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How transportation technologies shaped empires (tomaspueyo.com)
362 points by agomez314 on Jan 6, 2023 | hide | past | favorite | 289 comments



This is taken from Caesar Marchetti’s work on the invariance of certain parameter, related is his work on city size:

http://www.cesaremarchetti.org/archive/electronic/basic_inst...


on my machine this pdf is barely readable, here's a copy https://pure.iiasa.ac.at/id/eprint/4071/1/RR-95-04.pdf

(hope it's not a problem for the author)

ps: as a sidenote, I remember someone saying that the invention of fridges is a factor in the evolution of cities/transporation too. Never found solid work on this but it makes sense, you keep things closer if you can't conserve food.


Very entertaining read


The logic seems sound to me, with a few obvious caveats:

* The number of samples is small. There aren't a lot of empires throughout history.

* The definition of "empire" is somewhat subjective, because empire sizes exhibit a Zipf distribution, and the cutoff is arbitrary.

* Surely there have been other factors at play besides time to travel from the capital.

One implication is that empires that span the globe are much more feasible today, thanks to modern travel, communications, and surveillance technologies.


But for future interplanetary colonization, the rule would become one light month. Not very far. But imagine any form of communication taking years to bounce back and forth. That could not be centrally governed. It might not just be travel time, but it probably does correlate.


> But for future interplanetary colonization, the rule would become one light month. Not very far. But imagine any form of communication taking years to bounce back and forth. That could not be centrally governed. It might not just be travel time, but it probably does correlate.

The rule seems too simplistic. What's so special about 1 month? Is the significant value time to communicate, time to move military forces, or something else?

For instance, for your hypothetical interplanetary empire: How could a capital, with a military that can move at 1% light speed, effectively rule over a colony one light month away if the worst it could do for ten years is send a nasty letters over radio? Having local forces isn't a good answer, because one of the easier paths to rebellion is for the leader(s) those forces to declare independence and make themselves kings.


Well, yes. There are plenty of takes on this. The "Traveller" RPG has a nice one: distributed feudal confederation. There's a nominal emperor, but it's hugely important that he never do almost anything, because "his" empire is a lifetime across.

Nearly the only law is that you don't impede the mail system, and that you pay a small tax to support the fleet that will hammer you into the ground if you impede the mail.


> > But for future interplanetary colonization, the rule would become one light month. Not very far. But imagine any form of communication taking years to bounce back and forth. That could not be centrally governed. It might not just be travel time, but it probably does correlate.

> The rule seems too simplistic. What's so special about 1 month? Is the significant value time to communicate, time to move military forces, or something else?

> For instance, for your hypothetical interplanetary empire: How could a capital, with a military that can move at 1% light speed, effectively rule over a colony one light month away if the worst it could do for ten years is send a nasty letters over radio? Having local forces isn't a good answer, because one of the easier paths to rebellion is for the leader(s) those forces to declare independence and make themselves kings.

Have assassins embedded in their chain of command, so poison or dagger is always just few metres away. And they know how short their rein as a king will be.


>> Having local forces isn't a good answer, because one of the easier paths to rebellion is for the leader(s) those forces to declare independence and make themselves kings.

> Have assassins embedded in their chain of command, so poison or dagger is always just few metres away. And they know how short their rein as a king will be.

I don't think that would be as effective as you think it would be. Why would your assassin be any more loyal than the other garrison forces? Especially when he's ten years away from any help or evacuation.


Blackmail is a wonderful thing if you know how to use it. For example if would be assassin doesn't fullfil his duty a little bird can whisper his name to people who would very violently frown at would be assassin. Or have things that for his wellbeing should be left in shadows. Things that you would prefer not to see in the planetary governor or a general. It's good to have some disposable pawns to do some dirty work. Even better if they can't be connected to you.


The rebellion would have to distribute its resources amongst an army large enough to hold a planet. At that scale, teams of dozens of people would be sufficiently motivated to kill whoever, if their reward is still some fraction of that.


You can hypothetically keep 120 military ships en route to the colony at all times so that a forceful response is always at most one month away.


> You can hypothetically keep 120 military ships en route to the colony at all times so that a forceful response is always at most one month away.

One problem with that idea is that either the king's forces would be spread very thin or they would be massively (and expensively) oversized.


Just make most of your economy based on mass manufacturing weapons and vehicles, problem solved


>> One problem with that idea is that either the king's forces would be spread very thin or they would be massively (and expensively) oversized.

> Just make most of your economy based on mass manufacturing weapons and vehicles, problem solved

That feels like "solution" that you spent little more time thinking through than it took you to write it. Those kind of things both unconvincing and have a very high probability of being wrong. I mean, you don't even mention trade-offs and there are obvious historical parallels that call your solution into question. Isn't one of the (many) reasons the Soviet Union collapsed is that is allocated too much of its economic capacity to military expenditures?


Biology and more specifically lifespan being fixed through human history seems like a significant confounding factor here.

A 50 year trip isn’t such a big deal if people are living 100,000 years and have near perfect memory.


Anybody dreaming of Mars colonies should keep that in mind. As long as the Mars colony will be dependent on supplies from Earth, they will do what Earth wants. Once they are self sufficient, this will change.

C.f. the immigration-friendly early U.S. and its "close borders" and PR lottery approaches of today.


Have you read much Le Guin by any chance? This is a theme I've seen in her work.


Could you mention some books?


It's a big part of "the word for world is forest". A colony on one planet has essentially become self governing, until one day a ship delivers an instantaneous communication device, at which point the planet is back under imperial control. There's more to the story than that ofc

There's also "The Dispossessed", where an anarchist movement travels to a distant planet in order to set up their own government.


> anarchist movement > set up their own government

I'm pretty sure I get what you mean but I found that funny.


It's a poor summary anyway.

The Dispossessed describes an anarchist society on the impoverished moon of a verdant planet, and a scientist's struggle to reconcile his anarchism with his wish to further his research, which requires more resources than the anarchist society can provide. It is one of my favourite books.

I also don't remember distant communication being relevant for The Word for World is Forest. That's far more about the conflict between the natives and the colonizers, and passive vs. aggressive societies.


Distant communication is what establishes the setting in "Forest". At the very beginning, it is stated that the colony is 27 light years away - a frontier - and as the story progresses, there are hints that this is one of the reasons why the colonists can get away with brutalizing the local population, going far beyond the mandate that they have.

And then when they get the ansible midway through the story along with an inspection party that promptly reports their findings back to Earth, they start getting a steady stream of orders banning their various practices - slavery, violent reprisals etc. And when the local administration tries to implement some of those bans, the more hard-minded colonists deliberately provoke the natives into an open uprising by massacring their village. So it's a major plot driver, too.


One has to use words for contrast, lest the fish who don’t know what water is get confused.


It's not a contradiction. Anarchists oppose states and hierarchies in general, not governments as such.


The logic is fine, it's just massively overstated with the clickbait headline, and travel time in a region is an endogenous factor which depends on where the boundaries of the empire are drawn, because empires build roads, chop down forests, drain swamps and make rivers navigable.

As the article acknowledges, travel times within the Roman Empire tended to be less than a month. But they conquered land regions (where possible) before they built the roads that let them supply them that fast. Certainly there's nothing about lowland Germany that should make it more difficult to reach than Hadrian's Wall, but they effectively subdued the British tribes and built roads all over that particular faraway island, and didn't have as much success against the Germanic tribes who inhabited desirable land closer to their capital that could have been reached in a shorter time with a nice lowland road from Gaul, if they'd ever been able to build it.


It's really about trading routes. Today different regions of the world specialize in different industries. You get competition between people vying in the same industry and between trading partners. Communication really doesn't help when it comes to corporate/national power struggles. This is also why so many 'brother' countries tend to fight; Ukraine and Russia, Yeman and Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.


The "logic" or lack thereof is in trying to find a universal "hidden rule" in large-scale human behavior across literally all of recorded history. This is pure physics envy, and it never ends well.


> The logic seems sound to me

It seems less than unsound. It's barely a just-so story.


> empires that span the globe are much more feasible today

A lot of people would argue that ~half the world is part of the US empire today...

In that the US has power to strongly influence/make decisions in about half the world, extradite people from about half the world, and enforce IP/anti drug/monetary controls in about half the world.

And by some definitions, it might be 80% of the world.


I feel like there's some cherry picking going on. I mean, issues with germanic tribes and inland conquests did play a role but... what about upper egypt, paetrea, britannia, etc. The edge of the empire was the edge of the empire... with frontier problems. Why did germania fail, but not those other ones.

I mean size is an issue. Travel & messaging are issues. Empires are very much defined by these things, etc. I just don't see where the clear watershed is.

Early modern european empires colonized the americas, SE Asia, the african coast... Those were months of treacherous sailing. "Empire" in those cases meant something totally different than for Rome. Rome marched in with troops and took political control. Portugal & the Dutch, England and such established small colonies that grew in power until they were hegemons. Sometimes just a small port or town.

Anyway... I think Rome's limiting factor in germania and the european frontier was barbarism. NW europeans didn't have civilization: states, monarchies, temples, senates, roads, nations. The germans didn't even know they were germans until Romans told them. Rome's empire was based on assuming political control over existing political institutions. It's economy was dependant on this approach. Rome's African and Asian territories had been civilized for Millenia. Jerusalem, Carthage, Luxor, etc. Europe had no cities. How do you tax?

