Sayonara to German, Spanish and Italian Civilization

David Munro, Consulting Market Strategist for OANDA Asia Pacific

To win a war, one first needs warriors. Granted, in modern warfare unmanned (but manually operated) drones reduce the need for front line warriors, but during the times of the ancients, wars were won and distant lands conquered with armies of men. At the time of Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, the Greek empire stretched from modern day Albania in the West to Egypt in the south; from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean through Turkey, Iran and Iraq, as far as Pakistan in the East and up through the rugged terrain of Afghanistan to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the North. It was indeed a vast empire and many able bodies were available to maintain the domination.

But all empires eventually meet their demise. It happened in ancient Egypt, then Greece and finally ancient Rome. The global influence of contemporary Japan and Russia are now in the early stages of decline. Europe’s diminution comes next, followed closely by disappearance of South Korea and then the marginalization of China 25 years down the road. The eventual demise of the US is less certain as they have cleverly found a way to keep extinction at bay and may be able to continue this evasive action for decades to come. Over the next 30 years, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent have the potential to form a dominant empire (if they can escape the commodity curse and resolve a few governance issues) and as the 22nd century draws near, Africa may reign supreme.

Pretentiousness, Avarice and Indolence

Hidden in the ancient libraries of Byzantium (renamed Constantinople in 340 AD and Istanbul in 1930) are the remnants of a forty-volume opus written by Polybius about 150 years BC. The Histories of Polybius focus on the 53 year period from 220 to 167 BC when Rome displaced Greece as the dominant world power.

Greek power and influence peaked in the Classical period from 500 to 323 BC. The Temple of Poseidon and the Parthenon were both constructed around 440 BC. Alexander the Great, King of the State of Macedon in Northern Greece, built his empire 100 years later. But a process was then set in motion that would weaken the empire just as the foundations of Rome were solidifying. Polybius, in Book XXXVI, Section V, gives us his take on the decline of Greece – fewer babies.

“In our own time the whole of Greece has been subject to a low birth-rate and a general decrease of the population, owing to which cities have become deserted and the land has ceased to yield fruit, although there have neither been continuous wars nor epidemics.”

“…men had fallen into such a state of pretentiousness, avarice, and indolence that they did not wish to marry, or if they married [did not wish] to rear the children born to them, or at most as a rule but one or two of them…”

Civilizations thrive when cities gain critical mass and enable the development of institutions that enrich the lives of their inhabitants. Good governance, efficient services, institutes of higher education, a fair judiciary, and a thriving arts and social environment make city life energized and interesting. Unfortunately, the city residents become so engaged in commerce and self fulfilment that they neglect to reproduce. Fewer babies are born. Polybius ascribes this population reversal to “pretentiousness, avarice and indolence.” Whatever the cause, the armies of the future become starved of troops, and the empire is left defenceless.

The Seeds of Greek Demise

In the 6th century BC, the Greeks of Thera (modern-day Santorini) sailed due south and founded the city of Cyrene on the northern tip of Africa. They came across a local herb – Siliphium – that had both aphrodisiac and pregnancy-preventing properties (hold your excitement – it’s extinct). The seed of the Silphium plant, as depicted on Cyrenian coinage below, was most likely the template for our contemporary image of a human heart.  According to an account by Allan Bellows, “the seeds …came into such high demand that they were eventually worth their weight in silver. The Roman government went so far as to store a cache of the herb in the official treasury.”

Whether the decline of Greek civilization resulted from an overabundance of philosophical introspection, excessive lyre and wooden flute playing or overzealous wrestling and discus throwing, decline it did. Too many hedonistic diversions and the lack of a reproductive desire (aided by Silphium) depleted the ranks. Greek civilization simply depopulated. The Romans, with greater manpower, built the next empire.


Roman Hot baths

…until they also got their hands on the Silphium plant. It seems that during the time of Silphium abundance, and well before its extinction in the first century AD, “Rome’s birth rate decreased considerably despite increasing life expectancy, plentiful food, and relatively few wars or epidemics.”

In 18 BC the ruler Augustus, in an attempt to raise the birth rate, passed a law “penalizing the unmarried and the childless.” Twenty seven years later, with little visible success from the first law, the Papia Poppaea law tried to prevent celibacy and adultery in an attempt to strengthen the institution of marriage.

Many theories have been advanced to explain the decay of the Roman Empire. S.C. Gilfillian’s paper Roman Culture and Dysgenic Lead Poisoning suggests that lead poisoning of wives and mistresses through the introduction of lead-infused wine and Greek cookery produced “sterility, miscarriage, stillbirth, heavy child mortality and permanent mental impairment in the children.”

