Are empires stable organisational units with normalising tendencies, or do they have inherent instability?

Has an empire ever demonstrated itself to be perpetually stable? If not, why not?

  • 8
    What has your research shown? How do you measure stability? Quite frankly the term "empire" has no formal definition.
    – MCW
    Jan 31, 2019 at 11:16
  • 5
    Perpetually stable empire? All empires fall. You may want to rephrase. Jan 31, 2019 at 11:22
  • 3
    Perhaps you should try to read Toynbee. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Study_of_History, there is a volume that talks about Universal States (empires) and their doom to fall.
    – Santiago
    Jan 31, 2019 at 11:53

2 Answers 2


given that no empires currently exist (not counting maybe some African warlords who may call themselves emperor), I'd say there's a 100% trackrecord of empires not being perpetually stable.

The common reason empires fall is strategic overstretch. They grow too large, the outlying areas become too independent in handling regional affairs, and eventually break away. As the empire shrinks, the pace accelerates and in the end there's nothing left of the old empire except maybe a small island nation known mostly for its dry humour, poor quisine, and rotten weather.

The details of such collapses, as well as the speed at which they happen and the end results, are too varied to detail.

  • 1
    @Ben if historical empires are any indication, yes. Of course as communication and logistics become faster, the theoretical size that can be centrally controlled goes up. But the cost of such control does not go down, so as the empire gets larger the cost of operating as a centralised state goes up exponentially.
    – jwenting
    Jan 31, 2019 at 11:45
  • 2
    China is an interesting example. However, although China has existed for long time, it's hard to say that the Chinese Empire has not disappeared. In fact, Chinese empires have disappeared quite often, sometimes vanishing to local powers and sometimes overrun by other Chinese empires. It has some similarities with the Persian Empire(s).
    – Pere
    Jan 31, 2019 at 12:14
  • 1
    @Ben it works only because it has both. High level of central control over the security apparatus combined with highish level of local control over local matters. And with modern communications that can be maintained, at incredible cost. In say the Roman empire, the local military garrisons were under local control effectively, making them far more independent than a Chinese provincial council will ever be. And that's why the old Chinese empires also failed, and the current Chinese state doesn't.
    – jwenting
    Jan 31, 2019 at 12:14
  • 3
    @Pere correct, the current Chinese state is just the last of many that have existed in roughly the same geographical area. Calling them the Chinese empire'd be like saying the Aztec empire still exists because there's Mexico.
    – jwenting
    Jan 31, 2019 at 12:15
  • 1
    China, in its modern form, is at most about 70 years old. Lots of empires have been stable over longer periods and then collapsed somehow. Even if we were to call the PRC an empire, it hasn't shown stability over a century. Jan 31, 2019 at 16:41

how many states exist in the world today? About 180-200. Centuries earlier there were thousands of states which no longer exist. And most present states are under 75 years old. Many people alive today are older than the majority of present countries.

The oldest state in the American continents, the USA, dates to 1789 or 1775, and thus is no more than 230 to 244 years old.

The question of what is the oldest state in the world faces the severe problem that by different definitions a specific state could be considered to be decades, centuries, or millennia old.

For example the nation or country of Egypt could be said to be about 5,000 years old, give or take a few centuries, but the state of Egypt is much younger. Egypt was first united about 3150 BC, but the Old Kingdom ended about 2200 BC. Egypt was divided during the First Intermediate Period and reunited during the Middle Kingdom from about 2050 to 1710 BC, was divided again during the Second Intermediate period, reunited again the New Kingdom from about 1550 to 1069 BC, etc. etc., etc.

The present state of Egypt dates to 1805 when Muhammed Ali gained power, or 1922 when Egypt was declared an independent kingdom, or to 1953 and the end of the British protectorate, thus making the Egyptian state 214, or 97, or 66 years old.

And there are similar problems with defining how long various historic states lasted.

Here is a link to a Wikepedia list of empires as defined by the list maker:


If you sort those empires and "empires" by duration you can see that the majority lasted longer than most modern nations and a smaller majority lasted longer than every state in the Americas.

Of course a different list of empires selected by different criteria would result in a somewhat different average duration.

here is a link to a list of the 20 shortest lasting empires and "empires" in history:


I could add the realm of Emperor Isaac Komnenos in Cyprus for 7 years from 1184-1191.

The Roman empire lasted from 27 BC (or possibly some other date) to AD 476, 480, 1204, 1453, 1461, or 1806 (or possibly until another date), or for 503, 507, 1,231, 1,480, 1,488, or 1,833 years (or possibly some other number of years).

My answer here: When did the Roman Empire fall according to contemporaries?3 lists other dates when it could be claimed that the Roman Empire fell. I am ashamed that I could only think of a mere 34 possible different dates.

Even the lowest duration of the Roman empire would make it last longer than most states which have known beginning and end dates, and the longer suggested durations for the Roman empire make it much more exceptional.

Many historians list the different major Chinese dynasties as separate empires like the Han Empire, the Tang Empire, the Ming Empire, etc. The Chinese empire usually split apart into several rival states and had bloody civil wars where millions died whenever a major dynasty ended, lasting until a bloody conquest reunited China and founded a new major empire.

About six Chinese dynasties (Han, Tang, Song, Liao, Ming, & Qing) lasted for over 200 years each, thus making them long lasting compared to most present nations.

Of course, the Chinese Empire is popularly supposed to have been a single empire that lasted from 221 BC to AD 1912, or for 2,133 years, which would be extremely long for a state to last.

If one counts Japan as an empire, which is debatable, the traditional foundation date is in 660 BC, 2,679 years before 2019. Kinmei (reigned 539-571) is usually said to be the first fully historical Japanese monarch, making Japan a state, and possibly an empire, which has existed for between 1,448 and 2,679 years until 2019, which is an extremely long duration.

Empires are not less long lasting that other states.

Every state and nation which exists in the world today will end at some unknown future date.

And there are only a few ways it could end.

1) The citizens could decide they have no need for government and peacefully dissolve it to have anarchy instead.

2) Society could breakdown violently into chaos.

3) It could split into two or more separate independent states.

4) One or more foreign states could conquer it during one or a succession of wars.

5) It could conquer the whole reachable universe and gradually morph from a nation into an empire of all people.

6) It could negotiate a peaceful union with one or more other states. Possibly to form an empire of all people.

7) The entire population of the nation might be killed in a war or natural disaster that leaves some other people outside the nation alive.

8) The entire population of the nation might be killed in a war or natural disaster that also exterminates all other people outside the nation everywhere.

Those are the only ways I could find that historical nations and states ended or could imagine that states and nations might hypothetically end.

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