In northern europe, arabia and such Rome's empire looked like the early days of early modern colonialism. Slave export & frontier plantations supporting a Roman villa lifestyle for a small number of colonists. Most of the natives didn't pay tax, or participate in Roman life.

Egypt, under rome, shipped grain to the capital and enriched Roman officials. In "the colonies," it worked in reverse. Rome had to ship them soldiers and money to keep the colony going.


Barbarism is certainly a factor in the Roman expansion into Germania, but if you look at how the Romans were able to colonize Gaul completely. I think originally they thought they could follow the same playbook into both Germania and Britain. Britain was never full pacified and required a large occupation force to keep the province under control. After the defeat of Varus during the reign of Augustus, I think Roman leadership looked at the area using a cost/benefit analysis and decided it wasn't worth the amount of money that would be needed to fully pacifiy the region. The Romans should have pulled out of Britain after Claudius, the invasion was a vanity project and had no real value as a province.


"Pacified" is a bloodless word to hide a bloody reality.

According to Julius Caesar's own figures, when he conquered Gaul he killed roughly a third, enslaved a third, and left the last third under Roman rule. Thus did the future dictator create the power base with which he overthrew the Republic. (Though it took his nephew Octavian, better known as Augustus, to make that stick.)

Even in modern times, autocrats seek to glorify their power with titles that derive from his name. Titles like "king", "kaiser" and "tsar".

Calgacus, as quoted by Tacitus, purportedly said of the Roman Empire, "They make a desert, and call it peace." The authenticity of the quote is questioned, but the description is historical fact. And so I prefer calling a spade a spade, and replacing "pacification" with the more accurate", "conquest, genocide and oppression".


Idk...

Lots of conquests were hard, but time did them. Then they put down rebellions as necessary.

I think the difference was that there was no way for time to "win" as they we used to. No palace to install governors in. No temple to place Roman statues in.

How do twin? What do you win when you win? Rome wasn't after a tax base or plantations for cash crops. They were after a tax base. Most of their empire consisted of territories that had all these things for yonks. They had been conquered by many empires and knew the drill. Britannia and Germania did not.


This is not written in English. Maybe AI?


> Rome wasn't after a tax base [...]. They were after a tax base.

looks like a perfectly cromulent argumentation to me.


alcohol.


> Anyway... I think Rome's limiting factor in germania and the european frontier was barbarism. NW europeans didn't have civilization: states, monarchies, temples, senates, roads, nations. The germans didn't even know they were germans until Romans told them. Rome's empire was based on assuming political control over existing political institutions.

I think you could get a job writing excuses for Roman emperors ;)

The Romans might have assimilated some sophisticated civilizations like Greece and Carthage, but outposts like Britannia were nothing like that, and Romans built their own roads and cities and villas to extract wealth from the land and set up their own institutions everywhere they went. Germany had no shortage of potential as a source of agricultural produce and slaves, but what made it uneconomical compared with other fringe parts is the pesky Germans kept fighting back, and in particular wiped out the three remaining legions in Germania after eight others sent there to pacify it had been withdrawn to stave off rebellions elsewhere. (They lost a legion to Boudica in Britain too, but they'd built roads and cities there by that time and had a different emperor calling the shots).


This is at least partially incorrect. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thing_(assembly) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanic_law

You make that sound like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anomie , which obviously wasn't the case.


you are all wrong people,

Roman legions were co posed of Roman citizens, they had to procure their own sword and shield, and could be called up to serve.

As the Roman empire grew, they captured many slaves and territory. Wealthy romans could buy up slaves and land. They accumulated large holsings farmed by slaves and could outcompete ordinary romans in agricultural production.

This was a problem because they were bacrupting the very same people who formed the legions. All the legionairs would recoeve for their military success, was increasing poverty.

This led to decreasing quality of troops and political instability


The article mentions but doesn't discuss Mesoamerican empires. I think those should have some interesting idiosyncracies. There was a total absence of horses/oxes/draft animals before the Columbian exchange, so transportation and notions of geographic distance might have been very different.


My understanding is that the British Raj was several months away from London?


From what I can find: In 1858 – when the British Raj was established – it took about half a year since you had to go around cape the good hope. After the Suez canal opened in 1869 it took only ~2 months. In the following two decades expansion of the train network and faster steamboats further reduced it to about 2 weeks.

So it really depends a bit on which period you're talking about as there were lots of things going on during the period, but for a substantial part of the British Raj's existence you could get there in a month or less.

I expect the "law" is not as simple as "1 month travel time", but rather a calculation that factors in both travel time + communication time. For much of history these two value were mostly identical, but this changed with the adoption of the telegraph (and later, radio).


The British Raj succeeded the East India Company, a London-headquartered enterprise that had effectively ruled most of India for the previous 100 years, and fought numerous wars - usually successfully - in India in the century before that. The Raj was actually a reaction to Indian rebels failing to achieve independence and more power being transferred to the British Crown as a result.


Here's a data point for you - Galton's Isochronic Passage Chart, showing the time in days to travel from London to the rest of the world, in 1881. (12 years after the Suez opened, and the map shows how useful that canal was.)

Map at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isochrone_map linking to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isochrone_map#/media/File:Isoc... .

Eastern Indian is 20-30 days. Batavia is about 30 days. Perth and Hong Kong are in the 30-40 day range. Sydney and most of the interior of Australia is in the 40+ day range, as is New Zealand's South Island.

"It assumes that there are favourable travel conditions and that travel arrangements over land have been made in advance. It assumes travelling methods of the day within a reasonable cost."

EDIT: https://archive.org/details/friendsreviewrel06lewi/page/702/... from 1853 lists routes from London to Calcutta ("Friends' review; a religious, literary and miscellaneous journal", p702):

"The distance from London to Calcutta, by the Cape of Good Hope, is 15,000 miles requiring 150 days. With steam say 70 days." ["150 days" agrees with your "about half a year."]

"The distance from London to Calcutta, by Cape Horn, is 21,500 miles requiring 215 days. With steam say 90 days."

"From Liverpool to Calcutta, by Isthmus of Panama, 14,00 miles requiring 140 days. Steam, say 60 days."

"London to Calcutta, overland route, five trans-shipments, 6,000 miles, 58 days"

"Liverpool, New York, and Railway to San Francisco, two transhipments, 12,000 miles, 35 days."

It's from a piece arguing for the usefulness of building a railway across the US (New York to San Francisco), to shorten the London/Calcutta route. That last route didn't exist until 1869, the same year the Suez Canal opened.

EDIT #2: https://archive.org/details/sim_the-lancet_january-3-june-26... has someone leaving London June 1817 and arriving Calcutta 2 December 1817, so about 5 1/2 months. (The Lancet January 3-June 26, 1852, p384, "Biographical Sketch of James Ranald Martin, Esq., F.R.S.")

EDIT #3: The clipper ship Jane Pirie, built 1847, could do the round-trip in "eight months and a half ... the ordinary time occupied over the voyage being ten to eleven months." https://archive.org/details/sim_illustrated-london-news_1851... /mode/2up?q=%22London+to+Calcutta%22 ("Illustrated London News 1851-04-05: Vol 18 Iss 477"). As I understand it, clipper travel would have been fast and expensive.


> I expect the "law" is not as simple as "1 month travel time"

Aka the article is complete bullshit.


No, I didn't say that. It holds up for most of history, except for a fairly small window of ~50 years where communication was faster than travel (after that travel was fast enough that almost anywhere was less than 1 month away).


I agree. Imagine a future where we find a way to send messages at/near the speed of light intergalactically but can still only travel at some fraction of it.


We can already send messages at the speed of light. The problem is that's still way too slow for intergalactic communication (the nearest galaxy is 2.5 million light years away).


Let alone that the Portuguese were in Brazil, and the Spanish in the _Philippines_, for some 300 years


The Philippines is a great example of how to break this rule; it was almost more a colony of New Spain than of Spain.

Basically converting the empire into a franchise operation? Or maybe a pyramid scheme? To enable it to scale out beyond that range?

The VOC played a similar role in extending the Dutch empire’s reach.


The Philippines has never been easy to grasp though. Even now the government maintains poor control of many of their thousands of islands. Colonization efforts there can be profitable but are also weak. To the extent the Philippines has been colonized they must generally satisfy themselves to control of major ports and trade routes and naval bases.


Exactly. See my post elsewhere in this discussion where I give the transit times for goods from Madrid China via the Manila Galleons and the Mexican caravan routes back to Madrid.


There's so many exceptions. Does the article address any of these?


I didn't write the article so I don't care either way, but I think the British Empire was a thing totally on its own. Probably (probably, I'm not a historian) because its technology (both physical and organizational) was so much more superior to the lands they invaded that the normal "laws of empire physics" didn't apply.

In Australia (and NZ, and Canada, and the US, and probably in South Africa to a certain degree) their mode of operation seemed: reduce the locals to nothing (even worse than Spain), then build a fully Western-like society. Clean slate, mostly self-governed by white people who are not inclined to fight with Europe (with notable exceptions, obviously)

In India - although I don't doubt for a second they killed many many people - they seemed to operate more like the Golden Horde in Russia: as long as you pay the taxes (and occasionally provide more stuff when we run out), you can keep your culture and be governed by your local warlords, because it's just too tedious to kill all of you at once. The British did seem to have a bit more sway though, for example when they kicked off the partitioning, millions of people started moving. However, largely it seems like a brutal but mostly hands-off rule (based on mutual benefit with the local elite?)

