Sciency Words: Thalassocracy

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Sciency Words is a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at new and interesting scientific terms—but today, we’re making an exception. Today’s word is actually a historical term, although it may have some relevance for futuristic space-faring societies.


Thanks to the ideal rocket equation, launching yourself into space is difficult and highly expensive (and will likely stay that way barring enormous changes in science and technology). In fact, it’s so difficult and expensive that, once you’re in space, it might make more sense to just stay there.

Landing on alien planets might not be worth doing unless you plan to settle there permanently. Instead, you could wander through space, harvesting all the resources you need from asteroids and comets and perhaps smaller planetoids like the Moon.

That brings us to the world of ancient thalassocracies. Thalassocracies are empires of the sea, as opposed to traditional land empires. The word is Greek for “rule of the seas.”

Well known examples include the Phoenicians, Athenians, and Carthaginians. The British Empire might also be described as a thalassocracy, except the British controlled a lot of land in addition to most of the world’s waterways.

Traditional thalassocracies possessed enormous navies. They rarely bothered waging war on land, preferring instead to exert their military power through piracy, naval blockades, and near unrivaled dominance of maritime trade routes.

I’m guessing that space-faring societies will end up behaving more like ancient thalassocracies than modern nation-states. This might be especially true for space-faring civilizations still early in their development and still struggling with the high costs of takeoffs and landings.

So what do you think? Will futuristic space empires act like thalassocracies, or is there some other historical model that might make more sense?

5 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Thalassocracy

  1. An interesting question.

    If the primary way of getting up or down that gravity well is a space elevator, then that seems like a bottleneck that an interplanetary thalassocracy could sink its teeth into. Of course, they’d have to deal with whoever controlled the ground station.

    That works for controlling what gets off the planet. Controlling what goes down to the planet seems far more difficult, since getting things down is a lot easier. Blockading a whole planet on the inbound seems unlikely. If they have the energy to do that, then they probably have the energy to come up and down the gravity well at will.

    One fact that would be an ever present reality, defending against an attack from space is extremely difficult. The attacker can always accelerate a mass toward the planet, or divert an asteroid, and allow its kinetic energy to wreak havoc. That seems to give a space based power a lot of advantages.


    1. Interesting points. I’ve been looking at space elevators as a key part of the infrastructure for space faring societies, and they’re the subject for my next post. I hadn’t thought about mass accelerators, though. Space warfare could easily turn into two sides just throwing rocks at each other… really, really big rocks.

      But that would still probably mean that ground invasions would be rare, if they happened at all, don’t you think?


      1. Good question. I’m not sure. We’ve had nuclear weapons for several decades now, as well as nations with overwhelming air superiority, and the US has naval supremacy over most of the planet, and none of it has eliminated ground invasions. If you don’t want to annihilate your enemy, just change their behavior, then often ground invasions might be hard to avoid.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Perhaps a ‘protection racket’. “We’re going to send down some shuttles, you might want to load them up with whatever we want. It would be a shame if an asteroid fell on your largest city, you know, just like the one that fell on the base where you were trying to assemble your own spaceships.”


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