The Fall Of Empires

thomas-cole-08As people who know me are aware, and as I said in a previous piece, I am something of a geek.

As such, I recently purchased the PC game Total War: Rome II after writing a gushing, glowing review of the Total War series in the magazine Smoke & Mirrors.

There’s something cool about the era in which the game is set, something cool about the whole Roman Empire thing.

The Rome we know from the movies, and countless books, was the greatest superpower of its era, an unchallengeable force which so dominated its time that it is said one of its citizens could travel anywhere in the known world free from harm, protected by the talismanic phrase “Civus Romanus Sum” – I am a citizen of Rome.

There’s an episode of the West Wing where that very analogy is used by the President, Josiah Bartlett, in response to a terrorist incident. He is angry, and draws on the idea to emphasise his point, which is that US citizens should be thus protected, and that the wrath of his country should be brought to bear on all those who don’t respect the notion.

The terrorist event in question was the shooting down of a US transport plane. The country which carried out the attack was Syria. The President wants to lash out in his rage. He is calmed by his senior military aid, who presents him with a plan for the kind of retaliation his anger demands, in an effort to confront him with the horror of what he’s suggesting, and by his chief of staff, who reminds him that it is the duty of a superpower to act reasonably, and responsibly, even when provoked. Bartlett is a good man, and he takes more measured action.

The West Wing is my kind of show, a bit of a liberal fantasy, to be blunt, but the chief of staff Leo McGarry was wrong to call the United States the “last remaining superpower.” In the real world, the United States, which is contemplating its own Syrian strike, is more than that. The US is now better described as a hyperpower. It is, today, what Rome once was, with undisputed supremacy on the planet, so far above the rest that no challenge to its status can even be imagined.

The rise of the United States, to that position of prominence, has come about because the power that once challenged it – the Soviet Union – no longer exists. That vast empire came to an end with the collapse of Communism in the late 80’s, with the nation itself finally vanishing altogether in 1991. The Soviet Union is no more.

The Soviet Union died.

You’re beginning to get the gist of this now, yes?

Jim Spence has caused a bit of a flap over the last week, with his comments about Rangers. It’s reignited the fierce debate over the status of the NewCo, and I won’t bore anyone going back over the old ground. I am convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Rangers Football Club died. I am convinced by the reading of company law, UEFA and FIFA statutes, by the words uttered by dozens at the time – including current majority shareholder in the NewCo Charles Chuckles Green himself and Jim Traynor, the new club’s director of communications.

I am convinced, finally, by doing something which some might regard as cheating. I simply applied common sense to the matter.

You see, twenty years on from the collapse of what Reagan called The Evil Empire, another seemingly indomitable power tottered and fell into ruin, and death, even as a man called Regan sought to prevent it.

Rangers died. The newspapers carried front page pictures of coffins being lowered into the ground. FIFA published a death notice. Former players lined up to say farewell, and to express their regret. Celtic fans partied with jelly and ice cream.

This tumultuous and historic event, like the collapse of the Soviet Union, altered the landscape completely. Scottish football no longer has two superpowers. It has one power – a hyperpower – called Celtic.

If you’ve stuck with this article up until now, stick with it a little longer. I need to elaborate on this theme a wee bit, as I’ve been thinking about this for a while now.

Empires fall. It has happened throughout recorded history, and even the hyperpowers have not been immune to the winds of change. Rome was the first hyperpower, but there have been others, including the British Empire. They get complacent. They get hedonistic. They become corrupt, and the corruption eats them from the inside

For a time, Rangers was a hyperpower. The years 1989 – 1997 will live with some of us forever. Those were the years when Scottish football was last ruled by one club. They achieved their nine-in-a-row in that time, the greatest period of success in their history. At the height of their success they claimed they could field two different sides in the same week, one team for Europe and another for domestic games, and it didn’t seem to matter to them (or the media) that the European team was routinely stuffed when on its travels. They were proud of it, in the way the Romans once built archways and memorials to the glory of its generals.

