The Rise and Fall of Empires

As reported by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles gives two eloquent speeches to the Athenians during the war. In the first and more famous “funeral oration,” he extolls Athens’ democratic government and its cultivated intellectual and artistic life. The second speech, made during a time of plague and military setbacks, is more harshly realistic. He tells his co-citizens that they need to face up to the fact that they have an empire. It might have been wrong to impose the interests of Athens on other people, but now that they have colonies, they cannot afford to give them up.

This course will look at a few historical examples of empires, some, like Napoleon’s, as short-lived as that of Athens, others like the Roman and Byzantine empires, surviving and even flourishing over centuries. Each one is unique, but certain points of comparison will emerge that should help us understand what factors lead to the successful accumulation of international power, and what forces, external and internal, undermine and destroy (often rapidly) those imposing realms.

Not all empires were as frank as Pericles or as the founders of the “British Empire” in calling themselves imperial powers. The Soviet Union never claimed to wield international hegemony, but posed as a fraternal society forwarding a global proletarian movement. The Holy Roman Empire, by contrast, was in its later centuries considered ineffective by outsiders, in Voltaire’s famous formulation, neither holy, Roman, nor actually an empire. Our discussion will be concerned with accounts of rise and fall, but also with the self-image of these polities and their later historical reputations.