A Typology of Empires throughout History

Istanbul; for centuries it was the crossroads of empire.

Istanbul, crossroads of empire.

I have been studying quite a lot about empires of late; their commonalities, differences, and circumstances. They may all look different, but a remarkably similar in perception. Merriam-Webster defines an empire as:

a (1): a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority; especially: one having an emperor as chief of state (2):  the territory of such a political unit.

b:  something resembling a political empire; especially:  an extensive territory or enterprise under single domination or control.

Despite this seeming commonality, empires have had various types of governments, economies, religions, cultures, etc. They have existed in different times, divergent locations, and with strikingly disparate ambitions. While the people living within those empires believed that encompassed all of the power worth considering, today most of them look surprising small, challenged, and fragile. Even the most successful of the world’s empires were less than omnipotent, even at their most powerful.

When one peels back the layers, furthermore, I would suggest that there may have been only four types of empires in recorded human history. These four types I believe encapsulate all of the empires about which we have any knowledge. This typology may be satisfactory only to myself but let me outline my four types.

The Roman Empire at its height in 117 CE.

The Roman Empire at its height in 117 CE.

First, there are the “classical” empires of Western Civilization. Some of the most well-known in this category include the Roman Empire, the Ming dynasty of China, and the Ottoman Empire. The type of empire was built on the control of land, especially continuous land, and the bounty that came from it. There might be some divergences between empires of the type; especially the Mediterranean empire of Rome with its huge “lake” in its center and the enormous land mass of China; but the critical aspect of the empire was its ability to control land from outside threat and internal dissension. Its bureaucracy, justice system, economics and trade all made the sustaining of the empire possible, sometimes for very long periods. Usually a combination of internal dissent and external threat eventually took these empires down.

Second, the “mercantile” empires established by Europe after 1500 were distinguished from the “classical” type by the maritime emphasis they possessed. These empires relied on trade. Especially in Asia and Africa, European activities were limited to seizing labor, maintaining bases and depots but not much in the way of colonial settlements, and the extraction of wealth. They may have supplanted the local elites, but more often than not they incorporated local leaders into the power structure and together overcame the solidity of tribes or other local political and economic systems. In reality, however, the true power of these “mercantile” empires rested on the oceans and seas, were corporate in structure, and had very few outposts such as Bombay and Calcutta, Batavia and Macao, Madras and Goa.

Third, at the same time “settler” empires emerged under European suzerainty especially in the Americas. Spanish, French, English, and Dutch settlers established first slave labor societies in the Caribbean and then on the American continents. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many of these colonies gained their independence, establishing a separate type of governmental, economic, social, and political structure modeled on the former mother country’s system. They may have then gone on to establish their own form of empire.

The British empire at its height.

The British empire at its height.

In other parts of the world, which had been dominated by “mercantile” empires from Europe, furthermore, also transformed in some cases into “settler” empires. The British in Africa, Australia, and parts of Asia offer an especially good example of this transformation. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, perhaps the high point of empire for that island nation, the British dominated every aspect of global economics and politics. It took two world wars, economic recession, and the rise of pro-democracy movements in the latter half of the twentieth century that led to the demise of the British empire.

Fourth, an age dominated by “ideological” empires emerged in the Cold War era based less on the occupation of land than on the ideological influence of other rulers and nations. The United States was the best example of this new imperial structure. It spent enormous effort influencing other nations to side with them in their rivalry with the Soviet Union. It also formed alliances, built bases world-wide, and deployed troops around the globe to ensure its hegemony.

Does this typology make sense to readers. What am I missing?

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One Response to A Typology of Empires throughout History

  1. Roger:

    I think it might be productive to think of a spectrum rather than distinct types. Many empires had multiple typologies going on simultaneously. The example that springs to mind is how the Spanish Empire in Europe was different from the Spanish Empire outside Europe. Also, I wonder whether (if one sticks with distinct typologies) one might separate the really ancient empires from the classical ones.



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