Updated: Mar 23
Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things. - Gautama Buddha
If I were to guess I would imagine that most people think of the fall of empires as a single event such as the Sacking of Rome in 390 BC or the defeat of the Spanish Armada by England in 1588. These events are imagined as a climax or conclusion of a long bell curve which sees the rise of the empire to its golden age through its eventual fall. We likely assume this trajectory of Empire implicitly as it matches the way humans conceive of story arcs, the most personal and effective way humans have of interrelating the individual and group consciousness. The structure of our stories, whether they be the rise and fall of a villain or the fall and rise of the hero follow a simplified structure that is digestible to us as a complete arc. It makes sense that we would extrapolate this to our understanding of history.
The complex history of human societies rarely follows such a simple arc however. The EKG of an empire through time more likely resembles a series of irregular and unexpected peaks and valleys rather than the simplicity of a “rise and fall.” We may often hear people say in times of disillusionment and uncertainty things like “this country is over'' or “we are done” revealing that application of a simpler story arc to history. A deeper look at the historical and sociological context of the history of nations and peoples would reveal a far more nuanced (and much less easy to prophesize) course of events.
The Fall of Empires almost always occurs over time like the slow erosion of a foundation or rather the tectonic movement of separating plates. Human affinity for the structure of stories beseeches us to view these events as a climax in a story yet they are more akin to a setting or subtext in which the events of the story occur. At its root, the seeds of the entropy of empires is a sociological movement interwoven with political, economic, military and natural events that push and pull on the zeitgeist.
The rise of an empire is characterized by the conquests (whether militarily, economically or ideologically) of its neighbors who are then integrated into the dominant culture of the Empire. Greeks, Gauls and Goths become Romans as the original local culture which dominated its neighbors becomes the global cultural identity. The integration of conquered and encountered cultures breeds cosmopolitanism and pushes innovation under the aegis of the dominant imperial identity. Local or divergent cultural identities still exist however they are subservient to the overarching Imperial culture. Over time and through events in history, divergent cultural or sociological identities take precedence within segments of the population. Some peoples adhere to their regional traditions, new religions attract converts, political events form partisan factions. This cracking, consolidation and reformation occurs throughout any diverse culture sometimes taking precedence over the dominant culture and other times falling back into subservience.
It is these divergent identities which are the seeds of the erosion of imperial identity as plants take root in the cracks of concrete further pushing apart the pieces. There is rarely a single event which causes the fall of an empire but rather a number of entropic events which causes individuals in the culture to begin identifying with their secondary cultural identities over their imperial identity. In many histories this occurs as an ebb and flow. Groups will diverge over time and events will occur which galvanize the imperial identity again or further drives a wedge in between divergent groups and the dominant order. The trend is never so clear as a simple rise and fall. Like sand slipping through one’s fingers, increasing centralization begets the seeds of its own disintegration.
For example, we often think of the fall of Rome according to this simplified trend. The Roman city state conquered its neighbors, spread across Europe, Africa and the Levant, was plagued by bad emperors and decadence and finally fell. Many people have heard of Nero. Plagued by insanity, his reign was characterized by matricide, the torturing and murder of Christians, the great fire of Rome and actions of decadence and madness. Many people may also be surprised to learn that his reign was not near the end of Roman history but in fact near the beginning occurring half a century before even the “5 good emperors of Rome.” (Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius).
The Roman empire was so vast and diverse that the Empire was split into the Eastern and Western Roman empires with an Emperor of the West and an Emperor of the East. Both peoples were Roman and the empire was viewed as indivisible. The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, famous for Christianizing Rome, established the capital of Rome not in Rome but in Byzantium (Constantinople/Istanbul). As the Western Roman empire dissolved, the Eastern Roman Empire remained a world power throughout the middle ages only finally collapsing during the early Renaissance. The entire time considering themselves to be the heirs of Rome.
Though we characterize the story of empires and nations through the historical procession of events looking for causality in the fall of the dominos, it is in the nebulous sociological identities which determine the power of centralized government. As the imperial identity of the dominant culture fractures like islands of ice drifting apart on a frozen lake; empires disintegrate. They rarely fall like a usurped villain in a story but rather shatter slowly over time into a myriad of different tribes; a family tree no longer united by a long past matriarch but a number of disparate and distant cousins.
In the United States in 2020 we can see the communal bonds of our national identity fracturing and becoming submerged in our tertiary identities. Regionality, political affiliation, ideological frameworks all substitute an American identity and in some cases separate tribes associate their divergent identities with “true Americanism” while other Americans are traitors or subversives. For 70+ years the “Pax Americana” has spread complacency in our national identity while regional and political identities rise to the forefront of individual consciousness. 9/11 galvanized us for a moment however nearly 20 years of foreign wars, political and economic corruption and a zero sum civil discourse drives wedges in our unified identity as Americans.
Perhaps this is natural. The law of entropy is one of gradual decline into disorder and the nations of man are no exception. What is important to remember however is that the fall of civilization is not the rapture of revelations; a cataclysmic event which ends time. No people who have believed they were living in the end times were blessed with such a simple solution to the problems of mankind. Rather, it is the slow disintegration of a single identity into a series of diverse and independent identities that characterizes the "fall of civilization." Certainly an ending but never THE end. Rome was not swallowed into the earth but collapsed into the ethnic and political entities some of which we can still see on a map today. The word disintegrate itself describes this perfectly for the people are no longer integrated as a whole. In our lifetime we may see America become California, The Deep South, New England and the Pacific Northwest. Even as our political system trudges on as a single entity, our citizens may associate first with their localized or ideological identities before even recognizing their imperial community.
Furthermore, periods of disintegration themselves may provide the necessary components to forge a new alloy of national identity. Only 9 years and 7 different Emperors after Nero, the first Emperor hailing from outside of Rome became Emperor. Trajan marks the beginning of the period of the “5 Good Emperors,” a reinvention of an Imperial identity and what it meant to be Roman. Though we in the United States are in a period of cultural disorder it is in no way a death knell of our culture. Periods of catharsis are required in order to imagine a novel or renovated order and we must clear the conceptual space for us to do so. As Flux is a necessary component in metallurgy to remove the slag, so too are periods of flux necessary to forge an identity that can withstand the changes of time.
Looking back we may see this period at the beginning of the 21st century as either a time where our national identity splintered and separated into its constituent parts or where it was reinvented into a new identity formed on the foundation of the past. In either case, the rise and fall of Empires will not be a bell curve as the oscillations of history are a series of heights and troughs. Despite its difficulties this can also be a period of optimism for whether we each go our own ways or stride forward with a renewed and re-imagined national identity, we will be forging a new pathway into a future fraught with possibilities.
The rise and fall of civilizations in the long, broad course of history can be seen to have been largely a function of the integrity and cogency of their supporting canons of myth; for not authority but aspiration is the motivator, builder, and transformer of civilization. - Joseph Campbell
Cover: Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques Louis David
The Course of Empires by Thomas Cole
Romans in their Decadence by Thomas Couture
Spring on the Missouri by Thomas Hart Benton