Historic Decline of Civilizations – A 5000 Year Story That Seems To Have A Repeating Plot

How long can an empire last? What brings down once mighty civilizations? The idea has intrigued me for years because by studying the historic decline of great civilizations, perhaps we can see patterns in our current world that may or may not exist.  I have been working on the Decline of America in 12 arguments and that work has lead me to a deeper dive into historic declines of great civilizations of Europe, the Middle East and Asia.  Many had long runs, most were pushed out of existence because of wars but wars were always a part of history.  The wars that finally ended civilizations like Greece at the hands of the Romans or the Romans at the hands of the Barbarians were symptoms of a bigger decay. Historically, societies fall when they lose sight of what made them great.

Here are a few of the selected notes I found on the net.  For the full spreadsheet – HERE

Decline of  A Great  Society

When you look at the decline of other great societies there are historic clues that don’t always line up perfectly with the arguments I put forth in this book but there are definitely patterns that should scare you and make you take notice.  Alexander Fraser Tytler, a European historian published The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic. In his analysis, Tytler concluded that from his research that the following stages of societal growth and decline are clear guideposts that great societies follow:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising them the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over a loss of fiscal responsibility, always followed by a dictatorship. The average of the world’s great civilizations before they decline has been 200 years. These nations have progressed in this sequence:

From bondage to spiritual faith,
From spiritual faith to great courage,
From courage to liberty,
From liberty to abundance,
From abundance to selfishness,
From selfishness to complacency,
From complacency to apathy,
From apathy to dependency,
From dependency back again to bondage.”

The American experience, at just shy of 240 years old, is following  Tytler’s stages.  From our Countries foundation and the pushback against tyranny at the hands of the British empire to the roaring 20’s, industrial revolution, post WWII economic booms on through to the rise of the counterculture, hippies, free love and into the rise of illicit drug use through the cocaine and crack 80’s and 90’s. The final stages we are now living include lack of trust in our governmental institutions from Congress to your local school district, the rise of the entitlement state and the ‘selfie generation’ who ask ‘what is my government going to do for me?’

A Study of History – Tonybee

Historian Arnold Toynbee wrote a 12 part series in 1961 called A Study of History.  Toynbe argued that civilizations travel through many distinct stages;



Troubled Times

Universal State


 Toynbee believed that a civilization declines not by external influences brought on by environmental concerns or attacks from invaders.  Tonybee’s research showed societies become very focused at problem-solving but are not able to adapt to new, more sophisticated problems caused by advancement.  Over time,  societies have created too many layers, and empires overdeveloped their problem-solving structures and can’t adapt. The Rise of the Bureaucratic State is one of the chapters that will delve into this theory at greater length.

Tonybee studied the role of the “Dominant Minority” that forces the majority to obey. The “Creative Minority” which once was the source of new ideas, adaptations and the ability of the minority to influence the majority continues to bask in the glory days of the past and loses their ability to challenge and push society into a new direction.

He argues that the ultimate sign of a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a large centralized ruling system, a central government or a Proletariat, which stifles political creativity. He states:

First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force – against all right and reason – a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation – and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands.

Tonybee argues that, as civilizations decay, they form an “Internal Proletariat” and an “External Proletariat.” The Internal proletariat is held in subjugation by the dominant minority inside the civilization, and grows bitter; the external proletariat exists outside the civilization in poverty and chaos and grows envious. He argues that as civilizations decay, there is a “schism in the body social,” where groups are pitted against each other. Instead of virtue and community, the people in the society become jealous and envious.

When short-term gain for the ruling majority is bypassed for the long-term gain of what is best for the society, cracks emerge in the societal fabric. We will dig in deeply to the political structure, bureaucracy and once trusted institutions that are now corrupted or incompetent to deliver on their mission.  America is moving towards an ‘every man for themselves’ philosophy and this shift is not only counter to what made this Country great but could spell the end of this great experiment envisioned 240 years ago.

Here’s a few of the once mighty societies that are now gone;



