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Sir John Glubb (1897-1986) was a British soldier and scholar. He served in World War I and later commanded Jordan’s military from 1938-1956. In his essay, The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival, he surveys 3,000 years of history and provides his observations on the human patterns behind the rise and fall of empires. What follows are my notes.

“National histories are propaganda. History to be meaningful, must be the history of the human race.”

Sir John Glubb


  • Empires last about 250 years, or 10 human generations
  • The stages of empire follow a similar pattern
    • Age of Pioneers (outburst)
    • Age of Conquests
    • Age of Commerce
    • Age of Affluence
    • Age of Intellect
    • Age of Decadence
  • Characteristics of decadence:
    • Defensiveness
    • Pessimism
    • Materialism
    • Frivolity
    • Influx of foreigners
    • Welfare state
    • Weakening of religion (or moral strictness)
  • Decadence emerges from:
    • Long period of prosperity and power
    • Greed
    • Shift from duty and service to selfishness
  • The stages are remarkably similar across empires, though the collapses themselves vary greatly.
  • Technologies like transportation and weaponry does not seem to affect an empire’s life-expectancy.
  • Glubb studied empires from 859 B.C. to 1950 C.E.: Assyria, Persia, Greece, Roman Republic, Roman Empire, Arab Empire, Mameluke Empire, Ottoman Empire, Spain, Romanov Russia, Britain.
  • We can study these historical patterns, but it is an uphill battle to overcome human nature.

age of pioneers: the outburst

  • Often small nations overlooked by more powerful neighbors, emerge suddenly and take over large parts of the world.
  • Characteristics of the newcomer: high energy, boldness, courage, poor/hardy, fearless initiative, open to improvisation and experimentation, favor action over “studying”.
  • The newcomer blazes a new path, free from the traditions of crumbling empires.

age of conquests

  • The first stage is defined by reckless bravery and boldness
  • The second stage is more organized and professional, taking on the best practices of the old empires. This results in a period of military expansion.
  • Vast territories come under the rule of one government.
  • Heroes: Warriors (generals, soldiers)

age of commerce

  • Under single government-rule, conditions are ripe for commercial prosperity.
  • Art, architecture, and luxury flourish under wealthy patrons.
  • The first half of this age is defined by courage, patriotism, duty.
  • Other peculiar observations:
    • Boys are still required to be manly (as in ages of Pioneers and Conquests)
    • Emphasis on truthfulness
  • Heroes: Captains of Enterprise (profitable global entrepreneurs)
  • Value: Pursuit of military glory

age of affluence

  • Money starts to become the agent of gradual decline.
  • The best young men chase money over honor.
  • People chase money for themselves, not their country or community.
  • Schools produce MBAs over brave patriots.
  • Value: Accumulation of wealth

high noon

  • Marks the transition from the Age of Conquests to the Age of Affluence.
  • Selfishness and greed for money replaces duty and public service.
  • Defensiveness emerges. People are anxious to cling to their wealth, power, and luxury … but without the bravery or interest in duty.
  • Enemies paid off instead of fought.
  • New justification emerges: “We’re too civilized to fight.”

“The weakness of pacificism is that there are still too many peoples in the world who are aggressive.”

Sir John Glubb

age of intellect

  • Lots of money available to pursue knowledge.
  • Surge in the number of colleges and universities, from a handful to “one in every city.”
  • Surprising advance in natural sciences
  • The wide spread of knowledge seems to inevitably lead to a period of decline.
  • Intellectualism leads to discussion, debate, argument – rarely leading to agreement or common purpose ➡ public affairs go from bad to worse in all the noise ➡ constant discussion destroys the ability to act ➡ intensification of political hatreds
  • “Amid a Babel of talk, the ship drifts on to the rocks.”
  • Unconscious belief that the human brain can solve anything, that they can substitute cleverness for self-sacrifice.
  • Heroes: Intellectuals
  • Value: Acquiring academic credentials

“It often seems the head and the heart are natural rivals.”

Sir John Glubb

age of decadence

  • As a nation declines, a pessimism sets in. Frivolity is a companion to pessimism.
  • Gladiatorial shows, chariot races, athletic events.
  • Pop-singers, reality TV show celebs, social media influencers
  • Arab decline example. 10th century historians complained:
    • Relaxed sexual morals
    • Corruption of pubic officials (politicians getting rich)
    • Pop singers and erotic songs with obscenities
    • Feminist movements
    • Five-day work week
  • Expanding welfare state
    • Philanthropy to other races (so long as dominance is maintained)
    • Free college tuition
    • Free healthcare (Arab Empire, Mamun)
  • Assumption that the empire will always be rich ➡ “lavish benevolence” ➡ economic collapse ➡ universities and hospitals close
  • Decline in religion, but in this phase the seeds of religious revival are sown.
  • Decadence is the decay of a system, not its people. People take on their surroundings and become selfish and idle. But if they suddenly find themselves in new surroundings, bravery, self-sacrifice, hardiness return.
  • Heroes: Athletes
  • Value: Celebrity