Book Reviews

The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation

Victor Davis Hanson

Basic Books, 2024, 329pp

“The fate of the Thebans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, and Aztecs reminds us that what “cannot possibly happen” can indeed on occasion occur – when war unleashes timeless human passions, and escalation rather than reduction in violence, becomes the rule of the conflict. In this regard, we should remind ourselves that we really do not know the boundaries of or the limitations to what may follow from a dispute in Ukraine, or a standoff over Taiwan, or strikes on nuclear facilities in Iran.” [287]

In Context

Throughout history, civilisations rise and fall. Their stories are usually stories of long ascensions and then slow declines. But some civilisations end by annihilation at the hands of a rival civilisation. These are stories of civilisations that, quite literally, are wiped from the face of the earth in a genocidal frenzy at the hands of superior enemies, or at least enemies who, by skill, size, or fortune get the upper hand in an existential showdown. The annihilations of the ancient Greek city of Thebes by the Macedonians commanded by Alexander the Great, of Carthage by the Romans, the Christian Byzantine Empire by the Muslim Ottomans, and the Aztecs by the Spanish were, at least from the point of view of the vanquished, the end of everything.

But how do civilisations become so vulnerable to annihilation? What mistakes do they make in the great existential showdown? What are the signs that a civilization is so vulnerable? And what can the West learn from all of this as we face an uncertain future? These are the questions that arise in The End of Everything.

Big Ideas

  • The end of a civilisation is often unexpected, even up to the eve of annihilation
  • Civilisations that count on friends fighting for them will likely be disappointed
  • Internal weakening often precedes civilizational annihilation, in particular, a loss of spirit and social unity
  • Western civilization displays some of the signs of a weakened civilization open to destruction, especially loss of self-confidence, even self-contempt
  • Even if the decline of any civilisation is ultimately inevitable, it is not inevitable that it will happen at any particular time: civilisations can act to avoid their demise

Behold, the Vanquished

Thebes was one of the largest and most important of the c.1500 Greek city-states (poleis) during the fourth century BC. Notwithstanding its glory, it was notorious for its merciless cruelty against enemies. When it resisted Alexander the Great’s takeover of Greece in 335BC, already mostly mostly accomplished by his father, Phillip the Great, it found itself besieged by the formidable Macedonian army commanded by possibly the greatest military general in history. Thebes had its own unique Greek culture and government, and this was all wiped away with the Macedonian victory, which resulted in the merciless slaughter of surviving men and the enslavement of women and children. The Thebans were defeated in a single, bloody day, “erased from history” [28], well, from the earth. Both “the material “Thebes,” and the idea of ethnically, linguistically, and politically distinct “Thebans” living there, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist.” [29]

Carthage, supposedly founded in 814BC by the Phonecian queen Dido, bears the tragic status as being the first victim of genocide in recorded, secular history. [64] Having said that, Carthage was a civilisation whose practices many at the time, let alone today, would grieve the eradication of. Even among the Greeks and Romans, not noted for their adherence to human rights, Carthage was a symbol of barbarism, with its religion of human sacrifice on the fiery altar of Molech. [122] If Carthage was the first victim of genocide, Carthage itself was guilty of a continuing holocaust against its own people, its children in particular. Carthage was also an ancient wealthy, superpower, even something of a constitutional republic – the anti-Rome – who had proven to be a genuine threat to the Romans, even though it lost the First and Second Punic wars with the Romans. It is no wonder that Senator Cato came to end every speech he gave, no matter the topic, with the words Carthago delanda est: Carthage must be destroyed. After a three-year siege, Carthage was obliterated in 146BC.

Byzantine civilization, or Christian civilization in the Eastern Roman Empire, was Hellenised and developed a distinct culture from the Latin West. From the seventh century onwards it had a perpetual enemy in its yard: Islam. From AD330 the capital of the Roman Empire was Constantinople, which remained the most important and well-fortified city of the Byzantine Empire until its capture by the Ottoman Muslims in 1453. Constantine was “to the ancient world what London was to the early nineteenth century, or New York to the twentieth century in terms of wealth, population, and influence.” [138] What could it have become? Today Istanbul (its official name since 1923) is Europe’s largest city with 16 million (Muslim) residents. In 1453 the Ottomans under the command of Mehmet II fell. Those who did not flee were either slaughtered or placed in perpetual dhimmitude.