What they did in Africa was something else, I've read books about insanely remote places like South Sudan or Zambia, and what were they doing there is hard for me to understand at all. But again, the gap in technology between the local people and them was so vast that they could do whatever they wanted without much coordination with the capital.

The Romans and other empires of the past were different because they didn't have such a huge technology gap. In case of Romans, you still fight it out with spears, swords and bare hands, and they tended to take over the lands completely, and impose their own gods, order and culture, which is much harder to do with a similar level of technology and does require coordination with the capital.


British Raj is a great argument for the article, started in 1858 and lasted less than a century, a blip in the historical context, as power projection was a recurring problem.


were they ruling it or plundering it for most of that time, and after they started ruling, how long did it last?


One could argue the British augmented that by creating better local institutions in the far away places.


It seems to me that distance would just be a correlation to the real variable. If a government could keep a people 5,000 miles, or even 50 million miles, away content enough to not undermine them, then obviously that government could continue to rule this group of people indefinitely.

So it seems that the real variable here is contentedness, which distance correlates strongly against. The further someone is away from their government, the less likely they are to feel that it's "their" government or have any sort of shared "camaraderie" for lack of a better word.

There are plenty of examples of empires having at least tentacles stretched well beyond 3000 miles sustainably, even at the beckoning of the colonies, as in the case of e.g. Anguilla with the Brits. Yet no empire can maintain stability, regardless of their size, in the face of rising discontent.


Discontent seems (to me) implicit in foreign rule though, the degree just being a matter of with what and for how much the local population is being bought off.

Are there any examples where an empire doesn't treat it's outer reaches as second-class citizens and survives?


Russia. All the asian russians are very much treated as second class citizens, from the top (deciding where to draft mobiks from) to the bottom (a much worse case of what americans today would call police brutality / bias). We have to see if it survives though.


The problem is that Russia has succeeded in settling many of its colonized territories such that natives are minorities in most of their titular region. Consider Buryatia for a prominent example - Buryats have been used as Russian shock troops in Ukraine since 2015 (Debaltsevo), yet population of the republic is only 44% Buryat but 53% Russian. On top of that, much of the native population is culturally Russified.

Tuva and ethnic republics of the Caucasus are where the natives have majorities that mostly retain their separate cultural and ethnic identity, so if something does fall apart, I would expect it to happen there.


I'd say that discontent is implicit in any sort of rule. The smallest of villages will have discontent, and at extremes may even splinter - a collapse of an "empire" on the micro scale. It's all a matter of how discontent people become. Basically I'm arguing a tautology: when people become discontent enough to fight against their rulers, they will do so.


Unrelated to the article's thesis: the use of both colors and numbers in the static map of the Roman Empire is very clever and I wish this technique were used more often.

I don't in general have trouble distinguishing colored areas when they're adjacent to each other. But when they're separated from each other -- as is often the case with a map and its legend -- it becomes a lot more difficult.

Using colors to show extent and numbers to match up with the legend is a great solution to this problem. Take note!


See also https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marchetti's_constant IMO there is a clear analogue for this with organizational size and the extent of your product offering, the further off from your core offering you extend the worse your entire offering becomes


A lot of counter-cases are conflating specific conquests with the the overall empire. There will be exceptions (in both directions of closer & further) but I think what the author is trying to do is set the radius of the empire, relative to a one or a few epicenters. I don't think the exact value is that important vs. the logistical impacts of distance and their influence on all aspects of controlling a geopolitical entity.


If you take Russian Empire/USSR for example, most of the territories which have been lost are much closer to Moscow (Ukraine, Poland, Finland, Belarus, Georgia etc.) than the territories still under Moscow control (Siberia), so at least in the Russia's case, it's not about transportation at all.


Siberia is kind of its own exception, though. I’d say they managed to keep Siberia - for reasons solely to do with Siberia - despite how bad they were at keeping the empire together, relatively speaking.


It's just that Siberia is predominantly populated by ethnic Russians and USSR did not succeed in growing any regional identity there.


Canada de facto owns a huge amount of territory. Nobody else wants it.

Vladivostok is desireable to many powers in the region, but it's also changed hands many times in recent history.


What lands are de facto Canada but not de jure Canada's?


Sounds like the "No True Scotsman" defense. "Oh, that was just an outlier. The real parts of the empire were ..."


The article's conclusion is validated by the deployment times of US aircraft carrier groups around the world... To deploy from the Pacific to the Persian Gulf is approximately one month.

Historical data backing that up: https://qph.cf2.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-7633a527c8e2a2228fcdd...


I don't see this as a case of 'information speed'.

It's more like, who wants to wait more than 30 days for a package to get delivered. Each yearly task takes specific tools and ingredients, that you can't wait for.

There is a certain yearly rhythm, so people are on 30 day schedules. 1 month of harvest in the fall (October) 1 month of processing the food (November) 1 month of swapping and trading food (December) 1 month of keeping animals alive in winter (January) 1 month of animal husbandry (February) 1 month of winter planting (March) 1 month of birthing new animals (April) 1 month of spring plating (May) 1 month of early harvests (June) 1 month of tending to planted crops (July) 1 month of travel (August) 1 month of making clothing and other things (September)


Chinese saying: "the mountains are high, and the Emperor is far away" (山高帝遠)


Russian saying: be further from higher ups, closer to the kitchen (подальше от начальства, поближе к кухне)


It is something I read before in a book: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire_and_Communications


Case in point: Crusader Kings 2/3. Both games are insane and if you say start with the Holy Roman Empire you can see how things can fall apart quickly when you want to extend beyond the already enourmous territory.


>This also helps explain for example why feudalism was so prevalent in Europe during the Middle Ages. Without well-maintained Roman roads, the time needed to go from one place to another extended, which made it that much harder to control big empires. Small, local warlords emerged. They were the ones with enough money to afford a horse and armor

This point is another reminder for me that Game of Thrones' Westeros, the Seven Kingdoms, should've collapsed the minute all the dragons were lost in the Dance of Dragons, particularly the North, where it takes months to get to Winterfell from King's Landing. This writer[0] also noted how impossible Westeros as a united entity should be along with other issues with GRRM's world design.

Nevermind that the size of Westeros should have a significant impact on its anthropology. This is a needlessly nerdy analysis, and most are aware of GRRM's well-known disclaimer about his faults, but no one even comments on anyone having an accent in Westeros, except for that of the Dornish (which is kinda sketch IMO).

* The relative isolation of the North and the Iron Islands would've seen them continue to speak and evolve the First Men's language, though with far more Andalic influence than the language spoken north of the Wall.

* Dorne would speak a spectrum that goes from the Andalic of the Marches to the Andalic/Rhoynish patois most people would speak in Sunspear

* The Sea Lords, much like the Channel Islands IRL, would've continued to speak a dialect of High Valyrian that would've had a strong Andalic influence and the Targaryens would've spoken this dialect. Its a bit strange that the Targaryens basically just stopped speaking Valyrian though where IRL it took the Normans, also a dominant political minority, almost 400 years to start speaking English conversationally. The royal court and the high lords would all have learned to speak it.

* The Riverlands' dialect would be most related to the Stormlands' dialect since the Storm King ruled there for 300 years.

* The Vale, also relatively isolated since its accessible over land through a scant few mountain passes, like Portugal and Spain IRL where Portuguese has more in common with vulgar Latin, would speak the 'purest' dialect of Andalic that has more in common with the Andalic that was spoken in Essos.

[0]https://medium.com/migration-issues/westeros-is-poorly-desig...


This medieval example sounds like an easy shortcut though.

At part of Europe, roads were always maintened. Maybe with more local that country-wide focus sometimes. The feudalism may not caused by road system efficiency. Good roads on a empire splitted by succession are still no match to fast manoeuvrable drakkar raiders.

Local power and defence is needed... leading to another important parameter. Size of empires is proportional to time of travel and relative defensive strength of the remote area.


> Good roads on a empire splitted by succession are still no match to fast manoeuvrable drakkar raiders.

That's the issue though, dragons had gone extinct in Westeros 150 years before the series begins its story


You might find this series of posts interesting.

https://acoup.blog/2019/05/28/new-acquisitions-not-how-it-wa...

The third part in particular talks about geography and logistics of governance in Westeros.


Series like this remind me that the best approach to writing fantasy is to deny the urge to explain everything and answer all questions. Which is ironic, because GRRM is on-record saying this like this:

> Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”

And even more, he's writing a series that's exclusively POV but he nonetheless spills pages of ink on world-building exposition no character in the world would discuss with themselves.


