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  • Empires and Bureaucracy in World History: From Late Antiquity to the Twentieth Century ed. by Peter Crooks and Timothy H. Parsons
  • John Deak
Empires and Bureaucracy in World History: From Late Antiquity to the Twentieth Century. Edited by peter crooks and timothy h. parsons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xxii, 474 pp. $126.00 (hardcover); $35.99 (paper); $29.00 (ebook).

This volume of eighteen essays, spanning over 450 pages of text, collectively examines the intersection of empire and bureaucracy. Call them what you will: bean-counters, pedants, mustachioed Napoleons in love with their arbitrary authority, officials—"bureaucrats" is not necessarily a neutral term—were necessary for princes, kings, emperors, trading and colonial corporations, and imperial governments to project power and build and maintain their empire. Empires have been with us for millennia, but how did they "rule over different peoples across vast expanses of space and time?" Following the "imperial turn," which has established how much empires have been the rule and nation-states the exception, these essays ask how "real empires actually ran" (p. 3).

Together these eighteen essays, including a very good introductory essay by the editors, examine empires in terms of their bureaucracies, the officials who did the work of ruling. Their subject then, is not on the discourses and mentalities that undergirded the economies of empires and the internalization of discipline, but rather on the "formal institutions of imperial governance" (p. 7). This is admittedly history of the old school, but one that has been informed by the accumulation of knowledge and practices of the social and cultural histories. [End Page 433]

The essays themselves span a breathtaking breadth of time and space. Patricia Ebrey contributes an examination of bureaucracy in Song China (960–1276 a.d.). She argues that Chinese officials provided the necessary infrastructure to govern over 100 million subjects with relative effectiveness and stability. István T. Kristó-Nagy writes about Arab rulers and Persian administrators in the early years of Arab-Islamic conquest. From there we move forward in time to the Incan Empire (Chris Given-Wilson) and the Ottoman Empire (Karen Barkey). These essays help expand our idea of administrators, who they were and what they did, and how often enough they could come up with effective ways of projecting power from the center.

From there, the book shifts back to the center of Europe with five essays covering the period from the late Roman Empire to the Middle Ages. Michael Whitby argues in an essay on the late Roman Empire that it was above all administrative competence combined with a unified and unifying culture that glued the disparate pieces of the Roman Empire together. A strong essay by John Haldon on bureaucracy in Byzantium makes the argument that the Eastern Roman Empire was indeed a bureaucratic state. It was the deeply-rooted institutions, staffed by Byzantine officials, which allowed the empire to weather crises. Moreover, the bureaucracy itself, belonging to a common social class, could forge connections with one another—often enough providing flexibility to a system that may have looked more rigid on paper than it actually was or needed to be. Essays follow on Carolingian military administration, for bureaucrats were often needed to raise and maintain an army; the crisis of the English State and the Angevin Empire in the turn of the thirteenth century (John Gillingham); and an essay on the importance of the word and the medium of parchment in the Late Middle Ages (Len Scales). Finally, Peter Crooks contributes an essay on England and the "brittleness of bureaucracy" from 1259 to 1453.

The last section of six essays turns to the modern period and the commercial empires of Spain, Britain, and France. Christopher Storrs' essay on Spain elaborates on how an effective bureaucracy gave way to encroachment by local elites in the New World, so much so that when Spain sought to reassert its authority by promoting administrative efficiency in the early nineteenth century, it provoked resentment among its colonial subjects. Jack P. Greene's essay on Britain's overseas empire echoes this sentiment, the American colonies being a case in point. A wonderful essay by Michael Broers on Napoleon's empire...


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