What Do the Rise and Fall of Empires Suggest?

London, UK - 23rd August 2012, 16:25 GMT

Dear ATCA Open & Philanthropia Friends

[Please note that the views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. ATCA conducts collective Socratic dialogue on global opportunities and threats.]

The summer respite is an interesting time to read history and to reflect on the lessons to be learned from empires long gone in preparation for empires yet to come. As the British Prime Minister William Pitt, the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine, and the Baron Acton said in different ways: "All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely!" The greatest mistake, oft repeated by those in power throughout history, has been the sin of "Hubris."

The Face of The World

The Battle of Marathon

September 21, 2012 marks the 2,503rd anniversary of the Battle of Marathon. During the recent Olympics in London, fine athletes from around the world commemorated that "Marathon" by running 26 mile Marathon races as billions watched on television. The Marathon runners, knowingly or unknowingly, paid tribute to men who fought for freedom so many thousands of years ago. Marathon is, in fact, a plain that lies 26 miles -- not far -- from Athens in Greece. After their victory, the Athenian runner Pheidippides raced that distance back to Athens to tell his fellow citizens that their army was victorious and in the process gave birth to the legend of the "Marathon Run." After the Battle-of-Marathon, the entire Greek army marched those 26 miles, despite their exhaustion from conflict, in order to prevent the Persian fleet from making a surprise assault on Athens. On that date in 490 BC, 10,000 men of Athens and their ally Plataea defeated a Persian army three times their size. The Persians were the best equipped and best trained army the world had ever seen. They were soldiers of the Great King Darius, “Lord of Lords, King of Kings and Master over the Four Corners of the World!” King Darius had sent them forth on a pre-emptive strike against Athens as part of his plan to enslave the entire Greek world and then the whole of the "known" Western world, ie, Europe. He never imagined that such a powerful empire as his could be defeated by a small number of Greeks or that his "Hubris" would begin the decline and fall of the largest ancient and first pan-Middle Eastern empire.

Lessons from "The Histories"

More than 2,400 years ago, the ancient Greek historian and philosopher Herodotus suggested in his seminal work "The Histories" that there were invariable laws responsible for the rise and fall of empires and they did not rise or fall because of anonymous social, economic and natural forces. He noted that the greatest mistake made by those in power is the sin of "Hubris." That Greek word means “outrageous arrogance.” His research showed that empires rise and fall because of arrogant individual decisions made by hubris-infected individual leaders. Hubris is the outrageous arrogance that marks the abuse of power and often:

1. Indicates a loss of contact with reality;
2. Suggests an overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities; and
3. Manifests in persons or groups who believe they are in a position of absolute power.

Only those invested with enormous power can commit the sin of "Hubris" and it is the imposition of their will, at all costs, that leads to the ultimate decline of their immediate empire.

Four Large Ancient Empires and Civilisations

Herodotus -- circa 484 to 425 BC -- has been called the "Father of History." He was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to an extent and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative. The four largest ancient empires and civilisations at their height that he was able to study, compare and reflect on were as follows:

1. Persian or Achaemenid Empire -- Peak at 480 BC -- Covering 8 million sq km;
2. Neo-Assyrian Empire -- Peak at 670 BC -- Covering 1.4 million sq km;
3. Egyptian 26th Dynasty Empire -- Peak at 550 BC -- Covering 0.65 million sq km; and
4. Neo-Babylonian Empire -- Peak at 562 BC -- Covering 0.5 million sq km.

The ancient Greeks believed that "Hubris" was a primary cause for the decline of those ancient empires and in each case "Hubris" was preceded by ate or moral blindness that makes one believe that one can do anything one wants to and there will be no consequences from either the Gods or humans!

Ten Largest Empires in Human History

Similarly, the decline of the ten largest empires at their height in the history of the world began when they were economically the super-powers of their day:

1. British Empire -- Peak at 1922 -- Covering 33.7 million sq km;
2. Mongol Empire -- Peak at 1270 -- Covering 33 million sq km;
3. Russian Empire -- Peak at 1866 -- Covering 23.7 million sq km;
4. Spanish Empire -- Peak at 1740 -- Covering at 20 million sq km;
5. Chinese Qing Dynasty Empire -- Peak at 1790 -- Covering 14.7 million sq km;
6. Chinese Yuan Dynasty Empire -- Peak at 1310 -- Covering 14 million sq km;
7. Unmayyad Caliphate Empire -- Peak at 720 -- Covering 13.3 million sq km;
8. Second French Colonial Empire -- Peak at 1938 -- Covering 12.3 million sq km;
9. Abbasid Caliphate Empire -- Peak at 750 -- Covering 11.1 million sq km;
10. Chinese Tang Dynasty Empire -- Peak at 663 -- Covering 11 million square km.

While there are many well chronicled and complex individual causes for the decline of each of the ten largest empires in human history, "Hubris" exhibited by their leadership at the time of their peak is often stated as one of the most common themes for their downfall.

Second World War Empires

Interestingly the three most recent and largest empires of modern times exhibit this point of "Hubris" even more vividly during the height of their tyrannical and terrifying subjugating command in the middle of the Second World War:

1. Japanese Empire -- Peak at 1942 -- Covering 7.4 million sq km;
2. Italian Empire -- Peak at 1940 -- Covering 3.8 million sq km; and
3. Nazi German Empire -- Peak at 1942 -- Covering 3.6 million sq km.

Interestingly, the duration of very large empires has been getting shorter and shorter throughout history. And the last three largest empires in modern history, including that of Nazi Germany, were amongst the shortest. For example, the German "Third Reich" lasted only twelve years between 1933 and 1945.

Size and Scope of Herodotus's Research

Herodotus announced the size and scope of his work at the beginning of his "The Researches" or "The Histories" or "The Inquiries":

"Herodotus of Halicarnassus, his 'Researches' are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples; and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict." His seminal work is structured as a dynastic history of four Persian kings:

1. Cyrus (557 to 530 BC): Book 1;
2. Cambyses (530 to 522 BC): Book 2 and part of Book 3;
3. Darius (521 to 486 BC): the rest of Book 3 then Books 4, 5 and 6; and
4. Xerxes (486–479 BC): Books 7, 8 and 9.

Within this basic structure, Herodotus traces the way the Persians developed a custom of conquest and shows how their habits of thinking about the world and their "Hubris" finally brought about their nemesis in Greece.

Does the Solution to Hubris Lie in Sophrosyne?

"Sophrosyne" is the Greek opposite of "Hubris." In Greek philosophy, Sophrosyne is a Greek goddess who is the spirit of moderation, self-control, temperance, restraint and discretion. The ancient Greeks upheld the ideal of Sophrosyne, which is perhaps best expressed by the Oracle of Delphi. In the ancient world the greatest of all the oracles was the oracle at Delphi, and inscribed on the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi was a simple two-word command: "Gnothi Seauton!" or "Know thyself!" The other equally important saying of the Oracle of Delphi was "Nothing in excess!" Sophrosyne suggests a lifelong happiness obtained when one's philosophical needs are satisfied, resembling the idea of enlightenment through harmonious living. It is a nearly lost classical ideal, but is enjoying some revival today with its emphasis on individuals to live within the proportions of reason and nature, this being achieved through practical wisdom and self-knowledge. Parallels abound in Eastern thought -- including Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Taoism and Confucianism -- and Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


Prideful leaders at the height of their empires appear to have ignored all the human and divine warnings that were sent to them because they felt so secure in their power. Does pride, indeed, come before a fall? What is the antidote? Is it "Sophrosyne" or Humility?!


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