Article Review: The Fate of Empires

by Elusive Wapiti on October 25, 2010

Sir John Glubb’s Fate of Empires and Search for Survival is a fascinating read for students of history and for those who wonder what the future will hold. In other words, nearly everyone who reads this post. While not a long read, we are all busy people, thus I will summarize the article below and offer an observation or two about its implications.

Key Quote: “The simplest statistics prove the steady rotation of one nation after another at regular intervals“.

Executive Summary: Glubb notes an eerie pattern emerging when it comes to the durability of human empires: From the Assyrian Empire (859 – 612 BC), to the Arabic Empire (634 – 880 AD), to the British Empire (1700 – 1950), each seemed to last roughly 10 generations, or about 250 years. Glubb posits that each empire goes through six predictable phases, outburst/conquest, commerce, affluence, intellect, and finally decadence and fall. This rise and fall pattern is independent of governmental system (despotism, monarchy, republic, democracy), and the idiosyncratic qualities of the race that begat the empire (African, East Asian, European, Central Asian). This pattern is not affected by the technologies of the time (the wheel, horseback riding, seafaring, gunpowder, electricity, etc) and, while the pattern of the rise of great nations appears to be uniform, the pattern of their breakups is diverse, meaning that while all empires are birthed and live in roughly the same manner, how they die varies greatly.

Discussion: Glubb makes much use out of the word “emprire’ in his tract. As ‘empire’ and ‘imperial’ are words that carry with them some significant semantical freight these days, Glubb defined his use of the term ‘empire’ to refer to a great power, one that we would today consider a superpower. Said empire may or may not include overseas possessions, and most did not, as most of the empires in history were land empires, not naval powers.

Glubb observes that all empires throughout history travel in roughly the same arc, go through the same stages, and last roughly the same time: ten generations, our about 250 years, give or take. This duration appears to be driven by human behavior, surprisingly uniform across cultures, and also surprisingly independent of the available technologies of the time (transport, communication, and warfare). The six sometimes overlapping life stages of empire are outburst/conquest, commerce, affluence, intellect, decadence, and fall.

Duration of Empires

Duration of Empires. Click here to enlarge.

Phase I: Outburst and Conquest. In the first phase of great empire, small nations, thought to be insignificant by their neighbors, explode to dominate large swathes of land. This initial explosion is characterized by extraordinary displays of energy and courage; the people, accustomed to hardship, are poor, hardy, entrepreneurial, and above all, aggressive, and little will dissuade them in their desire to rule. The decaying empires or minor states they subsume are comfortable and wealthy, but are hobbled in their timid and defensive attitude. This lends the advantage to the aggressive upstart nation, the members of which can be bold and aggressive in their outlook; they have little to lose except their lives. But it is not just military advantage this up-and-coming nation this conquering nation enjoys; rather, because they are hungry, because they are not bound by staid tradition, but by an intense focus on their goal, the outbursting nation exhibits great dynamism across the entire spectrum of human endeavors: science–technology, government, cultural. Nothing breeds success like success, and the outbursting nation’s self-fulfilling confidence leads them to be believe that they are meant to rule and rule forever, perhaps even chosen by their god(s) for dominion over man.

It is interesting to note that it is here, in the beginning, where the seeds for imperial destruction are sown, as each nation, upon its ascendancy, attributes its good fortune to its hereditary and natural superiority. Having become dominant, this nation thinks itself naturally better than those they conquered or those foreigners they employed as slaves or soldiers. Yet it is this hubris that becomes the catalyst for the society’s own destruction, as the culture does not guard itself against the coming diversity that will wreck the stock that built the nation.

Phase II: Commercial expansion. Merchants and the whole of the people benefit from the peace and security and streamlined bureaucratic processes that such a large empire secures. The transition from outburst/conquest to commerce is marked by a shift in attitudes, in that a premimum on martial glory and honor gives way to an emphasis on boosting the bottom line. However, as the memory of where they came from is still fresh, the people and the culture is still hard.

