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Reflections on the Rise and Fall of Empires

September 21, 2010 marked the 2501th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon.

Of  course, probably every day somewhere in the world people commemorate Marathon by running a 26 mile Marathon race. I wonder how many of them know or care that they are paying tribute to men who fought for freedom so many years ago. Marathon is a plain that lies 26 miles from Athens. After the victory the Athenian runner Pheidippides raced that distance back to Athens to tell his fellow citizens that their army was victorious. After the battle, as well, the entire Greek army marched those 26 miles, despite their exhaustion from conflict, in order to prevent the Persian fleet from making a surprise assault on Athens.

On that date in 490 BC, 10,000 men of Athens and their ally Plataea defeated a Persian army three times their size.  The Persians were the best equipped, best trained army the world had ever seen.  They were soldiers of the Great King Darius, “Lord of Lords, King of Kings and Master over the Four Corners of the Universe.” 

Darius had sent them forth on a preemptive strike against Athens as part of his plan to enslave the entire Greek world and then the whole of Europe.  He never imagined that such a powerful empire as his could be defeated by a small number of Greeks or that he would begin the decline and fall of the first pan-Middle Eastern empire. 

On a recent study trip, I took 56 of the friends and donors to the University cruising through the historical sites of the Mediterranean.  It gave me pause to reflect upon all the empires that have risen and fallen in the Mediterranean.  I took with me a Greek text of the historian, Herodotus.  I have stood with this text on the battlefield of Marathon.  Like Herodotus, I understood that the Battle of Marathon was the most decisive battle in the history of freedom and the most decisive battle in the history of the United States.  Had the Athenians failed at this great challenge, the word “democracy” would be lost to history.  The values of Europe, above all individual and political freedom, would have been lost to history.  Herodotus understood that the war against Darius was part of the never-ending-struggle of the values of Europe against the Middle East: freedom vs. despotism. 

Herodotus wrote his history to answer the question of why great nations rise and then fall.  His story of the victory of a tiny force of Greeks, fighting as free men, over the slaves of a despot, inspired the Founders of our country.  They read Herodotus and sought to draw from him the lessons of how our own nation might rise to be a super-power but avoid the faults of all the great empires that have gone before. 

Herodotus knew that empires do not fall because of anonymous social and economic and natural forces.  In fact, the decline of the Persian Empire began when it was economically the super-power of its day.  The Persian Empire of Darius was the center of a global economy that stretched from Spain to China.  The empire of Darius himself reached from what we would call Pakistan today all the way across the Middle East and up to the Danube River.  The empire of Darius was a great creditor nation.  His coffers literally overflowed with gold.  Every year the taxes from his empire brought in the immense sum of 14,600 talents (you might remember from the Bible the term talent; in the day of Darius one talent would build a warship).  Moreover, he had no outflow.  The provinces of his vast domains supplied all the material needs for his army, his bureaucracy and his superb infrastructure.  Indeed, the speed with which mail was delivered in the empire of Darius gave to our own postal service its motto, “Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night shall keep these couriers from their appointed route.” 

The Persians are the ancestors of the modern Iranians. But the Iran of King Darius was the leading military/political/economic power of its day.  Why then did it fall?  Herodotus believed that there were invariable laws to the rise and fall of empires.  Empires rose and fell—as they still do today—because of individual decisions made by individual leaders. 

The greatest mistake made by those in power, like Darius, was the sin of hybris.  That Greek word means “outrageous arrogance.”  Hybris (and that is the way it should be transliterated) is the outrageous arrogance that marks the abuse of power.  Only those invested with enormous power can commit the sin of hybris.  Hybris is the imposition of your will, at all costs.  The Greeks believed that hybris was preceded by ate or moral blindness that makes you believe that you can do anything you want to and there will be no consequences from either Gods or men.  It was this hybris that led Darius to undertake a preemptive war against Athens.  It was his moral blindness that believed he would never know defeat.  He ignored all the warnings that the Gods sent him because he felt so secure in his power.

As I stood at Marathon, I wondered about our own country.  In my years as a teacher and lecturer, I have never known such a sense of pessimism in our country.  My students are gloomy; my audiences of senior citizens are gloomy.  They seem to feel that America is on the same slide that has marked other superpowers, like Persia.  I hope that they are wrong.  But, if a later-day Herodotus writes the story of America’s decline and fall, he or she may very well see 1990, and the subsequent years, as the beginning of our end.  In 1990, communism had collapsed; the expansion of China only on the horizon; Russia a shadow of her former self.  We were truly the absolute super-power, as the Persia of Darius had been.  We were economically supreme; politically supreme; militarily supreme.  We were filled with a spirit of optimism; Ronald Reagan had brought us a new sense of pride and dignity in our role as a bearer of freedom to the world. 

Now, 20-years later, that seems to be a chimera, slipping between our fingers.  The same span of time, 20-years, marked the beginning of the end for Persia, from the Battle of Marathon in 490 to its utter humiliation by the Greeks and loss of major parts of its territory a few years later. 

If Herodotus could come back and lecture to us, he would tell us that Americans have made the same fatal mistake of hybris.  It was a mistake of thinking that we were supremely powerful, which was a moral blindness.  We committed the hybris of thinking that no new super-power could arise to challenge us.  In that hybris, we fostered the rise of China to super-power status.  We neglected Russia and left it bitterly disillusioned at our failure to come in with something like a Marshall Plan when communism collapsed.  We left Russia xenophobic, chauvinistic, and armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. 

The fall of the Persian Empire, like the fall of the Roman Empire, demonstrates that the perception of the decline of a superpower can create an extremely perilous situation. This perception brings together unlikely allies eager to carve up new spheres of influence. History teaches that it is not utterly unreasonable to see an alliance of Russia, China and Iran aligned against an America viewed as divided and economically vulnerable.

In fact, our supreme act of hybris has been our belief that we can ignore all the laws of economics.  We can incur a huge overwhelming national debt without it becoming the ruin of our economy as it has of every economy in history.  We have believed that we could fight preventive wars and be welcomed as liberators.  We have thought that we could fight these wars while at the same time carrying out programs of entitlement that would have astounded and angered Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Harry Truman.  We’ve ignored the lesson of the French Revolution by debasing our currency and issuing tremendous amounts of fiat money.  We have ignored the lesson of the fall of the Roman Empire by allowing our military infrastructure to decay and by believing that a military superpower can be sustained by a largely service economy.

Individual decisions by individual leaders in politics and business have brought us, I believe, to the verge of economic and then political ruin. 

Herodotus composed his history in Athens, the first true democracy in history.  He read it to the entire citizen body of Athens.  His history celebrated the bravery of the Athenians that had led the way to freedom for Greece.  The Athenians admired his history and gave him 10-talents as a reward, making him a billionaire for life.  But he wrote his history as a warning to Athens.  He urged the Athenians not to follow in the wake of the Persian Empire and other empires that had failed before.  He urged the Athenians, while they still had the chance, to go back to their old values of patriotism, courage, and financial and political common sense. 

Herodotus taught that superpowers that fall never rise again. Marathon began the decline of the Persian Empire that would end with its complete overthrow by Alexander the Great. The charred ruins of Persepolis, the mighty capital of Darius, testify to the fate of a failed superpower.

I hope we Americans will find the wisdom to elect leaders who will heed that warning and put us back on the path of greatness.

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