Today the word is generally used as a term of abuse, although one that is also often tinged with nostalgia. Empire” suggest the ruthless exploitation of largely defenseless, technologically unsophisticated peoples by the forces of technologically pesticides ones-the kinds of empires carved out first in the Americas, then in Asia, and finally in Australia and the islands Of the Pacific by successive European powers. Or it conjures up images of the Third Reich or Stalinist Russia, where oppressor and oppressed come from much the same kind of cultures, and possess much the same kind of technologies.
In both cases the “empire’ is represented as a mode of political oppression, a denial by one people of rights-above all the right to self determination-of countless others. Empires, it is assumed, are in some sense artificial creations. They are created by conquest, and conquerors have always attempted to keep those they have conquered in subservience. This has been achieved by a mixture of simple force and some kind of ideology: in the case of the Roman Empire, this ideology was that of “civilization,” the lure of a more desirable, more comfortable, and inherently richer way of life.
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In the case of the Spanish, French, and British empires, it was this too, now reinforced by differing brands of Christianity. In the case of the Ottomans it was Islam, and in the case of the Soviet union, Marxism. It is also assumed that virtually all of those who live under imperial rule would much rather not and that sooner or later they will rise up and drive out their conquerors. Much of this, as we shall see, is undeniable, but by no means all.
Empire has been a way of life for most of the peoples of the world, as either conqueror or conquered, and what we choose to call empires have not only varied greatly from place to place and time to time, they have also marked the lives of those whom they involved in sometimes radically different ways. The modern term “empire” and the related words “emperor,” “imperialism,” etc. , all derive, significantly, from the Latin word emporium, which in ancient Rome indicated supreme power involving both command in war and in the magistrate??s right to execute law.
The term has therefore linked the history of European imperialism very closely to the legacy of the Roman Empire. Originally it meant little more than “sovereignty,” a sense it retained until at least the eighteenth century. Ever since the days of the Roman Republic, however, “empire” has also been a word used to describe government over vast territories. When, for instance, in the early first century A. D. , the historian Tactics spoke of the Roman world as an “immense body of empire,” he was alluding as much to its size as to its sovereignty, and ultimately it would be size that separated empires from mere kingdoms and principalities.
In 1 914, the great Norwegian polar explorer Friction Manse calculated that the Russian Empire had been expanding at an average daily rate of fifty-five square miles for over four centuries, or more than twenty thousand square miles per year, an area roughly the size of modern Belgium. In terms of territory the Russian Empire was the largest the world has ever known, although most of it was unoccupied. But similar sorts of figures could be conjured up for most other imperial peoples. Under Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian monarchy ceased at the Aegean and the Black Sea.
By the time of Alexander death in 323 B. C. E. , it reached from the Adriatic to the Indus, from the Punjab to the Sudan. Because they eve been in this way large and relentlessly expansive, empires have also embraced peoples who held a wide variety of customs and beliefs and often spoke an equal variety of languages. It was in their sheer variety as much as their size that both their identity and their glory were to be found. The greatness of the Romans, said the second-century-B. C. E. Greek historian Populous, lay in the fact that they now ruled over peoples of whom Alexander the Great had never even heard.
Because of their size and sheer diversity, most empires have in time become universal, cosmopolitan societies. In order to rule vast and widely separated domains, imperial governments have generally found themselves compelled to be broadly tolerant of diversity of culture and sometimes even of belief, so long as these posed no threat to their authority. But if they have generally tolerated diversity, empires have also inevitably transformed the peoples whom they have brought together. “Empire,” said Charles Maurice De Talleyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister, is “the art Of putting men in their place. And putting men in their place inevitably resulted in prolonged and extensive migrations. Some of these were voluntary-the movement of the disposed, or, as happened in America and Asia and later in Africa, of the marginalia, in search of a better and richer life. Some, however, such as the Atlantic slave trade-the greatest and most nefarious of them all-were wholly involuntary. All the way from Europe to the Americas, these migrations have inevitably destroyed societies that were once flourishing. They have also brought into being entire societies that did not exist before. And in time these have created new peoples.
The inhabitants of modern Greece are not what they were ender Alexander; neither are the modern Italians Romans, nor the black populations of the Americas much like the West African peoples from whom they are descended. Empires have, of course, also been responsible for a great deal of human suffering. They have been responsible, in the Americas for the elimination of entire peoples, and they have caused perhaps irreversible damage to vast areas of the surface of the planet. Now they are no more, at least in their traditional form. But they have, for centuries, constituted the history of the human race.