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Regular version of the site

Do All Crumbling Empires Behave the Same?

In his honorary lecture Twilight of an Empire, at the HSE April International Conference, Professor Guillermo Owen, Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, considers the case of the late Roman Empire - a once-powerful incumbent state which is beginning to lose its power - and compares it with examples nearer our own time. Professor Owen is a member of the Colombian Academy of Sciences, The Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences of Barcelona, and the Academy of Sciences of the Developing World. He is associate editor of the International Game Theory Review. In an interview with the HSE English News service Professor Owen made comparisons in a game theory approach to the behaviour of the late Roman Empire and the Soviet Empire of the 1980s and 1990s.

— Tell us a few words about your lecture ‘Twilight of an Empire’.

— This ‘Twilight of an Empire’ is part of a long series of lectures that we are doing. Eventually the attacks on the Empire became so strong that it just begins to lose some of its possessions. The domain is decreased, and as the domain decreases it becomes easier to defend it, and at the same time the Empire has become weaker since its forces are weaker. It has smaller domain, but it has fewer forces. And this causes something to continue in this way until eventually the Empire decides to retaliate and then it might be able to recover some of the lost land. And on the other hand we don’t know it, it depends on how strong the attacks are.

— Does your interest in history and in what might have happened in ancient times come from your research in game theory?

— I guess so. I’ve been looking at the Roman Empire for many years, and I saw how in the third century the Empire became weak, but thanks to Diocletian and Constantine at the end of the third – at the beginning of the fourth century the Empire regained most of what it had lost. In the fifth century it began to lose once again, it lost all of the British possessions early in the century, it lost a lot of possessions along the Rhine. And eventually you had the situation in which vandals came into Rome. And when the vandals came into Rome all that the empire was able to do was send the Pope to ask the vandals ‘please don’t kill anybody, take what you want’. But eventually the centre of empire is no longer in Rome, it’s in Byzantium, which was able to reconquer Italy and Northern Africa.

— Why did you choose the Roman Empire?

— I chose the Roman Empire because I know what happened in the Roman Empire. And it’s long enough in the past that we can look at it without fear of causing quarrels. I could just as easily have said: ‘Look at the Soviet Empire’. What happened to the Soviet Empire beginning around 1980? The provinces of the Soviet Empire began to act in a way that showed they wanted to be independent. First of all the Baltic countries, Poland and other European satellite states that broke off from the Soviet Empire. And then after that you had most of the Soviet socialist republics that broke off from the USSR, and Russia was left with only Belarus and maybe Kazakhstan, that were closely allied to Russia. Now at this point Russia is trying to recover some of its possessions, but I don’t want to get into that here, because frankly speaking I don’t want to talk too much about what’s happening in Russia to the Russian audience.

— What do you particularly like about the conference?

— I think the conference is very good, the organisers treat the speakers very well and the speeches and the presentations have all been quite interesting.  I think this conference’s value is that it allows several speakers to meet each other and also get to know some of the local people.

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