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Rise and Fall of Empires

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Ž.J., Feb 5, 2020.

  1. Ž.J.

    Ž.J. Dreamer

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    Hi guys!
    I would love to hear what ideas you have on the concept of Empires. When do empires reach their zenith, when do they fall, how they fall etc.
    Of course first of all in order to begin our discussion I think we need to define what an empire is. In my opinion the shorter way we could define an empire is "A conglomeration of different nations".
    May the discussion begin! :)
     
  2. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I’ve read before that a government tends to have an average lifespan of 200-300 years.
    Of course, the German Empire only lasted 30 years while Imperial China lasted for about 2500 years so it’s all over the place.

    I also disagree with your definition since, by that metric; the EU and the UK could be considered empires.
    I guess I’d ask you to define “conglomeration” and “nation”.
     
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I don't find "rise and fall" to be especially helpful in historical analysis. It works great for fiction, though! Also for balloons.

    One trouble with definitions is that one winds up in endless loops. Define conglomeration. Define nation. Okay, now define the words you used for those definitions. Argue endlessly. :)

    In one regard, I'd say the only one that gets to call itself an empire are the ones that call themselves empires. We in the West call the ruler of Japan the emperor, but that's a Latin word, not a Japanese word. I wonder if Japanese find the word adequate. Similarly for China or any other non-Western nation.

    Even the Greeks didn't call the ruler emperor, they called him basileus.

    For still more fun and games, the original emperor--Caesar Augustus--while imperator was among his collection of titles, actually claimed he was restoring the Republic and not creating an empire at all. Fifteen hundred years later, apologists for Henry VIII of England made the argument that a king was emperor within his own kingdom, so there's that. Or we have the Athenian Empire, which never called itself an empire, but the moniker was bestowed by modern historians upon the Delian League (applied for the era after Pericles swiped, er relocated, the League's treasury to Athens).

    I sincerely hope I have properly muddied the waters.
     
  4. Ž.J.

    Ž.J. Dreamer

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    You did gave a nice start to this :)

    And well...there are many examples of where states called there rulers emperors, while in the same way the particular state didn't fall into the definition of empire. Examples could given with my own home of Bulgaria. Until 1946 our rulers were too called Tsars (a slavinized version if Ceaser). Or Georgian for example. Their rules were titled "King of Kings" way until 1870s, when Georgia itself was a fringe vassal state of Russia.
    And to my definition. Well a "conglomeration" in my opinion plays the role of showing that, this particular civilization and its rulers are reigning over many difirent nations. And a nation itself is a conglomeration of different cultural markers (language, religion, food, dresses etc.) that define a given group of people.
     
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  5. Ž.J.

    Ž.J. Dreamer

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    Well aren't they? Isn't Russia, China or the USA empires? They are states with great territorial holdings (except the UK) ruling over many difirent ethical groups. Now the EU could be excluded but in the same way the Holy Roman Empire served a similar role. Now we can argue if the HRE itself was an empire, or it was simply a title. But I dont think that empires need to call themselves empires to be empires. :)
     
  6. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    As the Tibetans and Uigurs are concerned, China is definitely an Empire.
    Not so sure about Russia and USA though.

    China being an empire that lasted 2500 years is a propaganda lie. There were many periods where China split up into multiple independent states for considerable stretches and then ended up to be "unified" by a completely different group. It's much more sensible to treat each dynasty as a different state.
    The Yuan dynasty was the time when China was conquered by the Mongol Empire, and for a time China was ruled by the Manchu, who are also not Han.

    The Chinese Empire does not have much more persistence than the Persian Empire. Completely different states in roughly the same area that is defined by natural borders.
     
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  7. Gray-Hand

    Gray-Hand Minstrel

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    An Empire is a conglomeration of nations where one nation is in charge.

    USA is mostly a federation of states, which all share authority. Same as the EU.

    An argument could be made that the USA is an Empire by virtue of how certain countries like Peurto RICO or Guam or American Samoa and other territories are controlled by the USA.
     
  8. You forgot to examine what exactly the zenith of an empire is, when it's rising and how to define when it has fallen.

    After all, the roman empire ended in 476, except that it also did so in 1204, 1453 and 1461. It depends on what you count as which empire. Same with the empire of Alexander the great. Did it end with his death in 323 BC or in 31 BC, when the romans conquered Ptolomaic Egypt?

    As for the rise and fall in general (avoiding all this definition stuff), in my non-academic view there's two types of empires. There's those who are more or less founded by a single emperor who is responsible for a great and fast expansion and then there's those who grow gradually, being added to by different rulers.

