Tag Archives: empires

Slava Ukraini

February 24, 2022, and after.

Russia’s attempted seizure of Ukraine this year, and the ensuing ongoing war, crystalized a new international division. This division runs deeper than the machinations and miscalculations of one autocrat. A recent report, A World Divided: Russia, China and the West, summarizes the current global divide in political attitudes. Some major findings:

Compare positive versus negative attitudes to Russia …

to China …

and to the US.

The last map is a near mirror image of the first two. Together the maps depict a world split in two, a Western / maritime rimland and an Old World heartland. 

And the division reflects a deeper divide in politics …

and social attitudes …

The division in attitudes between the West and the two Eurasian powers has developed only recently, but it has roots that go back for centuries. At least this is consistent with the thesis of a recent book, The Deep Roots of Modern Democracy: Geography and the Diffusion of Political Institutions. The authors present a modern data-driven version of an old argument, that maritime trade and naval power foster liberal, constitutional, and democratic government. Where access to the sea and trade was limited, autocracy was (and is) more likely to prevail. Also, maritime zones tend to smaller political units – city states and nation states (albeit sometimes with overseas colonies) – while more land-based zones, riverine and steppe, tend to sprawling multinational empires. Here is a map (from an earlier article by the authors) of one set of underlying geographic determinants: natural harbors. 

And here is their causal model:

Natural harbors, plus other factors in European history (here are a few from this blog), have fostered democratic development in some parts of Europe, and Europeans have brought democratic institutions with them as they have moved overseas (albeit sometimes democracy for whites only).

The appeal of a particular set of Western, and specifically Anglo-American, ideals – individualism, constitutional government, national self-determination – is broad but not universal. They developed in a particular geographic and historical context. A large portion of the world does not (pace the American Declaration of Independence) hold these ideals as self-evident truths, and even regards them (not always entirely without reason) as a mask for cynical power politics. 

And so The End of History is unfinished work.

When the Berlin Wall fell

9 November 1989

I’m not sure of the age range of readers here, but I’m old enough to have been in Berlin, and East Germany, just months after the Berlin Wall fell. I’ve still got an expired passport with a DDR (German Democratic Republic = East Germany) stamp in it. I visited with my wife, who knows Germany, East and West, better than I do. West and East Germans mingled throughout the streets of Berlin, but you could easily tell the latter by their shabby clothing. We ate in a Cuban restaurant in East Berlin – the tacky socialist bloc version of tacky Polynesian restaurants in the United States. Most of the people we talked to were still in a state of euphoria about the Wende (the change) – I still remember the beatific smile our waitress gave us when we asked her – although we also ran into those who had had modest security under communism, and who worried about how they would fare under capitalism.

According to one story, Schiller’s Ode to Joy, set by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, was originally an Ode to Freedom; Prussian censors forced Schiller to change the words. Leonard Bernstein turned it back it an Ode to Freedom in a concert in Berlin in December, 1989.

Germans took a long time to go from writing music about freedom and cherishing their inner freedom, to being politically free. Here’s a student song going back to the nineteenth century

  Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger erschießen
mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei! 

Ich denke was ich will und was mich beglücket,
doch alles in der Still’, und wie es sich schicket.
Mein Wunsch, mein Begehren kann niemand verwehren,
es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei! 
Ich liebe den Wein, mein Mädchen vor allen,
sie tut mir allein am besten gefallen.
Ich sitz nicht alleine bei meinem Glas Weine,
mein Mädchen dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker,
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke.
Denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei. Die Gedanken sind frei!
Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
No man can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free! 

I think what I want, and what pleases me,
all in silence, and as it should be.
My wish and desire, no one can deny me
and so it will always be: Thoughts are free! 

I love wine, and my girl above all,
Only her I like best of all.
I’m not alone with my glass of wine,
my girl is with me: Thoughts are free! And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
all these are futile works,
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls in two. Thoughts are free!
Die Gedanken sind frei – Thoughts are free

Big in Japan

Japan with its purely feudal organization of landed property and its developed petite culture gives a much purer picture of the European Middle Ages than all our history books.

Karl Marx. Capital

A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement … instead of a salary …; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and … assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority; and in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State … seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism … [But] feudalism was not an event which happened once in the world. Like Europe – though with inevitable and deep-seated differences – Japan went through this phase.Marc Bloch.

Marc Bloch. Feudal Society

After centuries of relative isolation, Japan was forcibly opened to the modern world with Commodore Perry’s visits in 1853 and 1854.


Japan is an interesting case for those who think there are laws of human history – that history is more than just a collection of narratives – because of the similarities between European and Japanese social structure, in spite of wildly divergent high culture. Here are some theories (not necessarily incompatible) about the convergent social evolution of Europe and Japan.

