What is an Empire?

I noticed a book about empires, their history and what defines them:

The Rule of Empires:
Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall
By Timothy Parsons

It looks interesting. I did some websearching and here is what I found:


“His range is ambitious and impressive, from Roman Britain and eighth-century Spain to Europe in the 1940s, but his message is consistent: that empire as a phenomenon is always and everywhere about subjugation and exploitation. It would be a tough proposition to come away from The Rule of Empire thinking that imperialism was ever a good or beneficial practice. That might not be news to professional historians (though there are certainly practitioners who readily come to the defense of this or that empire), but in the public political context the case against empire has been rather more muted. Parsons offers a refreshing, engaging and cogently argued counterweight to the more usual neo-conservative reckoning of empire’s alleged benefits. As Parsons notes if one looks at empire from the perspective of those subjected to it, their profit-and-loss balance sheet approach to the topic falls away. Seen from the vantage point of the colonised, Parsons sees empire as, quite simply, “intolerable” (p. 18).”


“Parsons studies seven empires, searching for the features they have in common. His selections seem designed to illustrate the point that the conquerors become the conquered and vice versa. Britain was once a remote outpost of the Roman Empire, but many centuries later Britain’s might would far eclipse that of its former masters, covering a quarter of the world’s people and lands as far-flung as India and Kenya. The Umayyad Muslims controlled parts of Spain for more than 700 years, but once Spain was united as a Christian kingdom its rulers wasted little time in seizing a South American empire from the Incas. Napoleon led the French to dominate continental Europe, including the former Roman heartland of Italy, which the French treated as a backwater inhabited by savages. They were repaid in kind when the Nazi empire stormed across France in 1940, shocking and embarrassing an ostensibly formidable imperial power.

Parsons argues that empires, contrary to popular opinion, are extremely vulnerable to conquest. Invaders can turn established rulers’ subjects against them and, once in power, expropriate the centralized administrative systems already in use. When a small number of Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro attacked the Incan Empire ruled by Atawallpa, they took advantage of the civil strife that had begun after the death of Atawallpa’s father. Pizarro and his men were assisted by numerous Incans who sought a better life after Atawallpa’s tyrannical rule, including several of his brothers, who hoped to claim the throne. “In effect,” Parsons writes, “the conquistadors enlisted New World peoples in their own subjugation.” Firmly ensconced in power, the Spanish used Incan roads and detailed censuses to exploit populations long accustomed to imperial rule.

Parsons contrasts this gaping hole in the seemingly impenetrable armor of empire with the resilience of stateless societies. For example, the Nandi, an East African people who live in what is now Kenya, spent a decade successfully fighting off far more heavily armed British imperialists at a time when England was at the height of its power. Parsons does not mention them, but the Mapuche Indians illustrate the point even more dramatically: They resisted both the Incan Empire and the conquistadors, maintaining a large degree of independence well into the 19th century without any centralized political authority.”


However, Parsons also exposes certain biases to his subject material when he descends in the murky territory of which cases constitute “pure empire” and which do not. He characterizes the Soviet Union as an “old-style empire in denial,” noting that the USSR practiced brutal and direct authoritarian rule over its domestic population and the Eastern European blocs. However, the United States is “a hegemonic global power that its friends and enemies frequently mistook for an empire” (p.429). That is, the United States is a power that uses “imperial methods” that need reforming but is in its essence a progressive, democratic state.

 “Many historians of the Americas would debate that claim. The US may not have openly acknowledged its empire, but the fact that it has over 800 military bases over the globe impels one to call a spade a spade. Parsons also ignores the import of the Monroe Doctrine, in which President James Monroe declared Latin America a US stomping ground and warned European powers to back off. This indicates a preference for the official narrative of US power even as he sympathizes with the “unfortunate” sufferings of the Latin Americans, African Americans, and other ethnic groups (including the Iraqis).

 “He makes similar leaps of faith for the British empire: one of the starkest historical examples of greed is characterized as an empire by accident that came about after the British Crown nobly set out to deal with its unruly adventurers like Robert Clive. In the chapter on British rule over India, he writes about British “liberalism, utilitarianism, the advances of the early industrial revolution, free trade, and English justice… protected Indians from the kind of abuses” that Mesoamericans suffered under Spain. In other words, the British empire was somehow “better” and “more humane” than Spanish empire, ignoring the mass famines and desperation on the subcontinent caused by British policies. His sympathy for Anglo-American power fits with his marked tendency to apologize for contemporary US excesses.


Many leaders of the American Revolution welcomed the idea that their new nation would grow up to be an empire. To them, the concept was compatible with a republic; it meant size and benign influence. David Ramsay, South Carolina’s delegate to the Continental Congress, wrote as early as 1778 that the grandeur of the American continent provided the basis for a realm that would make “the Macedonian, the Roman, and the British sink into insignificance.” George Washington thought of the new country as a “rising” or an “infant” empire. Thomas Jefferson, who secured the vast Mississippi and Missouri valley corridors, famously envisaged an “empire of liberty.” But whose liberty? The idea of empire as conquest or subjugation was curiously absent from this postindependence reverie. Cheered by the euphemism of “manifest destiny” deep into the nineteenth century, Americans of European origin continued to enjoy the incredible lightness of empire.

Subsequent observers would contend that the process of building and managing an empire is often violent, unfettered by concerns about law and equality. Empire, as Joseph Conrad wrote and American anti-imperialists came to acknowledge, had a heart of darkness. As Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, the authors of the massive comparative study Empires in World History, argue, “Terror was the hidden face of empire.” And it has not always been so hidden, either.

“The word “imperium” originally signified the authority delegated by the Senate of the Roman Republic to exercise command over the republic’s own citizens and subdue others. It came to be applied to Rome’s new territories throughout Italy and then beyond, even before Augustus founded the Principate, the first formal phase of the Roman Empire proper. More recently, in the United States, the growth of presidential power has periodically awakened concerns about what the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., termed “the imperial presidency,” that is, the growth of executive authority at the expense of legislative supervision and public dissent…”


It is impossible to read this book without seeing the parallels to the American role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the book has a long conclusion in which Parsons contrasts the perspective of the American architects of the war in Iraq with that of the Iraqis. One is quoted thus: “They came to liberate us. Liberate us from what? … We have our own traditions, morals and customs.” Parsons argues that one cannot dismiss the role of contemporary plunder in the form of Iraqi oil revenue, assumed to eventually pay for the costs of the invasion, occupation, and rebuilding of Iraq. “As with the new imperialism, Bush officials masked the inherent self-interest of Operation Iraqi Freedom with humanitarian rhetoric … arguing that the United States had a moral obligation to spread free markets, human rights, and democracy. The inevitability of civilian casualties was largely absent from this legitimizing rhetoric.””

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