What Is An Empire?

What Is An Empire? January 14, 2022

I am currently working on the relationship between empires and the emergence and development of religions. The problems of actually defining empires are quite intense. So what is an empire? At some point, we might conclude that an empire is much like pornography, in that you know it when you see it.

There are plenty of attempts at definition. One excellent survey of the topic is in Stephen Howe’s concise Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2002). Howe speaks of a political entity made up of multiple territories or regions, “usually created by conquest, and divided between a dominant center and subordinate peripheries.” The key point is that one nation or people rules several or many others, that originally had some kind of independent existence, even if they were not actually states in the modern sense. There is no necessity that rulers and ruled should be distinguished by anything like what we today commonly mean by the term race, or by skin color. The Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled by the Habsburgs was entirely a White and European phenomenon, although it was diverse religiously. (I won’t get started here on what exactly a term like “White” meant in that particular time and place, or whether it’s a legitimate usage).

Who is Ruling Whom?

That is straightforward enough, but we also run into the issue of the kind of government in such an entity. To take the most famous of all empires, from the third century BC onward, Rome extended its power over much of the Mediterranean world, which it thoroughly dominated by (say) the 50s BC. By any standard we might reasonably apply, this was indisputably an empire on a vast scale. Yet in Roman history, that was the time of the Republic, and THE EMPIRE proper begins only in 27BC, when Octavian became the first Emperor, under the name Augustus. The change comes when an imperator takes power, regardless of the kind of realm he is ruling over. So what do we call that large and growing parcel of possessions in 150BC, or 50BC?

Something equally messy happens in 212 AD, when the Emperor Caracalla extended Roman citizenship to all free men in the Empire. In that sense, if you lived in (say) Egypt or the Rhineland, you were not the foreign subject of a colonial empire based in Rome. Rather, as a citizen, you were an integral part of that empire, and its ruling elite.

That is quite a common pattern historically. Repeatedly, empires have ended, not in the sense of formal conquest and destruction by a barbarian enemy, but because the different populations come to share a common loyalty and identity. Great Britain was originally a sequence of empires within the main island of Britain (a Wessex empire, an English empire…) before becoming the united nation that went on to establish its new empires overseas.

How Empires Forget They Were Ever Empires

I offer a US example. Many years ago, I was reading something about one of the US’s Indian wars of the nineteenth century, the Second Creek War of 1836-37, which took place mainly in Alabama. The author in question (and I have totally forgotten the source, sorry to say) used interesting phraseology, referring to this as one of the more significant anti-colonial revolts of the era. This was vaguely shocking. What do you mean anti-colonial? Alabama isn’t a colony! It is, and always was meant to be, one of the Lower 48 states. Right? But in the context of the time, and avoiding 20-20 hindsight, this definitely can be seen as an anti-colonial struggle, arguably one on the fringes of an expanding empire. The literature on “settler colonialism” in a North American context is now substantial. You’ll be telling us next that we should be seeing the acquisition of California and the south-west as some kind of act of imperial expansion, and on a very large scale.

I am quite serious about that hindsight point.We tend to think that a country has natural, logical and (almost) predetermined limits, and everything it takes beyond that just and proper scope is imperialist. But it is very much a matter of opinion what those natural limits actually are. Where do nation-states end and empires begin?

We today know that the British were not destined to hold their power over Burma or Kenya, say, so that the country’s activities in those places were self-evidently part of an arrogant imperialism that was ultimately doomed. Ditto for the Belgians in the Congo, or the Dutch in the East Indies. To the contrary, we know just as well that the United States was destined to incorporate Texas or Oregon and (we often seem to think) that this was always meant to be so. That perception fundamentally affects our sense of the earlier residents of the particular place. In this view, US authorities might be treating Native populations well or badly (usually badly), but those actions were always in the context of an American political authority that was legitimate and inevitable. In contrast, US activities in Cuba or the Philippines were imperialist, because those regions were not divinely intended to be incorporated into the motherland. Alabama and Minnesota and Oregon were naturally American, so the language of colonies and empires does not apply. The jury is still out on whether Puerto Rico will some day form part of the metropolitan motherland, and what happens in our as yet undecided future determines how we talk about the past.

