On The Viability Of Empire

As someone who is fond of reading and even perhaps occasionally writing about the Byzantine Empire [1], one of the aspects of the empire and its history that comes to mind is at what did it cease to become a viable nation? The Byzantine Empire started its life as the Eastern Roman Empire in the divisions set up by Diocletion in the late 3rd century AD and continued on as Constantinople was turned into the imperial capital by Constantine and his successors. The fall of the Western Roman Empire to barbarian successor states left the Byzantine Empire as a bastion of Western culture in the face of numerous barbarian threats for more than a thousand years. Yet while the empire had its ups and downs, it appears that at some point the empire crossed over a point from when it was periodically weakened to where it was moribund, and it is that point which I would like to comment on as a means of discussing the fate of empires and imperial nations as a whole.  After all, if we can learn something from the fate of the Byzantine Empire, it is worthwhile to do so.

During the time of the Byzantine Empire there were several areas of great weakness the combined internal dissension and poor leadership with external threats to the survival and strength of the empire as a whole.  The Eastern Roman Empire was founded itself in one such period, towards the end of a third century crisis that endangered the urban culture and fiscal and military survival of Rome in the face of threats from Germany and Persia.  Later on the Goths, Lombards, Avars, and Slavs as well as the Persians were threats in the fifth century or during the sixth and early seventh century after the resurgence under Justinian.  The Arabs remained a persistent threat to the Byzantines, as did the Bulgars, during the lengthy period of the seventh and eighth centuries before their growing disunity allowed for a resurgence of Byzantine power in the tenth and eleventh century.  After that Byzantine weakness was exploited by the Turks and Normans, although there were some gains made in the thirteenth century that allowed some breathing room and strength one last time before the Fourth Crusade, the resulting division of the Byzantine realm, and the continued division of the Byzantines after the restoration of Nicean rule over Constantinople made the Byzantines increasingly beleaguered in the face of the rising Turks, who were eventually to conquer Constantinople in 1453.

Historians differ as to the exact point at which the fall of Constantinople was inevitable.  Edward Gibbon fancied that the Byzantine Empire was itself continually in decline from the fourth century onward.  This seems a bit ridiculous to many others, for understandable reasons.  Still others point to Manzikert as being decisive, or rather its aftermath, as it led to the rise of the Turks in Anatolia, which had hitherto been a bastion of security for free peasant soldiers.  There was some recovery after this, but a later defeat at Myriocephalum denied the Byzantines a chance to recover Anatolia in 1176, and Constantinople itself fell to the Fourth Crusade in 1204, which was a massive disaster in that not only did the capital of the empire fall but the Byzantine world itself was split into a variety of successor states, from Nicaea (which eventually restored the Byzantine Empire in lesser form to survive for nearly two centuries more) to Trebizond to Epirus.  And the loss of land as well as a native group of soldiers led to dependence on mercenary forces which would prove to be immensely troublesome.

Obviously, this is a very brief overview, but it allows us to ponder what conditions are necessary in order to preserve an imperial existence.  For one, one needs enough land to field a viable army capable of defense as well as attack.  Once a nation falls beneath a certain size to where it can no longer support a mighty army, it becomes dependent on aid from others which may or may not be forthcoming even in times of dire need.  This is the reverse situation, for example, of the rise of Brandenburg-Prussia, where it is reaching a certain threshold of size that allows a nation to support an army capable of fighting above its weight in the world.  That said, the amount of land or population that is necessary to support a nation need not be large.  Israel, for example, is able to punch above its weight despite being heavily outnumbered by its neighbors, and the same has been true of Chile throughout its history against Peru and Bolivia as well as even Argentina.  Likewise, Prussia was not extremely large when it began to be viewed as a power in its own right in the 18th century.

Another important criteria that appears to be necessary is the presence of strong leadership and a strong degree of internal unity.  One of the reasons why Manzikert was such a disastrous defeat was that while the emperor survived the battle itself, the loss was both the result of division within the Byzantine state and itself prompted a degree of civil conflict over political power even as the territorial base of the empire itself was being lost.  The same is true, of course, of the divisions after the Fourth Crusade and in later civil wars between various Byzantine contenders for the throne.  Civil conflict is dangerous for all would-be empires, regardless of whether the fight is for a throne or for control of a Republic.  It was during the Civil War, let us remember, that the French sought to set up a puppet ruler over Mexico and Spain sought to regain power in the Dominican Republic and South America while America was distracted in fratricidal conflict.  Similarly, it was in part the weakness and division of the Russians in 1917 and again in 1991 that led to the independence of Finland (in 1917) and the Baltic states (in both 1917 and 1991).

In order to maintain empire, then, one needs to keep at least a few factors in mind.  One has to preserve enough of a territorial and economic base that one is able to be a credible power at least on a regional level vis-a-vis one’s neighbors and potential rivals.  One need not be the biggest or the strongest nation, but one needs to be big enough and strong enough to remain a credible force.  Likewise, one needs strong leadership, as even the strongest nations are vulnerable to having their imperial domain constricted in the face of opportunistic enemies when their attention is distracted by internal turmoil.  And for nations which are small relative to their neighbors and/or enemies, the importance of internal unity is all the more greater because the margin for error is all the smaller.  Lest we think that we are immune to such concerns, our own history ought to remind us of the dangers of prolonged periods of internal disunity in a hostile world.  If we do not expect to remain an empire as long as the Byzantines did, let us not act in such a way as to destroy our own viability as an imperial republic.

[1] See, for example:






About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, International Relations, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On The Viability Of Empire

  1. Pingback: Empire State Of Mind | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Theories Of Imperialism | Edge Induced Cohesion

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