    The first type is empires like that of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. They tend to last for the life of the founder and then fragment into separate kingdoms or empires as the strong ruler disappears, people argue about who the rightful successor is and opportunistic groups take advantage of the vacuum of power that appears. Some of these parts can still last a long time (like the aforementioned Ptolomaic Egypt).

    The second type grows much slower and usually dies a slow and dragged out death or slide into obscurity. The roman empire is a great example here, starting in 753, very slowly growing in size, technically only becoming an empire in 27 BC or so, reaching its largest size in 117AD (does that count as the zenith?) and then gradually shrinking until the fall of Rome in 476. Except of course that somewhere in there, someone split the whole thing in two and half of it continued as Byzantium for another 1000 years or so. The British empire is another one, which started somewhere in the 16th century or so, grew until it covered 24% of the total land area in the world in 1920 and since then has gotten smaller until now, 100 years later little of it remains and it's probably no longer an empire.
     
  9. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I’m going to suggest something crazy but bear with me: what if we consider the real-world concept of an “empire” as being somewhat distinct from the fiction archetype of an empire?
    I think “empires” are common enough in fiction that we can consider it a narrative convention or archetype in the same way we talk about archetypes like knight errants or dark lords and so forth.

    Going on this train of thought: I think empires would best be understood as an extension of a monarch (or monarchs are embodiments of the empire) who demonstrate expansionist and authoritarian behavior. They tend to be antagonist but can be benevolent.
     
  10. Ž.J.

    Ž.J. Dreamer

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    Well, i dont really get the cliché that empires should inherently be evil and serve as antagonists in the nerative.

    Monarchs (and nations) being expansionistic and in this way forming their own empires isn't something that's an exception in our history. Mongols, Timurids, Ottomans, Seljuks etc. all of these empires were formed thanks to expansionism.
     
  11. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I said they tend to be antagonistic but can be benevolent. I didn't press that they need to be evil or are automatically bad. The tendency for empires to be portrayed as evil in fiction is a trend that I think may be worth exploring rather than dismissing the idea .
    I also didn't intend to suggest that the archetype of an empire was totally divorced from or unlike historical empires. Likewise, fictional monarchies/kingdoms, dictatorships and so forth can fall under the archetype of an empire without being defined in-universe as an empire.

    I put the disclaimer that it was a crazy idea because I know it can be hard to separate the real-world concept of an empire from the narrative archetype. But considering that we are all writers here, I think we should keep the narrative use in our minds and not get completely bogged-down in the real-world definition or history of the concept.

    To expand on your first post, using the "empire archetype" rather than the real-world political concept...
    When do empires (in fiction) reach their zenith: it seems that a fictional empire reaches its peak under a good (morally good or politically effective) monarch who brings about peace, prosperity or military glory.
    when do they fall: when there is an evil or incompetent ruler who needs to be defeated to "free" the people under their empire's control. Alternatively, it could be when the people (particularly the upper class) prove to be too decadent or selfish to effectively rule.
    how they fall: military defeat is the most common way, it seems. Be that against rebels in a civil war who overthrow the monarch or when a country they attempt to dominate or subjugate fights back and win. In any case, the fall of a fictional empire nearly always corresponds with the morality or competency of the empire/its ruler(s).
     
    Last edited: Feb 6, 2020
  12. Ž.J.

    Ž.J. Dreamer

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    Excuse me for my outburst in my answer earlier. Didn't wanted to sound agresive.

    All of your answers seem quite realistic. The only thing I would like to add is that, maybe the higher class of society (high-nobility) would want to keep the empire weak so that they can abuse it for their own personal gain. This dosen't make them incumbent, just creedy.

    The cycle of the Chinese dynasties is a clear example of this. One dynasty becomes corrupt and stagnated thus a new one comes on its place. Of course this cycle was broken by outside forces. :)
     
  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Since rise and fall aren't helpful, neither is zenith. Except in astronomy. And old televisions.

    In fiction, I'm happy with an empire as long as the emperor rules over kings. Otherwise, it's just the author picking "emperor" because it sounds more important. I think at the start the OP suggested an empire was a conglomerate of nations. I'm happier saying it's a conglomerate of kingdoms.

    In history, I tend to be strict in interpretation. It's an empire if the term is used in the sources. Translating from another language is tricky. Someone mentioned the Persian Empire, but in fact the title was King of Kings. Or Shah. We regularly speak of the Emperor of Japan or of China. I suppose if the Japanese are content with the term, I should be as well, but it'd be interesting to know the connotations and reverberations of the original. It's also curious, though maybe not significant, that we speak of the Chinese Empire, but we translate the Chinese term not as the MIddle Empire but as the Middle Kingdom, which makes me wonder about titles there. And for a final curiosity, the Brits used to speak of the British Empire, but I'm pretty sure the title Emperor accreted only after they acquired India and was never formally used outside that context.

