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The Cycle of Empires
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, squandering 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.

What?

Let's explain. The "Imperial Cycle" of history is a model that is put forth to try and explain the history of empires or other great states. It should be noted that this model is highly simplified and somewhat hidebound so that it *can't* fully fit every empire that has existed, but it is still an elegant and relatively accurate model, and highly influential in culture (especially Chinese and other culture in the Sinosphere). According to the theory, the History of every empire, real life or fictional, can be divided in four parts:

Phase One: Expansion

During this phase the Empire is still young and rising, many of its rulers are ambitious, and those with money often give them the loans they need to conquer their enemies. These days see the Empire established by military expansion, and also the most betrayals and civil wars, as many great leaders may turn against each other in their desire to take the throne for themselves. The Empire racks up massive debts from all this warfare, and its economy is likely totally devastated, but with its borders secure it'll probably be able to pay off its debts over the next few generations.

The ruler of this era is The Conqueror and Founder of the Kingdom. Serving him are The Good Chancellor or Evil Chancellor (depending on moral allegiance *usually*), 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, opposing would-be empires and claimants to be met in climatic struggle, 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 worth conquering, or when everyone is just so indebted or exhausted that there is literally no money left to be loaned or taxed and The Empire can't afford to fight anymore. With long awaited peace the second phase begins.

Phase Two: Stabilization

In this phase the conquerors die off and are replaced by administrators who help estabilish a system of rules and institutions used to manage their empire, overseeing an era of economic & demographic recovery and growth and gradually paying off the still-massive debts of their ancestors. 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 the administrators' work is done, with debt down to manageable levels and no serious outside threats remaining, comes a time of economic growth and real prosperity. This may or may not involved a population high as well, which is a problem because agriculture can only support so many people in the long-term - meaning that many people will starve and die in times of famine until the population falls to sustainable levels again. The biggest problem facing The Empire is that more and more wealth and power is concentrated in private hands and not those of the state - the nobles and merchants become more and more powerful, and the central government has more and more trouble getting local and regional governments to cooperate. The increasingly delicate balance of power is easily disrupted if just one Spoiled Brat inherits the throne and lets this weakening of the state happen. Even if there aren't any, the new generations of rulers take little pride from the administrators and think of their conquerors' heritage instead, often wasting state money on expensive military campaigns to expand the Empire just for the sake of conquest. They tend to spend their life on never-ending consumerism or hedonism, wasting what previous generations left for them instead of trying to secure or multiply it through 'boring' things like building infrastructure, re-organising the taxation system, or establishing new trade missions.

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

The Empire exists in name only at this stage. It is now a failed state, a gray zone of squabbling independent shards or sub-factions. The dissipation of The Empire's power to rich and powerful individuals (oligarchs) is complete, with many families and even regions now only paying lip-service to The Empire and its supposed rulers. The Empire's fiscal situation is a mess because very little money will be coming in thanks to disloyalty and corruption, even though the state's debts haven't gone away - the debt might even be growing. This will be the case regardless of whether The Empire itself is still experiencing economic growth or not, but it's very likely that The Empire is also experiencing economic contraction due to the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer peoplenote Long-term population decline is also likely, mostly due to the unsustainability of the previous population high - i.e. some people will starve because the total population's food requirements exceed total sustainable food production - but also due to banditry, civil disorder, and even Civil War.

Only a small part of the former empire's territories, half or less, give money to or actually take orders from 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.

Supertrope to Standard Sci-Fi History.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Comic Books 
  • The 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.

     Film 

  • 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.