GoT is a recurring topic on that blog, and in another series [1] - that one on why Dothraki are not an accurate representation of any real-world nomadic culture (despite GRRM's explicit claims that it is a fusion of such) - the author made a reference to that claim:

«The answer to the first is something that we’ve rehearsed a number of times, but bears restating: for most of its readers (and the watchers of A Game of Thrones), A Song of Ice and Fire will be their primary exposure to the idea of the Middle Ages. This is particularly true because of the reputation that the series has for being ‘how it really was,’ a reputation that George R.R. Martin has consciously cultivated (as with his classic complaint of ‘what was Aragorn’s tax policy’ – there is a rich irony that, had Martin understood rulership in the Middle Ages better, he would have understood why Aragorn’s tax policy was less important). Martin has been quite open that he “draw[s] inspiration from history” and that fact has long been a selling point of the series over more obviously fantastical kinds of medieval-themed high fantasy as well as a response to some of the series’ more controversial moments.»

[1] https://acoup.blog/2020/12/04/collections-that-dothraki-hord...


Also the stability of the Kingdoms of Westeros is ridiculous given their ages. Supposedly they were divided into the Kingdoms of the North/Vale/Iron Islands/Reach/Rock/Stormlands/Dorne in the Age of Heroes - 10,000 years before the Targaryen conquest. 10,000 years is twice as long as all of recorded human history. In that time on earth, dozens of empires have risen and fallen. The center of civilization moved from the Middle East to Egypt to Greece to Rome to Byzantium & Arabia to western Europe to Britain to North America. Independent civilizations with equal claims to greatness sprung up elsewhere on the globe. Civilizations got conquered, technology advanced, genocides and plagues and famines happened, languages changed, and dynasties typically lasted a couple hundred years, if that.

Meanwhile, over in Westeros, the same 7 kingdoms have been ruled over the same geographic extent by the same 7 families at roughly the same level of technological development for 10,000 years. It took outsiders with dragons to conquer them. No explanation is given over how you could maintain what appear to be feudal structures over a 3000+ mile continent with bronze age technology.


Ha, yes, the same series where we get like two pages dedicated to detailing every notable knight and lord that either died or lost their titles owing to the Battle of the Blackwater is also the series where political powers and contours basically never change.


I disagree only with the use of the term "bronze age". The Titan of Braavos bestrides two mountains across a sea channel and wears a skirt of bronze. They have magic, and that changes the landscape utterly of what's easy and difficult. The two worlds are incommensurable.


Excellent article generally but I don't think the point about Napoleon was very strong and rather diminished the article as it conflates the concept of military supply with Imperial administration and I think the two subjects differ in practice.

(i.e. in another reality where Napoleon had superior temporarily military supply in Russian held territories then he could have conquered Russia. If that happened; whether he could hold the territory for the years that follow would however be an argument for this article).


Currently listening to Peter Zeehan's The End of the World is Just the Beginning and this seems to jive with his viewpoint as well. That is - the geographic location of a country, plus rivers, plus ocean ports, is the core characteristic of those empires that succeeded or failed. He talks about a "cruchy exterior, creamy middle" IE: borders that are protected in some way, for example by an ocean, with an interior of vast farmland easily passable by roads and rail.


Our last planet, Neptune, fits neatly within one light-month. The rest of the heliosphere does too, but not the Oort cloud.

Looks like empires are purely solar system affairs. Sci-fi authors take note.


Article is a little light on details with regards to why the author believes this effect exists. I have to imagine that their thinking is that application of force is limited to the distance you can travel one month instead of anything that would relate to the application of soft power (e.g. communication).

Supplying a ground based force follows more of a square-cube law. You need to feed your horses to transport your food to feed your soldiers. Going further means more food for the horses to carry the food for the horses to carry the food for the soldiers. There is an excellent post here that explains this far better than I ever could: https://maximumeffort.substack.com/p/the-tyranny-of-the-wago...

Any limitations on space based empires, while similar, are going to follow somewhat different rules depending on the tech involved. Unlike horses, once you launch you don't really have an opportunity to resupply a space based force going a long distance without inordinate energy expenditure. I'm not convinced force projection over a galaxy would be a problem for a civilization capable of travel at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Solving one problem (travel) necessarily solves the other (distribution of force).

I think the bigger question is more, why bother? What possible reason could a civilization have to go to war at that scale? Human civilization would need to change so much to get to that point that I'm not certain these are questions are explorable at our place in the timeline. We'd be like Romans dreaming about a better abacus.


This has been a recurring theme in sci-fi going back decades. Le Guin's Hainish Cycle is mostly this kind of universe, for example, even though it has FTL comms (but not travel).

Of course, none of this matters if you do have FTL travel, which the "space empires" kind usually does.


This was true before the 20th century but my opinion is that instant communication, payment and relatively fast weapons delivery meant for over a century now this rule is no longer valid. Your empire can be as big as you want it to, even expand to the moon but probably not beyond. The limiting factor now is the appetite for war and conquest by a population that can communicate and organize efficiently to overthrow or change rulers as well as interference from global nuclear powers.


Travel? or communication?

(in the ancient world, they were the same but in the modern world they're obviously different for example if we colonize Mars)


There are some interesting ideas in there that should be more fully worked out. Perhaps they have and folks could suggest further reading?

Travel is a suitcase word in that Pueyo doesn't distinguish among what is being moved: material, people, information. In the earliest days maybe there was less of a difference, except for the cases where there was a significant difference such as the Inca chasqui which operated as a relay race.


Civilization the game needs to re-add travel along rivers. If I remember correctly you could do it in Civ II because rivers were tiles.


The rise and fall of empires is a way more complex topic than the author paints it to be in this post. Yes distance to the outer reaches is an important factor, but so are a hundred others. Economics, religion, trade, climate, technological progress, and above all leadership – all play an important role in the shaping of civilization.


I'm tempted to dispute whether the Carolignian Empire was too big per se. If you put the capital at Lyon (or Geneva), everything is fully reachable in a month on this graph. The problem, rather, was that Lyon was never made the capital (rather Metz in the far north), or at least not in time to prevent fragmentation.


Interesting how geography limited empires before the advent of instant communication.

It would be fascinating to see a comparison of the impact on empires when instant communication is possible.

What kind of regime change is possible when you can instantly spread propaganda and no longer need Paul Revere riding around telling everyone the British are coming.


Communication obviously plays a big part but I think time to action is probably the better metric. You need to be able to act quicker than your opponent, and if you can't, you need to be able to absorb the damage they can inflict in the mean time whilst still having enough resources to inflict more damage than you sustained when you can eventually act.


> before the advent of instant communication.

But! Instant communication is not possible. :) This sounds like a nitpicking but this might become important if we spread out in space: We still have the light speed limit on communication.

Which of course means that our communication is practically instantaneous around all of earth. (at least when measured against human reaction times.) But if we would spread ourselves to let's say the Oort cloud you would see very serious lag in communication. Not just between Earth and the cloud, but between points on the Oort cloud.

Could the whole cloud ever be controlled by a single empire? Or would it break into a Voronoi diagram of "1 light month" large cells around points of interest?


Is there enough matter for a serious political faction to subsist off of?

The total mass of the asteroid belt is calculated to be 3% that of the Moon [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid_belt

We only use a small fraction of matter on the Earth, so maybe a good sized comet can host habitation. But the solid planets and moons are where humanity could thrive. The gas giants have too a gravity well, we'd need some seriously advanced propulsion to make it off, but there's 317x more matter on Jupiter than Earth.


This neatly explains Afghanistan, i think. Fundamentally unnavigable for the entirety of written history!


Afghanistan was part of large empires like Kushans, Graeco-Bactrians, Achaemeniens, Mauryas, Mughals, etc for long periods. It was also a part of the Silk Route to India through Khyber pass and was the epicenter of Graeco-Buddhist art centers like Bamyan and Mes Aynak. It was not un-navigable.


Babur was probably the last man to hold the mountains with any seriousness, and he only held on for about a generation.

My general feeling is that "We control Afghanistan" said more honestly is something closer to "I am the mayor of Kabul!"


The interior of Africa, too.


That is also correlated with the multiple of tropical diseases wiping out traders and settlers until the 1800s or so.

Tsetse flies in East Africa killing cattles and horses... Allowing local hunter-gatherers to survive herders and farmers expansions until recently enough. And empires don't really spawn in non-food-producing cultures.


East Turkestan is arguably even more remote, yet China manages.


If the hypothesis includes the stipulation "from the capital," it would have been useful to see some commentary on what the author thought about the Roman Empire moving its capital (or having multiple emperors each with a capital).


Interesting, but almost all the examples are from before the invention of the telegraph.


Never knew those cataracts were are thing https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cataracts_of_the_Nile


TIL that cataracts aren't necessarily waterfalls.


Let me introduce the Treaty of Tordesillas...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Tordesillas


What about the sun never setting on the British Empire? Wouldn't that mean the British empire was larger than 1 month of travel from the capital?


Why, I’d wager that, with modern Victorian transportation, a man could travel all the way around the world in less than eighty days. Meet me on the steps of the Reform club!

Phileas Fogg’s example Suggests that at the height of the ‘sun never sets’ era, nowhere should have been more than 40 days away from London. And with a significant chunk of that time stuck transiting the pacific, brings the majority of the world into the 30 day window for a single month.


No, it suggests that there was an optimal path around the world in 80 days. The geography of many regions would have made them more remote than the optimal path.


In seriousness, the article’s final thesis is literally that steamships and trains and telegraphs broke the ‘month’ rule by bringing essentially the whole world inside the one month range, which is what enabled a ‘sun never sets’ empire and then broke empires in general.

Around the World in 80 days is set almost exactly at that inflection point.


