The Life Cycles of Empires: Lessons for America Today?

Perceptive historians recognize that great powers go through a cycle of growth, stability, maturity and decline. Where is America in this cycle? Will we learn from the lessons of history?

The Life Cycles of Empires: Lessons for America Today?
Source: Wikimedia

The German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) knew that just because men and women learned about the past, that didn't mean they'd make better decisions about the future. He once cynically commented, "What experience and history teach us is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it."

For years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, America seemingly towered over the world as a great giant—economically, culturally and militarily. But now for nearly a decade since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, its armed services have clashed with the forces of Islamic extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the world.

If that weren't bad enough, the worldwide economic crisis has laid the country low with high unemployment, an immense federal government deficit, rising inflation and depressed home values. Other challenges loom ahead, flowing from the European Union's growing political and economic integration, Russia's increased strength and assertiveness, and China's rapid economic, industrial and military growth.

Will America follow the path of past empires?

Clearly America's present lone-superpower status is being increasingly challenged. Could it be lost completely? While it clings to a general preeminence right now, could America still decline and fall?

Didn't that happen to other great empires in the past, such as those of Britain, Spain, Rome, Persia, Babylon and Egypt? Is America' s future more secure than theirs was?

Sir John Bagot Glubb (1897-1987), a highly honored British general and historian better known as Glubb Pasha, wrote about the collapsed empires of the past. In his 1978 book The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival, he described a common pattern fitting the history of some fallen empires. They went through a cycle of stages as they started, expanded, matured, declined and collapsed.

Does the pattern apply to America today? Has the United States entered this cycle's ending stages? If so, shouldn't Americans critically examine the current state of their culture to see what could be done to prevent the same grim fate?

By knowing history better, we can better project our likely national futures. As the great British Prime Minister and noted historian Winston Churchill observed, "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see."

Seven steps in the life cycles of great powers

Glubb Pasha learned that different empires had similar cultural changes while experiencing a life cycle in a series of stages that could overlap. He generalized about empires having seven stages of development, identifying these successive ages as follows:

1. The age of outburst (or pioneers).

2. The age of conquests.

3. The age of commerce.

4. The age of affluence.

5. The age of intellect.

6. The age of decadence.

7. The age of decline and collapse.

Each stage helps progression to the next as the values of the people change over time. Military, political, economic and religious developments all influence an empire's people to act and believe differently over time.

Let's look at these stages in more detail.

The rise of empires

In the first two stages or ages, the warrior's adventuresome and manly values drive an empire to gain power as it conquers land from others.

Later on, during the following ages of commerce and affluence, businessmen and merchants—who normally value material success and dislike taking unnecessary risks—take over at the highest levels of society. Their societies downplay the values of the soldier.

According to Glubb, they normally do this not "from motives of conscience, but rather because of the weakening of a sense of duty in citizens, and the increase in selfishness, manifested in the desire for wealth and ease."

During these middle stages, empires stop taking more land and start building walls instead. They switch from the offensive to the defensive. Historical examples include the wall built near the Scottish border by the Roman emperor Hadrian, the Great Wall of China constructed to keep out intrusion by certain nomadic groups, and even 20th-century France's Maginot Line, placed along the German border.

Conquest and (later) business investment promoted by the empire's unity builds the wealth that leads to the age of intellect. Even the brutal Mongol Empire, by bringing most of Asia under its rule, encouraged the caravan trade along Eurasia's famed Silk Road. During this fifth stage, the empire's leaders spent lots of money to establish educational institutions resembling modern universities and high schools.

Sowing the seeds of decline

During the age of intellect, schools may produce skeptical intellectuals who oppose the values and religious beliefs of their empires' early leaders. For example, the medieval Muslim philosophers Avicenna and Averroes, by accepting much of ancient Greek philosophy, weren't orthodox in belief.

Scholars also might manage schools that teach the ruling class and/or some of the average people subjects that are either mainly oriented towards financial success or are simply impractical. For example, in the early Roman Republic, students received a basic education that stressed character development and virtue. But in the later Roman Empire, teachers taught rhetoric (the art of speaking) when emotionally persuading assemblies was no longer of political or practical value.

The corrosive effects of material success encourage the upper class and the common people to discard the self-confident, self-disciplined values that helped to create the empire. Then the empire eventually collapses. Perhaps an outside power, such as the so-called barbarians in Rome's case, wipes it out. Or maybe an energetic internal force, such as the pro-capitalist reformers in the Soviet Union, finishes the job instead.

The growth of wealth and comfort clearly can undermine the values of character, such as self-sacrifice and discipline, that led to a given empire's creation. Then the empire so affected by moral decline grows weaker and more vulnerable to destruction by forces arising inside or outside of it.