Marxism. According to Marx, there is a limited number of “modes of production” – slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and so on – defined by how the ruling class squeezes a surplus out of the exploited. There are quasi-scholastic arguments among Marxists about how many modes there are, and which society belongs to what mode. Some Marxists define feudalism so broadly that it covers most complex societies before capitalism. Others however (and probably Marx himself) would apply a more limited definition that confines feudalism to Europe (maybe just Western Europe) and Japan. On this view, all feudal societies, even if they are not historically related, will show some generic similarities. Thus (so the story goes) it is no accident that Japan is the one non-Western society to make a relatively rapid and easy transition to capitalism. Even if you don’t buy the whole Marxist package, Perry Anderson’s two volumes, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State (from which I got the Marx quote above) are well worth reading.

Cliodynamics. According to some theories, state formation takes place along “meta-ethnic frontiers,” where very different cultures and ways of life abut. In Eastern Europe and most of Asia, the mother of all meta-ethnic frontiers is the one dividing settled farmers from pastoral nomads. The vast majority of really huge empires in history have formed on one side or other of this frontier, or straddling it. In Western Europe and Japan, however, history played out differently. There was less pressure to corral everyone into one monster state, or to overcome the fragmentation of authority by consolidating Church and State, or Emperor and Shogun. (Although consultation and consent between king and vassal didn’t develop in Japan as it did in Medieval Europe.)

To be continued …


1845 – 1855

The Taiping rebellion in China began in 1850 and was finally put down in 1864. It was led by a former school teacher who discovered, after repeatedly failing his civil service exams, that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, destined to bring China over to his own brand of Christianity.

The rebellion was by far the most destructive conflict in the nineteenth century. It illustrates a general characteristic of Chinese history: Chinese wars were fewer but more destructive than European ones. China was unified for most of the past two millennia, governed by dynasties which established peace for long periods of time, among a huge population, over a vast area. But when things fell apart in China, whether from invasions (usually involving steppe nomads) or internal rebellions, vast numbers of people died. Here’s a chart comparing estimated numbers of war deaths for major wars Europe (red) and China (blue)  between 1 and 1800 CE. China’s population during this period was somewhat less than twice that of Europe, so even per capita, China’s military catastrophes were more demographically catastrophic than Europe’s.


The Taiping rebellion comes too late to show up on the chart, but cost the lives of about 20 million people.

Debt and democracy

1753 – 1768

General rule: one can raise higher taxes, in proportion to the liberty of the subjects; and one is forced to moderate them to the degree that servitude increases. This has always been, and will always remain so. It is a rule drawn from nature, which does not vary at all; one finds it in all countries, in England, in Holland, and in all states in which liberty becomes degraded, right down to Turkey.


The Seven Years War (1756-1763) was a bunch of major powers (Austria, France, Russia) ganging up to cut Prussia down to size. The English joined in on the Prussian side, on the theory that an enemy of France was a friend of theirs. The war was also a world war, long before World War One, involving fighting as far afield as North America and India. In this respect, it was a win for England, and a loss for France, with the French losing Quebec and India.

The war brought home an important advantage of a constitutional state over an absolutist one. England was able to raise higher taxes per capita on its subjects because they were voting for the taxes themselves, through Parliament. And England was able to borrow money for the war on easier terms than France, because English lenders were more confident that Parliament wouldn’t default on its debts: many of those who bought English war bonds either stood in Parliament, or voted for those who did. In spite of the “absolutist” label, French kings had a harder time squeezing money out of their subjects, and resorted to a lot of dubious expedients. For example, the government raised money by selling life annuities to investors: pay a lump sum for the annuity, and the government would pay back a fixed amount for every year the beneficiary was alive (sort of reverse life insurance). This led, among other things, to syndicates of investors buying annuities on behalf of groups of young girls (such as The Thirty Geneva Maidens), judged the best bet, actuarially, for long life expectancies.

Generally they had to have reached the age of seven so as to be beyond the risk of smallpox. These maidens received the finest medical care, and Geneva’s wealthy bourgeoisie followed their health in the newspapers – not surprising given the huge investments that rested on their shoulders.

But the government was in such financial straits that it eventually started paying only a fraction of the promised annuities. The military weakness of the French state, stemming from its fiscal weakness, was the major cause of the French Revolution.

It would be nice to follow Montesquieu, and draw an improving moral lesson from this: constitutional liberty beats absolutism. But things played out differently in Eastern Europe, where there was less of a commercial sector to tap, and governments depended more on coercion – serfs serving their lords, lords serving the state – to keep up as great powers. There, the great constitutional state – the elective monarchy of Poland – was reduced to a second rank power, and eventually eliminated entirely. The most impressive military power, relative to its size, was Prussia, “not a country with an army, but an army with a country.” This was not the last time that military exigencies would push social evolution in very different directions in Western and Eastern Europe.

