The Persistence of Empires

The origins of our book go back to 1999, when we created a new seminar at the University of Michigan, called “Empires, States, and Political Imagination.” One motivation for this course was our discontent with the popular narrative of world history told as an inevitable movement from a world of empires to a world of nation-states. This supposedly obligatory transition was an idée fixe in historiography when we were students in the 1960s. Later, our graduate students were influenced by Benedict Anderson’s book, Imagined Communities, which came out in 1983. They accepted, for the most part, the idea that political imagination in the 19th and 20th centuries was necessarily national – the triptych of one people, one government, one territory. But in our view this perspective does not correspond to historical reality.

We also wanted to get beyond another, more recent, approach – that of colonialism or “post-colonial” studies. This kind of interpretation – founded in large part on a critique of euro-centric approaches – itself reproduces euro-centrism, with its values turned upside down. Europe, from this perspective, is no longer the source of progress for world, but it is still Western Europe that dynamizes – but this time for the worse – world history. Colonial studies either ignore history before the 19th century or generalizes about “coloniality” – represented as a single, unified European project that lasted from the 15th to the 20th centuries.

Our book presents a history that is more inclusive both in time and space – a broad canvas of 2000 years of history, from ancient Rome and China to the present. We write about empire without privileging concepts like “modernity” or “the expansion of Europe” as explanatory concepts. The so-called old empires did not transform themselves into nations, and only then set out to extend themselves overseas for glory and national prosperity. The idea of a modern colonialism made by “new empires” toward the end of the 19th century – a colonialism more rational than that of ancient empires – is interesting as an ideological construction of its time, but contestable as a description of the actual ways that Europeans exercised power in Africa and Asia. From a long-term perspective, we see that the Western European empires that thought of themselves as the most advanced in history – assured of their technological, cultural, and racial superiority – only lasted a few decades, while the Byzantine empire lasted for over a thousand years, and a succession of Chinese dynasties have claimed an imperial tradition for more than two millennia.

A “modernist” perspective not only eclipses the power of the empires of the past, it also obstructs our vision of the context in which political innovations were made during previous centuries and up to the present. Our goal was to write a history that was more global and more long term, one that could explain how the empires of Asia and Eurasia, as much as Mediterranean or American empires, have structured the possibilities and constraints of political life.

We now want to present briefly the main themes of our book. Let us begin with our definition of empire. We consider an empire to be a large political unit, expansionist or with a memory of expansion across space, a political entity that maintains distinctions and hierarchy as it incorporates new people. We can distinguish empires from kingdoms, tribes, or city-states, as well as from nation-states. We use the word “state” in a general sense, referring to the institutionalization of power, to make possible a comparative discussion of different political entities. In this sense, there are both empire-states and nation-states, and one form of power can be transformed into the other.

As long as political ambition exists, alongside differences among societies, the temptation to make empire will be present. And, since empires reproduce differences among people, the possibility of fission and the recombination of elements will also persist. This is why the empire form of state is found so often in history, but also why empires are put together and pulled apart over the centuries.

Jane Burbank & Frederick Cooper


Print Friendly, PDF & Email