Not surprisingly, God in the Bible specifically warned the ancient Israelites against departing from worshipping Him once they became materially satisfied after entering the Promised Land (Deuteronomy:8:11-20; 31:20). He understood this human tendency.

A society is known by its heroes

Has the United States entered the latter phases of the empire life cycle? True, it's only been independent from Britain for somewhat over two centuries. It's a young country compared to those of Europe or Asia. But does America today have the same values or cultural developments that past empires such as Rome had before they fell?

For example, who are the nation's heroes? What does a people's choice of heroes tell us about the people themselves? Today in America the people generally admired above all (and perpetually gossiped about) are celebrities such as sports stars, singers, actors and musicians.

As Glubb explains, the heroes of an empire's people change over time as their values do. Soldiers, builders, pioneers and explorers are admired in the initial stages of the empire life cycle. Then successful businessmen and entrepreneurs are esteemed during the ages of commerce and affluence.

For example, late 19th-century middle-class Americans wanted their children to learn the values of prudence, saving and foresight as found in the stories of author Horatio Alger, whose heroes lead exemplary lives striving to succeed in the face of adversity and poverty. Intellectuals are also increasingly respected during the age of intellect.

During the last stages of decadence and decline, an empire's people often think most highly of and imitate athletes, musicians and actors—despite how corrupt these celebrities' private lives are.

Remarkably, according to Glubb Pasha, in 10th-century Baghdad during the Muslim Abbasid Empire's decline, its writers complained about the singers of love songs having a bad influence on the young people! It seems the old adage is true: The more things change, the more they stay the same (or, perhaps, become the same again).

Because people grow emotionally attached to the music they love, they have a high regard for its singers and want to emulate them. Inevitably, popular music's often spiritually rotten lyrical content—such as foul language, blunt sexual references, glorifying immorality, and even Satanic allusions at times—influences fans. Furthermore, the immoral lifestyles of many musicians, often including drug abuse and promiscuous sex, also have an impact on society.

What are some key signs of decline?

What are some common features of an empire's culture in its declining period? Glubb describes developments like these:

1. Rampant sexual immorality, an aversion to marriage in favor of "living together" and an increased divorce rate all combine to undermine family stability. This happened among the upper class in the late Roman Republic and early Empire. The first-century writer Seneca once complained about Roman upper-class women: "They divorce in order to re-marry. They marry in order to divorce."

The birthrate declines, and abortion and infanticide both increase as family size is deliberately limited. The historian W.H. McNeill has referred to the "biological suicide of the Roman upper classes" as one reason for Rome's decline. Homosexuality becomes publicly acceptable and spreads, as was the case among the ancient Greeks before Rome conquered them.

2. Many foreign immigrants settle in the empire's capital and major cities. The mixture of ethnic groups in close proximity in these cosmopolitan places inevitably produces conflicts.

Because of their prominent locations within the empire, their influence greatly exceeds their percentage of the population. Here diversity plainly leads to divisiveness.

We see this today in the growing conflict in European countries such as France and the Netherlands, where large numbers of immigrants are stoking violent cultural clashes. German chancellor Angela Merkel recently made headlines when she stated that attempts to create a multicultural society had "utterly failed" and immigrants must do more to integrate into society.

3. Both irresponsible pleasure-seeking and pessimism increase among the people and their leaders. The spirit described in 1 Corinthians:15:32 spreads throughout society: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!"

As people cynically give up looking for solutions to the problems of life and society, they drop out of the system. They then turn to mindless entertainment, to luxuries and sexual activity, and to drugs or alcohol.

The astonishingly corrupt and lavish parties of the Roman Empire's elite are a case in point. The Emperor Nero, for instance, would spend the modern equivalent of $500,000 for just the flowers at some banquets.

4. The government provides extensive welfare for the poor. In the case of the city of Rome, which had perhaps 1.2 million people around A.D. 170, government-provided "bread and circuses" (food and entertainment) helped to keep the masses content. About one half of its non-slave population was on the dole at least part of the year.

True, helping the poor shows Christian compassion (Mark:14:7). But such help also can lead to laziness and dependency (2 Thessalonians:3:10-12). Such problems are especially likely when the poor believe state-provided charity is a permanent right or entitlement.

Is America on a downward cultural and spiritual spiral?

Considering this list of indicators of an empire's cultural and moral decline, is it reasonable to deny that the United States has entered the stages of decadence and decline?

True, the tidal wave of social and cultural decay unleashed by the 1960s in America has ebbed some in recent years. The rates of abortion, divorce, illegitimate births, drug abuse, welfare dependency and violent crime have either declined or gone up much more slowly.