The geography of those many remote regions (e.g. the interior of Africa or Australia or parts of Asia) meant that they were not really governed by the empires - it's just that they were linked to the wider world through various port cities, and those were generally governed by some empire and within a month of its capital, so the value of their trade was captured tehre.


"The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line."

Delegation of authority seems to partially help solve the problem.


I read "teleportation technologies" and I thought this was gonna be a piece on the decade-long-planned magic update of dwarf fortress


This is why you need more mass transit where you live.


Does this rule works for information signal speed in general? Does empire in space cannot be large than 1 month light in radius?


I guess the distance is also proportional to the strenght of the remote part and the brutality of a vengeance from the capital.

England, Fance, Spain, Portugal keeping colonies for a while until they technologically matched and that enlightened europe would be less tolerant of a bloody revenge.

Russia, China still controlling their colonies because there is no local comparable strenght in those moutain/toundra/desert parts.


You can get around that by turning the empire into a federation which is the case in most sci-fi novels


This will significantly limit humanity's ambitions to colonize outer space.


Fortunately, while this study may exist, imperial ambitions know no bounds, so we'll colonize just fine. Sure, decades later, they may break away, but that's decades later's problem.

Plus, this analysis is implicitly in the context of a world where the regions have the ability to be self-sustaining on at least the basics of life, so breaking away is a viable option. If the "empire" is also "your supply of oxygen", breaking away will be a lot trickier. For a space colony or set of colonies to be able to break away, they first have to be truly 100% self-sufficient, and that's a tall bar for the forseeable future. They then have to be able to militarily match what the empire is willing to throw at them to retain them, and that's a very complicated analysis, made all the more complicated by not knowing what the exact technologies will be at the time.

(Plus, not all empires are complete buffoons. They at least begin being competently run. The empire will know that to break away the colonies must be self-sufficient, so they will take steps to ensure they won't be self-sufficient. And the colonies will take steps to become secretly self-sufficient. Long before open rebellions occur, there will have been a clandestine war of self-sufficiency.)


The ambition of kings was unlimited, but we no longer live under monarchies.


Or increase them? Presumably some portion of humanity might be motivated by trying to get away from existing empires (maybe creating new ones, maybe not), rather than expanding existing empires.


Why? Settling new places doesn’t have to mean expanding the existing polity: the settlements can be self-governing. See the Polynesian expansion through the Pacific, which to me is a closer (and more hopeful) analogy to space colonization than anything nineteenth-century Europeans or ancient empires did.

And so long as we’re just thinking of this solar system, there’s also the question of whether what’s important is transit time or communication time. Historically those were identical; now very much not.


Those colonies would simply become independent in a relatively short period of time.


Unless the settlers form a democratic and self-governing society, not an authoritarian empire


A society can easily be democratic and self-governing within itself but do authoritarian subjugation of other societies, or be subject to such.


Depends on the velocity. 1 light month is pretty big.


Within one light month of earth, there is only one solar system - the one containing Earth, obviously.


Really ? Crap I thought we’d have a couple of star systems in there…


1 light month is pretty big.

So is the universe. In fact, 1 light month gets you across 0.00000000061% of it. If your empire on Earth was the same size it'd be 300 square meters. About the size of a big house with a nice garden.


By this logic, the Mars colonies will be independent.


Only if they are self-sufficient with respect to the basics. It's hard to rebel when the other side can just cut off your food supply until you starve into compliance.


With better propulsion, trips to mars could be shorter. There are times where Mars is on the opposite side of the sun, and times when Earth and Mars are close.


So no Mars province?


Another relevant factor is self-sufficiency regarding basic needs. But yes, if/when a Mars colony becomes self-sufficient, secession probably isn’t far off.


Put another way, a mars colony that is not mostly self-sufficient is a death trap, because the lead time on any supply shipments or rescue attempts is monumental even if funding is unlimited. There will be ever-present pressure to increase self-sufficiency. If complete self-sufficiency is technologically achieved (and there aren't inherent, unavoidable issues with propagating humans on mars or obtaining resources/energy), earth-based corporations and governments have virtually zero leverage over mars, so independence follows naturally.


You can travel to Mars in 5 minutes so I don’t think so. It’s clear even in todays world you don’t need “boots on the ground” to exert social or military influence.


They're saying we can have the moon.


There goes intergalactic empires then…


Human travel? Or information travel?


That's a fascinating question. I guess the answer is both. Fast info gives you extra time since you don't suffer the latency to send the shock troops.


I think it’s further than that. If the drones, satellites and if necessary the humans with guns that get their paycheck wired from earth are already prepositioned then the latency becomes minutes.


I believe this is sufficiently exhibited by 18th-19th century imperial powers that have telegraphs and able to have the centre dictate unit movements and campaigns to the peripheries.

Compared to previous eras where the local potentate is the ultimate source of order - at least for short and medium terms (see also: Spanish Viceroy of Netherlands, 1540-1600s)

Then again, you can see the difference between, say, the 1880s and 1920s, when airplanes became mature. Dictate by message compared to centre agents coming in to intervene directly...


So… the moon, or even Venus?


Not sure Venus is within 1 month travel time.

Granted this is with Apollo era technology... but we're still talking Saturn V

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manned_Venus_flyby

> The proposed mission would have used a Saturn V to send three astronauts on a flight past Venus, which would have lasted approximately one year.

> ...

> Phase C would be the actual manned flyby, using a Block IV CSM and an updated version of the Venus flyby S-IVB which would carry a large radio antenna for communication with Earth.

> ...

> The Phase C mission was planned for a launch in late October or early November 1973, when the velocity requirements to reach Venus and the duration of the resulting mission would be at their lowest. After a brief stay in Earth parking orbit to check out the spacecraft, the crew would have headed for Venus. ... After a successful S-IVB burn, the spacecraft would have passed approximately 3000 miles from the surface of Venus about four months later.

Of note https://trajbrowser.arc.nasa.gov/traj_browser.php is fun to play with. - Custom list (Venus), one way rendezvous, minimize duration, all trajectories.

The shortest one is an 80 day one "burn straight there" approach.

I'm not sure that NASA has that updated for more recent years (its a search - not a compute) - still gives you an idea of what is doable and the inner solar system opportunities are fairly consistent (compared to the Grand Tour https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Tour_program which is once every 175 years). See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interplanetary_Transport_Netwo... and if that sounds like fun, then High Frontier board game might be up your alley ( current edition https://iongamedesign.com/products/high-frontier-4-all https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/281655/high-frontier-4-a... ).


The Venus missions...

One way rendezvous - 80 days is the minimal - https://trajbrowser.arc.nasa.gov/traj_browser.php?NEAs=on&NE...

If you're just doing a flyby and letting the ship then get lost, it can get down to 48 days https://trajbrowser.arc.nasa.gov/traj_browser.php?NEAs=on&NE...

The one way flyby is not likely one that would be good for human travelers as you aren't really stopping (or even slowing down enough to get captured).

The shortest round trips are just over a year long. https://trajbrowser.arc.nasa.gov/traj_browser.php?NEAs=on&NE...

The trip there is only 90 days, but the return leg is one of the least optimal options with a 280 day "climb back out" trip. You could do a 96 day there, and 80 day back, but to get the right orbital arrangement it then means that you'd need to stay at Venus for 1.3 years.

It is a neat thing to play with and see what options exist.


But is it an Earth month or a Venus month? Does Venus even have months?


I think there’s an xkcd on modeling complex systems with a single parameter: https://xkcd.com/793/.

More seriously, I think the predictive power of this hypothesis is low. Clearly travel time is important to maintaining a connected empire but it’s probably not the limiting factor.


it probably depends on the tickrate of the governance


who wants to know this? and why?


Counterargument: Manila galleons plied the seas for 250 years.

• First trade ships would stop in Ming China then take their cargoes to Manila. It took months to get there and back to Manila.

• The leg from Manila to Monterey, California, took about three months.

• The next leg, from Monterey to Acapulco, was another month. In total, it could be five or six months travel.

• Cargo was unloaded in Acapulco to be sent overland via on the Camino de los Virreyes, first to Mexico City then to Veracruz. This overland trip could take over a month depending on the progress of the baggage train. These were called the Galleon Caravans.

• In Veracruz, the trade goods were loaded onto the annual heavily guarded treasure (plate or plata) fleets back to Spain. They did this rather than trying to risk passage through the Straights of Magellan or shipping back around the Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa).

• The ships left Veracruz (alternatively spelled Vera Cruz) to meet up with the South American treasure fleet in Havana, Cuba. These trips often took a long northerly trip, nearly to the coast of Louisiana. These trips were highly variable and could take as short as two weeks or as long as three months. Three weeks seems to be about average.

• The transit time from Havana back to the Casa de Contratación in Seville Spain was nearly two months.

• Of course, Seville was just the port of entry. Goods then needed to be transported on to Madrid. The raw silver used to fund these expensive trips was eventually taken by the bankers backing Spain directly to the Italian port city of Genoa.

So in total, one way, it was about a year for cargo to go from Ming China to Madrid.

This system of imperial trade continued for, again, TWO AND A HALF CENTURIES. Long before the advent of the steam engine or the telegraph.

