The Cycle Of Empires YKTTW Discussion

The Cycle Of Empires
Expansion, Stabilization, Decay, Long Night
(permanent link) added: 2011-10-24 20:16:20 sponsor: PrimoVictoria edited by: jatay3 (last reply: 2013-03-01 19:53:14)

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What kind of creature is this? In the morning it's angry and full of ambition, but also brave and with sharp teeth, so it can take everything it desires. At high noon it lies on its treasures, peaceful and wise, but still as strong and brave as before. At the sunset its teeth are no longer sharp and it becomes mad, squandring all of its treasures, forgetting its wisdom, strength and brave heart, to live only for pleasure. When night falls, it lies down in agony, rotting alive. But if neither predator nor scavenging worm feasts on its body until sunrise, it heals and rises again, rejuvenated and strong. What is this?

An empire.


Let's explain. History of every empire, real life or fictional, can be divided in four parts:

  • Phase One: Expansion

During this phase Empire is still young and rising, and it's rulers are ambitious. Those days are of the biggest military expansion in empire's history, but also most prone to betrayals and civil wars, as many great leaders may turn against each other in their desire to take the throne for themselves.

The ruler of this era is The Conqueror and Founder of the Kingdom. Serving him are The Good Chancellor, fathers to their men, and just heroes of legend and lore. Opposing him are Feudal Overlords clinging to their old crumbling castles, warlords and barbarian chiefs, for whom Authority Equals Asskicking and might makes right, and hardline devotees of a previous empire, who want to preserve what little is left of it. This era ends when there is either nothing left to conquer, or people are too tired of constant wars. With long awaited peace second phase begins.

  • Phase two: Stabilization

In this phase conquerors are replaced by administrators who help estabilish a system of rules and institutions used to manage their empire. It may also involve a purge of hotheads who still think in terms of brute force, which is a significant source of internal conflict during this era. While not as agressive as their precursors, rulers of this phase know war very well, having learned from conqueror's experience. Conquest may still occur, but the empire is more focused on protecting what they already have and use it to become stronger in cultural, administrational and economical sense, becoming a Hegemonic Empire.

The ruler of this era can be a Reasonable Authority Figure, though they can also be a Totalitarian Utilitarian control freak. Badass Bureaucrats, Honest Corporate Executives and, quite possibly, some Secret Police support them.

  • Phase Three: The Decay

After administrators' work is done, a time of prosperity and decent life begins. This, however, may sooner or later lead to situation in which a Spoiled Brat will inherit the throne and the rule will be passed over to decadents, who from history's lessons took mostly pride of being descendants of conquerors and administrators, especially the former, but none of their wisdom or bravery. They tend to spend their life wasting what previous generations left for them, instead of trying to secure or multiply it. While they spend their time on never-ending hedonism or consumerism, bad administration weakens the empire, slowly crippling economics and the army.

The ruler of this era can be The Caligula, an Adipose Rex, or a possible well-meaning but inept ruler, Unfit for Greatness, who will only make things worse with their reforms; helping (or hindering) him are a cabal of obstructive and corrupt bureaucrats and the whole Deadly Decadent Court, some of whom are on the payroll of a Corrupt Corporate Executive or two. Such an empire can already be called vestigial; it may not yet suffer loss of territories, but its influence is waning. The fate of Empire that enters this phase is to fall; the point of no return is already past, and no matter how gilded is the empire's facade, its structure is rotting, and the only way to stop it is a top-down revolution, that is, to tear everything down and rebuild from scratch (think Meiji or Peter the Great).

  • Phase Four: The Long Night

What was once a mighty Empire is now a failed state, a gray zone of squabbling independent shards, or sub-factions. Only a small part of the former empire's territories, half or less, are under control of the former capital; this is called a rump state, or a late, actually Vestigial Empire, where utter ignoramuses try to simulate the old Empire in a Cargo Cult-ish fashion, dressing in the robes of long-dead emperors and spouting bombastic orders no one actually listens to.

The decadence of the old Empire is now concentrated around a few select oligarchs and their surroundings, possibly a rich city or two, and the rest of the populace is struggling hard to get something to eat. The majestic and titanic monuments of the previous imperial eras turn into ruins or are resettled by bandit gangs, marauders or folks more sinister still.

The ruler of this era is Authority in Name Only with a 0% Approval Rating, a Small Name, Big Ego pompous gasbag of a dictator or an outright Empty Shell who has lost all will and cognition due to Despair Event Horizon, a Fisher Kingdom effect or just plain senility and/or alcoholism, practicing Head-in-the-Sand Management. A Vast Bureaucracy may form, stifling any and every positive idea and pilfering away budgets. The peripheries, which the rump state no longer controls, are home to Feudal Overlords clinging to their old crumbling castles, warlords and barbarian chiefs, for whom Authority Equals Asskicking and might makes right, and yet more Small Name, Big Ego dictators, who are pleasantly surprised that they don't have to kowtow to anyone any longer. However, in one or more sub-factions, intelligent leaders may arise and plan a new Empire; a new Expansion begins when one of them emerges openly, unambiguously triumphant.

