17 January 2013

The Life Span of Empires: 250 Years?

Previously published on abu al-fin


Sir John Glubb was a British author and lecturer, who was decorated for his service in the Royal Engineers in WWI, and was commander of the Jordan Arab Legion from 1939 to 1956. His famous and succinct essay, The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival (PDF), looks at the lifespan of empires from their origins to their eventual decline.

Glubb estimates that most empires do not last longer than roughly 250 years, with many of them lasting much shorter periods of time. He describes many of the stages of empire, and many of the reasons why they break down and eventually disappear.

As seen in Glubb's image above, most of the world's great empires lasted no longer than 250 years. Glubb looks at the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire as two different empires, based upon their distinct forms of government.

One of the reasons for decline of empire described by Glubb is the influx of masses of people from outside cultures, religions, and ethnic groups, who are different from the core populations making up the founders and conquering peoples who brought about the original empire.


Glubb's summary at the end of the essay:
(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. _PDF Download of Sir John Glubb's Essay on Fate of Empires

Useful background reading:

Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler

The Evolution of Civilisations by Carroll Quigley

History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol. 1 by Edward Gibbon

Historians often disagree over details -- both large and small. That leaves it up to each of us to learn what we can, and to make up our own minds as to the lessons that we can apply from history to more modern times.


Note regarding comments: Glubb considered the "250 year" observation to be interesting, but not something to be made into a dogma. His main point was that empires evolve over time -- and generations of people -- so that the spirit and cohesiveness which brought about their creation tends to dissipate. The decay was observed to take place over roughly 10 generations, but could require much less time if a rival empire was ready to take over at an earlier time.

The study of civilisations is much more interesting than the study of empires, since a civilisation can jump from empire to empire, and evolve in many different population groups -- assuming their cognitive abilities are sufficient to support it, and their genetic / behavioural instincts are compatible with the underlying spirit of the civilisation.

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11 Comments:

Blogger Stephen said...

While I find this interesting, it is a bit misleading if it breaks empires apart that came from the same people. If the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire were separate entities then the Romans went from decadence in one imperial system to pioneering in a new one, so that is not so bad. Likewise, the Persians had the Parthian Empire and Sassanid Empire to replace the original. It is vastly preferable I think to find a new empire replacing the former over the fate of those empires that go into societal breakdown (much of Italy after 476) or are conquered by hostile rather different outsiders.

Thursday, 17 January, 2013  
Blogger neil craig said...

I think there is some shoehorning there to make it fit.

The Roman Empire laste to about 430AD. The Byzantine Empire, which thought of itself as the continioty Romans lasted till 1455. On the other hand the Soviet Empire lasted 70, and Alexander's Empire barely 10. Putting 1700 as the start of Britain's Empire is fairly arbitrary - one could go for 1860s (Victoria made Empress of India and the carving up of Aftica starts), 1814 (Naploeon beaten). 1776 (end of the original empire), 1763 (Canada and India taken from France), 1689 (end of the Stuart monarchs and Parliamentary supremacy) 1640s(ECW), 1605 (arrival of the Stuarts and joining with Scotland) 149? (Bosworth field - Tudors take over, end of the wars ofthe roses) or several back to 1066.

I think we should treat states as having half lives and seek to find what makes some more stable than others.

Thursday, 17 January, 2013  
Blogger Matt M said...

As I recall - the 1000 year Reich only lasted 7 1/2.

Thursday, 17 January, 2013  
Blogger kurt9 said...

Small places like Switzerland tend to have the most longevity. The U.S. federal government is actually one of the oldest on the planet and is the oldest large country government in existence. This suggests we are well into the latter part of our "half life".

Thursday, 17 January, 2013  
Blogger Stephen said...

The Thousand Year Reich lasted 12 years (1933-1945).

Thursday, 17 January, 2013  
Blogger Thomas W said...

This seems to depend on some artificial definitions. In many cases the people of the empires involved would not realize the empire ended (in others they would, such as Britain from 1950 to 1970 when most colonies achieved independence).

The Roman and Byzantine empires were mentioned in a previous comment. The Ottoman empire lasted until about 1920 though some areas were Ottoman in name only. The Spanish empire lasted until the early 1800s when the Napoleonic wars allowed the colonies to break away.

250 years might be a typical number for empires but Mr. Glubb's argument fails due to his attempt to make this a universal number, picking what at times seem arbitrary dates for the start or end of an empire.

Thursday, 17 January, 2013  
Blogger sykes.1 said...

Glubb's analysis is tendentious. The date 180 AD for the end of the Roman Empire actually marks the beginning of internecine struggles for control of the Principate. Constantine put an end to that struggle and founded Constantinople as the capital in 326 AD. The year 430 AD does not mark the fall of the western half of the Empire so much as it marks the take over of control from the Romans by the Germans. The Germans kept all the existing economic and governing structures, and life went on as usual until the Moslems closed the Mediterranean around 700 AD. Thereafter, the West began its decline into the Dark Ages not to recover until the Middle Ages. The Roman government in Constantinople was continuous until the Turks finally overran it in 1453.

So, the actual duration of a Roman entity was about 2200 years. And the duration of the Roman Empire is about 1500 years.

If we apply Glubb's methods to the US, one has to conclude that the Republic died with the election of Lincoln, which some people actually believe to be the case.

Friday, 18 January, 2013  
Blogger kurt9 said...

It was either Franklin or Jefferson who pointed out that republics last only 200 years. They fall because the public begins to vote themselves benefits from the public funds. We're certainly into this advanced stage of decline of our republic.

Friday, 18 January, 2013  
Blogger kurt9 said...

If we apply Glubb's methods to the US, one has to conclude that the Republic died with the election of Lincoln, which some people actually believe to be the case.

Perhaps, but I mark the election and actions of FDR as the end point of our republic. FDR certainly neutered SCOTUS, thus removing one of the checks and balances constraining the growth of the federal government.

Friday, 18 January, 2013  
Blogger Iuventius said...

I have some complaints with Glubb's dates. He appears to have massaged the numbers in order to better fit his claim.

Saturday, 19 January, 2013  
Blogger Weekend Yachtsman said...

This is a little depressing because it suggests that the EU might last another 200 years.

otoh it is clearly already in the Age of Decadence.

Perhaps in the technological world we now inhabit, empires will only last fifty years? One can hope.

Sunday, 20 January, 2013  

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