• (Every segment mentioned above also has a return trip component. For the Manilla Galleons that got to Acapulco it was at least three months to travel back from Mexico to the Philippines. That was the "easy" passage.)

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manila_galleon

https://www.guampedia.com/stops-along-the-manila-galleon-tra...

https://brewminate.com/spanish-treasure-fleets-from-the-16th...

https://www.mexconnect.com/articles/248-the-pacific-route-to...

https://uair.library.arizona.edu/item/294297

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_treasure_fleet

https://www.nps.gov/subjects/teachingwithhistoricplaces/uplo...

https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/35458/how-long-d...

https://www.dailysabah.com/columns/ekrem-bugra-ekinci/2015/0...

https://www.academia.edu/7744406/Analysis_of_the_Gulf_of_Mex...


The article wasn’t on trade exactly, but makes the argument that travel time determines empire limits (geographically or temporally). If this is true, trade probably played a significant role in the effectiveness of empires in maintaining control.

That is, I don’t think your comment is a counterargument, unless I’m missing something.


The Spanish presence in the New World violates the "1 month" rule. The annual travel times to the Philippines blows the whole "1 month" thing apart. Others elsewhere have shown that British presence in India, even after steamships and the Suez Canal, violate the "1 month" rule. The whole thing is a lazy, sloppy, antihistorical attempt to explain the extent of empires that doesn't hold up to actual history.


“England with its American colonies” as an example of overstretching this limit?

Once again, when explaining a historic trend or event in terms of what happened in the US, we forget about the existence of the control case: Canada.


You are right of course but I think Canada is a pretty unique case. Canada exists in huge part because of the american revolution. British-american loyalists have basically founded upper Canada, which is now Ontario, so it makes sense that they were particularly close to the throne and the British homeland and government. French-canada was also just recently conquered and placated by the Quebec Act, but still tried a couple of uprisings during the Patriot wars of 1837-38.

I don't think Canada would've stayed british without the loyalist escaping here, since they made it an inherent part of their identity to not revolt against the british as opposed to the americans they left behind. But agreed, there are too many exceptions in general to the article's point.


> You are right of course but I think Canada is a pretty unique case.

As opposed to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa?


Yes, if you read the rest of my comment I explained why. Canada has had a very big (relatively speaking) influx of deeply loyal british-american refugees that often directly fought the revolutionaries down south.

That meant that the early history of english canada was very deeply influenced by an almost identity defining loyalism to britain, because those refugees often left everything behind in the US to stay loyal the crown. In a way, being british was the entire point of early anglocanadian identity.

I think that makes it pretty different from Australia, a penal colony and South Africa which was conquered more than colonized (and was very hard to hold on for the british). I was more trying to explain why Canada was an outlier in the Americas, and how Britain managed to hold it very easily for so long, even with a free population and little direct military occupation.


So… empires can’t retain territory over a month away from its capital, unless it’s populated by people loyal to the empire?

Isn’t the point of the month rule that it’s hard to maintain a loyal population at that distance? So this amounts to saying ‘well the rule doesn’t apply to Canada because the rule doesn’t account for Canada’.

Right. So it’s a bit of a rubbish rule then?


I agree that the rule is basically worthless, but my point was more that Canada had an exceptionally loyal population, and disproportionately so compared to what we coule expect from a "normal distribution"! It can, in part, explain the rift between the US and Canada :)


The influx of loyalists was a couple of generations before the 1837 rebellions in both Upper and Lower Canada. Yet another generation elapsed before home rule with responsible government was devolved from Westminster and a few more before Canada was considered "independent" from the centralized Empire by the Statute of Westminster in 1931.

A century is a pretty long time for your argument about the beliefs of some individuals to stay valid.


Yes that's my point though. The patriot wars happened after the loyalists were well settled, and at a point when upper canada in general was almost as established as lower canada. French-canada was barely loyal, and would've probably been a huge torn in the backside of Britain if it wasn't balanced by a super loyal anglo population that counterbalanced the animosity of french canada.

The loyalists shaped the relationship Canada had with britain, and while I'd guess even their descendants were a minority (relative to immigrants) by the mid 19th century, it still defined Canadian identity even to this day. If Canada hadn't seen that initial influx of usually rich, upper class loyalists that became the founding stock of upper canadian politics/elite, we might have had a very, very different outcome. One that is more in line with most other colonies in the New World.


I'm a 10th+ generation Canadian of German ancestry, whose relatives had both an affinity for the British Empire (initially fleeing persecution to England) and a practical one: rich farmland in exchange for fighting with the loyalists against the upstart colonists. It's hard to determine which had the bigger impact.


I would say that Canada managed to stay loyal to the crown because for two major reasons. The first being the founding "myth" of Canada being the British loyalist colonists of the US migrating as a result of the US' revolution. Them fleeing north to a major seat of political power likely had a strengthening effect on being a willing subject to the crown than most colonies.

Secondly, Canada is something of an imperial power unto itself. There are countless stories of armies marching under the crown violently clashing with nations that existed on the continent prior to European colonization. Likewise, even other European descended colonist as well as the Métis were subjugated by British rule as the Anglophone powers expanded across the continent (e.g. Queen Anne's War, Red River Rebellion, and Fenian raids). Gaining the ability to exploit the natural resources that these other nations and colonies held.

The crown was a convenient way to gain both legitimacy from the British loyalists who settled in Canadian territory and a reliable trading partner to receive resources from in the British Canadian bids for expansion. Compared to the US, who used democratic rule to gain its own legitimacy; and who's natural resources were abundant enough to be a valuable trading partner.


>we forget about the existence of the control case: Canada.

Is it though? England did lose Canada to home-rule. In fact, I contend that a major reason why a newly independent (but also broke and fledgling) Canada was not annexed by the US was mainly because of the American preoccupation with civil war and Reconstruction, and the diplomatic efforts of John A. Macdonald.


Canada was still subject to the legal authority of the UK parliament until 1982, and was certainly considered fully part of the British Empire until WWI


I think the article was discussing actual facts-on-the-ground empires, rather than polite legal fictions invented to spare the UK from having to face their loss of global status.


Canada was essentially independent since WWI.


They lost it to home rule only after it took less than a month to travel there with steam ships, right?


The point was they couldn't hold the Canadian colony. Britain didn't give home-rule to Canada because of their good-will. American belligerence towards European presence in the New World, and their rise as a major military and economic power, made holding Canada practically impossible by the mid 1800s (for example, it was untannable for Britain to maintain a large military presence in Canada anymore). Britain fully expected Canada to be annexed. Without the civil war and reconstruction preoccupying Americans during the critical early and fledgling years of the Canadian Dominion, I don't think Canada would have survived as a nation.

In another thread, I also made an argument for another major mitigating factor with respect to Americas, namely, the native populations were wiped out by old-world diseases which prevented local rebellions from succeeding and allowed Europeans to establish large population centers.


But the article literally argues that the British loss of the American colonies in 1776 is an example of how an empire can’t retain territory at a month’s remove.

To which the existence of British colonies in Canada after 1776 is kind of a direct rejoinder, right? The eventual loss of those colonies is irrelevant to the point that you can’t explain the American revolution as being an inevitable consequence of remoteness.


An empire can't retain hostile and unpacified territory beyond a certain limit - which may be set by time, communications, access to local resources and imported logistics, other factors, and all of the above.

If the territory is fully pacified with no significant resistance and/or it's run by dedicated loyalists with plentiful local resources the limit doesn't apply.

Basically an empire can only retain territory against an active threat or resistance within certain limits. If there is no active threat, or the threat is too minor to be a concern, the territory can be considered stable and fully colonised.


Aha. So the rule is: empires can only hold territory that they are able to hold. Got it. Useful predictive principle.


And also after communication time dropped from 2 weeks to 2 minutes (telegraph, 1866).


wasn't the war of 1812 partly/mostly driven by a US desire to annex canada?


The American state by the mid-1800s was not that same as the one in the early 1800s. America grew into a major economic and military power by then, the point where it was untenable for Britain to maintain direct control over Canada, or to even maintain a major military presence there. The British were ostensibly kicked out of North America by America.


There is quite a difference between conquering (and thereby assimilating) versus killing almost all natives and then populating the place with your own settlers..


>versus killing almost all natives and then populating the place with your own settlers..

The native population was not killed but rather decimated by disease. Pre-colonial population of North America was on the order of 60 million - there was zero chance European powers being able to hold that size of population over a period of time. Contrast that to Africa, which today has a minimal population of European descendants ... because that native population had immunity.


That’s a funny definition of ‘not killed’ you’re using.


They died, but they were indeed not killed. You may say something flowery like "the diseases killed them", or "the arrival of the Brits killed them", but the British empire or its subjects did not kill the vast, vast majority of Native North Americans who died as a consequence of their arrival.


Well, news outlets are perfectly comfortable with saying that this or that COVID policy "killed" millions and will kill even more... If only the British instituted lockdowns, quarantine, and mass testing for diseases, the Native Americans could have lived!

(Not saying this is the right perspective, but I understand why people would argue for it, especially when using ahistorical lens of today's diseases handling)


They were killed by what the settlers brought with them. No, it was not deliberate (#), but nevertheless, their arrival is what killed most of the natives.

(#) Obviously the settlers would have preferred to keep the natives alive since then they would not have needed to ship vast quantities of Africans across the ocean to enslave, but could have just done that with the locals.