Furthermore, some indicators of decline have good, not just bad, results. For instance, some immigration is helpful. As skilled, educated immigrants arrive, they normally benefit America economically while being a "brain drain" from Third World countries. And, indeed, the United States has historically embraced vast numbers of immigrants.

Nevertheless, the present flood of immigrants, legal or illegal, equals in impact the wave that arrived at America's shores around 1900. Today, they are far more apt to be a divisive force. Why? Unlike a hundred years ago, America's intellectual elite overall has adopted multiculturalism (the promotion of immigrants maintaining their prior distinct cultures) and has rejected assimilation (adopting the existing national culture) as its ideal.

Today multiculturalism is the ideology underlying a potentially ultimate political Balkanization, wherein society is fragmented along ethnic and cultural lines. (For evidence, see the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger's 1991 book The Disuniting of America ). A lack of cultural unity inevitably leads to conflict in a free society such as in the United States.

Are we paying attention?

How should we react to the historical insights of Sir John Glubb Pasha's The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival as they relate to America, Britain and other related English-speaking nations?

As he notes in his examination of a number of previous empires, the processes of history often repeat themselves. We shouldn't believe that America will automatically avoid the fate of other great empires that declined and fell in the past.

God is ever so merciful, but His patience in the face of our national sins is wearing thin. He has given His true servants a mission to warn the nations of what is coming (Ezekiel:33:1-9), and that is one of the purposes of this magazine. We want to help you see how prophecies given long ago are now shaping up before our eyes!

If modern nations repent, as the people of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh did after the prophet Jonah delivered God's warning to them (as described in the book of Jonah), they can avoid the dreadful punishments prophesied to come. But even if only the few of us reading this article repent before the time of tribulation arrives, God will keep us in His care.

Many of God's faithful followers will be protected from the tribulation (Revelation:3:10). And, most importantly, Jesus promises eternal life to all who truly believe, turn from sin and persevere in their faithful obedience: "He who endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew:24:13).

Since we know that the handwriting is on the wall, what will we now choose to do?

john thames

john thames's picture

Good analysis. However, it should be mentioned that Glubb, as commander of the Jordanian Legion in the 1948 war, was extremely anti-Israel.He opposed the dispossession of the Palestinians and believed the Zionist Jews to be Khazars and Slavs from Russia.Glubb also knew that Jews created Communism in Russia in 1917 and that the Zionists were Communists who simply wanted their Marxist state in Palestine. See Benny Morris, "The Road to Jerusalem", I.B. Tauris, publishers.

Sabrina Peabody

Sabrina Peabody's picture

If Jews created Communism then why isn't Israel a Communist State? It would seem that while some who were of Jewish descent created Communism , it would not seem that all those who are of Jewish descent or religiously Jewish would support Communism. Regardless, the article does not have much to say on Communism but more on the fall of a nation. It is quite shocking to take a look around at America and how it is exhibiting the characteristics of a nation right before it falls. Any thoughts on that?


KARS's picture

I am reading about the history of the legs of Nebby's dream. The rise of the Roman empire and at the same time occupation of Jerusalem. The chapter is titled "Tale of Two Cites" discribing Jerusalem and Rome at that time. Rome's building are exactly the way we build here. The road are made the same too. Wow. The author of this article is right about going back in time and finding out that the first paved road from Persipholis to Susa with the pony express was in Persia.
Great lessons to be studyed and learned in this article.

john thames

john thames's picture

Israel has a very interesting background.

It's early founders, David Ben Gurion, Berl Katznelson, Ben Zvi and others, were staunch Labor Zionists and Marxist-Socialists. They differed from Lenin in that they were in favor of democracy rather than blood and terror.Israel's formative years under the old British Mandate for Palestine show that one of the motivations of the British in granting a pledge of a "national home" in Palestine was to try to ween them away from the Communism then raging all over Europe under Jewish auspices.

Nevertheless, many of the kibbutzim in Israel were collectivist and socialist.Moscow banned Zionism in 1922 so that many Jews who were both Communist and Zionist had to choose between the two ideologies. In 1928 Stalin created the Jewish Autonomous Region in Birobidzhan to create a Communist alternative for the Jews. It was known as "Palestine in Siberia". For many years Jews wavered between the two alternatives, abandoning Communism only in 1948, the year of Israel's birth.

You are quite correct that Glubb's analysis describes America perfectly. Glubb also noted that the entry of women into positions formerly reserved for men was a sign of decay.

john thames

john thames's picture

To a large extent Israel is a Communist state. Its kibbutzim are the mirror image of the collctive farms or kolkohzes in Communist Russia.The Jewish immigrants to the Holy Land were Marxists from Russia and followers of Dov Ber Borochov's Poale-Zion Party.Ben-Gurion said in the 1920's he intended to follow the path of Lenin in Russia.

john thames

john thames's picture

"Age of Empires" is, inded, a remarkable book. Fewer tha 30 pages long, it covers the principles of decline and fall admirably.It is also virtually impossible to find in printed form.It seems that established power does not want it read.

