This Was What Always Killed Ancient Empires (And We Never Talk About It)

Not decadence, or warfare, or bureaucracy but something else

Grant Piper
5 min readJun 3


Great Wall of China (Wikipedia)

The discussion and debate over the fall of major empires is a popular thing to do around dinner tables and in classrooms around the world. The role of decadence, bureaucracy, and military failures play prominent roles in these discussions. But there is one thing that crops up time and again in relation to the fall of major empires that needs to be discussed more. Frontiers.

Defending, patrolling, controlling, and taxing vast and distant frontiers put more strain on empires than anything else. The frontier was a place of lawlessness and friction between states. The status of the frontier kept many an emperor up at night from China to Macedonia to Britain to Rome.

China built the largest wall in human history to protect its frontier. So too, did Rome build a series of famous walls to defend their frontiers. Even the ancient Egyptians struggled against Kushite peoples and desert Nubians along their frontiers.

Nearly every famous empire in history struggled with distant and wild frontiers that continually sucked resources away from the central governing body.

  • Rome had Gaul and eventually Britain. Rome also struggled with frontiers in the Asian Steppe and in Persia.
  • China struggled with the Mongolian frontier for generations.
  • When the Mongolians rose to power, they struggled with frontiers in modern Russia and Central Asia.
  • The British Empire struggled with frontiers in North America and eventually South Africa.

Empires tended to push through all of the most civilized places and expand all the way to the point where control became expensive and tenuous. Interestingly enough, this problem has largely evaporated in the modern world. With hard borders and the explosion of nation-states, there are no frontier lands to thwart large states any longer.

Modern frontiers, such as the American West and the Russian Far East, were swallowed up and now lay largely dormant. Other states that historically struggled with frontiers, such as China, Egypt, and Italy, are now bordered by states such…



Grant Piper

Thought provoking articles, when time and payouts permit it.