1000 years
-Heavy taxes were paid by the provinces to support the luxury of Rome; the conquered people began to resent this.
-Conflict and social unrest was created by the wide gap between the rich and the poor.
-Slavery eroded the economy by taking work away from the plebeians.
-The spread of Christianity divided the Empire and caused many people under Roman rule to reject traditional Roman culture.
-The society was weakened by its materialism and focus on luxury, especially in the ruling classes.
-Trade was constantly disrupted because of wars; the economy suffered because goods could not be freely bought and sold.
-The Empire became too large and the borders were too long to defend.
-Rome’s army became too large; the hired soldiers (mercenaries) in Roman armies were not Romans and not loyal to Rome.
-Eventually, the Empire became a dictatorship and the people were less involved in government.
-The neighboring states were increasing in power and were more unified than the city-states of Greece.
-According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC by twin brothers Romulus and Remus after escaping the Trojan War. Archeological evidence supports this date as the founding of Rome. This earliest period lasts until 510 BC when the king, Tarquin the Proud was ousted from power. So it lasted roughly 140 years.
-The Roman Republic begins in 510 BC with the ouster of King Tarquin the proud and the establishment of a republic based on a constitution. The republic lasted until 44 BC when Julius Caesar was assassinated. It lasted for roughly 450 years.
-The Roman Empire begins in 44 BC when Augustus takes absolute power. Romes starts to greatly decline in power around 330 AD when Constantine made Constantinople the new capital of Rome. In 410 AD, the Visigoths successfully destroyed much of Rome. The empire formally ends in 476 AD with the abdication of the last emperor Romulus Augustus to the Germanic chief Odoacer. So, it lasted for roughly 520 years.
 -Those morals and values that kept together the Roman legions and thus the empire could not be maintained towards the end of the empire. The dramatic increase of divorce undermined the institution of the family. Crimes of violence made the streets of the larger cities unsafe. Even during PaxRomana there were 32,000 prostitutes in Rome. Emperors like Nero and Caligula became infamous for wasting money on lavish parties where guests ate and drank until they became ill.
-The most popular amusement was watching the gladiatorial combats in the Coliseum. These were attended by the poor, the rich, and frequently the emperor himself. As gladiators fought, vicious cries and curses were heard from the audience. One contest after another was staged in the course of a single day. Should the ground become too soaked with blood, it was covered over with a fresh layer of sand and the performance went on. The drive for personal pleasure had become very intense, even to the point of obsession. Gibbons noted that, at the very end, sports had become more exciting and brutal.
-Gradually, the Praetorian Guard gained complete authority to choose the new emperor, who rewarded the guard who then became more influential, perpetuating the cycle. Then in 186 A. D. the army strangled the new emperor, the practice began of selling the throne to the highest bidder. During the next 100 years, Rome had 37 different emperors – 25 of whom were removed from office by assassination. This contributed to the overall weaknesses of the empire. Hidden conspirators were working within the government to secretly destroy it. They worked quietly, invisibly and deceitfully; during the entire time they were secretly dismantling the government of the Roman Empire, they publicly proclaimed their unswerving support of it. People lost their faith, both religiously and in their government. The efficient Roman Government gave way to chaos and disintegration.
-During the latter years of the empire farming was done on large estates called latifundia that were owned by wealthy men who used slave labor. A farmer who had to pay workmen could not produce goods as cheaply. Many farmers could not compete with these low prices and lost or sold their farms. This not only undermined the citizen farmer who passed his values to his family, but also filled the cities with unemployed people. At one time, the emperor was importing grain to feed more than 100,000 people in Rome alone. These people were not only a burden but also had little to do but cause trouble and contribute to an ever-increasing crime rate
-The imposition of higher taxes undermined the economic stability and vitality of the Empire. Taxes were raised to pay for deficit government spending, to pay for food for all in society and to pay for government-sponsored activities of diversion, such as circuses and sports. Interestingly, as the time of the final collapse drew closer, greater emphasis was placed on sports, to divert the attention of the public from the distressing news of massive trouble within the Empire.
-The Roman economy suffered from inflation (an increase in prices) beginning after the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Once the Romans stopped conquering new lands, the flow of gold into the Roman economy decreased. Yet much gold was being spent by the Romans to pay for luxury items. This meant that there was less gold to use in coins. As the amount of gold used in coins decreased, the coins became less valuable. To make up for this loss in value, merchants raised the prices on the goods they sold. Many people stopped using coins and began to barter to get what they needed.
-But since the Romans relied so much on human and animal labor, they failed to invent many new machines or find new technology to produce goods more efficiently. They could not provide enough goods for their growing population. They were no longer conquering other civilizations and adapting their technology, they were actually losing territory they could not longer maintain with their legions.
-Maintaining an army to defend the border of the Empire from barbarian attacks was a constant drain on the government. Military spending left few resources for other vital activities, such as providing public housing and maintaining quality roads and aqueducts. Frustrated Romans lost their desire to defend the Empire. The empire had to begin hiring soldiers recruited from the unemployed city mobs or worse from foreign counties. Such an army was not only unreliable but very expensive. The emperors were forced to raise taxes frequently which in turn led again to increased inflation.