Glubb published many books, some classics of the genre. Two such were "A Soldier with the Arabs" and "Peace in the Holy Land". Glubb came under much criticism. Although not anti-Semitic, he recognized that Jews in many cases were their own worst enemies. He had fought in the First Word War and witnessesd the aftermath in Paris where minorities treaties, the mandate over Palestine, the Jewish Communist revolution in Russia and the League of Nations were all front page news of the times. He saw Zionism as the controlling element behind all these things.

None of this will be found in "Age of Empires" but may be found throughout his private papers. Glubb, like King Feisal of Iraq, Sheriff Hussein's son, knew that the Comunists and Zionists were in bed together.Feisal had been at Paris and saw Weizmann, Frankfurter and Brandeis in action. Glubb, like Feisal, had enormous perspective on things otherwise mysterious.

john thames

john thames's picture

Glubb began his carer under Gerneral Sir Frederick Peake, the founder of the Legion of Jordan. It began as a police force but was gradually converted by Glubb into the outstanding Arab military force in the region.It beat the Israelis badly in several engagements of the 1948 war. Glubb was a man of actions, not just words.

Glubb wrote of the decline of empires but witnessed the creation of a new and very deadly one. A key to his attitudes may be found in the words of one of his predecessors, General MacDonogh, speaking at a meeting of the Eastern Committee on December 5, 1918.

"I see a good many of the Zionists, and one suggested to me the day before yesterday that if the Jewish people did no get what they were asking for in Palestine we should have the whole of Jewry turning Bolsheviks and supporting Bolshevism in all the other countries as they have done in Russia.

Lord Robert Cecil:

Yes, I can conceive the Rithschilds leading a Bolshevist mob!..."

Palestine Papers 1917-1922: Seeds of Conflict, Doreen Ingram, p.50

Eric V. Snow

Eric V. Snow's picture

It's necessary here to make a distinction between "Marxism" and "Communism." All Communists are Marxists, but not all Marxists are Communists. That is, the Bolshevik form of violent, revolutionary Marxism is rather different than the form of Marxism that the Social Democratic Party of Germany used to expouse, which accepted the parliamentary system. Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, was willing to use the labor theory of value, which eventually become the property of Marxists, but he wasn't willing to use Marxist analytical categories. The type of socialism represented by the collective farms/communities called kibbutzim represent a utopian form of socialism, not the "scientific" socialism of Marx. Unlike the case when Stalin herded millions of peasants onto the collective and state-owned farms by centralized government force, the kibbutzim are fundamentally voluntary organizations organized freely by their founding members. The main point here is that the early Zionists were democratic socialists much like the Labour Party of Britain was (in the 1940s) in spirit, not people advocating violent revolutions and forced collectivism except by the democratic process.


JOHNNY.GALT's picture

Great Article Eric. It is too bad that more people do not study history. I've been closely watching the demise the United States over the past 30 years or so, and I will say, without any reservations, that there are powerful people who have orchestrated the collapse on purpose. No individual can be so stupid as to continually pump trillions of dollars into a corrupt banking system, in order to prop it up and “jump start” the economy, AND NOT KNOW that that is exactly what the Germans did during the Hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic. The collapse of their economy paved the way for Hitler’s rise.

Currently, the money supply in the United States is regulated by a privately owned corporation known as the Federal Reserve. They, create money out of nothing, but the paper it is printed on (or in today’s didgital age, adding zeros to a bank account). In order for money to have value, it has to be backed by a commodity, such as gold and silver, and being that the dollar is only backed by the good faith people/governments have in our government, there is no value in them. Now, these people and governments are finding that our dollar does not get them as much bang for the buck a


beesings's picture

Johnny.Galt, you sound like you've sipped the Tea Party Kool-aid.

I'm in full agreement that the Fed is the equivalent of the wizard in the Wizard of Oz; don't look behind the curtain folks! It is a vastly powerful entity that clearly only answers to the 1/10 of 1% financial oligarchy, but they do have to follow some consistent policy in order that their power not be threatened from without.

There is almost no chance of hyperinflation with the state of oil, dismal growth projections. Also the Fed reserve requirement for banks, and the interbank rate are powerful tools to shed steam if inflation hits.

Login/Register to post comments
© 1995-2015 United Church of God, an International Association | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use

Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited. All correspondence and questions should be sent to Send inquiries regarding the operation of this Web site to

You may login with either your assigned username or your e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.