The Last Emperor?

Much of last week was spent in Rome, which is overwhelming in its sights, though the highlight for me was the peace of the Appian Way. Rome is also rich in lessons on civilisation, politics and strategy – many of which appear to be lost on leaders today. In that respect it is a good place to consider the rise and fall of nations, a phenomenon that is gathering pace.

More broadly if we consider the biggest, most powerful cities in the history of the world, Rome stands out. Many of these great cities— Babylon, Nimrud (south of Mosul), and Alexandria—were the focal points of great civilizations but, sadly, have been in the news for the wrong reasons. It is surprising how many Chinese cities have been “the biggest” through time, with cities like Nanjing, Xi’an, Hangzhou, and Beijing dominating the period from AD 600 to AD 1800. London briefly took over during the nineteenth century, and the biggest-city baton was then passed to New York.

Overall, if we adjust for world population and perhaps level of development, Rome has a very good chance of being considered the world’s greatest city. At the time of the birth of Christ, Rome had one million inhabitants. Scaling for demographics, Tokyo, to match this, would need to have over seventy million residents today. Rome is also impressive in that it was the world’s dominant city for some five hundred years.

Yet, the empire it spawned (which endured for twice the typical 240 year lifespan of empires historically) is today often used as a template for the potential decline of America (or, together with the example of ancient Greece – the rise of China against the relative decline of America).

This in turn should lead us to think of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is a reference point in economic history in general and in declinism specifically. Gibbon sought to explain why the Roman Empire disintegrated. His thesis is that Rome became complacent, its institutions were weakened, and the leaders in Roman public life lost their sense of civic virtue, or what Niccolo Machiavelli later simply called “virtu”—the good of the republic or common good.

Since Gibbon, other writers have turned declinism into a deep furrow. Germany’s Oswald Spengler controversially wrote The Decline  of the West in 1918, and in recent years in Europe we have had Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany gets rid of itself ), followed by books like Eric Zemmour’s Le Suicide Français and Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission, not to mention a raft of similar titles in the US.

Many of these books are impatient, and make the mistake of thinking an ‘empire’ ends with an event whereas in reality it is more of a slow process, the economic signs of which may be a failure to enhance productivity, falling human development and a failure to keep up with new technologies.

Yet, if the history of Rome and Gibbons’ assessment of it in particular are a guide to the runners and riders in today’s multipolar world then what else should we look out for?

To start with I would watch out for a breakdown in ‘fraternity’ or social cohesion as characterised by for example a rise in inequality. In the USA wealth and income inequality are close to the extremes of the 1920’s. The share of income of the top 1 percent is now back to levels not seen since the 1920s. In New York, the ratio of the  income of the top 1 percent to that of the other 99 percent is 45 to 1. A good portion of this gap is driven by high executive pay, which across the range of industries in the United States averages three hundred times the pay of the average worker. It is hard to find such an extreme relationship at any other time in history. In Rome in AD 14, for instance, the income of a Roman senator was one hundred times the average income, and legion commanders received an income of forty-five times the average!

A second is political agitation, which is manifest in many countries. My personal, very amateur view is that political systems that allow themselves to change and evolve, will avoid extreme outcomes. The disappearance of old political parties and the rise of new parties and a new ‘centre’ in France and Germany are examples. In contrast the lack of flexibility of two party systems in the UK and US has produced extreme political outcomes.

Perhaps a more pertinent argument would be to relate ‘strong man’ governments to the Roman system – where the increasing concentration of power around one man (Russia, China) could produce a catastrophic strategic error. In that regard, whilst the declinists focus their attention on the US, it is worth spending more time thinking about China.

The dominant size of Chinese cities from the period 600 to 1600 AD should at least inform those outside China that the China Dream is based on a desire to reclaim its historic role as an economic superpower and, to date its economic decision making has been very good. To that end, China has a new, economic empire. It is yet an unsure geopolitical player with few allies in Asia and the wrong ones (Russia) further afield.

Its most fragile aspect is the concentration of power around Xi Jinping, which will be tested by China’s coronavirus crisis and by the socio-political effects of slowing growth and demographics. He should bear in mind that for all the years the Roman Empire endured, the average ‘term’ of a Roman emperor was only just over five years, seventy percent of them dying of ‘unnatural’ causes.

Have a great week ahead,


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