Some of those generals, of course, grew so powerful that they overthrew the emperors and took over the running of the state. Yet that didn’t matter. Only the glory of Rome did. The plebs were encouraged not to concern themselves with minor matters such as who sat on the throne. It was the same when David Murray handed the club over to Craig Whyte, and the media would have you believe that it makes no difference who sits at the top table now, whether it’s Paul Murray, the Easdale’s or someone else, as long as Ally gets promised a “transfer war chest.”

Such blindness inevitably leads to disaster. Murray was a criminally reckless leader, and that he handed the club over to a charlatan like Whyte is the final proof of that, but some of us saw it before then. Yet were it not for a pliant media and a support which was focussed on nothing but the glory, and didn’t particularly care how it was obtained, or at what cost, Whyte would never have been able to take, let alone keep, control for as long as it took to sink everything.

Thus too fell the first of the great Roman power structures, the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which began with the rise of Caesar. His assassination ushered in the triumphant reign of Augustus, but things collapsed from that point onward into treachery, madness and murder, culminating in the reign of Nero. He was the one some claim fiddled whilst Rome burned, and whilst the empirical proof of that is lacking, what’s known for sure is that he built himself a vast palace on the hundreds of acres of land the fire destroyed. The parallels with certain “leaders” at Ibrox is obvious.

Hubris, ego, arrogance and short-sightedness bring down empires. It’s an historical fact.

Empires also crash when the money runs out. This is how Reagan and his administration won the Cold War. It wasn’t done with bullets, or bombs. It was done using the national credit card. It was done on the day Reagan returned from Cheyenne Mountain, where he’d been visiting NORAD, and called on America’s scientific community to come up with something that could bring down a nuclear missile. Star Wars was the result, and it forced the Soviet’s to spend money on a new generation of rockets, and it bankrupt the country in the process.

Martin O’Neill took the manager’s job at Celtic Park at a time when Rangers were still locked into the fantasy that they were a force to be reckoned with in Europe. They’d spent big, and O’Neill knew what all rational people did, that the well was not bottomless, that the money had to run out.

He also knew that in order to compete with Rangers, Celtic would need to spend, but with 10,000 extra seats at Celtic Park, he knew we had an inbuilt advantage, and one that would eventually prove to be extremely significant.

He asked for the resources, and he was given what he needed. He spent wisely, for the most part, and that made all the difference. I won’t say he had Reagan and Star Wars in mind, but O’Neill is an avid reader, and strategist, and I do believe on some level he understood that if he could overtake Rangers, and rub their faces in it, that it would lead to reckless action on the part of Murray and his club.

After all, the vainglorious pursuit of European baubles was motivated by a desire to achieve what Stein had in Lisbon, and the failed quest for ten-in-a-row was a colossally funded effort to  beat what our club had done.

Knowing all of this, O’Neill had the measure of Murray from Day 1.

And so he baited the hook, and he cast it into the water. His success had just the effect on the Rangers chairman that he’d been hoping for.

Rangers over-extended. They spent crazy money, but they didn’t have crazy money. Having maxed out their own credit card, they decided to use money that should have gone to the public purse. Forget all notions that the EBT scheme “conferred no sporting advantage.” The man who wrote that must have been wholly ignorant of David Murray’s own admission that they were able to sign players they otherwise couldn’t have afforded. It was cheating, pure and simple, but those actions contained the seeds of their later downfall, as those inside Celtic Park, with an understanding of the historical perspective, might well have guessed that they would.

Empires fall. History is littered with their corpses. There were brief attempts to revive the Roman Empire, under various guises, after its collapse in the 3rd Century, most notably under Barbarossa and then Charlemagne, in the form of the Holy Roman Empire, but these were pale imitations of the real thing. Equally, there were efforts made to resurrect the old Soviet Union, most notably with the swiftly mothballed Commonwealth of Independent States. None of them lasted either.

In the end, what’s dead is lost and gone forever. Nothing can bring it back. Flying the hammer and sickle does not restore the old union any more than first Mussolini and then Hitler revived the old Roman Empire by adopting the fascist salute and the eagle standard. These things are but symbols, like five stars on a blue jersey. They are separate from the history, which ends with the death of the empire, which is why neither Barbarossa, nor the Austrian with the funny moustache, ever ludicrously claimed to be a direct continuation of the line of Augustus.