Adjacent empires can see the rotting carcass of the empire ripe for plundering; they may directly intervene, send troops and partition the dead empire into colonial or semi-colonial pieces, or they can use hegemonism and make the petty states of the ex-empire their puppets.

Eventually, the Long Night ends with either total disappearance of the empire, its shards growing from petty and self-proclaimed to true distinct nations, or fading culturally and becoming just governorates of neighboring nations, or a climactic Civil War in which it is reforged in fire and steel and re-enters Stage One.

In fiction the border between phases are mostly clear, but in Real Life it wasn't always so clear - neither Caligula and Nero brought the Decay stage upon Roman Empire, because when the empire is mighty, the occasional tyrant don't hurt it much. It wasn't also uncommon to have rulers more fit for second phase to appear in first or third, trying to stabilize the situation. They can even pop up in the fourth phase, backtracking the rump state back from failed to just decayed. However, it does not appear possible to uncreatively restore the former regime to its full glory; even if such a restoration happens, it comes back wrong and already in the decay phase. To truly restart the cycle, new ideas and institutions are required.


Comic Books

  • Shi'Ar Empire from X-Men was in the Phase 1 under the rule of D'Ken. Under Lilandra it set up on Phase 2 but viarous crisises (many of which involved X-Men) threw it into phase 3, leading to secret conspiracy trying to re-estabilish D'Ken as a ruller, only for Vulcan to take it over, leading to new Phase 1, which lead to War of Kings. After their defeat Shi'Ar are now in another Phase 2.


  • In Star Wars, the Galactic Republic is in decline at the start of the Episode I, but Emperor Palpatine, rather than squandering it, restores it to expansion, but at the cost of turning it into, well, The Empire. By Episode IV, it is at the end of the stabilization phase. As Leia had predicted, the decline of his empire is rapid: "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." After Endor, the Long Night deepens on the Empire, with warlords like Zsinj, Harsk or Delvardus calling the shots. Meanwhile the New Republic has a rather rough road through its expansion phase.

  • In Black Company Lady's Empire is clearly Phase 1, however it later moves to the Phase 2. This trope is even lampshaded in The Silver Spike.
  • The CoDominium was an alliance between the United States of America and the Soviet Union that took over earth and colonized most of known space, it collapsed when the founding states finally sterilized earth in a nuclear war. Then the former American colony Sparta decided that humanity must be united under a single rule and conquered the other surviving colonies forming the Empire of Man, some centuries later this Empire falls thanks to a rebellion by the Sauron supermen. After a few more centuries of dark age a Second Empire emerges.
    • In The Mote in God's Eye the Second Empire contacts an alien race that due to their ridiculous breeding rate experiences the empire cycle frequently, so much so that they've depleted their system's supply of fissionable material. However they're restricted to one system because the only Alderson Point in their system of origin leads into a red supergiant.
  • In Steven Brust's Dragaera series, the empire (called, naturally, "The Empire") goes through "the cycle," a series of rulers based on their clan (each ruling several hundred years). It has gone through several cycles, always starting with the ascendant Phoenix, through all 17 clans, and ends with a decadent Phoenix. The cycle is then repeated. Recently the cycle was broken by a catastrophic event, but has started turning again.
  • Isaac Asimov's Foundation setting tells the tale of multiple empires:
    • Earth itself is still in the expansion phase when the first fully sentient robot is developed. By the time of the Robot novels with the character Detective Bailey, it is already in decline. In the Empire novels we see Earth has become an unimportant backwater. By the Foundation era, it has been abandoned and forgotten.
    • The spacers are at their height, on the cusp of stabilization and decline, in the novels featuring Detective Bailey. In the empire novels, they are already gone, except for robots that have infiltrated human society, and Solaria, the most extreme of the spacer worlds, where the robot:human populaton ratio is over 1000:1.
    • The empire ruled from the planet Trantor is going through late expansion and early stabilization in the Empire novels. By the time Hari Seldon, the man ultimately responsible for the Foundation, is born, it is entering decline; by the end of the Foundation novels Trantor is a galactic backwater.
    • The Foundation itself is in expansion through most of the Foundation novels; however, the final book reveals that the Foundation will not succeed in restoring the galaxy to stabilization; humanity's future lies in a different direction.
  • Barryar in Vorkosigan Saga is in phase 2. It is becoming more cultured and less violent and has more or less halted expansion but it still retains memories of old ways. The present Emperor is a Reasonable Authority Figure who was apprenticed by one of Barryars greatest statesmen in history. Ezar's last order is also an example of purging hotheads.
  • Fredric Brown's Letter to a Phoenix, where a 180 000 year old man claims he saw Humanity bomb itself into the stone age six times already.
  • In The Republic Of Trees it is discussed as "historical gravity" - everything that rises, from empires to revolutions must fall one day. And yet people keep trying, hoping that they will be the first to get lucky.