The Aztecs were the greatest civilization of Mesoamerica. When the Spanish arrived they were awed by its massive city Tenochtitlan and compared it to Venice. And yet their awe soon turned to horror when the religion of the Aztecs, with its ghastly human sacrifice and cannibalism, was revealed and weaponized against them. The Spanish Conquistadors – soldiers of fortune – led by Hernan Cortes waged a war against the Aztecs from 1519-1521. With their Spanish steel, the Conquistadors slaughtered Aztecs in the hundreds of thousands, while the Aztecs captured as many Spanish as they could to sacrifice to their gods in a desperate attempt to turn the tide. There has not been a political annihilation like the Aztecs, and then the Incas since. [263]

The fatal flaws of civilisations

The Thebans had been recently defeated by Phillip the Great and his then seventeen-year-old son Alexander at the Battle of Caeronea of 338BC. The Thebans arrogantly attributed their defeat to “chance, bad luck, and the untimely deaths or blunders of their own commanders.” [19] By not facing up to the reality of their own inferiority, notwithstanding their military power, the Thebans vastly underestimated their own weakness and the strength of their enemies.

Fatefully, in 480BC during the Greco-Persian wars of the previous century, Thebes sided with the Persians against the Greeks, an act of treachery that the Greeks never forgot and, to the detriment of Thebes, never forgave. [39] Thus Thebes found itself without sufficient help when its time of existential crisis came. In the case of Byzantium, Western Christians were too disunited to come to Constantinople’s aid. Tragically, “it would not have taken too many more Western Europeans to save the city.” [165] The fall of Byzantium was far from inevitable. As Hanson says, “First, so often their supposed “friends” or allies either joined in the destruction or carefully kept quiet at a safe distance. [271] And second, on the eve of the invasion, the defenders were often internally squabbling and fractious, and never could really unite in the face of a common enemy.” [43]

Common was the mistake of enraging the enemy into greater resolve for victory in attempts to frighten and demoralize them. Thus, the Carthaginians merely ensured that their defeat would be cruel and merciless when they grotesquely tortured captured Roman soldiers on top of their city walls in full view of the Roman army. [92] Likewise, the Aztecs sealed their own fate as Spanish soldiers watched in horror as their compatriots’ hearts were removed from their living, terrified bodies in gruesome sacrifice to gods hungry for human flesh. [214] Often the corpses were then thrown down to the bottom of the pyramid where starving Aztecs would pull them apart in a cannibalistic frenzy. In the same way, the Aztecs also made powerful enemies out of rival Mesoamerican peoples who were willing to join the Spanish to wipe the Aztecs from the earth. [196] It must be said, that human sacrifice and cannibalism were ubiquitous in Mesoamerica, and the Spanish had no more qualms about wiping the whole civilization out than did the Romans with the Carthaginians.

To add to the tragedy, it was the Western Christians who in the thirteenth and fourteen centuries equipped the Ottomans with canons and metallurgy expertise, not to mention jumpstarting their gunpowder industry. [180]

The State of the West Today

“…there is no certainty that as scientific progress accelerates and leisure increases, and as the world shrinks on our computer and television screens, there is any corresponding advance in wisdom or morality, much less radical improvement in innate human nature….The years 1939 to 1945, with their seventy million dead, a mere two decades after twenty million perished in “the war to end all wars” of 1914-1918, taught us once again that with material and technological progress often comes moral retrogression….” [3]

Neither the Thebans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, nor Aztecs had any inkling of their impending doom. [249] The Byzantines even thought right up to their defeat that they would be victorious until their genius military commander was injured. But history tells us that there are signs.

