The Life-Spans of Empires

I recently published my first history article. Titled The Life-Spans of Empires, it’s published in the delightfully-named journal Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History. Using a fun dataset I unearthed from some articles in the Nineteen Seventies, I explore the lifespans of empires, and their similarities to other complex systems:

The collapse of empires is exceedingly difficult to understand. The author examined the distribution of imperial lifetimes using a data set that spans more than three millennia and found that it conforms to a memoryless exponential distribution in which the rate of collapse of an empire is independent of its age. Comparing this distribution to similar lifetime distributions of other complex systems—specifically, biological species and corporate firms—the author explores the reasons behind their lifetime distributions and how this approach can yield insights into empires.

This mathematical approach is part of a growing field of cliodynamics, a term coined by scientist Peter Turchin to describe the use of quantitative rigor in understanding history (there’s a new journal too of the same name). I look forward to more analyses that explore the long sweep of time using math.

Samuel Arbesman (2011). The Life-Spans of Empires Historical Methods, 44 (3), 127-129 : 10.1080/01615440.2011.577733

4 Responses to “The Life-Spans of Empires”

  1. gwern August 22, 2011 at 4:02 pm Permalink is a broken link (in “Samuel Arbesman (2011). The Life-Spans of Empires Historical Methods, 44 (3), 127-129 : 10.1080/01615440.2011.577733”).

    Also, no PDF links? Aww. In any event, there’s more discussion at


  1. Around the Web – August 3rd, 2011 | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine - August 3, 2011

    […] The Life-Spans of Empires. I’ll be talking about this paper soon. […]

  2. The fall of empires as an exponential distribution | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine - August 4, 2011

    […] Arbesman’s new paper, The Life-Spans of Empires, by the fact that he pointed to his research on his weblog. Interestingly I’m not the only one who was interested, as after I pointed to it on my link […]


    […] Razib Khan, writing at the Discover Magazine last year, called attention to a paper, by Samuel Arbesman, entitled The Life-Spans of Empires, that established the mean length of an Empire to be in 220 […]