Tag Archive for: Civilisational Collapse

Civilisational Collapse: Lessons from History

The End of Everything
By Victor Davis Hanson | Basic Books, 2024, 301 pages


Victor Davis Hanson occupies a unique position in public discourse, combining as he does an extraordinary knowledge of military and classical history with his conservative insights on modern politics in the United States and geopolitical developments globally.

His latest book, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, was published in May.

In it, Hanson describes four examples of wars which saw previously powerful city states or empires being utterly destroyed to the point where it was recognised that a civilisation had ended.

These are Thebes (vanquished by Alexander the Great), Carthage (wiped off the map by the Romans), Constantinople (taken and transformed by the rising Ottoman Muslim power) and the Aztec empire whose capital of Tenochtitlan was captured by the Spanish conquistadors in 1521.

Hanson contends that the lessons from these historical collapses need to be heeded today.

What common factors are present across the former civilisational giants which became civilisational ghosts?

Denial

One obvious factor is the refusal to acknowledge existential threats.

As Hanson puts it in explaining the decision of the Thebans to rebel against the militarily dominant Macedonians and their refusal to accept the lenient terms of surrender offered by Alexander, “[c]ollective naïveté can get a vulnerable people killed.

Similarly, the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI had ample time to organise Constantinople’s effective defence — just as Christian allies had ample time to commit forces of their own.

Murderous attacks on Greeks outside the city walls did not result in retaliation, and the obvious Ottoman military build-up and their construction of a nearby fortress to further isolate the city did not result in swift action.

The city’s strong walls and historic status were apparently considered to be a sufficient deterrent, and therefore Constantinople’s days were numbered.

Isolation and fracture

Hanson identifies two more thematic weaknesses demonstrated by doomed states: the tendency of neighbours and former allies to join in their destruction or remain isolated; and internal disputes within.

Carthage’s annihilation could not have happened had their Numidian neighbours not sided with Rome.

Thebes could perhaps have been rescued had the Greeks united and come to its aid.

Hernán Cortés clearly possessed military genius, but Spain’s conquest of the Aztecs would not have been possible without the cannibalistic Tlaxcalan allies who Cortés persuaded to join him.

While explaining in detail just how close the defenders of Constantinople came to saving the city, Hanson criticises Western Europeans for their “lack of gratitude” towards the Byzantines, adding that the “Western Church and squabbling European fiefdoms had done little earlier to aid a beleaguered Orthodox Byzantine Empire.”

Here, the author appears to err in paying insufficient attention to the unreasonableness of those Orthodox clergy and laity who frustrated all efforts to heal the existing schism.

More can be said about those within Constantinople who favoured the “Turkish turban” when compared to the “Papal tiara”, such as the treacherous and foolish conduct of the Orthodox figure Gennadius II, who sat out the defence of the city before being installed as Patriarch by the conquering Islamic Sultan.

Though the Hagia Sophia was immediately turned into a mosque, a grateful Gennadius was rewarded for his submission with a new church headquarters: a church which would of course eventually be stolen and converted by the same enemy and for the same purposes.

Whereas the Catholic example of unified resistance to Islamic aggression would result in eventual success at Vienna and Lepanto, the disastrous Caesaropapist model embraced by Gennadius came to its ultimate end in the early 20th century with the final destruction of Turkey’s Christians.

The clash of values is at the heart of some of these conflicts, but not all of them.

Rome and Carthage were surprisingly similar politically for example, and traded with one another extensively.

Why then would one power wipe the other out? The scale of the slaughter was remarkable: out of its pre-siege population of 500,000, it is estimated that only 50,000 Carthaginians survived Rome’s wrath.

Civilisational competition and civilisational decline help to explain this to some extent, with Hanson writing that a key recurring theme “is the disparity between a target in civilisational decline, and its aggressor in ascendance.

Just as the Roman Republic had surpassed Carthage, the Ottomans could see that the Byzantine Empire’s best days were long gone, and this weakness invited assault.

There is something more to it than that though, and the religious or cultural zeal which underpins all civilisations was part of what made warriors of various stripes determined to crush their enemies.

Intractable

As Hanson explains brilliantly, the Spanish conquistadors were not just brilliantly armed, they were battle-hardened by their experiences and those of their Reconquista-era forebears who had driven the Moors off the Iberian Peninsula before setting sail to the New World.

The sight of any human beings being sacrificed by Aztec priests enraged the religious sensibilities of the Spanish Catholic conquistadors.

Not only was Aztec human sacrifice barbaric, it led to poor tactical decisions on the battlefield.

Throughout their last bloody battle to take Tenochtitlan, Aztec warriors repeatedly missed opportunities to kill Spanish troops (including Cortés himself) by wastefully attempting to take them alive for later sacrifice — a mistake the vastly outnumbered and steel-encased Spaniards never made.

As they fought their way to the Templo Mayor pyramid, Spanish soldiers could see their captured comrades having their hearts cut out on its steps.

This was indeed a clash of civilisations, one of which the triumphant Spanish would lay to rest by levelling the Templo Mayor and building a great cathedral in its place.

Hanson’s lessons can be applied to much more recent conflicts, including contemporary ones.

Consider the Russian war against Ukraine, for example.

At first glance, it does not appear to be civilisational: both being European Orthodox countries with interweaving national stories. Yet the Ukrainian people wish to move in a westward direction, away from Moscow’s orbit.

As with Thebes, their independent stance could encourage other post-Soviet states to follow a similar trajectory.

As with Carthage’s position vis-à-vis Rome, they constitute no military threat to Russia, but their mere existence as a successful democratic society in the near abroad serves as a challenge.

The war has become a bloody quagmire where neither the Russian aggressor nor the Ukrainian defender appears capable of substantially redrawing the map. Rather than the status quo pointing to a negotiated outcome, there is a risk of something much worse lying in store.

Hanson’s most chilling warning, after all, relates to the tendency for a limited war to escalate to the point where the winning side is capable of ever more horrific violence.

The effort to destroy rather than merely defeat a trapped enemy ensures unprecedented savagery. And the zeal necessary to resist overwhelming odds eventually ensures a level of counter-violence that seals the fate of the defeated,” he warns.

It is a warning worth taking seriously.


What do you think of this historical analysis? Leave your comments below.


AUTHOR

James Bradshaw writes from Ireland on topics including politics, history, culture, film and literature.

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