     Literature 
  • 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 featuring Detective Elijah Baley, it is already in decline. Baley, Daneel, and their followers engineer a new wave of expansion, but events conspire to exclude Earth itself. In the Empire novels we see Earth has become an unimportant backwater. By the Foundation era, it has been abandoned and literally forgotten.
    • The Spacers, an earlier wave of colonists that turned against their homeworld, are at the cusp of stabilization and decline in the Robot novels. By the time of 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 and a population that turned inward and literally inhuman.. Though the Spacers didn't necessarily die out — at least some of them were subsumed into the Earth-derived non-robot-using interstellar culture while keeping some of their traditions.
    • The Galactic 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 — although Seldon is one of the few to realize it. The first two Foundation novels have a subplot of the Empire's decay, which eventually reaches the point where Trantor becomes an agrarian galactic backwater and the Vestigial Empire relocates to a resort world before being conquered by the Mule. The point of Seldon's Plan and the eponymous Foundations is to manipulate history to reduce the length of the Long Night before a second Galactic Empire to merely one thousand years, instead of the thirty thousand Seldon predicted otherwise.
    • The Foundation itself is in expansion through most of the Foundation novels; part of Seldon's Plan seems to involve the various crises forcing the Foundation to minimize phases of decay by being forced into expansionist phases of a radically new nature (e.g. the Encyclopedists are succeeded by the religionists, who themselves are made redundant by the Merchant Princes). 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.
    • The entries from the Encyclopedia Galactica from the first Foundation books are explicitly stated to be from the Second Empire. Perhaps Galaxia fails, perhaps it assimiliates with the Foundation and the Second Foundation somehow, but it appears that the Foundation does succeed in some form.
  • Barryar in the 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.
    • More precisely, Barrayar was in a Long Night period(the Time of Isolation)until it was united by Emperor Dorca the Just. This followed with the Cetagandian invasion and then a civil war to overthrow Mad Yuri. After that was a period of expansion and consolidation of Ezar's reign followed by Aral's regency and then the reign of Gregor. Dorca and Ezar were ruthless but competent rulers who were able to lay the foundations for a possible system by ability at head-cracking and were thus appreciated by people who had known only chaos. Gregor is a more civilized ruler for a more civilized time and is able to live like a sedate gentleman. Aral was an old-school aristocrat who could keep a lid on the vor aristocracy and keep foreign powers away while slowly evolving Barrayar into a calmer system. His term was the bridge between phase 1 and phase 2. Like Dorca and Ezar he cracks heads occasionally and is good at it but Aral also manages the feat of slowly teaching Barryarans to live without head-cracking. He retains a little of the temperment of the old days and a little of the new.
  • 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.
  • Has occurred several time in the history of the word in A Song of Ice and Fire. The Valyrian Freehold fell during the "Doom of Valryia" and before the the Ghiscari Empire conquered much of the continent before they were displaced by the Valyrians. And then the Targaryens, one of the few survivors of Valyria, went on to conquer Westeros and found their own Empire, the Seven Kingdoms, and the story starts 15 years after the last Targaryen king was dethroned in Robert's Rebellion, and while the kingdom survived the initial aftermath of the war events within the series kickstart the fracturing of the state into its own regions again.
  • The Confederacy of Suns in The History of the Galaxy is more The Federation than The Empire, but it fits the cycle. It arose shortly after the Galactic Wars as a means to keep the peace between various colonies. However, the setup was inherently unequal, with the five Core colonies being given more political weight than the Border worlds that vastly outnumbered them. The creation did bring stability for a few centuries. However, the lack of external enemies beyond occasional Space Pirates and rogue Mega Corps coupled with the dissatisfaction of the Border worlds and the increasing corruption led to the Confederacy's slow decay until its dissolusion. A few decades later, a previously-unknown alien foe deals a crippling blow to the colonies and is only repelled by a few brave individuals. This forces the colonies to reconsider and re-form the Confederacy, although each member world is now equal. Later novels show that the Confederacy may seem stable, it now faces numerous threats both from newly-discovered alien foes and powerful internal elements, and it hasn't even been that long since the new Confederacy was founded.

