We touched very briefly on empires last week — just long enough to defer the question. Now we’ll look at it in more detail.
Empire, like state, is a term that can be defined in many ways. As I said before, in one sense this is simply another instance of naming a polity after the title at the top: an empire is a place ruled by an emperor or empress.
But that can lead us in circles. What makes someone an emperor or an empress, other than being in charge of an empire? Unlike e.g. “hetman” or “khan,” these aren’t culturally-specific terms rarely if ever used elsewhere in the world. We treat “emperor” as a genericized word, applied in many different contexts ranging from Rome to China to the Incas of South America. And furthermore, we tend to treat it as a higher term, outranking a mere king of anyone else of comparable rank.
To some extent, that prestige is what muddies the waters. Plenty of people have grandly proclaimed themselves to be emperors, reflecting their own ambitions more than any political specificity. Where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have a certain fondness for our local historical oddity, Emperor Norton: a nineteenth-century man who, having lost all his money in an ill-timed speculation, declared himself the Emperor of the United States. He’s far from the only random schmoe to claim that high dignity for himself. Meanwhile, the translation of the title tennō as “emperor” may reflect a daisy-chain of analogizing, as Japanese rulers tended to present themselves as peers of the rulers of China, and European custom translated that latter role as imperial.
But not every sovereign in Chinese history has been called an emperor, which points us toward the next layer of what it means to be imperial. Qin Shi Huang, widely agreed to be the first emperor of China, rose to power by subjugating under his control a variety of kings, who previously had been sovereign in their own realms. In this sense, an emperor is comparable to a “high king” or a “great king” — in all those cases implying something of a composite state, formed of several disparate elements.
Is this calling to mind some of what came up last week, in the context of nations? Because it should. Whether or not there are subordinate kings ruling over different parts of the empire, that composite nature is often central to definitions of empire. But of course, aren’t many places made up of separate components from the get-go? A thousand years ago, there was a big difference between the territories and languages and cultures of Brittany and Aquitaine; does that mean the Kingdom of France at the time was an empire by a different name?
Maybe! Like I said, this is far from a clear-cut topic. Certainly I’ve seen it argued, very convincingly, that Rome became an empire long before the Roman Republic collapsed and re-formed itself as the Roman Empire. When the people of one city-state halfway up the Italian Peninsula set about assimilating or conquering all their neighbors — people who absolutely considered themselves ethnically different from the Romans — they began grafting together a diverse realm built of many different polities. Just because we call all those places “Italy” now doesn’t mean it looked unified to anybody at the time.
But many concepts of empire require a bit more than just Lego-style construction. I almost it Borg-style, but actually, I don’t think that’s appropriate here. The process of transforming identity so that inhabitants think of themselves as a nation is meant to erase the divisions between the components, but in an empire, the components often remain more distinct — not just as a matter of identity, but as a matter of law. People in one part of the empire often have different legal rights and obligations than people in another part, on top of the differences that may attach to their individual status (e.g. nobility vs. commoner).
That distinction leads toward another key element often referenced in discussing empires, which is the relationship between the various sub-units. Specifically, an empire tends to differentiate between its core — the homeland that has subjugated its neighbors — and the periphery. The former is privileged over the latter, not just legally but economically: wealth is drained from the periphery to support the core. This is why, although the United States is made up of legally distinct units, the states are not imperial possessions; snarky comments on our current politics aside, California and Kansas and Connecticut are not bled dry to enrich our conquerors in Washington, D.C. We’re a federation, not an empire, and the flow is much more multidirectional.
But of course, it isn’t like you can’t talk about the United States in related terms. The Age of Sail gave rise not only to literal empires that conquered and assimilated foreign territory, but to a broader practice of “imperialism” whose legacy we’re still struggling with today. This extends the concept beyond direct political ownership to types of soft power that control and exploit the target — still for the benefit of that core homeland and the people there. This has persisted long after many of our formal empires decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to actually rule far-distant lands.
One useful term to think of here is hegemony. Strictly speaking, you might be able to call the United States an empire if you focus on the political status of Guam, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa, but it is unquestionably a hegemonic power, exerting dominance well beyond its borders. And that tends to be true of many empires, because their size and ability to assert claims over other territories means they’ve got the muscle to influence trade and the balance of power in their vicinity — a vicinity that, with modern technology, can extend all the way around the globe. When that muscle begins to weaken, look for rivals to start nibbling at the borders, and some of the empire’s constituent elements to peel off and re-establish their independence.
Because, of course, no empire lasts forever. They’ve been coming together and falling apart since long before we used that word.