The first half of the ‘Age of Commerce’ is particularly splendid…virtues of courage, patriotism, and devotion to duty are still in evidence. Boys are required…to be manly, [and] boys’ schools are intentionally rough.

The age of commerce is also marked by exploration for new forms of wealth, and the securing of wealth is the catalyst for the transition to the ‘Age of Affluence’.

Phase III: Luxos. The abundance of wealth and comfort begin to injure the qualities that made the nation successful. For example, the pursuit of individual success replaces honor and adventure as the objectives of the best and the brightest of the youth. Gradually, this pursuit of gold displaces the pursuit of duty. Furthermore, education undergoes a similar shift in priorities, as educational institutions focus not on producing brave patriots but minting those who will command high salaries. This phase represents the apogee of a society; it’s all downhill from here, as the people transition individually “…from service to selfishness”, and the nation as a whole shifts from offensive aggression to defensiveness, interested not in acquiring more wealth but in hanging on to what it has.

This shift in national attitudes toward greater dovishness and pragmatism during this phase is reflected in the nation’s foreign policy stance :

…money being in better supply than courage, subsidies instead of weapons are employed to buy off enemies

Various psychological devices are employed to deem this shift noble, not cowardly:

Military readiness…is denounced as primitive and immoral. Civilized peoples are too proud to fight. Conquest…is declared to be immoral. Empires are wicked. ‘It is not that we are afraid to fight’, we say, ‘but we should consider it immoral’. Nations who proclaim themselves unwilling to fight are liable to be conquered by peoples in the stage of militarism.”

Also, during this phase, prosperity and wealth also bring an influx of foreigners to the urban centers of the empire. Native Romans complained about the multiplicity of Asians and Africans in Rome, as did denizens of Baghdad, which itself endured a huge influx of Persians, Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Egyptians, Africans, and Greeks. Today, London is known in some circles as “Londonistan”, New York long ago ceased to be peopled chiefly by Angles, and Washington DC itself sports features an international population (one need only hail a cab in that area to convince themselves of this). The result of this migration is that the stock that created the empire is relegated to the hinterlands, the frontiers, and the rural areas, while the foreigners come to dominate the cities and eventually the politics of the entire realm. Thus we see that there is really, truly, nothing new under the sun, as this “diversity” repeats itself over and over again in history, and the solidarity and comradeship that comes with ethnic and cultural homogeneity–the qualities that built the empire in the first place–first erodes, then disappears entirely. This diverse polyglot mass is peopled by (im)migrants that often fail to assimilate fully, leading to issues of in-group/out-group loyalty and an overall unwillingness to sacrifice for the host country when the wave of prosperity gives way to hard slogging. Grubb notes:

[W]hen 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

This lack of cultural coherence combines with the aforementioned shift in values from fighting to rationalization, and eventually a feeling of moral superiority, to set the stage for the infighting that is characteristic of the next stage, the ‘Age of Intellect’.

Phase IV: Intellectualism. The Beginning of the End. The people, no longer martially minded and, their lives not often visited by privation, become unconcerned with the acquisition of wealth and being to fancy themselves intellectuals. This period is marked by the proliferation of institutions of learning and a rapid expansion in the knowledge base. Intellectualism leads to discussion, debate, and argument, and as such the culture loses its homogeneity. Internal political rifts between camps ossify and become unbridgeable. With many captains vying for control of the helm, the ship of state begins to drift:

Thus public affairs drift from bad to worse, amid an unceasing cacaphony of argument…amid a babel of talk, the ship drifts on to the rocks. Internal differences are not reconciled…internal rivalries become more acute, and the nation becomes weaker

It is important to note here that the empire is still strong at this time and enjoys a sort of Golden Age. But the exterior sparkle and shimmer obscures a rot on the inside, as the empire hollows itself from within. In essence, the empire is living on borrowed time–no longer producing, conquering, expanding, it instead feeds off the stored fat of its own past greatness. Still thinking themselves exceptional, the nation relaxes and enjoys the fruits of their labors; this latent voluptuousness results in more and more time spent in leisure.

