which one former colony, Moslem Spain, ran its own 250 year course as an independent empire. [Actually, towards the end of the Al Andalus Empire, the many leaders of the provinces began in fighting against other Muslim regions in Al Andalus. Sometimes joining forces with the Christians out of their spite and vendetta for the other Muslim leaders].”
What follows after the Age of Pioneers is a vast push for conquest, hence the name The Age of Conquests.
“The Arabs ruled over the greater part of Spain for 780 years, from 712 A.D tom 1492 A.D. During these eight centuries, there had been no Spanish nation, the petty kings of Aragon and Castile alone holding out 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…. “
What do you think happened to the two Natives in the video after the Spanish landed?
After a tribe or nation bursts out, they will capitalise on their success, regroup and push on to conquer vast lands or overseas domains. In this way, that Age of Pioneers morphs into the Age of Conquest. The conquerors can take on a large empire or an unexplored continent to the same effect.
Any nation that is divided or defensive in nature can easily fall prey to the new conqueror race. In-fighting at a time of need marks the deathknell of an already faltering nation. Traditions are created as a means of preserving peoples and nations, and giving these a sense of unity. However when traditions, politics or culture impede necessary reform, these become a burden and often lead to defeat by incompetence.
Read More: The Age of Pioneers