Myths about Imperial Collapse

Sadly, most history buffs are more familiar with the myths about imperial collapse than the realities. Consequently, most people get imperial collapse wrong.

One reason for this misunderstanding is the lack of knowledge about Imperial Collapse. Another is the attractiveness of the Imperial Collapse narrative to moralists and political operatives.

To help us better understand the phenomena of imperial collapse. I will try to debunk some of the myths about it.

Some Popular Myths about Imperial Collapse include:

Imperial Collapse Leads to the end of Civilization  

Barbarism and violence often accompany imperial collapse. However, imperial collapse almost never ends civilization.

Classical Civilization, for example, survived the collapse of the Roman Empire. Notably, large sophisticated cities with complex cultures and economies easily avoided Rome’s collapse. Examples of those cities include Constantinople and Alexandria.

Moreover, many outposts of civilizations survived throughout the former Roman Empire. Those outposts ranged from great cities (Constantinople) to monasteries to fortified market towns (Venice). Tellingly, most of Classical Civilization’s art, culture, history, and literature still exists 1500 years after Rome’s collapse.

Conversely, many people still believe Europe entered an “uncivilized dark age” after Rome’s fall. One reason for this misconception that many 18th Century writers did not like the civilizations that replaced Rome.

For example, the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire and various Islamic empires. In addition, many 18th Century Enlightenment rationalists loathed the Germanic tribes who replaced the Romans in much of Europe.

Indeed, the inventor of the Imperial Collapse narrative; 18th Century British author Edward Gibbon, blamed Rome’s fall on Bishops and Barbarians. Gibbon despised both Christianity and non-Latin societies.

Another reason for the delusion is as a defense of Empire. In particular the belief that Empire is civilization. A notion that the apologists for every Empire in human history have predictably promoted. Notably, Gibbon was most popular in the 19th Century the heyday of European imperialism.

History, however, tells a different story. The Chinese Empire has collapsed dozens of times. Yet, Chinese civilization endures to this day and seems to be more vibrant than ever.

Similarly, Islamic civilization is alive and well, even though the last Islamic Empire the Ottoman fell in World War I. Moreover, British culture seems as popular and as influential as ever, even though the sun set on the British Empire in the 1950s.

Empires disappear completely

This myth is sometimes true. Notably, the Incan and Mexican (Aztec) Empires collapsed almost overnight because of pandemics and Spanish invasion.

In fact, Empires last a long time and often reemerge in other forms. Notably, a few pieces of the British and French colonial empires are still with us. For example, all the small states at the Olympics with Union Jacks on their flags.

Moreover, the last indirect successor state to the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, lasted until 1922. Interestingly, another self-proclaimed successor state to the Roman Empire, the Russian Empire, could still exist as Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation. Another successor institution to the Roman Empire the Roman Catholic Church, notice the name, is still going strong in Rome itself.

In addition, the Chinese Empire still exists as the People’s Republic of China, the Indian Empire as the Republic of India, and the Persian or Iranian Empire as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Even the Republic of Turkey claims to be a successor state to the Ottoman Empire.

Historically, only a few empires have disappeared completely. Notably, the Egyptian Empire became extinct with the death of Cleopatra in the First Century BC. However, there is a modern Republic of Egypt that occupies roughly the same territory as the Pharaohs’ empire.

Empires Fall because of Decadence

We have all read, heard, or seen variations of the decadent empire narrative. Movie producers, in particular, love the decadent Roman Empire trope because it necessitates lavish sets, legions of slave girls in skimpy costumes, and big budgets.

Evidence that decadence or moral degeneration plays a role in Imperial Collapse is scant, however. Notably, the decadent period of the Roman Empire was the First and Second centuries AD. Yet, the Western Empire Roman lasted another two and three quarters centuries until 476 AD.

Hence, decadent Rome was actually one of the Empire’s strongest periods. Notably, the decadent Romans could conquer Britain and build some of history’s greatest architecture, including the Coliseum.

Similarly, the most decadent period of British history was the late 18th Century. Yet, the late 18th Century was Britain’s greatest era of colonial expansion. Abroad, the British conquered Canada and India and colonized Australia in the late 18th Century. At home the decadent British launched the Industrial Revolution, invented the steam engine, and created modern capitalism.

Conversely the most austere era in British history was the 1940s and 1950s. The epoch of post-war rationing, Clement Attlee’s welfare state, and World War II sacrifice. For example, during World War II the Royal Family ate rations off of expensive china in the Palace and the Prime Minister ate meatless breakfasts at his country house. Yet the 1940s and 1950s were the era in which a bankrupt British Empire collapsed.

History shows that austerity is often a symptom of collapse, while decadence is not as destructive as moralists would believe. One obvious problem is that true believers often hide their prejudices behind charges of decadence.

In particular, the decadent Rome narrative is a thinly disguised Christian attack on paganism. Ironically, Rome collapsed after it converted from paganism to Christianity as Gibbon observes in his long but readable classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Another flaw in the decadence narrative is that decadence like morality is never as widespread as historians claim. Notably, only a tiny portion of Rome’s population attended orgies and only a handful of 18th Century Britons spent their time fox hunting and guzzling gin.

Similarly, puritanism is often just as shallow as decadence. A minority often held puritanical or stoic beliefs. Yet that minority often pretends everybody shares their values. However, history shows that drunkenness, orgies, and luxury are just as common in religious societies as in decadent ones.

Notably, puritanical Victorian England was an age of luxurious decadence, and the excesses of such wastrels as the notorious womanizer Crown Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s playboy son later King Edward VII.

Additionally, most austere ages occur because of outside circumstances. The British nobility ate poorly in the 1940s because of World War II, not a sense of duty.

Remember, many of Britain’s World War II heroes were the cynical and decadent martini-sipping aristocrats of the 1920s and 1930s. For example, the chain-smoking Ian Fleming, a decorated intelligence officer who went onto create the ultimate symbol of British decadence and cynicism James Bond. Fear of Nazism, not duty or idealism, motivated heroes such as Fleming.

Moreover, history shows the late Roman Republic was in some ways more decadent than the Empire.

Empires last Forever

History shows empires can collapse fast. The Mexican and Inca empires collapsed overnight in the 16th Century. Similarly, the British Empire vanished in under 25 years (1940-1964). Finally, the Soviet Union’s empire collapsed in just three years (1988-1991).

We can attribute those fast collapses to outside factors. The Inca and Mexica fell because of pandemics and Spanish invaders with military technology beyond anything the Americans could imagine.

The British Empire collapsed because of World War II, which exhausted the United Kingdom’s resources and bankrupted its economy. The Soviet Union fell apart when it became apparent that the Kremlin had lost the Cold War to the United States.

Thus, Empires can disappear overnight. Notably, the British Empire in India vanished in a day and the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe fell in a few weeks.

Is Imperial Collapse Good?

History shows that Imperial Collapse is not the catastrophe many people believe. Instead, Imperial Collapse could be a normal part of human evolution. To explain, older force based political structures (empires) often give way to newer knowledge or money-based systems.

History shows that Imperial Collapse is not the catastrophe many people believe. Instead, Imperial Collapse could be a normal part of human evolution. To explain, older force based political structures (empires) often give way to newer knowledge or money-based systems.

Imperial collapse is a part of human life and history we need to study and understand.