Furthermore, an empire in this stage, while no longer acquiring territory, still fancies itself smarter than its neighbors and continues to sponsor cultural expansion of its empire. But the motivation for this expansion is not military–which is ‘evil’–but is for the welfare of others, which is deemed ‘good’, and thus excused, the empire continues to extend its influence. This shift in motivation is key…as the head (reason) comes to dominate the heart (passion), the great empire wants to ‘help’ those less ‘fortunate’ to share in its prosperity. Glubb, however, takes a dim view of this shift:

Perhaps the most dangerous byproduct of the Age of Intellect is the unconscious growth of the idea that the human brain can solve the problems of the world

This idea leads the empire to over-extend itself, as there is literally no limit to problems to be solved in an effort to enhance the welfare of foreigners. Thus exhausted, the rusted, neglected socio-cultural-economic scaffolding supporting the edifice of the State begins to break down. The center fails to hold.

Phase V: Decadence.

[D]ecadence is a moral and a spiritual disease, not a physical one, resulting from too long a period of wealth and power. 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

An empire in decline is marked by several characteristics, first among them a strong prevailing (and self-fulfilling) sense of pessimism among the people, frequently accompanied by frivolity, where the people exchange their hopes and future orientations for a focus on the now…a “let us eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” sort of attitude. Grubb also notes that the empire’s heroes change in declining civilizations according to this focus on frivolity…the actor, the singer, and the athlete–all entertainers–replace the general or the statesman or literary genius as role models for the young.

Another characteristic of the decline is degeneracy and a generalized laxity of discipline during this time. An increasing materialism, the retreat of morality, the advent of feminism, and the appearance and influence of women in public life are all hallmarks of a civilization in decline. An indifference to religion also appears among the culture and, as Glubb attributes to (expansively defined) religion the motivating force for the desire to expand, conquer, subjugate, or extinguish, the spirit of service, of heroic self-sacrifice for the cause also disappears.

A third characteristic is one for which the foundation was laid in the Age of Intellectualism…the Age of Decline is associated with philanthropy, generosity, and sympathy for other races and nations. The culture assumes an attitude of ‘noblesse oblige‘ toward those less fortunate; the notion that it will be always be rich impels the imperial state to spend lavishly, to confer privileges and rights and benefits on all comers. Citizenship rights, once a sign of status, a valued asset, are debased as the State gives them away…in some cases sells them for revenue…again to confer the benefits of prosperity to all. State assistance to the poor is equally generous. At least until the economy collapses, that is.

What are the causes of decadence? Glubb lists these four: (1) too long a period of wealth and power, (2) selfishness, (3) love of money, and (4) the loss of a sense of duty.

Glubb does not discuss Phase VI, the end or fall of empires, because such ends vary widely and his study of them yielded no regular pattern meriting discussion.


It is interesting to consider that Glubb wrote these words nearly 35 years ago; he could be describing the trajectory of the present-day United States to a tee. The decadence, the indifference to religion, the focus on materialism, the swollen welfare state, living (literally) on borrowed time and money, all are there. Applying the 250-year rule of thumb to the USA, it seems that the approximate end of our imperial life span is somewhere around 2025. What fate awaits the USA come that time, I don’t claim to know, nor can I hazard a guess. It could die from violent overthrow, fractured by internal political division from within–as in the case of Rome I transitioning to Rome II. It could break up more or less peacefully into more politically manageable components, along religious-cultural-ethnic lines, as was the case with the British empire, or it could be subjugated by a culturally more aggressive invader(s), as was the pattern followed by the majority of empires in the past.