     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.
    • They manage to restore it in a later season, but only about 50 systems to start, while the original Commonwealth stretched to three galaxies. In fact, the Commonwealth itself was originally the expansionist Vedran Empire. It's only when it became too large to effectively maintain control via imperial means that they agreed to form the Commonwealth with the Vedran Empress being relegated to be merely the Head of State, while the government is actually run by the Triumvirs and a tri-cameral parliament mostly composed of non-Vedrans. The new Commonwealth is corrupt with a number of its members eventually betraying them all over again.
  • 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).
  • The main powers of Babylon 5:
    • In theory, Earth Alliance and the Narn Regime are in a phase of expansion. In practice, however, the Narn are bottled up between powers that can hold their own against them (Earth Alliance and the League of Non-Aligned Worlds) or crush them in a matter of weeks and cannot expand anymore. As for Earth Alliance, while they're currently recovering from the Earth-Minbari War and thus don't have the means to expand with force, they still manage to expand by colonizing uninhabitated systems (how they quickly expanded in a power big enough for the Centauri to not easily swallow them up) and diplomacy (and in fact an episode is centered about troops going to help Earth's newest protectorate passing through the titular station);
    • The Minbari are in a phase of decay for most of the series, and actually enter a very brief interregnum before Delenn manage to re-stabilize them and initiate a new expansion phase (at least population-wise, as it's implied their terminal population decay is reversed);
    • The Centauri are in their Long Night (in fact both the Narn Regime and part of the League used to be Centauri territory), but, thanks to technological development, are powerful enough they could easily reconquer all the lost worlds if they only wanted... And in fact they proceed to do just that: when the Shadows' machinations finally ignite a war with the Narn Regime, the Centauri discover their so-called nemesis was unable to resist their overwhelming might, and they later start a war on the League and are winning on all fronts (all twelve of them) before Londo put them back in a phase of stabilization. The Shadow War and the following events bring them back in a phase of decay, but the novels show them returning to stabilization and possibly a new expansion;
      • The Lost Tales show that the Centauri, if left unchecked, will return to their former might in only a few decades and will be stronger than the Earth Alliance.
    • The League is mostly in a phase of stabilization, but their most powerful members, the Drazi, are pushing for their own expansion;
    • And the whole setting is actually in the Long Night between the rule of the First Ones and the rise of a race capable of living outside their tutelage. This is made more complicated due the First Ones being either expanding or stabilized, with most of them having left the galaxy and the remaining ones trying to teach to the Younger Races

     Tabletop Games 

  • Fading Suns has gone through two corporatocratic Republics and is slowly emerging from a dark age as a feudal Empire.
  • Warhammer 40,000: 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 five 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 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.
    • Other empires have had more localized versions. The Direnni Hegemony, for example, went through all the stages (rising from an Altmer clan from Summerset to dominating a quarter of Tamriel, centred around High Rock, and then shrinking back to only having the Isle of Balfiera — the Stabilization/Prosperity phases were evidently short), though they apparently managed to avoid most of the trappings of Vestigial Empire — the modern Dirennis are perfectly aware the Hegemony is gone, and are okay with that.
  • 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 rogue 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 Ancients to shut down the jumpgate system. This caused Galactic/Societal Collapse, with all organized galactic government falling apart simultaneously and many star systems suffering an Inferred Holocaust. X Rebirth is set during the Interregnum about a thousand years later, and deals with the efforts to get the gates working again and build up to the Renaissance.

     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 - creation of the post-medieval Russia, which was more or less a recreation of Rurikid Muscovy as is, which resulted in an Age of Rebellions (Buntashny Vek).
    • 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.
      • Note that this only works from a 'prestige' standpoint - Russia in 1913-17 was in the middle of an economic boom, with the highest levels of economic activity and prosperity the country had ever seen. Politically the country was in trouble because of the military's poor performance (because it was modeled and organised on 19th and not 20th-century/modern lines) and the reluctance of farmers to sell their grain on the open market as a result of the consumer-goods shortage (due to the 1915-16 mobilisation of all industry for Total War). The latter led to food shortages in Moscow and Saint Petersburg...
    • 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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