See A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy

After Blenheim

With the death of Charles II (inbreeding is bad for you), the throne of Spain was up for grabs, and the French attempt to install a Bourbon (Louis XIV’s grandson) led to the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). The “famous victory” of the English and Bavarians over the French at the Battle of Blenheim (1704) would later (1796) be the subject of a famous anti-war poem by Robert Southey

It was a summer evening,
Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door
Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round,
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.

Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
And, with a natural sigh,
”Tis some poor fellow’s skull,’ said he,
‘Who fell in the great victory.

‘I find them in the garden,
For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men,’ said he,
‘Were slain in that great victory.’

‘Now tell us what ’twas all about,’
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
‘Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.’

‘It was the English,’ Kaspar cried,
‘Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for,
I could not well make out;
But everybody said,’ quoth he,
‘That ’twas a famous victory.

‘My father lived at Blenheim then,
Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.

‘With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

‘They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.

‘Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
And our good Prince Eugene.’
‘Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!’
Said little Wilhelmine.
‘Nay… nay… my little girl,’ quoth he,
‘It was a famous victory.

‘And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.’
‘But what good came of it at last?’
Quoth little Peterkin.
‘Why that I cannot tell,’ said he,
‘But ’twas a famous victory.’

Inbreeding depression

“Let others wage war. Thou, happy Austria, marry” (a description of Habsburg marriage policy). And here’s what “30 Rock” had to say about the Habsburgs, marriage and inbreeding. (Note: if Jenna Moroni, the blonde character in the clip, had managed to procreate with the miserably inbred last Habsburg heir, their kids would have turned out fine, not inbred at all.)

Human inbreeding has a genetic side, which favors outbreeding, at least within the species. Here’s a recent article showing that inbreeding is associated with a wide range of deleterious consequences, including reductions in stature, fertility, and mental ability. But inbreeding also has a political side, which may favor a balance between outmarriage (to make new alliances), and in-marriage (to conserve old alliances, and keep land and honor within the family).

The Habsburgs played the political game adroitly, putting together an enormous empire, partly by war, but partly by astute dynastic marriages. The Habsburg domains were so unwieldy that after the death of Charles V in 1558, they were divided between two branches of the family. Both sections were huge. The map below doesn’t even show the Habsburg possessions outside Europe, in Spanish America and the Far East.


By 1700, however, genetics caught up with the Habsburgs. The Spanish Habsburg line ended with Charles II, who was grossly disabled, physically and mentally. He was also impotent, and left no heirs. A recent calculation shows that, as a result of generation of in-marriage, Charles II had a coefficient of inbreeding of .254. For comparison, a child of full sibling incest will have a coefficient of inbreeding of .25!

The world in 1600

World population, about 545 million

Pangaea reunited. In the century after 1492, West Europeans mastered the winds and currents of the world’s oceans. The shock to the rest of the world would be comparable in some ways to the earlier shock resulting from the spread of nomadism on the Eurasian steppes. In the Americas, the immediate results were devastating, with the loss of most of the population to introduced diseases, helped along by conquest and enslavement. But the spread of new crops and animals in both directions also helped fuel a population boom in the Old World.

Mega-empires. In Eastern Europe and Asia, the results of West European expansion by 1600 were less dramatic. There the landscape was dominated by huge empires: Russia, the Ottomans, Safavid Persia, Mughal India, Ming China. These have sometimes been called “gunpowder empires,” emphasizing the role of cannon in establishing centralized power. But they could also be considered the aftermath of the Mongol conquests, either arising from the overthrow of Mongol rule (Russia, China) or claiming direct Mongol descent (Mughal India). In other words, these empires developed in centrifugal fashion, with power collapsing at the old Mongol center, and new states arising along the Mongol marches.

Charlemagne + 800. Another centrifugal episode of state formation took place in Western and Central Europe, on a smaller scale, over a longer period of time. As the Carolingian Empire disintegrated, new states arose along its marches, in Iberia, in France, England and Scandinavia, and in eastern Germany and neighboring, mostly Slavic territory. Meanwhile the core of the former empire, including western Germany and northern Italy, remained fragmented. By earlier Roman or Asian standards, medieval states in Europe, even when they controlled large areas, were feeble things. The state’s power to collect taxes had more or less collapsed, and Medieval monarchs were forced to concede substantial privileges to their subjects in exchange for their support. By 1600, however, military competition had produced more powerful absolutist states. Medieval liberties survived best in lands where military threats had been less intense, on islands (England and Scotland), on an isolated peninsula (Scandinavia), in the mountains (Switzerland) or soggy lowlands (Holland), or just far from the madding crowd (Poland).