If the US under Andrew Jackson and James Polk was not an aggressive imperial power, engaged in extensive colonial settlement, then the whole concept of “empire” has no meaning. One of the most famous visual symbols of US expansion is properly entitled Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1861).

(Not) The Last Empire

Much the same retroactive approach long characterized views of the Russian Empire and its Soviet successor.If you look at maps of areas that Russia ruled at various dates – say in 1600, 1700, and 1800 – it is very difficult to decide just what territory we should regard as the natural and proper Russian homeland, beyond which lay imperial conquests. Drawing a line between areas of Christian and Muslim heritage provides some guidance in this matter, but only some. Christian Ukrainians (for instance) have their own definite opinions about where Russian boundaries should rightfully be placed. So what was Real Russia, so to speak, and where was its empire?

When moving into Central Asia or Siberia or the Caucasus, the Russians were naturally expanding into regions that they were always destined to possess, or so they thought. That was their manifest destiny. As in the Native American case, local populations viewed things rather differently. Making the American analogies even stronger, the Soviets commemorated their own imperial struggles through popular culture manifestations quite similar to those offered by Hollywood. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union had faced armed Islamic resistance across many regions of Central Asia and the Caucasus. This Basmachi revolt was thoroughly familiar in Soviet culture, to the point of inspiring a whole substantial genre of heroic adventure films known as Easterns, Ostern, which look a lot like US Westerns. Some, like the 1970 White Sun of the Desert, were among the most popular films in Soviet history. That film is still cited and quoted about as regularly as is Casablanca in the US.

In the 1970s, even informed Western commentators seriously talked of Portugal as “the last empire,” ignoring the rather large elephant in the room that was the immense and enduring Russian/Soviet imperial power.

Empires (some of them) gradually evolve into nations, to the point that they forget their imperial origins. Back in the 1980s, Benedict Anderson wrote brilliantly about how nations invent themselves, becoming “imagined communities,” complete with nationalist ideologies that people are prepared to die and kill for. The more we look at those constructed communities, the more we must stress the role not just of imagination and invention, but of amnesia and oblivion, of systematically forgetting how those nations originated.

To adapt an old phrase, empires never prosper or succeed, because if they do, none dare call them empires.

Settled or Not?

That fact places special weight on the nature of empire, which (to repeat) is not as simple as might appear. In common parlance, imperialism and colonialism are often presented as close to synonymous, which they are not. Colonialism depends on empires, true, but you can certainly have empire without colonialism. Usually, colonialism means not just occupying a territory but settling it, usually with the people of the imperial motherland. That dated back to the Roman practice of establishing coloniae in occupied lands, generally as a way of settling military veterans without actually paying them in real money. In that sense, British rule in India, for instance, had nothing to do with colonialism: there was never any deliberate policy to build up British communities or towns, as opposed to having bureaucrats, soldiers, or merchants happening to live there. The same was true of the Dutch in the East Indies, or the French in Indo-China. Inevitably, those officials and traders had children with local women, and those mixed-race populations came to be quite numerous, but that is another story.

Empires that did use intensive colonial settlement were likely to endure, and to become assimilated to the imperial norm – witness Canada or Australia. Territories that were ruled but not colonized generally did not endure in anything like the same way. In very few places in Africa, for instance, did European rulers actually plant the deep roots that would allow them to establish White or White-ruled societies. African nationalists attributed this to the continent’s severe climate, but also to two factors that they rightly hailed as the national heroes of the anti-imperial struggle, namely the tsetse fly that carried sleeping sickness, and its close ally, the anopheles malarial mosquito. Other mosquitos, Aedes aegypti, who carried yellow fever, likewise placed strict limits on the ability of imperial authorities to create lily-White European settlements in most of the Caribbean. Sober statistical evidence fully justified the description of West Africa in particular as the “White Man’s Grave.”

