One thousand six hundred years ago last Tuesday, a very significant event occurred in the ancient world. An army of barbarian Visigoths sacked Rome in AD 410, storming in through a gate in the north-eastern city walls occupying the city for three days and grabbing a load of valuable commodities including gold, silver and silk, before making off again. It has been hailed as the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.
Our understanding of this event has changed over the years. At first, I suppose the general picture was like something out of Conan the Barbarian – an unstoppable tide of hirsute warriors rampaging in with blood-stained axes, putting innocent citizens to the sword, smashing valuable vases and works of art, burning temples and libraries, spray-painting rude slogans on walls and carrying off comely maidens (I’m probably making up some of this.) Now we know that although some looting, burning and mayhem did go on, the situation was a little more complicated than had first been thought.
Alaric and the Visigoths had actually started out as Roman allies, the Empire having sub-contracted much of its army to its northern Germanic neighbours. Also, the Eastern Empire, based at Constantinople, was on the path to become increasingly more powerful and significant than Rome itself. Rome and the Western Empire had remained wealthy but had ended up fragmented and militarily feeble, propped up by subject peoples who were often treated with barely disguised contempt, if accounts from that time are to be believed.
According to Wikipedia, Alaric was a leader of foederati, companies of Gothic soldiers who fought for Rome and were paid for out of Roman taxes, the Romans being unwilling now to participate directly in their own military. He was in a good position to learn about the Empire’s weaknesses, and was also becoming increasingly disgruntled at his treatment at the hands of his Roman masters, being passed over for promotion. And he was not alone; according to Wiki, “the situation was ripe for rebellion”.
So the signs were there. I know about the fall of civilisation only too well, having been in charge of a few empires myself – not, it must be said, in what is usually known as the “real world”, where unlike my ancient Macedonian namesake I am a relatively modest and obscure individual. No, my imperial adventures have taken place in the magical and alluring realm of computer games.
World-building computer games are difficult, and normally my preference has been for games where you mostly have to run around and shoot people (Tomb Raider) or sneak around and steal things (Thief: The Dark Project). It takes a very different kind of mind set to play a game where you have to establish an entire civilisation from scratch, work out the best places to put streets and houses, always try to keep within a tight budget. This requires patience, fortitude, long-term planning and luck. It can be frustrating. There’s quite a steep learning curve – get it wrong, and you may fail and crash quite spectacularly. Even at the best of times, things are always going awry and you start to develop a terrible urge to run around and shoot lots of people. But you can’t! It isn’t that kind of game.
One of my civilisations, New Hounslow, doing quite well at the moment, is technically not really an empire but a modern metropolis in the game Sim City 3000. Plus I have another world-builder – Zeus: Master of Olympus – which is more complicated than Sim City, and which involves constructing an entire Bronze Age economy, complete with urban areas, farms and fortifications, and with gods, heroes and monsters thrown into the mix. My current civilisation, New Mordor, is a moderately successful and prosperous land; its predecessor, though – the Alexian Empire, or Empire of Alex – is the stuff of legend. It rose out of nothing, soared to dizzy heights of prosperity and splendour, then descended into a nightmarish welter of war, debt, plague, fire, devastation and utter and complete doom. Even now, it is a byword for, I don’t know, “chaos” or “Ragnarok” or some such doom-laden word.
It had started out so promisingly, too. Once upon a time in ancient Greece, a few peaceful sheep-herders settled along an unoccupied stretch of coast, building small settlements and roads that cris-crossed the tranquil pastoral landscape. After a while, more settlers began to arrive, setting up cottage industries and demanding amenities. Hamlets became villages, villages became towns, towns coalesced into a mighty city. Luckily there was a good supply of seed capital to get the whole enterprise under way, and I dipped into this many a time to fund this thriving and expanding boom town.
And thus the Alexian Empire came into being, rising from its humble beginnings into a mighty and bustling metropolis. But soon a cascade of problems began to appear. For a start, unemployment was up. This was due to the fact that I was unaware of how to shift workers from one kind of workplace (threshing floor, carding shed, clothes emporium, etc) to another – it left growing numbers of citizens hanging around idly instead of engaging in productive labour.
And so GDP gradually began to falter. But spending went on unabated! Fires broke out, so I built fire stations (or their ancient Greek equivalent). People suffered from outbreaks of plague – I built hospitals. Houses crumbled into dust – I built lots of new ones! Some neighbouring states were unfriendly and hostile, demanding tribute – instead, I sent them a series of increasingly rude messages. Other states wanted to lend me money – I gladly accepted all offers, but never paid them back!
The Empire entered a grandiose new phase, as I kept spending my way out of difficulties and threw my funds into putting up a number of horribly expensive public buildings – a sports stadium and a score of vainglorious monuments to myself, which were about as useful as urban wind farms. Defence spending was non-existent, there being only a few (scandalously underpaid) soldiers and no city walls or fortifications. And still unemployment was rising, the mob was restless, my foreign creditors were starting to make threatening noises, and I was burning through money at an unbelievable rate.
The end came swiftly. Untended, the houses of my subjects burned down en masse and collapsed into heaps of rubble. Gangs of people roamed about, rioting and dropping dead of plague. My angry creditors then began to send army after army swarming across the plains and across the frontier into the beleaguered Alexian Empire. My puny squads of infantry were quickly overrun, and in desperation I started creating sheep and scattering them in the path of the oncoming enemy like landmines, in the hope that these woolly obstructions would buy me some time.
Sadly, the sheep ruse didn’t work. All was lost, and the Empire fell. It is long gone, but maybe in some forgotten corner of my computer’s hard drive are some ancient zeros and ones which represent the decaying ruins of my once magnificent Alexian People’s Sports Palace, surrounded perhaps by grazing sheep, descendants of those few who managed to survive that cataclysmic final battle. Nothing else remains.
So what lessons are there to be learned from the fall of the Alexian Empire? (And the Empire of the Romans as well, let’s not forget about them!)
1. Avoid getting into debt, and if you are in debt, get out of it as soon as you can.
2. If you find yourself in charge of a nation, better look after your military. Sooner or later, you will need them.
3. Think carefully before alienating people, as allies can become potential enemies.
4. In any civilisation, proper infrastructure is basic and essential – neglect it at your peril.
5. Be vigilant and never complacent – no Empire is too big to fail.
Are these rules sensible? I believe so, yes. Are they obvious? Again yes, pretty much no-brainers, really.
Are our current crop of leaders following them, in that case?
Well… I hope so.