The shape of history

A comprehensive tome on the rise and fall of empires.

'The Rise and Fall of the Great Empires' by Andrew Taylor, Quercus, 2008

Why do mighty empires rise, and why do they fall? The English historian Edward Gibbon spent a lifetime of intellectual energy examining why the Roman Empire disintegrated the way it did. From a historical vantage point, could we today come up with a case for the moral and political benefits of an imperialist policy in what is essentially a postcolonial, post-imperial world? "Empires seem to have gone out of fashion," Andrew Taylor says at the outset of this new work, although conceding that of late there has been renewed academic interest in American expansionism and the view of America as an 'empire'.

Looking back, it could hardly have been imagined that the East India Company would herald British rule in India for two centuries. The historian Sir John Seeley (1834-95) famously suggested that the British "seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind". Historian and economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) thinks that modern imperialism was only a throwback, the last expression of a medieval warrior aristocracy, soon to be swept away by the cosmopolitanism of capitalism. Vladimir Lenin's First World War manuscript Imperialism, published in 1916, held that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism, the inevitable end result of the 'monopoly stage' of capitalism. Would the state of modern America, the Pax Americana, what historians such as Niall Ferguson consider the latest empire, warrant Lenin's thesis?

At the same time, historians do not desist from attempting to reconstruct empires, because they give us unique clues to the shape of the world we have inherited. They speak of the brutal tales of territorial aggrandisement and the lust for power and wealth that have undone mankind. Privy to the tales of a clash of ideologies, of cultures and civilisations locking horns and sometimes subsuming each other, we wonder how the national boundaries and alignments that we zealously guard today would fare in the massive welter of civilisational Darwinism. Another British historian, G M Trevelyan, once wrote, "There is nothing that more divides civilised from semi-savage man than to be conscious of our forefathers as they really were, and bit by bit to reconstruct the mosaic of the long forgotten past … How far can we know the real life of men in each successive age of the past?" It is for this reason that we treasure such works as A Short History of the World by H G Wells or A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee.

Andrew Taylor's study of empires is vast in its sweep. Moreover, his new book is grandly produced, complete with all the regalia of exquisite plates, photographs, lithographs, paintings and portraits that accompany the pages. Taylor, a journalist and Sunday Times columnist, begins with the earliest-known empire, the Sumerian, which grew up around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern Iraq some 4500 years ago. Taylor's job is difficult because there is little material ('historiography' in modern parlance) on what might be called the early generation of empires – Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, the Hittites, the Indus states – though there exist relatively ample written documents of the second generation of empires, namely those of Athens, Macedonia, Persia, Carthage and Rome.

More significantly for such research, 'empire' can connote a great sprawl of meaning. The term encompasses wide differences of origin and nature among the Macedonian, Carthaginian, Roman, Persian, Ottoman, Carolingian, Mongol, Incan, Mughal, British and Russian empires, to name just a few. There are land empires and oceanic empires. There are peasant empires and slave empires. There are empires such as the Ottoman, based on a common religious faith; and there are religiously tolerant, pagan or even largely secular empires, such as what Rome became in its grandest centuries. There are short-lived empires, based, like that of Alexander the Great, upon raw military power. And there are empires that thrive for centuries – usually because, like Rome and Carthage, they achieve a commercial prosperity that can enlist the allegiance of far-flung economic elites, or because they establish a professional civil service, an imperial governing class. In sitting down to graph the 'great' empires, where does one start?

Enervation and luxury
Taylor trains his spotlight on 25 imperial hegemonies from every period of global history, and analyses their power structures, and social and cultural values. More importantly, he goes on to make a reductionist attempt to identify the causes of their rise and fall. For the sheer disparateness of individual empires, it is often difficult to see a common theme, though Taylor does chart a huge area of history. Among the pre-Christian empires, the odyssey begins right from the Sumerians and Assyrians, through the Achaemenids, the Athenians and the empire of Alexander the Great, the latter made luminous by the Roman Empire. Finally we see the Chinese Empire, which started from 221 BC (the traditional date given for the unification of China) and ended with the suicide of the last Ming emperor, in 1644. Even gaining some scrutiny is the lesser-known empire of Aksum (the northern Ethiopian kingdom that stood on one of the world's great sea trading routes between Europe, India and East Asia), which existed between the fifth and sixth centuries BC.

The Byzantine Empire provided a crucial link between the ancient world and modern civilisation, largely during the rule of Justinian, between 527 and 565 AD. Taylor points to the First Crusade, set in motion in 1095 at the walls of Constantinople to call for an armed pilgrimage to drive the Turks out of Jerusalem, as sowing the seeds of the dissolution of the Byzantine Empire. He considers the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, almost four centuries later in 1453, as the event that finally marked the end of the empire. But Gibbon, when he began to write his monumental The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, contemplated the Roman Empire on a larger canvas that included the Byzantine, the Umayyad and the Abbasid. Taylor, however, makes a 'micro' division by treating each empire separately: the Umayyad Empire – the first of the two great Arab empires that dominated West Asia following the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632; the Abbasid Empire and the Turkish Empire, which succeeded the Byzantine and Arab empires.