In most of Africa, then, the end of empires did not involve combatting or uprooting European settlers, with the obvious exceptions of Algeria and South Africa, and a smaller scale conflict in Kenya. In much of the continent, the end of empire was mainly a matter of changing flags (Discuss).

Formal and Informal

Defining empires involves other quirks, such as the concept of formal and informal empire. Through much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the British unquestionably dominated large parts of the globe, only some of which formally became integrated into that empire. Everyone knew that some really important territories, such as Argentina and Uruguay, were de facto part of the British world and its economic system, imperial possessions in all but name, although they never moved to political incorporation. Why bother to start a war with the US over such a trivial matter as formal suzerainty? It was almost a matter of chance which bits of land ended up being painted British pink on the map.

In 1883, the historian J. R. Seeley famously wrote that the British Empire seemed to have been acquired “in a fit of absence of mind.” In terms of formal annexation, that is a reasonable comment. The US, meanwhile, regularly invaded and occupied many small states in the Caribbean and Central America and de facto exercised full-fledged rule, although never incorporating such regions as Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua into its formal political orbit.

Counting Rulers and Ruled

We also need some sense of proportion. At its height, the British Empire consisted of a metropolis, a homeland, that was vastly outnumbered by the teeming masses of the overseas territories in ruled, above all in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism and Islam vied with each other for the title of the Empire’s numerically largest religion. That is a classic imperial model. But in contrast, imagine a nation with just a few random territories under its sway, scarcely enough to register in the minds of most residents of that metropolis. Is that an empire? In terms of its formal power, does US rule over several miscellaneous bits (with apologies to Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands) mean that we must call it an empire? Surely not. That is quite separate from the question of whether we should apply the label on the basis of the nation’s informal hegemony over other and much more consequential parts of the globe. Just because a country has military bases in a particular region, that does not make that region part of an empire, surely?

So what should be the balance between the population of the home territory and its possessions? Should it be parity? Should the ruled outnumber the rulers by at least two to one? There are no exact formulae.

The Next Empires

When we think of empires, we think of a classic age between, say, the sixteenth century and the mid-twentieth, the time of the great European overseas ventures, by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, British, French and others. But even in that age, both Russia and China were empires, as were the Ottoman, Persian, and Mughal states, and there were plenty of regional examples such as Ethiopia, or the enormous Sokoto Caliphate of nineteenth century West Africa. In ancient and medieval times, we think of Alexander’s Greek Empire, as well as Rome, Persia, the Islamic Caliphate, and the Mongol realm.

I stress this next point, however counter-intuitive it might appear to American historians. Historically, empires have been commonplace, to the point of being, for large parts of the human experience, the standard and normal form of political organization. Whatever your ethnic or racial identity, whatever passport you carry, your ancestors belonged to some empire or other, whether as rulers, or ruled, or successively one and then the other. Perhaps these were your distant ancestors, or perhaps it was your parents. That experience made your world.

Nor is this history ancient or remote. Again depending on definitions, the Russian Empire broke up only in 1991, and may well presently be in the process of being restored, under the auspices of Vladimir Putin.

Likewise in our own time, a renewed Chinese imperial system is also in the process of emerging, within the borders of the People’s Republic, but also further afield, in the South China Sea, and across much of Asia and Africa. Just follow the map of China’s wildly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Once again, westward the course of empire takes its way. Time to dust off those old pith helmets.

In that sense, empires continue to be central to our headlines. Next time, I’ll describe just why those entities have such a pervasive effect on our realities – political, cultural, and religious.


For definitions of empire, and for long term trends in empires, see for instance:

David Abulafia, The Boundless Sea (London: Penguin, 2020)

James Belich, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1780-1939 (Oxford University Press, 2009)

Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton University Press, 2010)

John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400–2000 (Bloomsbury 2009)

Krishan Kumar, Visions Of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped The World (Princeton University Press 2017)

Herfried Münkler, Empires: The Logic Of World Domination From Ancient Rome To The United States (Polity 2007)

Andrew Phillips and J.C. Sharman, Outsourcing Empire: How Company-States Made the Modern World (Princeton University Press, 2020)




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