Some would be tempted to split hairs and claim that the USA will not follow historical precedent, noting that America’s outburst period was spent not consuming the remnants of a pre-existing empire, but on acquiring vast swathes of largely uninhabited land across a single continent. “America is exceptional”, they may claim, “she’s different” they may object. Glubb pre-emptively pours water on that notion, noting:

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…the periods of the pioneers, of commerce, of affluence, of intellectualism, and of decadence

According to Glubb, the USA is following the same pattern as before–he even places the Wilson administration as our national apogee, when our country’s trajectory peaked in the Age of Commerce and started downward into the Age of Intellectualism–and there is no reason to believe that America will be the exception to the pattern. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary…consider the present-day political strife, the swollen welfare state, the far-flung military adventures conducted not for territorial acquisition but for the ‘good of the invaded’ and/or for American cultural expansion (installing British-style parliamentary democracy and American-style feminism at the point of a gun). Consider also the post-Christian, secular humanist polity, the focus on material acquisition, the normalization of sexual immorality, and the prominence of women in public affairs, and the reducing prominence of men in domestic affairs. All point one way: that America is marching inexorably toward the same end as those who have gone before.

I was also struck by the similarities between the America of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century and the Arab decline in the last half of the ninth century, as described by Glubb. The Arab historians at that time, just as do many hand-wringing curmudgeons in the conservative commentariat do today, deplored the indifference to religion, the increasing focus on material acquisition, the spread of sexual immorality, and the extraordinary influence of popular entertainers, singing lewd and suggestive songs, amongst the youth. Even more interesting to me as an MRA was Glubb’s finding that feminism is a key and telling marker of a civilization in decline, for both the Roman Empire and the Arab Empire in their latter stages featured deep female penetration into spheres and occupations previously closed to them. Perhaps the appearance of women in the public spaces is an objective symptom of the nation’s growing political defensiveness, a sign that the nation valued comfort and security over uncomfortable risk-taking. Whatever the reason, the appearance of women in politics counter-intuitively did not result in an increase in societal security, for “soon after [these periods]”, Glubb notes, “government and public order collapsed…the resulting increase in confusion and violence ma[kes] it unsafe for women to move unescorted in the streets”. Given these historical examples, it is not difficult at all to imagine the coming disarray that will afflict the feminism-afflicted West when the levees give way and it is every man and woman for him-/her-selves.

Seeing feminism called out in this way may warm the hearts of some. But while I suspect Glubb is correct in identifying feminism as a sign of a great civilization in decline, he does not offer perspective on how long it lasts until feminism kills its host culture. Clearly, in some cases, the feminist-infected feminized empire is snuffed out by a more aggressive masculine culture. In other cases, the defensive, feminized, and feminist culture merely withers away and is slowly subsumed by a resurgent, more masculine one. However it goes, Glubb is clear that an irreligious culture of intellectualism and dissipation is replaced by a renewed sense of mission, purpose and zeal:

[A]t 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 gains its sway and a new era sets in

The cliche says that the kanji character for crisis is a mash-up of the characters for opportunity and danger. In the dangerous and tumultuous times we have ahead, we men may have the opportunity to make the world anew in our image as the American empire craters and potentially breaks apart…a weak and alienated government located in the swamps of Virginia cannot hope to maintain control over the culturally heterogenous states further west or south, particularly those with options and resources, and especially those with coastlines and ports. One thing is clear to me, as I consider Glubb’s words: that we men will suffer longer if we sit on the sidelines and do nothing in an attempt to “wait out” the feminist train wreck, with an eye toward picking up the pieces afterward, for we could be waiting a very long time. Better, I think, to attempt to shape our future in a manner agreeable to us, our brothers, and our progeny.

About the author: EW is a well-trained monkey charged with operating heavier-than-air machinery. His interests outside of being an opinionated rabble-rouser are hunting, working out, motorcycling, spending time with his family, and flying. He is a father to three, a husband to one, and is a sometime contributor here at Spearhead. More of his intolerable drivel is available at the blog The Elusive Wapiti.

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