>They were killed by what the settlers brought with them. No, it was not deliberate (#), but nevertheless, their arrival is what killed most of the natives.

That's all I meant to clarify. You'd be surprised how many people today actually think that the native population was wiped out through deliberate and intentional action. Your wording made it seem you believed that as well, but that seemed to not be the case.

>Obviously the settlers would have preferred to keep the natives alive since then they would not have needed to ship vast quantities

That's a caricature.


It was intentional though. The bison didn't disappear because of western disease, they were hunted out to break up the natives ability to resist, so they could be killed and corralled, and the land be granted to settlers.

Canada intentionally withheld food it owed to natives as part of treaty agreements, with the understanding that if a bunch of people starved to death, Canada wouldn't need to send as much food.

Similarly, disease was spread intentionally through small pox blankets, with the intention listed


It may not be the case that deliberate and intentional actions alone could have wiped out the natives but it seems pretty clear that there were a lot of deliberate and intentional actions both to kill them and take their land (Trail of Tears, Spanish conquests in South America). Those actions just wouldn't have been as successful without the diseases.


However the natives where still wiped out by European diseases nonetheless, a direct result of Europeans coming here, I'm sure the Europeans of the time were grateful for that even if it wasn't a result of direct action on their part, they would have been fine with it happening.


Or Spain and South America?


Evwn better, Spain and the Philipines


And even more so, re: distance, Australia.


The article contends that the reason why the 'month rule' is in play is because of the logistics of ruling over a local population which will attempt to rebel.

So I think a mitigating factor for US, Canada, Australia was that the local native population was wiped out by old-world diseases, so there was minimal capability for local population to rebel. This is also the major factor of why those nations' population is largely made-up of the descendent of the colonists. Contrast that with Africa, which suffered from similar attempts at colonialism, was much closer to Europe, but because its native population was not susceptible to European diseases (and in fact, the colonists were decimated by native diseases like malaria), Africa today has a tiny number of colonial descendants (around 5 million European descendants out of a population of ~1 billion)

The population of pre-colonized North America was on the order of 60 million (European population was on the order of ~70 million). Had that population been maintained (i.e. not wiped out by old-world diseases), there was zero chance of European powers being able to establish large colonial populations. In that scenario, once the technological advantage was removed (due to trade, for example), I think you would have seen successful native rebellions.

I would say South America also follows this pattern. No chance of the Spanish being able to establish large colonial populations or maintain hold over native South American populations had they been not wiped out by old-world diseases.


Russia to Far East?


Almost lost it during the russo-japanese war because it was way too far and very hard to deploy troops to, even with the fledgling trans siberian line. Though I agree that it's a good example!


That's not true, as evidenced by many, many empires, past and present (Spanish, British, Roman, American) that spanned more than a month of travel.

What they're trying to say is that the span of control is limited by the ability to project power/information to the extremities of the empire. That makes sense, but the way they measure the limits is wrong.

The way the empires get around this problem is by putting people who have drunk the kool-aid in positions of power. While this can lead to abuse (ie: the Spanish), it can also lead to surprising amounts of consistency (all of the above).

Empires that fail are empires that require centralized decision making...and that's due to the communication limits posited and the generally poor quality of the staff in those types of organizations.


"Drunk the cool aid..." In the UK case I've heard the idea that the Publc School system emerged for exactly this reason. ('Public' schools being the most elite schools in the UK).

A relatively small number of schools shaped a class of people who all thought in exactly the same way, so they would behave predictably even when far away and in a new context.

Public schools, are not coincidentally noted for a focus on 'playing by the rules' and 'fair play', as inculcated through sport. Not to mention never breaking your word. All handy traits if your goal is breeding administrators you can trust without supervision.


> Not to mention never breaking your word.

You surely jest. A substantial proportion of British politicians, on the right mostly, were educated at public schools. They don't all have a shining record when it comes to integrity and honesty.

Twenty one (I think) of Britain's prime ministers went to Eton including Johnson and Cameron. Are we to believe that those two scoundrels are exceptions?


You can't give word to the public. It simply doesn't count. But you can give word to people that made the public vote for you and that's rarely broken.


I think they meant trustworthy to superiors and possibly peers. British populace are the subjects of their politicians, and thus no trust need be proffered.


There is lack of integrity and then there is lack of integrity. Like imagine a minister only hiring relatives, embezzling billions, taking bribes, extorting for bribes, selling information and influence to foreign adversaries. Imagine people that don't even pretend to care about their duties, to the point that are indifferent to their people starving (what's it to me, if they riot we can always shoot em dead?).


Sometimes its i.protant to understand the culture correctly- perhaps the institution has degraded now. Or perhaps your word only matters if it was goben to an equal, and Joe the public doesn't count? I dont know


Just because some public school graduates go on to become dishonest politicians, does not mean that the school itself isn't there to educate and select honest administrators of the state/etc.


The system doesn't work anymore. I don't think There is a country-specific elite culture now.


Johnson and Cameron hardly led the Empire.


Being trustworthy seems like an important trait in the older agrarian societies that depended on long-term planning and exchange, whether you were a farmer or an administrator.


Yes, although I'm not sure they had the capacity to institutionalise eduction to that end.


It seems very important if you are talking to me today. Why should I listen to you?



For another awesome rendition, try the Simon Gallagher production, with Derek Metzger as the Major-General; the entire show is (in my opinion) utterly fantastic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DJaNbD6R2s&list=PLXRhW-jVlF... (shame about the video quality, but it's still well worth watching)


I've never seen the source, but was reminded of this excellent homage: - https://youtu.be/BQXbbWVJ4sA?t=133


Amazing reference!


playing by the rules and fair play is good for society at large, not just prospective administrators lol


History of Empire, History of Travel Technology, and History of Communications Technology are huuuuge fields with tons of professionals working today. I'm a little concerned about huge claims being made about empire by a Stanford MBA and a community of people mostly experienced in software and tech.

The historians would love for you to read their books! AHA is literally happening right now! Go to bars in Philly and talk to them!


You don't even need to talk to someone. Pick up any book on European colonialism, the Roman Empire, Japanese imperialism, Chinese Imperial dynasties, medieval South Asia, pre-Islamic Persian empires, etc etc. Reddit's r/askhistorians is a great reference for sources on the more popular topics.


Yeah, but software engineers are better at many things than professionals in their fields. The classic example is Jeff Bezos and gang stopping their companies from flying people to/from China a month before US authorities reacted to COVID-19. They also cancelled conferences two weeks before shelter-in-place and asked people to work from home.

Tech professionals said that masks would help in the early stages while the US Surgeon General said "Masks don't work!" and Dr. Fauci said that you shouldn't be wearing any.

This is the magic of tech: the people there are there for comparative advantage. They would be better than epidemiologists at epidemiology and better than public health experts at public health. But they're much better at tech than epidemiologists and public health experts are at tech, and so they go to tech.

In a similar vein, I would be unsurprised to find that new insights about history come from technologists. Of course, I don't think this is one.


I....

Software Engineers are not better at making accurate historical claims than historians. I'd be fucking baffled if "new insights about history come from technologists" in any meaningful quantity. Like, it'd be among the most surprising thing involving human behavior I could imagine. Like, what software engineers do you know that have spent even a minute working in an archive?

I see no way that this comment could be made without just a complete ignorance of the profession of history.


I was assuming satire, but it really is hard to tell on the Internet...


I couldn't decide whether/how to vote as I couldn't work out if it was sarcasm. It seems like it must be, but it's written so earnestly.


I always look first for the reason I should trust them (how frustrating to look after reading a long article!). Don't forget they are also a highly trained engineer in SV, and made products used by lots of people today. Why not collaborate with a historian?

> Go to bars in Philly and talk to them!

? What happens in bars in Philly? Nobody does it elsewhere?


The American Historical Association Annual Conference (colloquially, AHA) is happening in Philly this weekend. Academics like to go out to drink after a day of talks.

Mostly tongue-in-cheek. I don't actually think the best way to meet historians is to go to random bars in the cities hosting major conferences.



> The way the empires get around this problem is by putting people who have drunk the kool-aid in positions of power.

I always understood the aphorism as taking delegation of power into account — it's "one month of travel" not because of the needs of top-down command-and-control, but rather because delegated power that's more than a month away falls past some threshold of latency required to "keep them in hand."

The aphorism might make more sense flipped in perspective and inverted: as a magistrate/governor, if you see your colonists suffering under the tyranny of a remote power, you'd better be at least a month away from that power to be able to quietly rebel under the nose of that remote power. Otherwise a quiet rebellion will never work — any closer, and they'll be constantly watching/auditing you. At a closer distance, if you want to rebel, the only option is an active, bloody rebellion — and if that's unpalatable to you, then you'd better just not rebel!


There’s an old Chinese proverb for this that’s pretty succinct:

“The mountains are tall and the emperor is far away.”


Empires that expand beyond the 30 day travel limit tend to fizzle out and crumble.

Today, of course, we travel the whole planet roughly 30 times in that time frame. So it's not a limit on Earth anymore. But it was definitely a problem for all previous empires. The ones you listed prove the point. They all crumbled when they expanded too far.

