When empires collapse

A fascinating piece in Mother Jones by historian Patrick Wyman.

The fall of an empire—the end of a polity, a socioeconomic order, a dominant culture, or the intertwined whole—looks more like a cascading series of minor, individually unimportant failures than a dramatic ending that appears out of the blue. Carts full of olive oil failing to arrive at some nameless fort because of a dysfunctional military bureaucracy, a corrupt official deciding to cook the books and claim taxes were collected when they really weren’t, a greedy aristocrat bribing that official instead of paying his bill, an aqueduct falling to pieces and nobody willing to front the funds to repair it.

…Historians will look back at some enormous disaster, either ongoing now or in the decades or centuries to come, and say that it was just the icing on the cake. The foundation had already been laid long before then, in the text of legislation nobody bothered reading, in local elections nobody was following, in speeches nobody thought were important enough to comment on, in a thousand tiny disasters that amounted to a thousand little cuts on the body politic.