Today's world is highly interconnected and one person can speak with another person with no practical time lag.

But as the Roman Empire showed there is a breaking point. If it takes too much time for orders to arrive from the capital to the frontier, the country cannot sustain itself.

If we expect to conquer the space, we should expect the same problem to crop up again.

So what could be the maximum time for a communication to arrive from the center to the outreaches, so that the state can continue to function?

P.S. I take it that there should be a modifier, where a dictatorship would allow a larger time interval then a democracy.

I am basing this question on my understanding of the reason why the Roman Empire broke into 2 and/or 4 parts. To allow the ruler to govern effectively.

In an ideal world even communism would work. But I am not asking about an ideal world. So the time difference is important for feedback, in case the government has to decide on an issue - be it an invasion, plague, famine...

An issue becomes visible in a representative democracy, take the US presidential election, I think that the place removed by 3 months, could for all practical purposes not vote.

My point about democracy - dictatorship is that a single person can make an instant decision, while several people first have find consensus.

  • $\begingroup$ Or you know, we might manage to develop Ansibles in the future, which would enable lagless communications across space. $\endgroup$
    – Aify
    Apr 9, 2016 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ The larger problem with Rome was that it stopped letting soldiers retire near Rome. Instead, soldiers had to retire in the provinces to be awarded land. As a result, there were neither veterans nor sons of military families to recruit near Rome. So when barbarians carved their way through the provinces to get to Rome, Rome had nothing left to repel them. If Rome had pushed the nobles into the provinces and kept the soldiers close, it might be standing today. $\endgroup$
    – Brythan
    Apr 9, 2016 at 4:11
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    $\begingroup$ I think it's really quite arguable that long communication times had very little, if anything, to do with the fall of the western Roman Empire. (Remember that the eastern Empire lasted about another thousand years!) It was quite close to its maximum extent by the 2nd century (Hadrian's wall dates from 122 CE), and operated successfully for several more centuries. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Apr 9, 2016 at 4:12
  • $\begingroup$ I am not saying the lag led to the fall, but I was under the impression, that it was the main reason for the establishment of the Tetrarchy, and the West-East divide. $\endgroup$ Apr 9, 2016 at 11:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Martin Handrlica: Sure, but that sort of distributed government is a way of dealing with time lags. As with the British Empire, local officials have more authority and aren't expected to wait for decisions from the capital. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Apr 9, 2016 at 17:25

2 Answers 2


Time and distance isn't really an issue depending on how the civilization is organized. During the age of sail, the British Empire spanned the globe with ships taking six months to a year to travel between the British Isles and ports in the Americas, India, Africa or Australia. It took equally long for ships to return with reports and requests from ships captains, governors and traders, so you could be receiving messages about once a year.

The method here was to ensure that people with responsibility were well educated and trained and capable of acting as autonomous agents. Since Whitehall, the Horse Guards or Admiralty House wasn't going to be able to intervene in any timely or effective manner, Government and military officials were given a fairly large latitude, and expected to use their education and experience to carry out policy and get results.

Similarly, most of the merchants who carried out operations around the world (the East India Company, the Company of Adventurers (Hudson's Bay Company), Royal Africa company etc.) were equally expected and capable of operating on a very long and loose leash, so long as they continued to deliver results.

The British Empire grew to global size starting in the reign of Elizabeth I, so they had centuries to experiment and refine their operations, with events like the Seven Years War and the Napoleonic Wars providing the fire to forge the effective system which continued to operate until the close of the Second World War and the dissolution of the Empire (which was more due to national economic and political exhaustion rather than anything to do with communications lags).

  • $\begingroup$ So centralization-decentralization also plays a role, I am sensing a equation here. $\endgroup$ Apr 9, 2016 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ "you could be receiving messages about once a year" Or you could have multiple ships en route simultaneously, a situation which we know of even in modern network engineering where delay and throughput are disparate (effectively forming two axis in a coordinate system describing performance). $\endgroup$
    – user
    Apr 9, 2016 at 16:38

You actually have it backwards. Dictators need tighter latencies in their communication than democracies do.

The fundamental balance which affects the maximum time lag that is acceptable is the balance between coherence and conformance. Coherence lets the outer regions of an empire operate in the empire's interests, despite the time lag, because their desires coincide with the desires of the empire. Conformance allows a powerful central government to force outer regions to conform to the central desires. This approach is much more sensitive to time lag, because time lag makes it easier to cover up what happened and allows rebellious behavior to fester more before being covered up.

Every government relies on a balance of these approaches. Much of what makes America work is the shared attitude that America is great, and a desire to continue making America great (those who argue America is, in fact in decline, typically note a lack of such shared attitudes). However, America still has its laws and its police (and its military). A dictator will typically rely much more on laws and police and other tools which permit centralized enforced conformance, although there's plenty to suggest much of Hitler's success was due to his ability to inspire nationalism. Meanwhile a student government is typically given very little power to enforce conformance, so we find they typically rely on the coherence side of things.

In theory, if a nation-state which relied entirely upon coherence could take form, the acceptable time-lag could be infinite. On the other hand, if a nation-state is completely dependent on having a gun to the head of every citizen, or they will defect, the time lags they can accept may be measured in seconds.

  • $\begingroup$ For a practical example of shared attitudes, consider the admission of California to the US in 1850, despite a communication delay of perhaps months between California and the East Coast. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Apr 10, 2016 at 18:38

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