The Venetian Republic and the British Empire built their economies on ocean trade. Dwindling naval power heralded their decline and fall.
It's a thought that should provoke a shiver of recognition in Hong Kong and Singapore, given the way their airborne fleets of Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are falling victim to a new Great Power struggle.
The two carriers have long been tied up with the destinies of Asia's great trading cities. When the Boeing 747 shrank the world in the 1970s, it was Cathay and Singapore Airlines that connected the wealthy population centers of Europe, North America and Japan with Asia's emerging economies.
That helped transform their home territories from backwaters surrounded by a wilderness of poverty into global hubs of banking and commerce.
Those times are gone, and the new world order is looking markedly less friendly – both to the entrepot cities, and the airlines that link them to the world.
From pioneers to prey
Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific were pioneers of long-haul travel. In their heyday, both lost little sleep worrying about their rivals in China and the Persian Gulf.
Nowadays, they can't afford not to: China Southern, China Eastern, Air China Emirates and Qatar Airways all exceed them in capacity terms, and Etihad is rapidly catching up.
That's left the two cities' airlines exposed. Long-haul international aviation is a cut-throat business, and its best practitioners historically have had either state support or an easily dominated domestic market at their backs.
Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines have never had the latter, and it's a hotly contested debate whether they benefit from the former – especially when compared with their aggressive new state-owned competitors.
Disadvantage of geography
Crushed between the tectonic plates of the Chinese and Gulf carriers, the cities' airlines are also geographically disadvantaged.
Two-thirds of humanity lives within an eight-hour flight of Emirates' base in Dubai, making it particularly well-placed to link global travelers.
Qantas' 2012 deal with the Gulf carrier, which saw it give up connections via Singapore to serve a wider array of European destinations through the Gulf, is a warning that geography is destiny for airlines.
While the carriers try to fight a rearguard action against this – see Singapore Airliness flights to Houston via the English city of Manchester, or the nonstop polar trips to Newark it plans to restart next year – they are working from a position of weakness.
With ultra-long-haul jets such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 opening up unheard-of routes such as direct Perth-London flights, and Chinese airlines hitting their stride, the old roles connecting Asia to Europe and North America are disappearing.
Where they still have an advantage – using the hub-and-spoke model to fill more seats on planes, thus improving profitability – the Gulf carriers' geographic advantage means Emirates and Qatar can do it better.
The short-term solution is likely to be local.
Cathay Pacific may hand more routes to its regional affiliate Cathay Dragon, while Singapore Airlines has gone in a similar direction, doubling passenger capacity at its regional SilkAir unit in the seven years through 2016 while the measure stood still at its core long-haul business, and adding low-cost brands in the form of Tiger Airways and Scoot.
That's a high-stakes strategy, though, because regional routes are where budget carriers come into their own. Ryanair, EasyJet and Wizz Air now constitute three of Europe's top five airlines by market capitalization.
Tony Fernandes is working to repeat the trick in Cathay pacific and Singapore Airlines' backyard with AirAsia. In a race to the bottom, do the marquee airlines of Hong Kong or Singapore really want to be the winner?