The Age of Empires

by Harley Voogd


The Fate of Empires written in 1978 by Sir John Glubb (1897-1986) is an illuminating essay on the life cycle of empires, which turn out to be very much the same for different empires around the world and through the centuries.

You can read the essay for yourself here, and I highly recommend that you do. But in this article I will try to give you a brief overview of what Glubb writes.

First, Glubb argues that the life span of empires tend to be the same: about 250 years, or ten generations (if a generation is considered to be 25 years)….

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Each empire seems to progress through four main stages: 1) The Age of Outburst/Pioneering/Conquest; 2) The Age of Affluence; 3) The Age of Intellect; 4) The Age of Decadence.*

First, in the Age of Outburst, often a group of hard working, aggressive people, who are not in any strong position of power already, rise up and take control. Perhaps they move in and take the power over from an older empire which is far along into its decadence stage, or perhaps they move in on a less developed culture and dominate it. This age is characterized by exploring men with fearless initiative and military conquest of older orders.

Second, there is commercial expansion ushering in the Age of Affluence. With one power controlling many sections of land comes ease of travel, common currency, common language, law and order — all of which allow people to trade extensively. If the empire is large, it will cover several different cultures in different climates making available many various goods to consumers all over the empire. Great wealth grows during this age.

Third is the Age of Intellect. With affluence comes a decline in “courage, enterprise, and a sense of duty … [and] the first direction in which wealth injures the nation is a moral one.” (Glubb) The general outlook of the citizens of the empire move from one of service to one of selfishness. While the Age of Intellect creates advances in science and technology, and while it also creates a culture of reason, debate, and argument, it also leads to division in the empire as the common good obvious in the previous ages becomes muddied in the endless chatter of the intellectuals. While the problems created by the selfish culture can only be solved by renewed selfless service, the intellectuals believe they can solve the problems with their new ideas. It doesn’t work and the culture weakens and loses self-esteem.

When the system holding the empire begins to degrade, the empire enters its final stage: Decadence. The people have lost sight of why the empire should even exist and have little to no desire to preserve it. Glubb gives some signs which show an empire has entered this last stage: civil dissension, an influx of foreigners (who do not conform to the host culture), frivolity, a decline in religious belief and morals, and a welfare state. The heroes of the first ages of the empire, warriors and leaders, are replaced by pop-stars and celebrity chefs. Glubb also points out that in the age of decline more and more women want to enter into positions of power previously only held by men. He doesn’t go into why, but it is interesting to point out. (A confusion of gender seems to be a factor in the Decadence stage.)

Glubb asks the important question: Can we learn from history? His answer is yes, if we actually study it — if we actually study world history instead of only our own empire’s history. Only when we learn to prevent the Age of Decadence by not becoming selfish and lazy in the Age of Affluence can we hope to break through the continuing fate of empires.

Further reading…

First Things: Camille Paglia’s Teaching

The Case Against Western Civilization by James B. Jordan

You can also watch a fairly lengthy video on the fall of the Roman Empire by Stefan Molyneux here.

I also highly recommend James B. Jordan’s book Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future

*Glubb divides the life span of the empire into six stages: 1) Pioneers; 2) Conquest; 3) Commerce; 4) Affluence; 5) Intellect; 6) Decadence. I’ve compressed it to four for the sake of simplicity.