“The Decline and Fall of Empire”
A Review of
The Rule of Empires:
Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them,
and Why They Always Fall .
By Timothy Parsons.
Reviewed by Margaret D’Anieri.
[ Read an excerpt from this book… ]
The Rule of Empires:
Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them,
and Why They Always Fall.
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
As I walked into a coffee shop recently, I noticed that the entryway was adorned with pithy sayings in the form of faux shaving cream on the clear doors and windows. One of those sayings was “build communities, not empires.” A new book, The Rule of Empires by Timothy Parsons, argues that empire builders often believed they could do both: expand the reach of political and economic control while building a communal identity that would better the empire’s subjects. Whether naïve belief or cynical rationalization, Parsons suggests that this construct is an empty one:
By their very nature, empires can never be – and never were – humane, liberal, or tolerant. Would-be Caesars throughout history sought glory, land, and, most important, plunder. This true nature of empire was more obvious in pre-modern times when it was unnecessary to disguise such base motives. In recent centuries, however, imperial conquerors have tried to hide their naked self-interest by promising to rule for the good of their subjects. This was and always will be a cynical and hypocritical canard. Empire has never been more than naked self-interest masquerading as virtue.
Parsons argues his thesis in great detail, using seven cases of empire building that span two millennia. Each chapter gives historical background and foreground, narrowing from the broad strokes of the mainstream historical narrative of “western civilization” to the details of personalities. The book is long (450 pages), and would greatly benefit from sub-chapter sections to organize the material, which seems to ramble in places. The footnotes are thorough and detailed, although the index is a bit thin.
He begins with the Roman Empire’s expansion into Britain. As with the other chapters, this one covers not just that particular expression of the Roman Empire, but gives quite extensive background on the Roman Empire as a whole, given that it “exemplified imperial power and became a yardstick for westerners to measure the empires that succeeded it.” Rome is the standard for empire because of its longevity, its geographic expanse, its apparent cultural hegemony and cultural achievements, and the accompanying Pax Romana. Left out of that précis of history is what empire meant for its subjects. In the case of the expansion of the Roman Empire into Britain, it meant looting, plundering, the exacting of tribute, and attempts to “romanize” local cultures and communities from a paternalistic understanding that it would be “good for them.” The way to “romanize” locals was to enlist some of them by way of military commission or a position in the local bureaucracy, blurring the line between citizen and subject. As decades and centuries rolled on, the amount required to support the growing military and the bureaucracy left no option but expansion and steeper exploitation of subject peoples. Eventually this became untenable, and in the case of Roman Britain, armed revolts beginning in 47 C.E. not only killed tens of thousands of Romans, but also desecrated Roman temples and other cultural symbols – begging the question as to whether the Britons valued the Roman Empire as “good for them”.
Parsons defines empire as “the direct and authoritarian rule of one group of people by another”, with the subject people always devalued as somehow inferior, based on race, ethnicity, culture, and/or religion. Subsequent chapters cover the Umayyad Caliphate (the Arab Muslim empire that stretched from Spain to China), the Spanish conquests and rule in South America, the British in India, the Napoleonic Empire, the British in Kenya, and France under the Nazis.
None of these were repeats of the Roman Empire. Parsons shows how the details of empire changed over time, and offers a contrasting view to that of the history written by the victors. One example: “Most Spanish chroniclers depicted the [conquistadors] as daring heroes who single-handedly overthrew a mighty heathen tyrant, but in reality they hijacked one of the great empires of the New World by exploiting the deep rifts in the Incan Empire.”
The subtitle of the chapter on India is “Private Empire Building”. What began as commercial exploitation of the Indian textile and spice economy eventually involved the resources of official Britain, a country that was developing a sense of common “Britishness” with the unification of Wales, Scotland and Britain as the United Kingdom in the early 18th century, and that sense of Britishness “was an enormously powerful tool at a time when most peoples of the early modern era still identified themselves primarily on the basis of locality, occupation, and religion … British imperial thinkers became increasingly confident that, as a free people, they had a duty to develop the world that God had given them.” Divine obligation is one of the threads that runs through the history of empire – but in each case, what begins from a sense of piety soon is co-opted by economic and political goals.
I have not heard the words “Nazi” and “empire” used together, but Parsons makes the point that the Third Reich was indeed an empire: the Reich ruled subject peoples deemed inferior, beginning with the invasions of Eastern Europe and France. A commentator of the time argued that Hitler “applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.” What began for the French as a hope that they would avoid the destruction of the First World War by collaborating with what they perceived as an equal was turned against them. As had been true for most empires, the wealth of the Nazi empire was first and foremost in subject labor, and that labor was used to free German men for military service. Even in the case of the Jews who were brutally treated and horrifically exterminated, the Germans extracted wealth by seizing assets and the slave labor in the camps. “No other regime in history made mass murder the central focus of state policy. Yet there is also no denying that Nazism was born of the same extremist nationalism and social Darwinism that drove the new imperialism in Africa and Asia.”
It is impossible to read this book without seeing the parallels to the American role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the book has a long conclusion in which Parsons contrasts the perspective of the American architects of the war in Iraq with that of the Iraqis. One is quoted thus: “They came to liberate us. Liberate us from what? … We have our own traditions, morals and customs.” Parsons argues that one cannot dismiss the role of contemporary plunder in the form of Iraqi oil revenue, assumed to eventually pay for the costs of the invasion, occupation, and rebuilding of Iraq. “As with the new imperialism, Bush officials masked the inherent self-interest of Operation Iraqi Freedom with humanitarian rhetoric … arguing that the United States had a moral obligation to spread free markets, human rights, and democracy. The inevitability of civilian casualties was largely absent from this legitimizing rhetoric.”
Parsons argues that the days of empire, whether called that or not, are over in this transnational and über-linked world. No longer can imperial powers isolate intended subjects; no longer can would-be imperialists legitimize their efforts from a pietistic or paternalistic perspective in a pluralistic and post-modern world. What Parsons does not address is what the response should be to legitimate threats and situations that demand intervention – how one might define legitimate? Should the resources that went to the effort in Iraq gone instead to Rwanda during the genocide? Why or why not? “Imperialist balance sheets are inevitably subjective and selective in deciding what constitutes the greater good and what does not.” It is an understatement to say that deciding what is the greater good is complex in our day and age, and it seems that Parsons would define almost any war as imperialist. The time of empire may be over, but unfortunately inhumanity and brutality are not, and deciding if and how one power intervenes in the affairs of another is still a question nations and citizens must address.
Margaret D’Anieri is the rector of St. Paul Episcopal Church in Norwalk, Ohio.