Others referenced the “common practice among noble males of trying to marry heiresses who were the sole children of their families and therefore likely to demonstrate low fertility in their turn.” Natural deselection if you wish.

By far the most entertaining explanation of the inability to liberally reproduce Roman babies is A.M. Devine’s contention that progressive testicular damage occurs by repeated immersion in excessive heat. Pliny the Elder wrote that that there were 170 baths in Rome in the year 33 B.C., and most Roman men bathed at least daily. The routine went as such:  “entering the tepidarium [the Roman] would sweat for a while with his clothes on. He would then undress in the apodyterium and be anointed with oil. After this he would sweat profusely in the caldarium and even more profusely in the laconicum. He would end his bath with a cold plunge in the frigidarium.” One would guess that these repeated heat immersions left the spermatozoa with more burn-out than a credit trader in 2007.

Whatever the reasons; hedonism, contraceptive herbs, lead poisoning or excessive heat, fewer babies were born, troops were once again depleted, and the Roman Empire fell into decay.

The Second Attempt at the Third French Empire

Napoleon was crowned Emperor in 1804 and the Napoleonic Wars gave France much influence over Germany, Italy Spain and Poland. Nepotism has always been a valuable tool in empire-building and many of Napoleon’s relatives found themselves warming the thrones of European nations. The Battle of waterloo ended the First French Empire in 1815.

The Second French Empire spanned the period from 1852 to 1870 under the regime of Napolean III. But life in Paris was too good, fertility rates began to decline rapidly and, like Greece and Rome a couple of millennia ago, France soon found their armies depleted and the Prussians sent them packing. Jacques Chirac made a feeble and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to establish the Third French Empire.

Thanks to immigration and a sustainable fertility rate of slightly more than two babies per woman, France should be able to maintain their population and an inventory of youthful warriors (who we’ll define as 15 to 35 year olds) well into the next century. In fact they are the only continental European nation of size that will be able to accomplish this feat based on current fertility rates.

Plan for the Next Century

While the combined warrior ranks of Germany, Italy and Spain now outnumber those of France by 43 million to 16 million, the advantage will reverse by the year 2100. If current fertility rates are maintained (France 2.01, Italy 1.42, Germany 1.39 and Spain 1.35) the declining exponential nature of reproduction will ensure that France wins the race:  16.1 million warriors to a mere 13.7 million for the other three combined.  Think what Napoleon would have done with those numbers.

A century is a long time, especially in the age of high-speed trading, but if a country really wants to preserve its heritage, its land and its future, it must put a serious effort into finding ways to encourage higher rates of fertility and attract productive immigrants. Both feats will probably require a good deal of socialism to enact but that may not be a bad thing. The right wing tends to do a better job of allocating capital than the left, but in affairs of the heart or family it appears that capitalists, left to their own devices, might eventually become extinct.

The Egyptians were once a great empire and culture. While the reason for their downfall is uncertain, their conquest by a succession of foreigners may have been catalyzed by a life of hubris and infertility that resulted in a depleted and lazy youth. Ancient Greeks, the overlords of Egypt stopped having babies and found themselves living under Roman rule. And of course the Romans lounged in hot baths and saw both their empire and reproductive capabilities slowly decay. Over the long run the only ways to secure the future of your country are through babies and immigration. If your fertility rate is below two, time to turn on the incentive tap. No financial cost should be considered too great, unless colonization sounds attractive to you.


Map of Greek Empire

The Histories of Polybius, Book XXXVI, Part 5, The Macedonian War*.html

More on the Histories of Polybius

The Birth Control of Yesteryear, Article #304 by Alan Bellows (The Silphium plant)

The Lost Panacea of Silphium

Egypt: The End of A Civilization, by Dr Aidan Dodson

Fall of Egyptian Civilization, by Farhan R in History, 12 March 2009

The Fall of Ancient Greece

Map of Roman Empire

First French Empires:

Second French Empire

Third French Empire:

Roman Culture and Dysgenic Lead Poisoning, by S.C. Gilfillan

Lex Papia Poppaea

The Low Birth-Rate in Ancient Rome: A Possible Contributing factor              

German Births: Statistisches Bundesamt Deutscheland

French Births: INSEE  (Institut national de la statistique et des etudes economiques)

Spanish Births: Instituto Nacional de Estadistica

Italian Births: ISTAT (L’Instituto nazionale di statistica)

Poslish Births: Central Statistics Office of Poland



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