1508 – 1538

The Spanish Conquistadors, inured though they were to hardship and bloodshed, were nonetheless taken aback by the scale and ferocity of Aztec sacrifice. They wrote horrified accounts of sacrificial rituals, and of tzompantli, the racks where thousands of skulls of sacrificial victims were displayed in front of the twin pyramids of the Templo Mayor.


The Spanish invaders tore down the Templo Mayor and paved over the tzompantli. But archeologists in 2015, excavating under old buildings in Mexico City, uncovered the tzompantli (originally built from 1486-1502) again. Here’s a recent account.

The Aztecs are not the only folk to practice human sacrifice. It’s common, especially in the early stages of setting up chiefdoms and states, where it helps to keep commoners and conquered folk properly terrorized. But the scale of sacrifice on the part of the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican societies is extreme. It’s natural to wonder what in the world was going on, whether there is some deeper reason for the cult of killing, underneath the religious rationale.

Some anthropologists have suggested a materialist explanation. The peoples of the New World had few domesticated animals, a legacy in part of mass extinctions millennia earlier that eliminated a lot of potentially domesticable species. In Mesoamerica, turkeys and dogs were about it. In less densely populated areas, Indians could supplement a diet of domesticated plants with game. But in densely settled Mesoamerica, the main source of animal proteins and fat for the elite was other humans. At least so the story goes. Marvin Harris – kind of a “protein explains all human history!” guy – set out this theory in his popular book Cannibals and Kings.

This is intensely controversial. It’s not clear that eating people on this scale makes much sense from an optimal foraging point of view. But at least we can say that the predatory ethos of Aztec rulers makes a contrast with the more pastoral ethos of many Old World rulers

shepherd king

However there are some comparisons between New World and Old World civilizations where the New World comes off looking better. Gini coefficients* – a measure of inequality – are never going to grab the headlines the way Aztec heart sacrifice does. But the figure below shows something interesting.

new world gini

Figure 3a shows how Gini coefficients change over time in a sample of societies in Eurasia (blue) and North America / Mesoamerica (red), using house size as a measure of wealth. In both cases, the origin of agriculture and the rise of states is associated with increasing inequality. Figure 3b shows the same data, but recalibrated, so that the 0 point on the time scale is set at the origin of agriculture (which happened at different times in different places). The second figure shows a contrast between continents: a further increase in wealth inequality in Eurasia about 5000 years after the origin of agriculture (around 3000 BCE) and on into the Bronze Age, but a steady level of inequality in North America / Mesoamerica. The authors of this study suggest that the greater availability of domesticated animals in Eurasia increased the potential for wealth inequality via “agricultural extensification”, as well as via mounted warrior elites capable of creating (or stimulating the creation of) very large empires.

Result: There is no Templo Major in Eurasia. And there is no Attila or Genghis Khan in North America / Mesoamerica.

calvin and hobbes

* Technical note: Where wealth is distributed perfectly evenly, the Gini coefficient is 0. Where one person owns everything and the other n-1 own nothing, the Gini coefficient is 1 – 1/n.

Empires and barbarians

The fall of Rome involved the disintegration of the Roman state; the collapse of long-distance trade; the disappearance of mass-produced pottery, coinage, and monumental architecture over large areas; declining literacy among commoners and elites; great insecurity of life and property, and demographic collapse. The process was drawn out and played out differently in different regions. In the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, central government supported by taxation continued; in the West it largely disappeared. The nadir in the West was perhaps the tenth century. We might set the turning point at the battle of Lechfeld (955): a last set of invaders off the steppes, the Magyars, was defeated by the Emperor Otto, and then adopted Christianity, gave up nomadic marauding, and settled down as feudal lords in Hungary.

The fall of Rome illustrates a general lesson. The overall trend of history is for more complex societies to replace less complex. (Important note: “more complex” is not the same as “nicer.”) But the process is an uneven one, in part because military effectiveness is only loosely coupled with social complexity. Tribal peoples with states next door often react by developing states of their own, partly to defend against their civilized neighbors, partly to prey on them. The resulting societies – no longer tribal, not really civilized, but barbarian – have sometimes been more than a match militarily for their more complex neighbors. In Europe, the result over nearly a millennium was a great leveling process. Rome declined under barbarian assault, while state organization, class stratification, and Christianity spread eventually as far as the Slavic East and the Scandinavian North. (See Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians.)

By the end of the first millennium, Western Christendom had some consciousness of itself as distinct from the Islamic world; this would later help motivate the Crusades, but it would never be enough to spur unification. Much later, in the twentieth century, Europe would be divided by a different set of meta-ethnic frontiers, centered on the clash of ideologies, rather than civilization versus barbarism. But that’s a story for later