If there was one constant danger that the ancients, particularly the Greeks and the Romans warned of, it was a long, luxurious peace. Peace and prosperity became a “luxury crueler than war”, according to Juvenal. Peace and prosperity make for soft, inward-looking citizens, ripe for invasion; such peace, said Sallust, is “far more injurious and dangerous than the adversity itself.” [112] And yet too much war is also a problem, as over time it can weaken a civilization, much as it did with the Byzantines. Certainly, the West has enjoyed considerable peace since WWII, and unparalleled prosperity. Arguably this has led many to think that another great war is impossible and so many see powerful national armies, nationalism, and compulsory military service as unnecessary at best and evil at worst. From a long-history perspective, this is a perilous cultural trend.

Disunity is a common theme in Hanson’s book, and it is a major problem in the West right now. [272] “Western Christians in the end were too disunited and squabbling to save Byzantium.” [164] Similarly, other cities found themselves torn between those who wanted to surrender and those who wanted to fight. Hansen’s earlier book The Dying Citizen: How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America (2021) outlines the nature and causes of the disunity currently facing the West.

Constantinople’s three perpetual challenges were disunity with the Christian West, serial conflict with Islam, and the public health complications of a massive city. [141]. The Byzantines were constantly at war and increasingly finding it difficult to convince other Christians in the region and in the West to defend them. [164] America especially has been almost constantly at war since the 1950s, and especially so over the last twenty-plus years since 9/11, with some reprieve from 2016-2020. As Hanson has explained, the hasty retreat from Afghanistan shows a country in decline and without the resolve to project an image of strength in an increasingly dangerous world.

America’s adventuring around the globe has generated immense ill will abroad among people who actually come to live in America while still despising it, but also cynicism at home, now manifesting in the difficulty in finding Americans willing to join the army. Finally, much as the West in the Middle Ages armed their enemies, purely for economic and short-term strategic gain, America also has sold weapons around the world to its enemies, most recently leaving billions of dollars of military materiel in Afghanistan.

What Can the West Do?

But we also see…a recurring, universally human theme across time and space. The doomed, at the brink of civilizational destruction, having an attitude partly born of hubris and partly of naivete, perhaps best summed up as “It cannot happen to us.” [257]

Can the West avoid what Hansen calls “the Melian dilemma”? That is, the agonizing choice between calculated survival under the rule of another civilization, or brave extinction? The Melians chose to defy the Athenians and suffered annihilation accordingly. We may admire the spirit of the Thebans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, and Aztecs, but they wiped of the earth for it. A better way forward is to not be in a position to make that choice. But can we control that? Arguably yes. Hanson says, “…usually the fate of the vanquished can be calculated in advance and more mundanely by their numerical or military inferiority, their prior and present naivete, their long decline, their incompetence, or the sheer military genius and resources of their attackers.” [57]

Strong civilisations by virtue of their strength deter would-be aggressors.

America must also attract allies who might otherwise gravitate to her enemies. This would be one of the best ways to avoid a war with China. Shrewdly, the Spanish managed to draw away key allies of the Aztecs to themselves. It doesn’t always work, as the Carthaginian Hannibal found out in Italy. But creating an alliance is crucial, not so much because the alliance will help the US win a world or regional war, but because the existence of the alliance is itself a deterrence to would-be instigators.

What the Spanish lacked in numbers they more than made up for in cultural, political, and technological advantages. [198] “The siege of Tenochtitlan, if we can term it properly a siege, is one of the best examples in history where the technological disparity between the attacker and attacked characterized the entire battle.” [252] Indeed, fifteen hundred Spaniards with their Mesoamerican allies managed to destroy an empire of millions in roughly two years. In other words, America has an interest in maintaining its immense technological supremacy, which means protecting its intellectual property from Chinese hackers and continuing to attract the brightest people in the world to her shores.

These are just some of the possible deterrent measures one might imagine from reading Hanson’s study.


The End of Everything is a highly engaging account of four catastrophic conflicts that are now historical memory, but whose details are fascinating, disturbing, and instructive. The book is very difficult to put down once started. Much like Niall Ferguson’s Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, Hanson’s book is not merely to alarm but to equip the reader with an understanding of what can go wrong in order to think constructively about what needs to be done for things to go right. In this respect Hanson’s book shows that history is humankind’s greatest teacher. The question, as always, is whether there are enough people of influence willing to learn.


More Book Reviews