The reason is kinda obvious: If it takes 30 days to travel, it takes 60 days to travel there and back. Which means there is, at minimum, a 60 day delay between the start of a rebellion or war and your ability to respond to it. That's assuming you were ready for the news the moment you got it. Good luck with that.

It's just one of many reasons why wars are won more by logistics than bullets.

So I think it raises two really interesting questions:

(1) Here on Earth, the elimination of this limit is pretty recent. Should we anticipate an empire that spans the globe truly taking over? (No need to sarcastically comment about America today.)

(2) How does this impact space travel? Based on current and foreseeable technology, there's no planet we can regularly reach in that amount of time, because at any given time, the other planet could be on the other side of the solar system. Can we really colonize new areas if we can't reach them faster than 30 days? Maybe we can. Communication is nearly instant (relatively speaking), and there are no enemy combatants to deal with. But they'll still be stuck on their own if any unforeseen emergencies arise. Those never happen, right? Would we most likely see the formation of a new nation on each planet we colonize?


Can I introduce you to the British Empire, pre-steamships: https://www.britishempire.co.uk/maproom/sailingtimes.htm

Or in 1914: https://transportgeography.org/contents/chapter1/the-setting... (post-steamships)

The Spanish Empire was probably worse at its height.


All those areas beyond 1 month travel? No longer a part of the empire. They kicked off the American revolution and the Indian independence movement.

So yes, it's possible to create an empire beyond a month travel. But I maintain that no one has held onto one, which is the point the author was making I believe.


The North American colonies belonged to the British Empire from early 17th C. (1607-ish) to the late 18th C. (1783); nearly 200 years.

India was ruled by the British East India Company from 1760-ish to 1858 and by the British Crown directly until 1947; again, nearly 200 years. And by the time the British Empire started to collapse, travel time had been significantly reduced for something like 75 years.


It is for the Romans though, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2609654 as for the others I'm a bit sceptical but haven't to knowlegde about them either


>centralized decision making

Which bodes poorly for increasing federal power in the US.


Hello? This is year 2023, not 1542. Communication happens at the speed of light and the only bottleneck is the human processing said communication. Obsessively devolving power to nesting lower levels of decision making bodies is just about the worst thing to do when technology has increasingly enabled organizations that are slim at the top to effectively manage complex systems at scale instead.


The local decision-makers know much better the local needs: Local people can communicate with local decision-makers, they have far more experience with local needs (lifetimes worth), and human cognitive capacity is limited - nobody single federal decision maker can learn and know what all the local mayors know. Nobody a thousand miles away can know my neighborhood the way I do.

That's a reason decision-making in business is often pushed to the lowest level - the central people can't know as much.


>The local decision-makers know much better the local needs

Do they really? Election voter turnout is absolutely abysmal and gets lower the lower the government level goes. This is a clear sign voters no longer believe in democracy at the local level because exercising democratic rights no longer has influence on the situation. Why? Because imbeciles have successfully embedded themselves in lower levels of governments and use the devolved power to keep the status quo in order to profit off of it.


Turnout was relatively very high in 2016 and 2020.

> exercising democratic rights no longer has influence on the situation.

Progressives and the radical right don't think so, and they've certainly had tons of influence on government.

> Because imbeciles have successfully embedded themselves in lower levels of governments and use the devolved power to keep the status quo in order to profit off of it.

Not my local government. It isn't perfect, but it gets a lot done. Same in NYC. I certainly wouldn't call them imbeciles.

What local government are you talking about? There are GOP people who, in the name of demonstrating their radicalism, act like imbeciles, but I think they know what they are doing.


>Turnout was relatively very high in 2016 and 2020.

And? The U.S. has countless local elections happening almost every year. The turnouts are abysmal.

>Progressives and the radical right don't think so, and they've certainly had tons of influence on government.

Those aren't 100% of the electorate. This loops back to the point that democracy is failing when the bulk of the electorate no longer bother to vote.

Only in a country with FPTP and distorted voter power distribution would a 60% turnout be considered "relatively very high". European elections regularly have turnouts in the high 80s. That's what normal democracies look like.


>> Progressives and the radical right don't think so, and they've certainly had tons of influence on government.

> Those aren't 100% of the electorate. This loops back to the point that democracy is failing when the bulk of the electorate no longer bother to vote.

You said voting has no influence; I gave evidence of people who vote and have changed things dramatically.


Turnout was very high in 2016 and 2020 in the US.


The thing is, sometimes, centralized decision makers take decisions that are bad because they are too far removed from the consequences of the decisions. For instance, decisions on, say, water rights, made by the federal government in the US. The federal and state governments have effectively collaborated to create a slow rolling disaster across the entire west.

(Of course, now I think about it, local and state governments also take terrible decisions. Slavery and Jim Crow spring to mind. So there really is no "good" way to solve the "decision making" problem. I guess you're basically screwed if you have to allow other people to make decisions for you.)


> So there really is no "good" way to solve the "decision making" problem.

Insofar as humanity hasn't yet figured out how to make good decisions all the time ;-) that's true. However, I posit that keeping decisions at as low a level as possible lets mistakes be more easily undone by higher levels in the hierarchy; hence Justice Brandeis's laboratories of democracy.


That might work, for everyone except the slave waiting for the central authority to come liberate them.

There really is no way around it, local, state, or federal power have all been shown by history to be guaranteed to screw people over.


> the only bottleneck is the human processing said communication

You said it yourself. I don't care if the ansible lets you communicate faster than the speed of light; the capacity of leaders at the top to understand lower-level facts and needs has not changed much from 1542 to 2023.


Can you explain why more local decision making must be the worst thing to do?


Humans are the biggest bottleneck in orgs. More devolved power = more orgs = more humans = more gridlock.


What part of the US is more than a month's travel from Washington DC?


The GP already pointed out that the "month's travel" rule doesn't apply in all cases. The poster you're replying to does have a point about increasing amounts of decisions being made at the federal level in this country, as opposed to state or local levels closer to the people affected.


Portugal conquered Goa in 1510 -- that's more than a month of travel.

The Netherlands conquering Java in 1619? A lot more than a month.

And these conquests lasted for centuries.


To be fair, Dutch control of Java was more on paper than it was in reality. Most governance was devolved to local Rajahs who paid tribute to the VOC. Actual guns on the ground control across Java and most of what became Indonesia didn't really happen until the late 19th century

Also, Goa's existence was because it was so marginal. The Mughals, Marathas, and various regional kingdoms didn't care enough about the Portuguese, and also it was de facto treated as a factory (a free trade zone) - just like Surat was for the English


> The Mughals, Marathas, and various regional kingdoms didn't care enough about the Portuguese

Sorry to be that guy, but Marathas cared deeply about Goa and they constantly waged wars against them and liberated most of the territory by 1739. Except tiny enclaves like Daman, Diu and Velha Goa most of the Provincia do Norte including the crown jewel of Baçaim (Vasai) was lost. Velha Goa, Anjidiva etc were saved by a stroke of luck due to the arrival of fresh Portuguese Armada with a new Viceroy.

The current boundaries of Goa were only extended later when the Rajas agreed to merge with Portuguese during Maratha civil war period on 1790s, however the Hindu elites retained most of the autonomy like the Visconde of Pernem.


> The Netherlands conquering Java in 1619? A lot more than a month.

For practical purposes this was more the VOC than the Netherlands. Similar situation with British India until they killed off the British East India Company; before that, well, you could call it an empire, but it was really more a separate country ruled by a _company_.

Goa is probably a better counterexample, granted.


> Goa is probably a better counterexample, granted.

Velha Goa, the territory that was with Portuguese was really tiny and just contained Salsette, Tiswadi and Bardez concelhos. It is not a big feat to hold on to these coastal holdings given the total domination of Armadas.


sure but I imagine the argument here is that the grip on power of provinces so far away was considerably weak and likely to an extent devolved to the local agents of the crown. And likely as long as the ships with goods sailed limited questions were asked and limited checks occurred.

I imagine that those who worked on the colonial extents of the Empire were given the largest freedoms to be monstrous as long as it benefitted the crown. I would even argue that the cultural descendants of these agents are the same forces that encourage ideas such as Brexit; hoping to return to times of significantly less oversight from the home nation. As an example of this internal discord between territories of European empires and home states I think the abolition of slavery in the 19th century was a scenario where the electorate didn't align with these colonial interests to create an internal discord. Agents then shifted to an evil interpretation of contract law to replace slaves with indentured servants. I appreciate that this might not seem immediately irrelevant but I hope it might show how a discord between the competing interests of the society at "home" and the society "abroad" might slowly result in the "transport time" fractures this article discusses as the interests of the two populations diverge.


I'm not sure capturing and holding an island would constitute an empire.


History is though. That's empire. But hey, France took a whole bunch of islands that to this day still speak french and are literally "more France, outside of Europe", not "colonies".


Just want to be clear here: Are you claiming that Portugal and the Netherlands were not empires during those time periods?

Here's the definition of empire used by Wikipedia: 'An empire is a "political unit" made up of several territories and peoples, "usually created by conquest, and divided between a dominant center and subordinate peripheries'


Java is a pretty big island just saying.


what does and how do you measure its size, in a sense pertinent to this thread?


Britain? Sardinia?

Java is the world's most populous island, by the way, and was roughly as populated as England in the 1600's


Fine. How about New Spain? And the Philippines?


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