- Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper
Empires matter. Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper remind us that empire—as a form of state—enjoyed a much longer life than has the nation-state of the present. Competition between empires to capture, mobilize, and control resources profoundly shaped the course of human history at local, regional, and global scales for millennia. One of the most persistent questions faced by imperial rulers was how to govern and exploit diverse and widely scattered populations. In Empires in World History Burbank and Cooper examine how some dozen of the most influential empires did precisely that. Their approach challenges a number of recent interpretations not only of particular empires but also of the relationship between empire-states and nation-states.
Burbank and Cooper argue that the acquisition and maintenance of imperial power always required local-level intermediaries—individuals of influence drawn from a conquered society who enabled control from afar. The persistent trouble with intermediaries was that they had their own interests in mind. Their cooperation was always contingent upon perceived benefits, special concessions, and the like. Intermediaries could never be taken for granted. All empires therefore had to find ways to incentivize both cooperation and subordination. Hence imperial power demanded the careful manipulation of what Burbank and Cooper refer to as a “politics of difference”—a way of accommodating competing interests and ultimately of “governing different people differently” (p. 184).
Techniques for doing this varied markedly. Burbank and Cooper make the case for two general tendencies, which they trace to two ancient manifestations of empire. The Qin and Han dynasties of ancient China fashioned institutions that recognized and preserved the ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences that distinguished their various subject populations. By contrast, Roman leaders built their empire [End Page 943] using their own culture as a unifying force. Acceptance of Roman culture became a prerequisite for imperial citizenship. Chinese empire was culturally inclusive; that of Rome was increasingly exclusive.
According to Burbank and Cooper, these empires heavily influenced their regional successors in two ways. First, each established a framework for what the authors refer to as an “imperial imaginary”—a particular vision of the kind of empire that was possible and desirable for subsequent expansionist polities. Second, if imperial imaginaries consisted of ideas and values, the institutional manifestations of those were fashioned from a range of inherited techniques of governance and in response to particular contexts. Defining these “repertoires of power” is how Burbank and Cooper link intellectual currents to on-the-ground outcomes. Later Chinese rulers inherited from their Qin and Han predecessors an imperial political culture that preferred a centralized and highly administrative brand of leadership—one that reached across continental expanses and in which diverse populations were managed with an extensive civil service. The Roman stress on various kinds of cultural conformity, their linkage of political power and military conquest, and their creation of an empire built across land and sea served as a model for later empires of western Christendom. The implications of these differences were far-reaching. The survival of a bureaucratic institutional infrastructure and of a specially trained class of functionaries were part of what made it possible to recreate Chinese empire under Mongol and other auspices. But in the Roman case, political leadership predicated on military command fostered civil war. Its late-imperial monotheism made it even more difficult to secure collaboration and hold together a vast and besieged polity. These and other aspects of the Roman Empire engendered fissures that would continue to divide its successor kingdoms in the western Mediterranean.
As they work through the fourteen chapters of Empires in World History, Burbank and Cooper show how political imaginations and imperial toolkits were inherited and refashioned to suit the ambitions and exigencies of a succession of expansionist polities across Eurasia. The ideas and institutions that were inherited by leaders of empire in one moment were never the same as...