Thursday, 4 September 2014

How long can a state survive?

With the Scottish referendum looming, and as I near the end of re-reading John Julius Norwich’s excellent three part history of Byzantium, I was wondering how long a state can survive.

It’s an interesting question in the real world, and also for fantasy, where countries seem to often exist for X thousand (or even X tens of thousands) years, which seems a shade excessive.

The oldest coherent political structures in Europe are England and France. Using the longest, most generously vague measures, they’re about 15 centuries old. Countries which sound ancient, such as Germany and Italy, are actually surprisingly recent (both less than two centuries old). However, from the Act of Union the UK is just over three centuries old, and France has altered (in boundary terms) beyond all recognition, growing a fair bit and doing its best to establish the French identity as the cost of Bretons, Gascons and so forth. It was, of course, conquered last century by the Germans, and its present constitution began in 1958.

China is sometimes considered to have effectively been founded by Qin Shi Huangdi in about 200BC. One of the problems with trying to assert how old a country might be is whether or not substantial political/border changes mark a new beginning (in China’s case, the Communist party coming to power). A clever chap elsewhere on the internet suggested 1,000 years or so for China’s age, based on current borders established by Kublai Khan (although the Song dynasty was quite a bit smaller).

The first Roman ‘Empire’ (as kingdom, republic and only then empire) lasted for about 12 centuries (or just over five if we strictly take the Imperial period as one nation). The Eastern Roman Empire (or Byzantine Empire) lasted a little over 11. The latter fell entirely due to military reasons (the city was taken by storm after its hitherto invincible land walls were assaulted by cannons). The former fell due to a combination of continual infighting, political instability and military weakness.

It’s worth also, briefly, concentrating on just how mighty the Western and Eastern Roman Empires were. At its height, the Roman Empire (then singular) held the entire coastline of the Mediterranean in its grip. It stretched from partway into Scotland down to the deserts of Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to Jerusalem. The Eastern Empire lacked, almost always, quite the aggression and militarism of the Western, but it had the perfect city from which to rule, as Byzantium’s famed Land Walls were invincible excepting only an earthquake and, at least, the advent of truly powerful cannons. (It’s also worth mentioning Rome fell with a whimper, whereas Constantine Dragases, the last Byzantine Emperor, was killed heroically fighting to protect his doomed city).

Turning to fantasy, it’s not uncommon to have states be thousands of years old. But this is a great rarity (depending how you consider states to change, with borders and substantial political alterations, you could make a case for almost no country in the world being so old, possibly excepting Japan).

Consider also how we view our own history. WWI seems a long way off, but it’s just over a century ago that it started. WWII has a much stronger sense in the public consciousness, but it’s still within living memory, and was an unusual war in that the whole world was at risk from an evil lunatic.

Two centuries does not sound long. But it’s just over a little more than that which saw America gain independence.

A thousand years ago (1014) -
England was a Saxon kingdom, to be conquered half a century later by William the Bastard
Byzantium was the most powerful country in the world, led by the arse-kicking (but very poor at succession-planning) Basil II
Jerusalem had been in Muslim hands for about four centuries (it would be about 80 years before the First Crusade surprised everyone by recapturing it)
Spain was mostly in Muslim hands
Italy was becoming a collection of powerful city-states
The Normans invaded southern Italy (they would go on to create the Kingdom of Sicily, including the island and much of southern Italy as well)

In short, we would recognise a few names but the whole world was very different. The odd nation might last half a millennium, and a rare one might make it to a thousand years, but the world isn’t some sort of static artefact that remains more or less unchanged. In the last century we’ve seen the collapse the British, Austro-Hungarian and German Empires, the downfall of Imperial Russia, the collapse of Imperial China and astonishing economic rebirth of Communist China, and the end of the Ottoman Empire.

It’s nice to think we live in a stable world. But we don’t. And if you’re trying to write a more realistic type of fantasy, it’s worth considering just how much borders change, and how short-lived countries can be.

In 2014, the UK’s death knell may be sounded. For some, who identify solely as English, Welsh, Northern Irish or Scottish, it will be of little emotional impact. For others, who see themselves solely or primarily as British, it may be heart-breaking.


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