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Europe | Greece

Athens / The Rise and Fall of Empires

Who’s next?

   faint air of grandeur streamed through the colossal pillars of the Parthenon as the ruin lay bare before us like a whale skeleton’s rib cage. Stranded atop an outcrop in the middle of Athens, the carcass was surrounded by others, devastated remains of the Acropolis, the once blossoming citadel in the heart of Ancient Greece.

Cranes next to the astonishing landmark were a fit reminder of how it had been built without cranes. When the old Greeks hoisted the Parthenon up in eight little years, eons ago (447 BC – 438 BC), they had but manual tools at their disposal – an impressive architectural accomplishment of a civilization that reigned the region for hundreds of years.

"So how did it all fall apart for that wealthy empire whose descendants are the EU’s financial problem child nowadays?"

So how did it all fall apart for that wealthy empire whose descendants are the EU’s financial problem child nowadays? Was it a similar fate that caught up with technologically advanced civilizations like the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs, who live on in indigenous populations that struggle to get by in today’s world, selling produce in the streets of Latin America? What happened to the mighty Mongol Empire, grown by Genghis Khan into the largest contiguous land empire of all times, where the lifestyle of nomadic tribes remains almost unchanged until today? Why did the Babylonians see their day in the sun end, despite their vast medicinal, mathematical and astronomical knowledge?

Division. War. Revolution. Religion. Migration. Economy. Disaster. Politics. Succession.

Empires fall for many reasons, unforeseeable at their zenith and only evident with the benefit of historic hindsight. The one reliable lesson history teaches is that they will crumble; they always have. The question is not if, but when, for none have lasted – from the Egyptian to the British Empire. To bother with the “why” might help avoid the same mistakes in the future, but within constantly changing dynamics of uncertain environments that only goes so far, and history tells us that the demise can be slowed at best, the doomsday only ever delayed.

 

"Former empires might have traded their swords for pencils, yet the battlefields remain and the war for growth and power goes on."

Today, the classic empire seems extinct. But maybe the sands have simply shifted, the way dinosaurs live on in our birds. Former empires might have traded their swords for pencils, yet the battlefields remain and the war for growth and power goes on. Recent geopolitical pursuits and GDP growth strategies differ from former imperialistic approaches merely on paper: in this very moment, the US is fighting a global trade war, putting its own interests first and promoting divide over union; Russia has annexed Crimea and is meddling in elections around the globe to strengthen its own position. China is investing unparalleled sums in worldwide infrastructure as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, and we have yet to see whether these efforts will benefit all or primarily help this superpower advance its global supremacy.

"... predatory pricing and hostile takeovers are the weapons of business empires that fight merciless battles on Wall Street."

Moreover, the private sector isn’t any less belligerent. If anything, the competition has gotten fiercer since the days of Venice merchants and Singaporean spice traders: predatory pricing and hostile takeovers are the weapons of business empires that fight merciless battles on Wall Street. And just like the old empires, they rise and fall. Some gain or lose momentum quicker than others, but eventually they pass on their heyday to the next. Death by bankruptcy. Reincarnation by acquisition. Reinvention by merger.

Today’s giants, the Googles and Amazons, will be tomorrow’s runner ups, before they disappear altogether; even if it is hard to believe right now, given their utter supremacy. The more adaptable an empire proves in the process of its own growth and the more efficient or lucky in its decision making under uncertainty, the longer it might be around; however, eventually it will get swallowed by a bigger fish. It’s not just business, it’s a law of nature.

Blinded by the sheer size, power and reach of contemporary business empires, it’s easy to overlook their age – Amazon is a tender 25 years old (founded 1994), Google is just about to turn 21 this year (founded 1998) and Facebook is a 15 year old teenager (founded 2004). The Roman Empire, which is often considered the longest lasting empire in history, was 1480 years old on its deathbed.

"Survival, by nature, lives off balance."

Sober historic facts suggest that empires are not meant to survive. And probably that is a good thing. After all, their expansion is fueled by an almost cancerous greed for growth, which can hardly be sustainable in the long run. Empires thrive on exclusion, on fighting enemies along frontiers, on wresting territory away from one another.

 

Survival, by nature, lives off balance. No one group should permanently dominate a given territory, in order for life to flourish. In the grand scheme of things, survival is inevitably a matter of transformation.

Once we apply a greater scale of measurement to appreciate the bigger picture, everything becomes more inclusive than exclusive: human empires might not last, but humanity as a whole is still around (even though it hasn’t had much time to prove itself and is working hard on its self-sabotage). Homo Sapiens has survived and ruled for about 200,000 years now, which is of course negligible in the larger context: our predecessor homo erectus was around for almost 2 million years, mammals have wandered this earth for 65 million years, the dinosaurs lasted nearly 200 million years and life itself is a staggering 3.5 billion years old. Life has had a good run because it promotes transformation and balance.

Nature leads by example, and if we follow it, we can learn to embrace change and a healthy equilibrium instead of striving for bellicose growth and desperately clinging on to something that will inescapably perish.

 

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