Live-Action TV

  • Andromeda takes place in the Interregnum of the Systems Commonwealth, with the titular ship's crew trying to establish a new Commonwealth.

  • The Korean drama Emperor Wang Guhn was type 3 and type 1. Taking place in the 9th century AD, it shows the decline & fall of Silla and the rise of Koguryo (modern day Korea).

Tabletop Games

  • Fading Suns has gone through two corporatocratic Republics and is slowly emerging from a dark age as a feudal Empire.
  • Warhammer40000: The first human and Eldar empires were torn apart by the birth of Slaanesh, the Eldar because their homeworlds were consumed by the Eye of Terror and the humans because the resulting warp storms made interstellar travel difficult. Humanity was re-united under the God Emperor but the Eldar are still scattered.
  • The Third Imperium in the default setting of Traveller is in phase 2. The Vilani Imperium in Intersteller Wars is in phase three and the Terrans in phase 1; the Vilani Imperium arose thousands of years ago at the dawn of Terran civilization and founded an Intersteller Empire so large that it could withstand decay simply through it's size and had been a Vestigial Empire for centuries when the Terrans discovered it. However, the Second Imperium, created by Terran conquest, quickly succumbs to phase 4, suffering The Long Night, because it inherited all problems of the Vilani Imperium. In the Megatraveller timeline the Third Imperium lasts about 1120 years before Emperor Strephon is assassinated and in the resulting Succession Crisis a weaponized Contagious A.I. tears apart not only the Imperium but the neighboring alien empires as well.
  • BattleTech is set during Long Night following the demise of the Star League. Each of the four Inner Sphere Successor States and the Crusader Clans have ambitions of becoming the next Empire.

Video Games

  • In The Elder Scrolls back story, there have been three major empires spanning most of the Tamriel continent: the short-lived First Empire of the Nords, the Reman-Akaviri Second Empire, and the Septims' Third Empire. The first four main games are set in the Decay stage of the Third Empire, and before it finally collapses in Oblivion. In Skyrim, the Long Night is already in effect: the Mede Empire loses control of a province after province, barbarian insurgents are everywhere over the place, and agents of the rival Aldmeri empire (which is in Phase 1) walk around like it's their backyard.
  • The X-Universe has gone through The Cycle of Empire twice. In both cases, the Decline and Fall was due to somebody creating artificial general intelligence. The first time around, the Terrans nearly destroyed themselves, only surviving because the commander of their space navy lured the terraformers through the Earth jumpgate, which was destroyed behind them. The survivors of said commander's fleet created a new civilization in the X-Universe, the Argon Federation. In the 2940s, threatened by Earth's superior military, the Argon created AGI warships and unleashed them on the Terrans, sparking an interstellar war that forced the Community of Planets the Argon were a part of to divert the military forces holding the terraformers (now called the Xenon) at bay. The Xenon went out of control, forcing the Old Ones to shut down the jumpgate system. This caused Galactic/Societal Collapse. X Rebirth is set during the Interregnum about a thousand years later.

Web Original

  • Orion's Arm has gone through the empire cycle at least once, after the fall of the First Federation Terragen space was divided into several "sephirotic empires". And it's indicated that the Sephirotics are fragmenting. That's despite they are ruled by Mega Giga AIs without human weaknesses. The authors never get tired of elaborating by how ludicrous a factor are their minds above puny human ones, but it seems that preventing the Cycle of Empires from completing is beyond their ability, too.

Real Life

  • This is more or less the basic model for the study of Chinese history. A dynasty is founded with the mandate of heaven; it renews/maintains the roads, dykes, levees and other infrastructure necessary to the health of the empire. Gradually, corruption and decay set in, the dynasty loses power to the eunuchs, literati, and local governors, and the infrastructure is no longer maintained, costing the dynasty the mandate of heaven. After some kind of exchange of power, the mandate passes to a new dynasty and the cycle begins anew.

  • Russia also works like that. Let's recount: First cycle: Rurik to Vladimir the Saint - expansion, Vladimir to Yaroslav the Wise - stability, Yaroslav's sons to Monomakh - decay, Mongol yoke - Long Night. Second cycle: Ivan the Great - expansion, Ivan the Terrible - stability, Boris Godunov - decay, the Time of Troubles - Long Night. First Romanovs - an uncreative restoration of the second-cycle Muscovite Tsardom, back to Decay. Third cycle: Peter the Great - top-down revolution and expansion, Catherine the Great and Alexander I the Blessed - stability, Nicholas I to Nicholas II - decay, Provisional Government and the White Guards - Long Night. Fourth cycle: Bolsheviks and Stalin pre-WWII - expansion, Stalin post-WWII and Khruschev - stability, Brezhnev to Gorbachev - decay, the Federal regime - Long Night. However, that last part needs some hindsight; it's possible that perestroika and The New Russia are merely decay, and the real Long Night is yet to happen.

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