Rome's empire, however, was the 'real' thing. Brutal force and occupation held it together at least until the benefits of law and order, trade and cultural assimilation reconciled colonised peoples to their new status. Historians such as the second-century Suetonius felt compelled to say that the Roman Empire was a civilising and humane force. Like most classical empires, it was a single geographical bloc, its frontiers garrisoned and its limits set by the reach and pace of troops as well as by the organisational skill that ensured that imperial armies could be paid and fed. At constant war with barbarians on the northern front and with the all-too-civilised Persians to the east, Rome had no allies, only satellites and client states that were required to reward their protectors with tribute that symbolised dependence.

In addition, Rome showed no generosity to its vanquished armies. It organised no Marshall Plans or International Monetary Fund bailouts to help them recoup and join the ranks of the civilised world. Carthage was destroyed and salt ploughed into its fields to render them forever barren. Of his fellow Romans' approach to pacification, the historian Tacitus said, "They make a wasteland and call it peace." If we study Gibbon, we learn that two dispositions prompted Rome's decline: enervation and luxury, both leading to corruption. Small wonder, then, that the Roman Empire continues to attract scholarly attention in almost any study of imperialism to this day.

Guns and roses
So why do some empires become more powerful than others? The Mongols presided over the largest land empire in history, covering more than 12 million square miles from the Pacific Ocean to the shores of the Danube; but this lasted for less than a century. Genghis Khan made Europe tremble with fear during the 13th century, rampaging on the back of his horse. He and the Mongols were helped by the invention of modern stirrups, which enabled them to fight with both hands – and, in effect, to dominate Eurasia. The Incas held sway in the Andes due to the roads they constructed and their aptitude at military organisation. Maritime skill and artillery helped the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French to make inroads into the trade of Asia and Africa after 1500. The new-fangled weaponry made possible after the Industrial Revolution likewise was to give the Europeans those repeating rifles and machine guns, marking the high noon of 'high imperialism' in the late 19th century.

Leaving aside the empires of yore, it might be more relevant for us to look at why three notable attempts at empire during the last century – the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and imperial Japan (conspicuously not included in The Rise and Fall of the Great Empires) – ended in collapse. If we regard the late 15th century as the starting point of European imperialism, we can see how that time was radically different from our own. That was a time when the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese thought they were expanding their commercial frontiers into sparsely populated parcels of land unattached to a national entity through a trail of blood, conquest, enslavement and colonial administration. After 1776, the year of the American Revolution, the right to self-determination inspired nationalist leaders throughout the world, and muzzled the direct assertion of imperial power. But the British, Turkish and French empires continued to suppress nationalism by the then-approved method: massacre.

Taylor's book does prompt one to ponder. To Spain's Conquistadors, who burned ethnic Arawak villages while carrying the cross, one can compare David Livingstone, who rested his hand on his revolver while the other clasped a Bible. The story of the Conquistadors is perhaps the bloodiest, in which a few shiploads of Europeans completely destroyed several Central and South American civilisations. But today, too, cluster bombs are dropped, civilians are murdered and prisoners of war are tortured in the name of democracy and human rights – the same moral, 'civilising' justification that led British imperialists to conquer at will. Why, when the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires survived for centuries, even after their power began to wane, did the British Empire collapse so quickly? Taylor argues that the British had been bankrupted by the Second World War, and the next 25 years saw an "undignified scramble" out of imperial connections in Southeast Asia, the Subcontinent and Africa. "The whole process was faster than British administrators had expected," he writes, "and a lot less peaceful and orderly than they had expected." The biggest retreat, from India, came with "tragic haste: with law and order breaking down". That is all the author has to say about the imperialist skulduggery that led to the gore and horror of Partition.

Taylor's seminal contribution is providing historical perspective. If gleaning the contents would have been the primary difficulty, periodising them must not have been any less strenuous. Taylor says in his introduction, "Certain starts or end dates may appear contentious, but the rationale for their placement is consistently explained." Empires that should have been included are noted; how he is at variance with Gibbon, for instance, has been cited. Besides, so many works have been produced on individual empires that inevitably there will be questions as to why the author highlights some empire or era and not the other. This does not reduce the merit of the book, though one has a few quibbles. This reviewer, for instance, wishes that Taylor had catalogued a succession of empires in Asia proper – including Ashoka in India and the Han in China. He also has no place for the Venetian Empire, which, though it never grew to any great size, was interesting in more ways than one. Finally, the brush with the American Empire seems ritualistic, because Taylor makes no real effort to examine American expansionism to the present day vis-à-vis Iraq and Afghanistan. At the very least, could not the new global pax be considered guilty of transgressing two great seats of ancient civilisations? Warts and all, to imagine an imperial tour de horizon is no mean task. Taylor's panoramic cosmology, with no pretension to heavy scholarship for a change, whets our taste for history.

~ Prasenjit Chowdhury is a freelance writer in Calcutta.

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