    I do think the trope of empire as not only evil but as more or less overbearingly powerful can be traced directly to Star Wars. We don't hear much about evil empires prior to that.
     
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  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >(high-nobility) would want to keep the empire weak so that they can abuse it for their own personal gain.
    The HRE (the so-called Holy Roman Empire) is a good example of this. Emperors were sometimes elected specifically because they were not particularly strong in their own right--the first Wittelsbachs are an example, but so is the first Hapsburg.
     
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  15. Ž.J.

    Ž.J. Dreamer

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    Well....the best way that I can show you what I think of empires, is I to probably tell you about the one in my own setting.

    Its called The Empire of the Seven United Kingdoms and it's an elective monarchy devided into administrative regions of 3 kinds.
    The 7 original kingdoms that formed the empire in the first place, are now know as the 7 Heartland Principalities (ruled by prince-electors). The 2nd type is a simple Imperial Provice ruled by a Governor and the 3rd are The Free marches, that basically serve as borderlands for The Empire. Furthermore every Principality and Province can be devided into Themes. Every Theme is ruled by a Stratygos, and they served as the landed elite of the Empire.
    The Empire has a legislative assembly known as The Imperial Senate formed from 10 delegates from every Principality, so combined to 70 imperial delegates. The Provinces themselves are represented into The Grand Consule. A legislative body working in a similar famous to the Senate, tho holding less influence.
    On top of all sits the emperor, who is democratically elected from the Imperial Senate, all 70 delegates.
     
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  16. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Hah, yeah.

    Does the negativity also spring from American propaganda? Or at least the American mindset? After all, the U.S. became the U.S. by fighting against that sort of thing, and through the years this antipathy has only increased. (I mean, against the idea of empires, not against Britain.)

    Star Wars has always seemed to me to be a bloated expression of this antipathy against empires.

    Since you are considering various historical realities and phrasing...what about something like "United Kingdom" or "Commonwealth?" Are these terms meant to soften the past, or soften the reality? Heh.

    For that matter, I wonder whether those in power, across history, viewed their empire in different ways than those out of power or at the periphery. "King of Kings" might seem to acknowledge the kingdoms of others, but those kings under the thumb of Persian rule might have felt differently. (And for that matter, King of Kings might also have been a way of debasing those other kingdoms...)
     
  17. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I don't think so or at least not entirely. I think following WWI, the idea of imperialism was just kind of tainted in the mind of the west. The war was basically republics vs. empires and led to the dismantling of several of the world's mightiest empires. Plus, it corresponded with the end of the Russian Empire, Imperial China and (to some extent) the British Raj.
    So, I think it's just a modernity thing. March of progress and all that. The idea of empires became seen as "inferior" or obsolete to the idea of republics starting from the English Civil War (or possibly as early as the Renaissance) to the end of WW2. The American revolution was just part of that progression. I think WWI was when it was cemented that empires are "bad" - that was when the idea was locked-in.

    And most fiction that we have to look towards was made in the west following WW1. I've always maintained that modern fantasy began with the pulps which were written in post WW1 America.
     
  18. It's also just an easier story to tell. A story relies on conflict and high stakes. There's not that much conflict in a story where a large empire crushes some rebellion. It's a lot easier to tell the story of a little guy with a group of friends taking on a large, all powerful empire. There's immediate conflict and high stakes there. Add to that that we like the underdog and it's clear to see why you get evil empires and not evil rebellions.

    Part of it might also stem from WW2. The resistance movements throughout Europe were seen as hero's after the war (and during probably). Little guy against evil empire is then just retelling that story in a different setting with different characters.

    I've seen only a few stories with a good empire that work. The third book in the Attila trilogy by William Napier is the only one that comes to mind. And that works because the empire in question is an empire on the verge of defeat (end of the roman empire) and they're facing a larger outside threat in Attila the Hun. This gives the stories conflict and high stakes.
     
  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    WWII added nails to that coffin. Not only because Hitler had proclaimed a Third Empire (Third Reich), and Il Duce had explicitly invoked imperial forms, but also because in the aftermath of that war there were a couple of decades of movements of independence from European empires. So it was easy to view empires as relics of the past and as oppressors, while rebels were symbols of progress and freedom.
     
  20. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Name one empire that wasn't evil? And by evil I mean habitualy invaded it's neighbours to steal their resources and enslave the population.

    The reason that the Tenno of Japan is called an emperor is because Chinese was the lingua franca of the day, and the Tenno demanded that court documents refer to him with the same title as the Emperor of China.
    I do not know if there is record what the emperor of China thought of that. It was totally ridiculous.
     
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