Imperial overstretch

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One example of Imperial overstretch was when the papacy, preoccupied with expanding the Papal States, allowed the Reformation to escalate beyond its control, as illustrated in a series of woodcuts (1545) usually referred to as the Papstspotbilder or Papstspottbilder in German or Depictions of the Papacy in English,[1] by Lucas Cranach, commissioned by Martin Luther.[2] Title: Kissing the Pope's Feet.[3] German peasants respond to a papal bull of Pope Paul III. Caption reads: "Don't frighten us Pope, with your ban, and don't be such a furious man. Otherwise we shall turn around and show you our rears."[4][5]

Imperial overstretch, also known as Imperial overreach, describes the situation in which an empire extends itself beyond its military-economic capabilities and often collapses as a result of this policy. The idea was popularised by Yale University historian Paul Kennedy in his 1987 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.

Arguably, this was true of the Roman Empire, which was strong and effective in the first and early second centuries CE, despite a few setbacks (Germany in 9CE; Scotland in the 80s CE) but lost territories after that (e.g. Dacia and Mesopotamia) and could not keep the Saxons, Huns and other 'barbarians' out in the 4th and 5th centuries. Clearly, this was also true of the Napoleonic Empire, which made rapid gains by conquest in the first decade after Napoleon became dictator of France, but became over-extended militarily when it attempted to conquer Russia in 1812. Likewise the Axis powers all overstretched during WW2: Nazi Germany, waging war since 1939 in Western and Eastern Europe, was encircled, invaded, and fell in 1945; Imperial Japan led a total war in the pacific ocean, pitting itself against the US, China, and the USSR until its downfall; Fascist Italy, opening in 1940 simultaneous fronts in Africa, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean, suffered setbacks and fell in 1943.


Paul Kennedy's view has been criticised from many directions, including the postmodern historiographer Hayden White,[6] economic historian Niall Ferguson[7] and from Marxist writers such as Perry Anderson[citation needed] and Alex Callinicos.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Oberman, Heiko Augustinus (1 January 1994). "The Impact of the Reformation: Essays". Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing – via Google Books.
  2. ^ Luther's Last Battles: Politics And Polemics 1531-46 By Mark U. Edwards, Jr. Fortress Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-8006-3735-4
  3. ^ In Latin, the title reads "Hic oscula pedibus papae figuntur"
  4. ^ "Nicht Bapst: nicht schreck uns mit deim ban, Und sey nicht so zorniger man. Wir thun sonst ein gegen wehre, Und zeigen dirs Bel vedere"
  5. ^ Mark U. Edwards, Jr., Luther's Last Battles: Politics And Polemics 1531-46 (2004), p. 199
  6. ^ Western Journal of Communication, 56 (Fall 1992), 372-393, The Rhetoric of American Decline: Paul Kennedy, Conservatives, and the Solvency Debate, KENNETH S. ZAGACKI [1]
  7. ^ Foreign Affairs - Hegemony or Empire? Archived 2008-10-29 at the Wayback Machine