Wednesday, December 15, 2021

On Murdering Empires

         Why did Rome fall?

Did Rome actually fall, or just decline until noting but memories remain?

When did Rome fall? With the city itself in 410? During the sack of Ravenna in 476?  Or the fall of Constantinople in 1453?  That’s a thousand-year span - can we not narrow it down better than that?

And why did Rome fall?  Was it lead water pipes, the decline of the military, the rise of Christianity, the parasitic masses on the Dole, the parasitic aristocracy in the Senate, barbarians at the gates - 

All of these have been proposed and all have been argued.  

All may be wrong.

All may be right.

The reason I’m mentioning Rome at all has to do with Space Vikings, with pseudoscience, and with expectations.

And gaming, of course.  

This is still Blue Max Studios.

Space Vikings

By H. Beam Piper.  I’ve read it a few times. It's an adventure tale of revenge, swashbuckling action, making money by killing people, and best of all, bringing Civilization to a nearly empty planet.

Colonialism, in other words.

Feel free to read it yourself .  It’s copyright lapsed and doing so would be instructive.  The book was a major influence on the Traveller RPG, for one thing.  I genuinely liked the book;  It’s a good adventure story, it’s internally consistent as far as ships’ speed and travel times go, and I like how the distance and lack of FTL communication are an integral part of the story.  

The thing is, I have the privilege to enjoy this book. I'm a middle-aged, white, cis, male American. I can read stories of colonialism, massacres, rape and pillage, and smug men telling each other what’s wrong with the world and appreciate the good parts because the bad parts are far enough outside my personal experience for me to ignore.

But this post isn’t a book review.


    Space Viking was written half a century ago and shows it.  Not just in the rubber science of the magical space guns, space drives and profusion of habitable planets.  The dangerous bits of rubber science are the old social ideas and biological theories the book accepts as fact.  Everyone knows we don’t have starships.  People still believe in ideas such as:

  • Decay of the Fatherland: Or the idea that nations that colonize become dumber as all the Good Stock leave to live in the wilderness.

  • Bread and Circuses: The idea that great civilizations fall when they start using their tax money to provide social services.

  • Eugenics: So, so much eugenics in Science Fiction - I may have to write a whole post about it if I can stomach the topic that long. 

  • Empire Protects Us From Ourselves.  This wasn’t even new in the 17th century when Hobbes wrote Leviathan. It's the idea that we need police and soldiers and Authority in general to keep us safe because We the People will kill and/or each other if there is no one in charge.

I used to believe some of this.  I was supposed to believe in all of it.  It’s the Official Party Line that keeps people like me in power. 


That, patient reader, is my point - The reasons I was taught for the fall of Rome - or anything else - are just a story.  There is no evidence for any of it and a good bit against it.  We live in a world where people help one another when disaster strikes, where the only thing Empires all have in common is that they pump wealth from the fringe to the core and Genius - if the word has any meaning at all - is completely random and everyone is biased for and against ideas regardless of fact.  

Why did Rome Fall?  The reasons are not only unknown, they are unknowable.  Too much time, too many conflicting ideas and far far too much vested interest in one story or another has made such a question unanswerable.  

The answers we believe in say more about us than they do about Rome.

    When you read the title of this blog post, did you think about how empires murder, or about how to murder an empire?

That’s what my next gaming project is about.


  1. Welcome back!

    I'm reminded of Paul Hogan's Giant novels, which include a fair bit of revelatory answers to _bullshit questions._ Okay, so the reason humans are dkfferent from animals is because the titular Giants tampered with our ancestors in order to figure out better ways to cope with CO2 levels - but while it's a fascinating answer, the *correct* answer is that we are different from animals because we are the ones asking the question. What's the difference between humans and animals? Humans are the animals that got to make the rules.

    Anyway, I'm glad to see you post and looking forward to where you're going with this.

    1. I've never read the Giant books but it sounds intriguing!

  2. The barbarians were the bullet to the head. The Empire made and loaded the gun.

    1. I'm reminded of something John Michael Greer said; Civilizations can be wildly different across distance and time, but the dark age societies they collapse into are almost always the same.


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