When the Soviet Republics broke up, they adopted new constitution’s, new systems of government, even new flags. They didn’t make any effort to wrap themselves in the cerements of the grave, to assume the identity of the country which had died. When the Roman Empire split into Western and Eastern entities in the 3rd century neither one maintained the flags and standards of what had come before. They didn’t kid themselves that they were the same.

Superpowers collapse because of irrational decisions taken by desperate men betting everything on the last throw of the dice. Those who eventually pick up the pieces do so when they eschew the circumstances and mind-sets which caused all the trouble in the first place. You cannot build something new when part of you is still clinging to the past. The Western and Eastern parts of the Roman Empire were designed to keep control of a situation which had long since outgrown it, but it wasn’t a convincing facade, and before long there were barbarians at the gates.

The Commonwealth of Independent States collapsed under its own irrelevance, with its authors knowing full well they’d failed before the job had even started.

NewCo Rangers was built to look like the old one, with its creators knowing, like Frankenstein waking the monster, that what they’d brought to life was actually a zombie. That didn’t matter. It suits them that, for a while at least, the fiction can be maintained. The very sickness that lived in, and consumed, the Oldco is thriving in the new club, because it was ported over, whole, to keep the illusion alive. The arrogance and ego, the notion that they are a superpower still, has given them a temporary lease of life, like a shot of adrenaline, but it will not last.

Sooner or later, the host will exhaust itself, and the NewCo will go the way of the old. It is inevitable when a reversal of fortune does not result in real change.

As much as I admire Rome, and all that goes with it, I’ve also maintained a lifelong fascination with Greek mythology, from which much of the great art of our age flows. One of the greatest works of literature of all time, Dante’s Inferno, infuses Greek mythology with Romanic ideas, to create a staggering, and illuminating, work that everyone ought to read once in their life.

In the Inferno, the pilgrim wanders through the Nine Circles of Hell. To enter that dark place, he first has to take a boat ride across a river called the Acheron, which Greek mythology called the River of Pain. The Roman poet Virgil wrote of it that it was the place where the newly dead were ferried across to the Underworld.

Instead of acknowledging that journey, Rangers fans would rather pretend it never happened. We can wave the boarding pass in their faces until we exhaust our own patience, but they prefer to maintain the fantasy that they are still clinging to life.

Dante’s pilgrim faints on the journey, so he cannot remember enough to recount it in his tale, but he is quite clear on the nature of those who inhabit the dark land beyond the river, regardless of which of the Nine Circles they end up in. For all of Hell’s prisoners, no matter their iniquities, have one thing in common. They are those who refuse to repentant, who continue making excuses for the sins they committed in life.

Once more, I take it the parallels speak for themselves.

Yes, empires fall, and in the end most fall because they deserve to. The Roman Empire spanned the globe, and contributed much that was wonderful in the world. As you’ve probably gathered, I’m a huge fan. Yet the “greatness of Rome” was built on the subjugation of others, on blood and war, and its citizens lived the high life on the backs of millions of slaves, and conquered peoples. That’s what makes it such fun to play as them in the Creative Assembly’s wonderful games.

Likewise the Soviet state was built on fear, and run on fear, until the day the walls came crashing down. It’s satellite states in Eastern Europe, created in its own image, fell the same way.

Some will argue that the American hyperpower has been built on similar foundations, and whilst I have a certain sympathy with that view I don’t accept it in its entirety. Likewise, the Celtic hyperpower may not get everything right, but it plays by the rules and does nothing that is openly, blatantly, wrong. Perhaps its leaders have learned something from history.

In the meantime, over at Ibrox, as they spin from one disaster to another, as boardroom battles hot up, as the fans fail, again, to hold their own leaders to account and once more turn the guns on those outside the club, this time in the form of Jim Spence, I wonder just who in their right mind would actually want to inherit this shambles, or take over and try to run this ungodly basket case of an institution, cobbled together from the broken bits of a dead one.

