Empire: A Brief History

We in the twenty-first century West — especially those of us with European ancestry — often bristle at the idea that Western culture can still be significantly understood as “Empire.” Because we live in democratic societies, take our legal and political freedoms seriously, and, for the most part look back at the era of European colonialism with incredulity, it’s hard for us to see ourselves in that role.

Today I want to talk a bit about the history of the idea of Empire to try to demystify it for us. Empire is a political organization characterized by aggression towards neighbouring states, territorial enlargement, and political, economic, and social exploitation of conquered territories. In recent years, political empires have largely been replaced by economic empires. While it looks different on paper, the same expansionist and exploitative motivations are still at play.

The ‘meme’ of Empire (using meme in the original sense of the word, as essentially the cultural equivalent of a gene — the means through which culture is transmitted) has been with us for a long time — at least 5,000 years. It seems to have been part and parcel with a set of interrelated memes that also includes agriculture, writing, and monumental architecture, and was independently developed in roughly the same time-frame in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and the Americas.

Empire is everywhere in our Bibles. The Old Testament contains the stories of two small kingdoms stuck in between the imperial machines of Egypt to the Southwest and a series of Empires to the East: Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. The Book of Ezra even contains what appear to be official Persian legal documents. Similarly, the Deuterocanonical books (also known as ‘the Apocrypha’) record folktales and historical stories of faithful Jews dealing with their late Persian and Hellenistic imperial oppressors. And in its own way, the New Testament plants itself within the history of the early Roman Empire, referring by name to Emperors like Augustus and Tiberias, Governors such as Quirinius and Pontius Pilate, and Rome’s Levantine puppet kings, the Herods. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because of a Roman census; he interacted with Roman officials; and he was killed under Roman law as a political threat to the Empire’s peace. The Apostles similarly ran afoul of Roman law, and Paul used his Roman citizenship to allow him to be granted a hearing in Rome.

With periodic localized persecutions against Christians in the first four centuries, Empire continued to hold impressive sway over the Christian imagination, as Christians debated whether they could engage in Roman society — especially its civil religion — without perjuring themselves.

With the Emperor Constantine’s conversion came the question of whether there could be such thing as a Christian Empire. Many among the faithful were excited at the possibility and saw it as the final triumph of God in the world. But, others fled to the desert, ushering in the first golden age of Christian monasticism.

The eventual decline of the Mediterranean empires in the Medieval period did not lesson the power of Empire in the Western imagination. In the West, the Roman Empire remained the political ideal for the Germanic kingdoms and principalities of northern Europe. And in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, the Arab Caliphates swept across a larger amount of land than the old Hellenistic and Roman Empires had ever controlled. These too were later dwarfed by the Empires of the Mongols and Turks.

And so, when Spain and Portugal sent out their fleets and began the period of European imperialism that dominated the Modern period and whose consequences are still with us today, they were the latest in a seemingly unending line of Empires, states built on expansionism and the domination of others.

This intentionally Eurocentric history of Empire ignores many of the world’s largest and most powerful states: It says nothing of the great Empires of China, including Qing dynasty which ruled over about 11% of the world’s surface in the 18th century; or the Meso-American empires of the Toltecs, Aztecs, Maya, and Inca; or the great historical kingdoms of Africa, from Kush, through the Empires of Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Mali.

While today, political Empires are out of fashion, economic Empires are alive and well. Countries and, increasingly, corporations remain committed to controlling the world’s resources and its people’s pocketbooks. We might say that the old model of Empires as slowly spreading ink stains has been replaced by a new model of Empire as a vacuum cleaner, sucking up the wealth of the nations. (The vacuum has always been there, but I think was largely hidden from textbooks under the ink stains of political maps.)

The point of all this historical context isn’t to let the modern European Empires who remade the world in their own image off the hook. Indeed, the combination of new technologies, greed, and inter-imperial rivalry made these Empires particularly bad news for the peoples of the earth. Even if it’s true that only six of the world’s twenty largest historical Empires were European, four of the world’s six largest Empires were. Empire may be a universal meme, but the European Empires excelled at it. (At one point, Britain and France together controlled over a third of the Earth’s surface.) This ‘excellence’ and the fact that they were active at roughly the same time combined to have an unparalleled and lasting negative impact on the world. And, the economic vacuum cleaner they unleashed continues to suck up the wealth and resources from formerly colonized countries.

So if the point isn’t to let European Empires off the hook, what is it?

I think this context is helpful because it helps us understands that for the vast majority of human history, around the world, Empire simply ‘was’. Most of those who lived under it, whether on the conquering side or the conquered, didn’t choose Empire but simply lived in it. In this way, it’s reminiscent of so many of the systems we are stuck in today. The world is as we inherited it. In the words of the old Billy Joel song, “We didn’t start the fire; it was always burning since the world was turning.” It’s naive to think the flames of Empire, burning for over five thousand years, and more specifically of European colonialism, which burned brightly for five hundred years, could be put out overnight. And while we may not have started the fire, we do all have the duty to try to put it out as much as we can.

There is some truth to the old myth of Pandora’s Box — once an idea is let loose in the world, it’s impossible to put it back. And with a meme as strong and deeply rooted in the human experience as Empire, it won’t do to pretend it simply went away in the 1960s. Instead of bristling at the thought that the West still functions as Empire in the world today, we — and the whole world — would be far better off bringing it out of the shadows and honestly looking at how Empire is still at work in the world and in our own society.

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