Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

The Rise and Fall of Civilisations

During a 2006 vacation in Kusadasi, Turkey, I visited the city of Ephesus. It’s known as the 1st Christian city in the entire world (e.g., Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians). For three years Paul the Apostle made Ephesus his home. Walking on these ancient brick paths/roads of over 2,000 years, was a tremendous experience. The city of Ephesus was once a harbour city and important commercial centre with some 100,000 people. It played a great role in the ancient times with its strategic location. However, once the sea level decreased, the harbour got dry, the people left and the city died.

Most of the oldest and largest cities in the world that we know, are built near the sea or along major rivers. The opportunity for trade following the availability of (water) transportation (i.e., ships) is most likely to be the main reason. Our civilisation went from (tribal) hunter-gatherers to farmers, from trading (posts) to cities and ultimately to nations. For thousands of years, we have also witnessed a dramatic rise and fall of civilisations. What were the driving forces?

I think and feel that it’s safe to say that wealth amongst city traders created elites. These elites were able to pay soldiers for the city’s defence. City rulers emerged from the elites. The pursuit of wealth and scarcity of natural resources led to the conquering of other cities. The agglomeration of cities under one ruler led to ever increasing nations. The elites who were less interested in (military or political) power focused on areas like science. Many famous scientists from past centuries come from wealthy families as they were the only ones who could afford education.

The rise of civilisations seems more easy to explain than the fall of civilisations. Ephesus’ fall was due to climate changes (i.e., decrease of sea level). Depletion of natural resources seems like another realistic explanation. Most likely there is no fall of a civilisation without the rise of another civilisation. New civilisations improve on the flaws of older civilisations. The previous civilisation is not able or willing to see its flaws, let alone repair them. The combination of building a new civilisation by learning from the flaws of an old civilisation and the unwillingness of change of an old civilisation to adapt to new circumstances might be crucial in its fall and the rise of another.

In 1937 a Dutch journalist and historian, Jan Romein, came up with the term “Wet van de remmende voorsprong” which is usually translated as Law of the handicap of a head start. I prefer a translation like Law on first mover disadvantage. This law is applicable in numerous settings and suggests that making progress in a particular area often creates circumstances in which stimuli are lacking to strive for further progress. This results in the individual or group that started out ahead eventually being overtaken by others.

Transportation and military strength have long been adequate in territorial domination (e.g., Mongols, Vikings). The limitations in its population size caused a natural restriction in its domination potential. The Roman Empire which combined knowledge, military strength, wealth and a large population was able to last either 500 years (western part) or 1,500 years, including its eastern Byzantine Empire. One could – perhaps – argue that the Roman Empire was replaced by the Holy (Christian) Empire until the early 600s when Islam split of and Christianity and Islam started competing each other.

The global distribution in knowledge, military strength, population size, and wealth is the main reason why we now lack global empires although some tried and failed (e.g., Napoleon, Hitler). The required ingredients do explain why the USA is considered being the most dominant world power.


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