600 years
-An important factor in the decline was the increasing lack of ability and power of the sultans themselves. Süleyman tired of the campaigns and arduous duties of administration and withdrew more and more from public affairs to devote himself to the pleasures of his harem.
-corruption and nepotism took hold at all levels of administration. In addition, with the challenge of the notables gone, the devşirme class itself broke into countless factions and parties, each working for its own advantage by supporting the candidacy of a particular imperial prince and forming close alliances with corresponding palace factions led by the mothers, sisters, and wives of each prince.
-Holders of the timars and tax farms started using them as sources of revenue to be exploited as rapidly as possible, rather than as long-term holdings whose prosperity had to be maintained to provide for the future.
-Political influence and corruption also enabled them to transform those holdings into private property, either as life holdings (malikâne) or religious endowments (vakif), without any further obligations to the state.
-Inflation also weakened the traditional industries and trades. Functioning under strict price regulations, the guilds were unable to provide quality goods at prices low enough to compete with the cheap European manufactured goods that entered the empire without restriction because of the Capitulations agreements
-Landless and jobless peasants fled off the land, as did cultivators subjected to confiscatory taxation at the hands of timariots and tax farmers, thus reducing food supplies even more
-The central government became weaker, and as more peasants joined rebel bands they were able to take over large parts of the empire, keeping all the remaining tax revenues for themselves and often cutting off the regular food supplies to the cities and the Ottoman armies still guarding the frontiers.
-Many peasants fled to the cities, exacerbating the food shortage, and reacted against their troubles by rising against the established order


470 years
-It was a post World War 2 act of peaceful implosion, the world had changed and the Imperial era had less and less relevance, Britain began the slide towards Europe and a continental future.
-India, ‘The Jewel in the Crown’, was Britain’s most famous and most fruitful possession. Winston Churchill never tired of saying that giving up India would be fatal to the Empire. They ruled India for 200 years and when that rule ended in 1947 the empire soon followed.
-After the war it became clear to the British that ruling India and the colonies will not be acceptable to world opinion. Moreover India was becoming ungovernable and they could not expect much profit from ruling India. Britain thought it wise to leave and they did so with dignity.
-The main cause for the dissolution of colonialism after World War II was the change in people’s attitude to ruling over other people against their wishes. Even the people of countries that ruled the colonies thought so. Mahatma Gandhi was largely responsible for that change of attitude and Adolf Hitler for causing the upheaval that allowed world order to be reset.


1000 years
-The Old Assyrian Empire begins with the founding of Ashur. The Old Assyrian Empire lasted from 2000 BC to 1759 BC. The Old Empire fell to Hammurabi’s forces. The Old Assyrian Empire lasted roughly 340 years.
-The Middle Assyrian Empire begins with the rise of Ashur-uballit to the thrown of Assyria around 1360 BC and ends around 1047 BC. The main cities were Ashur, Ninevah, and Nimrud with Ashur still the capital. The empire declined around 1047 BC after the reign by Tiglath-Pileser I. So, the middle period lasted rougly 315 years.
-The Neo-Assyrian Empire lasted from 934-609 BC. Some historians have claimed that the Neo-Assyrian Empire was the first “real” empire in human history. The Neo-Assyrian empire ended in 612 BC with the fall of its capital city Ninevah to invasions by the Chaldean Dynasty. The empire lasted roughly 330 years.


Zhou (China)

375 years
-The Zhou Dynasty began in 1122 BC with the suicide of Shang Zhou. The Zhou Dynasty begins with Ji. Its capital city is Hao. This is the time of Confucius, Lao Tzi, the founder of Daoism. The dynasty changes significantly in 771 BC when King You decides to leave his queen and marry a concubine. This first period is called the Western Zhou period.
-In 771 BC, a war is fought between King You and the family of his former queen. The queen’s son Ji Yijiu becomes king and the capital is moved to Luoyang. This period is called the Eastern Zhou period. It ends around 441 BC when the feudal lords rise in power and are able to eclipse the power of the Zhou family. This first half of the Eastern Zhou period is called the Spring and Autumn Period.
-The last half of the Eastern Zhou period is called the Warring States Period. It lasts from 771 BC until around 260 BC. In this period, the Zhou ruling family are primarily figureheads. This is the time when Sun Tzu wrote the Art of War. The state of Qin becomes very powerful and in 316 BC, it takes over the Shu area. In 260 BC at the battle of Changping, the Qin win a decisive victory.

Teotihuacan (Mexico)

735 years
-The first building of the Teotihuacans was built around 200 BC. The Pyramid of the Sun was finished in 100 AD. It is believed that their culture came to an end around 535 AD as the result of climatic changes including droughts and internal unrest.

Satavahana (India)

380 years
-This dynasty lasted from 230 BC to around 220 AD. The Satavahanas took power after the death of Ashoka. Around 200 AD, the central state was losing power to local authorities. The end of Satavahana Dynasty occurs as small dynasties divide up the territory. The dynasty lasted roughly 450 years.