Empires come and go. Why do they rise and fall? Can we learn the lessons of history? I am no historian, but I have mined a few nuggets from others who have studied these empires more closely. Are any of these snip-bits instructive to us today as we live in one of the greatest nations in the world's history?
The earliest empire I have chosen is the Babylonian empire. It existed for a relatively short time as far as empires go. In 612BC Babylon defeated the Assyrians to become the strongest empire of the day. In 539BC the Medo-Persians defeated Babylon to end their dominance. In the interim the peoples of Judah were deported, essentially as slaves, to Babylon. Much of Jerusalem was destroyed including the temple. The book of Daniel records that the emperor Nebuchadnezzar was "weighed in the balances and found wanting." His ethics and spiritual life failed. Here's the application to us: In past decades we have outlawed prayer in schools and banned displays of the Ten Commandments from the public square. Our Judeo-Christian values have been eroded.
The Roman empire was one of the most widespread for many centuries. At its peak it stretched from the middle east to much of Britain in the west. Although it had many accomplishments, it was a brutal regime, set up by barbarous campaigns. We all know how criminals and opponents were crucified. In-fighting among the rulers led to the murder of several emperors. Remember Shakespeare's play-- Julius Caesar? Caesar cries "Et tu, Brute" as his former comrade and friend joins a group that stabs him to death. Also, the empire grew large and difficult to administrate. Eventually it split into eastern and western empires, as the fall was approaching. Churchill says that "by the middle of the third century the Empire was politically in a state of chaos and financially ruined. By the end of the century ...below the surface the foundations were cracking...under the weight of taxation." Many reasons have been given for the empire's fall, but they indicate internal decay and financial ruin. Application: what about our national debt approaching $30 trillion, indicating about $232 thousand each for the average taxpayer?
My next selected example is the Ottoman empire. As I started this research, I was surprised to learn that this empire was one of the longest surviving in history. It existed from about AD 1300 to about 1900, although its strongest years were1450 to 1550. It was mainly Turkish and mainly Islamic. Its decline started in the sixteenth century when the empire came under inflationary pressures due to the increasing costs of warfare. Taxes were not able to fill this need, so the government took the existing coins of noble metals and replaced them with coins that had large proportions of cheaper metal alloys. In the late 1600s the Ottoman empire started losing some wars. The ruler Suleyman increasingly withdrew from public life to "enjoy the pleasures of his harem." There were increasing internal factions, anarchy, corruption, and nepotism. By the early 1800s the empire needed foreign assistance for safety, and then it declared bankruptcy in 1875. As a final despicable act, the empire indulged in genocide and ethnic cleansing when it exterminated up to 1.5 million Armenians after WWI. In summary: taxes, inflation, internal divisions, corruption, and anarchy were its downfall.
My final selection is the British empire. Over the years the Romans and Danes invaded the island and left their imprint. The final successful invader from Normandy was William the Conqueror who took the country in 1066. Subsequently the island nation built a strong navy to defend its shores. In the late 16th to the early 18th centuries the British developed settlements and trading posts all over the globe, including the New World. They owned ports in strategic locations such as Gibraltar, Malta, Aden, Cape town, Columbo, Singapore, and Sydney, as well as several in the Americas. The British navy won decisive battles against the Spanish in 1588 when the armada was crushed with the help of a mighty storm, and in 1805 at the battle of Trafalgar when a combined force of French and Spanish ships was routed by the British Admiral Nelson. As the battle approached Nelson raised national pride by signaling: "England expects that every man will do his duty." The more maneuverable British ships outflanked the opponents' larger vessels which were made more for boarding and hand-to-hand fighting rather than for bombardment. Ten years later a British led coalition defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo. By 1913 the British empire was the largest that ever existed. It covered 25% of the world's land surface and claimed 23% of its population. It was "an empire on which the sun never sets."
So, what caused its decline? The BBC said that it could be traced directly to the impact of WWII. That war virtually bankrupted the UK, and the subsequent debt severely compromised its economic viability. After that war India gained its independence in 1947, followed by most other colonies soon after. Britain's strengths had been the natural resource of saltwater surrounding the island, which was harnessed by the building of its naval fleets. Also, the inventiveness and entrepreneurship of its people in the Industrial Revolution, and its national pride were its major strengths. By contrast it was stretched too thin in its empire, and then financial problems led to its downfall. Here in the USA our economy has greatly benefitted from the natural resource of cheap energy from fossil fuels. Are we throwing away that advantage?
What can we learn from all of this? I have made comments on most of the empires shown by giving comparisons with this country's present state. But we could probably summarize the rise and falls by saying that when empires had solidarity of purpose, sound fiscal policies and national pride they thrived. But almost all declined because of internal decay and financial problems. Can we learn the lessons of history?
Peter Gilderson, Madison.