- Tributary Empires in Global History ed. by Peter Fibiger Bang and C. A. Bayly
Consisting of fourteen different essays divided into three sections, Bang and Bayly’s Tributary Empires in Global History provides a sense of the current state of the field regarding the study of premodern empire. The geographical and temporal scope of the essays ranges from ancient Rome to British India, and also includes the Ottoman, Mughal, Safavid, Mongol, Habsburg, and Russian empires.1 As underscored by a quotation from Marc Bloch used as an epigraph to the volume—l’unité de lieu n’est que désordre / Seule l’unité de problème fait centre2—the editors’ aim is not in-depth coverage of one, or even several, locations or empires so much as the promotion of fruitful interchange between scholars working on the question or “problem” of tributary empires more generally.
One of the implicit goals of the editors seems to be to provide a longer-term perspective as a background to current debates about empire, which tend to focus either on American empire in the political realm or on relatively recent Western colonial empires in the scholarly realm. The contributions in this volume provide a useful reminder that empire is neither Western nor modern in origin or by nature, and that there are continuities both in the challenges that a diverse array [End Page 417] of empires have faced and the way in which we speak about empire, whether ancient or modern.
A coauthored introductory essay by Bang and Bayly seeks to provide the intellectual justification for the volume. In order to give coherence to the object of their study, they define the term “tributary empire” as used in the title. The essays are not about tribute per se. Rather, their usage refers specifically to agrarian domains that taxed surplus production and that through expansion “were able to absorb most of their competitors and reduce them either to taxpaying provinces or tributary client kingdoms” (p. 6). They note that another common feature of “tributary empires” is that their rulers “saw themselves as universal emperors” (p. 7). The editors draw a distinction between tributary empires and commercial or colonial empires, yet the inclusion of the British empire begs the question of how clear a line can actually be drawn between traditional/tributary and commercial/colonial.
The remaining chapters are grouped into sections on historiography, theoretical perspective, and comparative approaches. Part 1, “Historiographies of Empire,” includes three essays. C. A. Bayly writes on nineteenth-century British histories of empire and their Indian critics, demonstrating clearly how inflected scholarship was by the political debates of the day—including, of course, the challenges and questions posed by Britain’s own empire in India. Bayly finds that nineteenth-century British preoccupations with race, religion, and liberty still form the foundation for much popular thinking about empire today. The second chapter in part 1 is Fabrizio De Donno’s “British-Roman Empire of Lord Bryce and His Italian Critics.” Demonstrating how the Italian historiography of Rome was shaped partly in response to Bryce’s work, the essay highlights the emergence of a European scholarship on empire. In the final chapter of the historiographic section Baki Tezcan chronicles the development of a nineteenth-century narrative of a corrupt “Ottoman Ancien Régime,” which served to justify the dismantling of several of its key institutions. As the author puts it, “the retrospective construction of a corrupt ancien régime in perpetual and irredeemable decay that could only be saved by destruction was the only way to legitimize the new Order.” The piece is both fascinating and highly revisionist in that it demonstrates how the janissaries and the ulema fell victim to strong forces of autocratic centralization carried out in the name of reform and modernization. The result was the removal of a system of checks and balances that had worked more or less effectively for centuries.
Part 2, “Theoretical Perspectives on Empire,” contains five chapters with a broad range of approaches...