The Life Expectancy of Empires

The Life Expectancy of Empires

From time to time, people will reference how empires usually last around 200 years and thus infer that America has come to its empire life expectancy. If our country’s birthday was July 4, 1776, this year we turned 240 years old as an empire.

For the moment, I’ll concede the point about whether or not this 200 year average age is true and only urge the following observations:
1. There are plenty of very short lived empires. The Nazi Germany empire comes to mind – inarguably an empire that lasted … around five years. You could add to this Japan up until 1945 or France during the Napoleonic Wars.
2. There are plenty of very long lived empires. Rome lasted well over 400 years. You could argue that it morphed into the Holy Roman Empire that lasted well into the Enlightenment. China and Egypt both had a few empire eras that lasted this long.
3. Lastly, and most importantly, the “birthdate” of any empire is imprecise. Typically people consider the Roman Empire to have started in 27 BC with Caesar Augustus’ military victories granting him unassailable power. But the Roman Republic had been already operating for nearly 500 years before this. But then, you also had the era of the Roman Kingdom which ruled for 250 years before this. Roman history gets a little foggy before this, but when did the entity of “Rome” start? Rome itself was up and running long before the Roman Empire ruled the western world.

The analogy between the Roman Empire and the United States of America is fairly thin. For one, I would primarily ask, “When did the United State of America start?” The most obvious answer would be 1776, but were we immediately an empire when that happened? Hardly. This colonial time was nothing like the Roman Empire of 27 BC. So then was our birthday later?

It would be tough to argue that the US was “the” empire of the 1800s in the Western world as that title would be given at various points to France, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Great Britain. By the end of the 1800s, Great Britain was undoubtedly “the” empire of the world in a way analogous to the Roman Empire.

By the early 1900s, America had risen as a world power and by 1914 Germany, Great Britain, and the United States had the three largest economies in the world. However, even at this point, it would be very tough to make the argument that America was an empire as it had only a minimal amount of military power. Leading up to World War I, Great Britain probably wins over Germany as “the” empire of the time. By the end of World War I, Europe is decimated and among the European powers only Great Britain’s economy is at the level of the United States. But the US still doesn’t have a large military, so the case for US predominance at this time is hard to make.

By 1939, the US, Great Britain, and Germany are the main contenders again. Each had very strong militaries, populations, influence, and economy. I would argue that Germany, through their militarization and conquests became “the” western empire through most of the war. This shifted around 1942-1943 as the United States built up its military and overtook the #1 spot around 1944-1945 as Germany and Japan was beaten back, the United States emerged from World War II as “the” empire.

When we look at the era from 1945 up to today, the United States has maintained the status as the largest power in the world, both economically and militarily. The biggest contenders along the way have been Japan and Russia who at points have rivaled us in military (Russia) and economy (Japan), but never in both areas.
So then, let us circle back to this contention that empires last around 200 years. When could we say that the American Empire began? If we are comparing ourselves to Rome, the closest analog to 27 BC is 1945 at the end of World War II.

This gives us the spritely geriatric empire age of: 71 years old.

If you do take stock in this observation that empires last around 200 years old, and for the record I don’t, then the end of America will be well past your own life expectancy. Rest easy citizens of Rome.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.