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Throughout history we've seen that governments which expanded far and wide all ended up today controlling just one area on the map. I was playing Civ 6 and realized it can be tough even in a simplified game environment to control territories far away from home. A popular story line in movies and games lately has been colonization of our solar system where the colonists break off and rebel against their original government. The very country I live in (USA) went through almost the same exact scenario except the distance was an ocean, not interplanetary travel.

What factors govern this phenomenon? Can civilizations overcome this barrier, or are they bound to this pattern indefinitely?

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There are two major factors that limit the ability of central government to exercise control:

  1. Speed of communication
  2. Frequency and dependability of travel

Fast and frequent travel makes it easy for central government to know what is going on in distant province, make quick adjustments to policy, or send troops, if necessary. Genghis Khan's empire owns its success to flat steppes and mounted riders. On the other hand, no one could keep unified rule over Southwest Asia or Western Europe for long time because rivers, forests and mountains did not allow for fast travel.

For the actual independence movement, there is a whole lot of other factors that may push parts of empire together, or apart, like:

  • Common language
  • Common religion (or secularism)
  • Citizen's rights
  • Lucrative trade or need to supply essential goods
  • Taxation
  • Ongoing war or threat of war from neighbors
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Alexander's answer is, IMHO, the best answer and should be upvoted and accepted. I am only adding to it.

That list of "other factors" he mentions is, as a whole, equally important when compared to communication and travel. For example, if a widespread society "trusts" or "has faith in" their government, then that government is stable pretty much by default. But, what makes this true (or not true)?

Law & Order

Not to rob Mr. Bellisario too much, but, "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: The police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders." Without those two groups (aka, the police and judicial prosecution) you don't have a government. At best you have a services provider (the guys who fill in the potholes).

We trust our government because it has sensible laws and a sensible way to add, remove, or modify those laws. We trust it because those laws are enforced in a reasonable and timely manner. We mistrust our government when laws are unbalanced or inadequate, or when enforcement is corrupt or undependable. The moment the majority believes they have no choice but to take the law and its enforcement into their own hands, there is no government.

Services that Benefit the Whole

Governments usually benefit us more than just by creating policy. Whether it be local governments providing roads and emergency services or national governments providing resources (usually money, but managing things like land, too), regulation, and centralization of knowledge and culture.

Common Defense

Finally, we trust our government because it provides defense for us in the form of a military.


Obviously, these are all to one degree or another dependent on communication and transportation. The simpler and less invasive the government, the less it must depend on C&T. However, people are people, so there will always be greed and lust for power.

  • Fleets would likely be required to have a diplomatic corps and a judicial corps to handle planetary issues not the least of which are appeals. The threat of force would be necessary to impose the order needed to permit these actions to occur. A triumvirate of power (lead judge, lead diplomat, fleet admiral) would more-or-less hold the checks and balances needed per-visit.

  • Planetary governors need to be kept in check. Ideally, no planet should be allowed to build a local defense that competes with the visiting fleet. Here is one of the most critical variables: if the time between visits is long enough to let the planets build fleets, well... that's a world of pain.

  • The fleets likely need regular visits either with the homeworld or with other fleets to ensure (as much as possible) their loyalty. The triumvirate should have some kind of ability to lock everything down if one thinks the others aren't playing by the rules... but a rogue fleet is a problem.

  • Finally, one of the best solutions is to export children from the planets to the governmental core for training in (ahem... cough...) civics. These become your loyal adherents that fill the middle-management positions that make a takeover fairly difficult. You want some of those kids to conscript into the fleet (possibly mandatory conscription, which wouldn't be a bad idea) to help instill the idea that the greater whole is more important than the local leadership. The U.S. military actually does this kind of thing, shipping enlistees to other states than their home states to, among other things, create a bit of separation between nation and state. When the military needs to step in for an emergency, it's common that people from other states are sent.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for considering the practicalities. Just a note: investigative police forces are a 19th century invention and public prosecutors are an Early Modern invention. States and governments managed without them for thousands of years, usually by delegating those functions to private individuals or to persons appointed on a case-by-case basis. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 22 '17 at 12:44
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP in Iceland for a while you could sell your right to prosecute someone for a crime committed against you. This is the best description I've found: daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Iceland/Iceland.html $\endgroup$ – Green Nov 22 '17 at 14:27
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One more significant factor to add to the already good answers here:

Bureaucratic technology

We think of bureaucracy as a bad thing because it means a lot of red tape and boring stuff we don't want to deal with, but in history, it is the invention of bureaucracy that allowed for the development of very large empires. The Chinese did it very well quite early, with a class of people dedicated to be civil servants by a government-oriented religion that reinforced the authority of the Emperor with "submission to authority" ideology. They were able to maintain a very large and very stable empire for a very long time.

Bureaucratic technology was key to ancient Rome's success, and in fact is likely a major reason Rome was able to maintain a large empire after the Greeks had failed to keep Alexander's empire (or it's parts) together. Romans were very good at standardizing things like measurements, communication protocols, weights, even the layout of towns. It wasn't just their extraordinary road system that facilitated communication and commerce, but a very carefully organized system of civil servants and delegated authority to local governors and cities, all meshing together in a bureaucratic apparatus.

After the end of the middle ages, technology had made armor outdated, but it took warfare a while to transform. Napoleon really forced the world to adapt to the new technological paradigm, but he did it not so much through his knack for tactics on the battlefield as much as his radical use of bureaucratic machinery to create the modern nation state. Napoleon realized that since muskets were cheap and simple to learn, and very hard to defend against, the new paradigm of warfare wasn't "who has the best army?" but "who can replace their expendable army the fastest?". He weaponized the huge mobs of starving French peasants by drafting them, throwing together massive armies faster than his enemies could organize. To do this, he turned France itself into a massive machine for churning out badly trained cannon fodder. That is where everything from the modern census to public education comes from: the Napoleonic paradigm of warfare seen most clearly in World War I. By the 20th century, bureaucracy was the most important weapon of war on the planet. WWII was won entirely on that basis.

So my three factors I would say are ABSOLUTELY critical to determining the possible expansion of an empire are:

  1. Speed of communication, as mentioned previously.
  2. Dependability of travel, again, as mentioned.
  3. Sophistication of bureaucratic systems.

The largest land empire in history was that of the Mongols, and it hinged entirely on the organized nature of the governing body, which was capable of coordinating effort across thousands of miles of territory. Loyalty of state agents, incorruptibility of functionaries, reliability of emissaries of the Imperium are all units of measurement for how well bureaucracy functions. In a case where travel requires years of time to cross vast distances in space, you need systems in place to ensure the long term loyalty of representatives of the state as well as the incorruptibility of your communications.

It is worth noting that the more efficient your bureaucratic apparatus, the more resistant to change your society becomes. This is because the entire point of bureaucracy is to guarantee rigid loyalty to the original intent of the central authorities. It has a natural dampening effect on innovation, change, and adaptation. This is why Rome declined, why China had multiple crises, periods of chaos, and eventually stagnated technologically until it was WAY behind the rest of the world, and why the USSR fell apart. The more territory you can control from one central point with one small group of people, the less room for independent thinking there is for everyone else. That's how you get left behind by the innovative, creative "barbarians" outside the imperium.

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