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Opinion

April 23, 2018

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Imperial decline: the end of empire

Historians tend to measure the strength and significance of a nation on the basis of its conquest; military victories; and the number of people it has defeated by occupying their territories and extracting their resources in the form of war booty.

The plundered wealth was used to raise the standard of living of the ruling classes who were addicted to luxury and licentiousness. It was also used to build forts; palaces; places of worships; mausoleums; gardens; and roads to ensure rapid communication.

In light of these perspectives, a detailed examination of the history of the Roman Empire reveals that once the wheel of conquest was spun, it continued without any interruptions until the Romans expanded their empire from Britain to Syria. Every conquest brought a large number of slaves and a considerable amount of war booty that radically changed the architectural landscape of Rome. What was once a city dotted with mud houses steadily transformed into a metropolis with marble buildings.

However, when the empire reached its zenith, signs of decline started to appear. The main problem faced by the empire was the rebellion from tribes that were under its rule and domination. Tired of the coercive and exploitative practices under imperial rule, these groups launched a struggle for their independence. The ruling classes of Rome adopted many methods to keep their imperial structures intact. But all their efforts failed. With time, the nature of the Roman military power changed. They became defenders of its borders from the violent aggressors that they once were.

The glaring sign of the Roman military’s weakness was the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in England. The structure was built to protect the Roman Army against various invading tribes. The situation eventually escalated to the point that the Romans withdrew from England and abandoned their conquest of the country. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Roman Empire was invaded from all sides of its borders by various tribes – especially the German tribes who invaded the empire and repeatedly defeated the Roman Army. The city of Rome was finally conquered by the Visigoths in 410 AD and reduced to ruins.

Nearly all empires in our history, including the Mughals of India, have undergone an eventual period of decline. After their imperial decay, monuments and buildings that were constructed during their heyday tend to become dilapidated as few resources are invested in their upkeep.

When we observe the ruins of these monuments, we realise the effect of the rise and fall of nations. For example, when Edward Gibbon visited Rome, he saw the old buildings of the Roman era that told the story of their lost glory. The visit inspired him to write many volumes on the history of the Roman Empire that are titled ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. Similarly, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who belonged to the Mughal aristocracy, made an attempt to preserve the memories of buildings that were constructed by Mughal emperors in the city of Delhi. After surveying the Mughal monuments, he wrote his famous book ‘Asar-al-Sanadeed’. These buildings tell the tragic story of the rise and fall of the Mughal dynasty.

The decline of empire had a widespread impact on political, social and cultural life. When empire was at its peak, it began to patronise poets, historians, architects, musicians, artists and artisan classes. But once it lost its economic prosperity and political power, the process of patronisation came to a grinding halt. Consequently, all of those who depended on the empire were thrown into a state of poverty.

During this stage, cities that once flourished due to trade and commerce became depopulated and lost their past prosperity. Historical accounts suggest that nations do not benefit from plundered and looted wealth. The conquest and occupation of other countries is not a permanent phenomenon. When imperial power declines, the entire society suffers. The pride to become a great country is lost and a sense of helplessness prevails in society. The memory of past glory has haunted nations that have an imperial past, especially countries in Europe.

Memories of the imperial era are reflected in literature, art and films. Many artefacts and antiquities have been collected from former colonies and placed in museums as a reminder of colonial rule and domination. This psyche is reflected in the attitude of the British society.

New imperial powers should learn from the past and refrain from invading and conquering other countries. These powers should instead shift their focus on their own internal affairs and ensure peace and prosperity to their people. The results of imperialism are always disturbing and make various forces resort to violence and terrorism to counter imperial hegemony.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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