Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Answering some Puzzles: Empires and Economics

I was stuck at how does an empire of millions stretching thousands of miles get its funding. One of the most interesting pieces of data I stumbled across is in the history of near eastern empires.

Back then, the precise balance of autonomy, responsibility, and duty was still a developing process. Beginning with Sargon the Great and his reign, how he should rule over the other "kings" was something no one would figure out the instant he became the first emperor.

The evolutionary process of governance was predictable, from a standpoint of: if you knew absolutely nothing. Back then, 3rd millennium BC, they tried to control everything. What I mean is that, it kept evolving towards the notion there was not enough control and they should be harsher and harsher to their rebellious subjects.

By 3rd Dynasty Ur you have the first controlled market bureaucracy. You have a highly standardized and systematic manner of governing several cities and their borders. All the possible minor bureaucratic innovations like supply depots, postal/messenger network, and labor allocation. Problem is, it was the cost of so much control and its inherent inflexibility. Eventually a small problem snowballed into a big problem with catastrophic consequences.

As many of the near-eastern empires rose and fell, harsher and harsher treatment of conquered enemies lead to great blood baths. This is an example continues to follow the logic that more control is what was needed. Eventually the blood baths began within the ruling dynasties. It first began in the Hittite Empire. There were 3 generations of slaughter that exhausted the ruling dynasty. It resulted to creation of laws that prevented this kind of escalation, only to be implemented 2 generations later.

We begins to see the trend of leniency and learning how to best apply it near simultaneous fall of the Mycenean, Hittite and Egyptian Empire.

The Age of Heroes, was another lesson. It is characterized by the petty machismo and insecure rulers who wanted to be immortalized as warriors. This violence lead to the self destruction of the mercantile Mycenaean Greeks crashing to their dark age. Which affected all other empires around it by creating a powerful and predatory army and navy of homeless pirates.

Around the time of Assyrian empire, you have the a new kind of rulership. One that actually asks pledges of loyalty to every individual and conquered people. The Assyrian empire was one of the first to begin having a near-national identity through their theocracy. Of course, as with something solemnly pledged through their religion, breaking these forced promises was sacrilege and resulted to the greatest punishment.

Don't be surprised at the severity of the Assyrians. To them, the rebells broke their solemn vow to their diety (Ashur) and it was the sacred duty to punish them and restore the order of the heavens. It no more harsh as how any zealot would treat infidels or the inquisitions heretics.

So you have the concept of solemn oaths out there. Eventually these oaths would evolve to concepts of state service and duty, then eventually to sacred loyalties nations, and more humanistic concepts that evolve all such boundaries. So the solemn oath to serve is not an entirely bad thing.

Fast forward to the destruction of the Assyrian Empire, you find the first "forgiving" Emperor, Cyrus the Great. He was the first to realize what Machiavelli and modern game-theory would simply describe as soft power. His forgiveness was not completely altruistic. Being called the messiah and known for his mercy crippled the power base and unrest that grew from it. People in general had less to complain about when they were treated humanely, even when you took their kingdom from them. This is because of the religious propaganda that "My god kicked you god's ass".

He evolved in his employment of diplomacy, which allowed him to generate rapport with his defeated foes. He respected them and began to ask a smaller tribute from them in return. This continued to develop after his death and this was when greater autonomy proved to be a more successful strategy.

Before Rome, there was the Persian Empire. Much like Rome, they were the first to experience the combination and balance of Diplomacy and Military Force and to extend to unprecedented heights. Their efforts to bring Greece into its sovereign fold created the pattern that would later mature in the roman empire. Consider this the prototype of the Roman Empire.

Fast forward to the time of Alexander, after the Greek Thalassocracy. Alexander, took all what Persians created and modeled it after his own genius and image. Although he didn't live long enough to enjoy or build over it.

Carthage is another footnote, they would have been the second Merchant and Thalassocratic Empire to rise the new Greece of Philip II.

After Carthage, and building on the tradition Alexander inherited from Cyrus we have the Roman empire.
Basically, after reading all that and examining it the 88 million strong empire of Rome, I had the false impression she was able to draw from every city, town and village. There were limits i failed to understand.

She was really limited to its capital city, Rome or Constantinople. She depended on a relatively small tribute of a few key strategic cities and ports, where the costs of transporting these resources still left a substantial profit. The reach of an empire, despite the great cost to collect tribute from far away vassals was more for securing access to mineral and special trade resources. Farther and farther from the center, everything became more autonomous. Stretching the empire that far only served to secure trade monopolies and special resource interests.

The Roman empire that spanned 8000km (5000 miles) could only really access the resources and specializations of less than 300,000sq km (115,000 sq mi). A radius of about 550km (340 mi) from the center, multiplied by roads and sea lanes.

So In calculating the resources
  • Take the entire Income of the Capital and its Main Port.
  • Take 10-15% of the Income the Major Cities within a 550 km radius.
  • These income generators would be producing according to what is most cost efficient for them, their specialty. This is because market scale, proximity, and established expertise and industry made certain goods and resources way more cost effective in a particular kind than in cash.

Now we move to another hard part: How to juggle all these specialties and how they interact with each other. Egypt has 3x the surplus of any region of its same size. Certain cities have lumber, tin, copper, and iron. Others have the industry to convert these raw materials to more expensive and valuable finished goods. This all kinda worked out, without the modern understanding of economics of the populace.

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