In 1818, Shelley wrote “Ozymandias” about the Egyptian pharaoh (Ramesses II) who, as the poet has it, proudly declared, “Look on my works, Ye mighty, and despair.” In his eyes, those “works”—the walls, roads, pyramids, and cities—dwarfed the accomplishments of lesser rulers to such an extent that they would be ashamed of their minuscule empires once they beheld his. Three thousand years later, Shelley’s narrator sees the dead king’s statement in another light: “Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare, / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” A radical to the core, the poet issued a sobering warning to the proud who felt their kingdoms impregnable.

In his new book, The End of Everything, Victor Davis Hanson looks at four different historical instances in which kings, emperors, commanders, and peoples believed their cities or empires so great, so established, and so essential that their disappearance must necessarily be impossible. “It can’t happen here,” Hanson notes (echoing Sinclair Lewis), might have been their motto. Yet it did. Ancient Thebes, Carthage, Constantinople, and the Aztec Empire all imagined a future that had to include them as surely as the past had, but after 335 B.C., 146 B.C., 1453 A.D., and 1521 A.D., these former colossuses of the past simply ceased to exist; that is, as Hanson explains, their works and status as a state and people ended abruptly and finally.

People bandy the word hubris about freely without thinking of what it fully means. Ah, yes, overweening pride! Consider the mythical Oedipus or, more recently, Hitler, a modern Ozymandias. Yet in Sophocles Oedipus rises above his ruin, achieving something akin to hero status as he strangely disappears in a sacred grove near Athens. Hitler may be dead, but Germany—its language, literature, and great cities—survives, and, horrible as it is to contemplate, his anti-Semitism lives on in the heart of diapered college intellectuals. Hubris need not yield extinction.

But starting with ancient Thebes, Hanson demonstrates how hubris may lead to Shelley’s “colossal wreck.” Before its leveling in 335 B.C., Thebans could glance at their history with pride as the centerpiece of many of ancient Greece’s myths, a city of the arts and poetry, and a dreaded foe in battle with other Greek city states, Sparta included. By the mid-fourth century B.C., they were under the control of the brilliant Philip II of Macedon, whose assassination in 336 gave them sudden hope that they might rebel and simultaneously inspire the other city states to follow suit. After all, Philip’s son, young and largely unproven, could quite possibly be deposed by Macedonian lords eager for power, leaving Thebes free to re-establish its former greatness as its enemies slit each other’s throats. The young king whose prowess they doubted was a twenty-one-year-old Alexander the Great.

When Alexander approached Thebes, he came, unlike Virgil’s Greeks, bearing real gifts: lenient terms if the city would capitulate and surrender the insurrectionists. Confident that no one could successfully breach their walls, the Thebans refused, and the siege began. From the beginning, defeat was all but assured. That a besieged city might resist a large army was understood, but Alexander was no average general. His numbers and superior tactics outmaneuvered, outflanked, and overwhelmed the famed Theban hoplites who, in retreat, failed to close a gate. A contingent of Macedonians from an earlier mission, hemmed inside Thebes’ Cadmea citadel who had waited for the tide of battle to turn, saw the time to act was ripe. In short, Alexander sacked the city after a day-long, hard-fought battle in which 6,000 Thebans died to 500 Macedonians. Thebes’ proud rejection of peace led to its annihilation, the city razed, its citizen sold into slavery, and its surrounding farmlands divided among envious Boeotians. Its myths survive, thanks to the Athenian tragedians, but no true Thebes ever took its place, and its peculiar Greek dialect disappeared.

Carthage had seen its power and influence diminish after the first and second Punic wars, so much that its empire had become little more than the in Libya. Yet when a Roman senatorial delegation, including Cato the Elder, came to inspect the city in 149, they found a thriving city of half a million. Might their evident prosperity presage the rebirth of a Carthaginian empire, a western thorn in the side of a Rome that was looking east? The senate concluded as much. The invaders did offer terms—far from generous—that the Carthaginians rejected, and so the siege began. It proved difficult, mostly due to incompetent leadership. Only after Scipio Aemilianus took command did the Romans defeat their ancient enemy with utter finality. Like Thebes, the city was razed, the site cursed, and its population (after a three-year siege, only 50,000) sold into slavery. Other “Carthages” would be erected there but only in name. The true Punic culture was dead.

Constantinople, once the center of the powerful eastern Roman Empire, had seen its lands dwindle to little more than the city itself, by the 15th century, not much more than 50,000 inhabitants. It remained a dazzling place, a true jewel of the Mediterranean world. The Ottoman Turk Mehmet II clearly thought so, and in 1453 he approached the city with a large armada and land force many times the number of the city’s defenders and demanded their surrender. The Byzantines declined. Constantinople had withstood sieges before and with good reason. Its massive inner and outer walls stood as a rebuke to most enemies. Had not the city lasted a thousand years? With only a few thousand seasoned defenders, Genoese mercenaries among them, they believed they might withstand the Turkish onslaught, and they nearly did. After two months, the Ottomans nearly lifted the siege, but an advisor persuaded Mehmet to attempt one more attack. When the Genoese captain fell mortally wounded and his men fled the walls with his body, the Turks scaled the ramparts and, with a gate left open, invested the city. Rape and pillage by the Janissaries followed, and Byzantium, little more than the city itself, collapsed, its shining cathedral Hagia Sophia turned into mosque.

As for the Aztecs, their hubris was in some ways understandable though not justifiable. How could a tiny contingent of perhaps 1,500 Spanish conquistadors under Hernán Cortés conquer Tenochtitlan, a city of perhaps one million built on a lake? The answer lay in the Spaniards’ fighting experience and spirit; their stronger weapons (steel versus obsidian blades); and their understanding of the chain of command. Moreover, they learned quickly how much certain surrounding native tribes, the Tlaxcalans in particular, hated their Aztec rulers who had farmed their peoples for victims in ritual human sacrifices. Over a short period of time, Cortés formed important alliances. The patient, savvy, and determined conquistadors, by 1522, not only had defeated the Aztecs completely, but had leveled Tenochtitlan. No Aztec civilization would rise from its ashes.

What do these four examples of annihilation tell us? In his final chapter, Hanson lists several reasons why the Thebans, Carthaginians, Constantinopolitans, and Aztecs fell, among them reliance on “impregnable” fortifications, vain trust in former allies, poor estimation of their enemies’ genius, and, by extension, a failure to see how brutal their conquerors might be. Do these apply to us? On what false hopes do we base our assurance that our own annihilation is impossible? On two vast oceans? On our nuclear deterrent? On our past victories? At a time when defense spending has dropped over the last decade, when our armed forces’ recruits are, for the first time, down 40,000, and when our university professors are busy indoctrinating future generations to hate their own county, does one dare insist “it can’t happen here”?