On his way into the Inferno, Dante’s pilgrim has to pass through a vast iron gate, on which is inscribed a message, a warning really, of which the last line is the most famous. If those running the new club ever get tired of trying to maintain the fiction that Rangers Football Club Ltd is still alive and well, they could do worse than to give notice to their successors, by removing those words from their own iron gates, and inscribing instead those Dante reads on his way in to Hades.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.

Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.

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James Forrest

James Forrest is a writer and blogger from Glasgow, and the author of two books, Fragments and Believers, which are available on Amazon.

8 thoughts on “The Fall Of Empires

  • 11 September, 2013 at 11:13 am

    Another magnificent read !

  • 11 September, 2013 at 11:45 am

    i posted this response earlier on the page that updated the ” jim spence” quote which basically referred to the fact of the Old-co 1872 edmunster drive club was liquidated in may of 2012 ” —- ( how often do you require to tell a person who,s hair line is visibly receding , that they are going bald?????))—- what part of being liquidated does the combo of 1872&2012 chaps not understand ? also how many Newco fans would like to tell former woolworths staff that their ex-employers were not liquidated and their jobs are still live , only waitng for the former staff to turn up as normal ?? yip , that won,t happen because everyone and their granny know and accept the “FACTS” that both of those “companies ” evaporated , liquidised , went bust, finito , and so on , none so blind as those who will not see ?

  • 11 September, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    Excellent read and nothing in there any reasonable person could disagree with. As a fellow “Wingnut” I particularly like your summary of President Bartlett’s positioning over Syria. Apt that the episode concerned is titled ‘A Proportionate Response’, when the Sevconia reaction to the Jim Spence remark (can we call it Spencegate yet?) has been anything but proportionate.

    A couple of other West Wing titles pop into my head just thinking about Rangers, Sevco saga : ‘Post Hoc Ergo Proctor Hoc’ (but, therefore, because of it) which could be applied to the whole mess and fate which befell them, Somebody’s Going to Emergency; Somebody’s Going to Jail”, ‘Lies, Damned Lies & Statistics’ or perhaps most appropriate ‘The Fall’s Gonna Kill You”.

    I doubt even Toby Ziegler as Director of Communications could spin anything positively coming out of Ibrox these days. But then again they do have Jim Traynor, so why worry.

  • 11 September, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Great response, and a lot of great West Wing moments there.

    I was always a Josh fan, but Toby has grown on me more and more over the years. There’s a particularly funny, and appropirate, Toby moment when the staff is arguing about the Millenium. Toby disagrees that 2000 is the start of a new millenium, that in fact the world should only celebrate it in 2001. His very scientific method? “I looked at a calender …”

    Common sense wins for me every time. You apply Toby’s logical thinking to the Rangers situation and you see a dead club and a successor club. Two seperate entities.

    But common sense is an alien concept to people who prefer to live in ignorance. But shame on the Scottish press for not standing up for Spence.

  • 11 September, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Excellent post as per usual.

  • 11 September, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    A really good article my friend, I also loved the “how often do you need to tell a person who’s hairline is visibly receding that he’s going bald??? from Gerard Reilly in his comment, thanks for brightening up a gloomy afternoon!

  • 12 September, 2013 at 2:20 am

    Excellent read James,,,

  • 17 September, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    3 simple facts that should make the zombies understand that they died.
    1) McGregor, Naismith, Lafferty (strangely enough the 3 biggest rangers fans who couldn’t wait to leave) and all the other rats left the sinking ship for nothing and signed for other clubs. If it was the same club the players contracts would have kept them at ibrox and UEFA would never have allowed them to register elsewhere.
    2) sevco are not eligible to play in European competitions until they have 3 years audited accounts – UEFA classes them as a new club, hence the need for 3 years audited accounts.
    3) sevco had to start life in the Scottish 3rd division – they weren’t relegated from the SPL and the SPL has no mechanism to remove teams from the league except by relegation.
    Why there is any dubiety about this is beyond me – the only reasoning I can see is that the media need sevco fans to continue to buy / listen / watch their product and are scared of upsetting them. It took the BBC a while to back Jim Spence, which proves the point. Therefore, the media are continuing to play the pretend game to keep sevco fans loyal to their product.
    I thought we’d hear a few more media people backing Jim Spence, but it’s obvious they are all too scared.

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