Ion Grumeza

Author, historian, educator, and philosopher

The Breaking of Empires

Opinion Page Submission
The Washington Post

The Breaking of Empires
By Ion Grumeza

Because of terrorism, economic setbacks, and too many wars, we are likely to witness serious geo-political changes in the near future. One is taking place right now, due to American military strikes that will trigger loyalty shifts and affect the redistribution of natural resources, as well as the wealth of the global markets.

With the world already divided into distinct economic spheres of influence, we can speak of different unofficial “empires” built around certain currencies and military blocks. Consider some uncontested facts about what brought former empires down. Hopefully we can learn something from this history.

The Persian empire was an astonishing conglomeration of ancient tribes that produced victorious armies while carrying on a forty-one-years-long war against the federation of Greek cities. Fighting too far from their home, the Persians ended up in total exhaustion, which proved contagious for the entire empire. It crumbled under the invasion of Alexander the Great.

The short-lived empire of Alexander extended from Macedonia to the Indus River, but his premature death left his generals divided and ruined one of the most promising empires of all time.

There was never a Hellenistic Empire, but the highly civilized and entrepreneurial Greeks established their prosperous colonies along all the coastal seas connected with the Mediterranean. The downfall of this commercial empire was brought about by Greek vanity, set aside only to collectively repulse a foreign attack.

The end of the Egyptian, Greek, and Persian empires left a timely void for the rise of the Roman Empire. It spread from the narrow boot of the Italic peninsula over most of the lands of previous empires. Octavian Augustus (under whose reign Jesus was born) founded the empire, Trajanus extended its largest boundaries, and Hadrian consolidated it. Two hundred years later, Emperor Caracalla rushed its decline with a popular “Civis Romanus Sum!,” making each freeborn inside the empire a Roman citizen.

Overnight, the foreigners, who already sucked empty the empire’s treasury, over-voted the Romans, who lost control of their orderly society. Soon German warriors took control of the legions, and barbarian generals, who never spoke Latin or saw Rome, were elected emperors. This enforced the lesson that foreign soldiers remain just that to their adoptive countries: alien.

The avalanche of Hunic hordes from today’s Russia into the Balkans brought Attila to the gates of Rome, and shortly after that, the Vandals sacked this imperial capital of the world. It was the blow that kneeled the Romans among the ruins of their defenseless empire.

Far away from Rome, a strong but brutal empire was built by Timur the Lame, who, after thirty-five military victories, wanted to establish his version of a global Pax Mongola. Just like the Golden Horde, all the Mongol empires, whose soldiers never built anything, collapsed after the death of their leaders.

The Byzantine Empire was built around Eastern Orthodoxy and the assuring walls of Constantinople. But the crusaders conquered and weakened this Balkan empire, paving the victorious road for the soldiers of Allah, who were pushing their way from Asia into Europe.

Finally, in 1453, the Turks stormed Constantinople, killed its emperor, mercilessly plundered and murdered the citizens, and turned Saint Sophia Cathedral into a mosque. An thus the days of the Eastern Roman Empire ended.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, explorers turned into exterminators, conquering the vast empires of an uncharted world of superior beauty, majesty, and civilization. Francisco Pizzaro, with 180 plunderers, ended the history of the Inca Empire, and Hernan Cortez, with 600 desperados, put an end to the Aztec Empire. These abrupt ends were made possible by the power of horses, the range of canons and muskets, and contagious diseases brought from Europe.

The Dutch and Portuguese empires sent soldiers and civil servants all over the seas, but their small size and limited numbers resulted in their not being able to hold on to their colonies. The aspiring empires of Lithuania and Poland were not able to prevent their much larger neighbors, Germany and Russia, from trashing their territories with endless wars. The industrial revolution in England ended the Spanish domination over an empire where the sun never set. In exchange, the British piston-engined fleet pushed ahead in full steam to subjugate some one-fifth of the world.

The Czarist empire was demolished in a few months by the Bolshevik Revolution carried by millions of Russian deserters from the trenches of World War II. Angry and hungry, they returned home to avenge their miserable war experiences, and Lenin directed them against the old empire. The same war put an end to the Ottoman Empire as well.

The Third Reich lasted only thirteen years because Hitler, like Napoleon, invaded Russia, losing his best fighting forces to the merciless Siberian winter. The inglorious end of the Soviet Empire was due to its reckless arms race, the costly exporting of Communism, and the nationalistic revolts of its ethnic republics.

Without any serious military or economic competition, the United States of America remains today the only unofficial empire to enforce a new global order for the third millennium. While seen by the rest of the world as peace-keepers or oil-hungry aggressors, liberators or occupiers, we Americans take our role seriously, wanting other nations to look up to our global economic and military superiority. Our imperialism is too obvious, however, and the fate of such global power is difficult to predict. It would be wiser to note the lessons of history and try not to duplicate their mistakes.

© 2003 Ion Grumeza