Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.07.15

Eric H. Cline, Mark W. Graham, Ancient Empires: from Mesopotamia to the Rise of Islam.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. xviii, 368.  ISBN 9780521717809.  $50.00 (pb).  

Peter Fibiger Bang, C. A. Bayly (ed.), Tributary Empires in Global History. Cambridge Imperial and Post-colonial Studies.   Basingstoke; New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.  Pp. xiii, 294.  ISBN 9780230308411.  $29.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Rolf Strootman, University of Utrecht (

Preview of Ancient Empires
[The Table of Contents for Tributary Empires is listed below.]

Premodern tributary empires – big, expansionist, tribute-taking polities characterized by cultural, religious and political diversity – have been among the most conspicuous and succesful states (if "states" they were) in world history. In the past decades, historians have been reconsidering the nature of imperial rule, and the significance of empires for global developments. From new perceptions of empires as networks of social and economic relations and as essentially negotiated enterprises, historians have conceived new ways of thinking about inter alia the post-Classical Ottoman Empire or the Spanish Empire in the Americas.1 Some authors have tried to write the global history of empire.2 Several edited volumes have been produced approaching empires from a comparative perspective, some of them concerned with the Ancient World.3 But Ancient History, with the exception of some historians of the Roman Empire, is only slowly catching up with these developments, as many scholars continue to treat the despotic absolutism of imperial rulers like the Achaemenid Great King or the Hellenistic basileus as if it were an historical given.

In Ancient Empires: From Mesopotamia to the Rise of Islam, Eric Cline and Mark Graham define "empire" with M. W. Doyle as a system of interaction between two political entities, a dominant center and a subordinate periphery – a definition that is workable although it does not do full justice to the complexity and diversity of imperial systems, and is perhaps more appropriate to the European overseas empires of the modern age. Their main question is, how did ancient empires, or their ruling groups, manage to hold their position of dominance? They then proceed to give a lucid textbook account of the history of imperialism from the Neo-Assyrian Empire to the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate.

A major plus of this overview is its comprehensiveness, which allows the authors to trace long-term developments. This reviewer was very pleased indeed to notice that Cline and Graham do not follow the usual pattern of ignoring the Macedonian imperialism of the Hellenistic Age, the "missing link" between the Ancient Near East and the Roman Empire but notoriously difficult to position in analyses of long-term cultural and political developments. The brief discussion at the end of the book of the Arab conquests and the continuity of Ancient imperial practices and values in the Umayyad Middle East is also a refreshing addition (although it would perhaps have been more ground- breaking to ignore obsolete period boundaries altogether and discuss the Umayyads and Abbasids at more length until the real end of empire in western Eurasia c. 900 CE).

The all-inclusive approach to the world of ancient empires has its drawbacks, too. It first of all leads to the incorporation of some maverick empires such as the Athenian thalassocracy in the fifth century BCE, and in a sense also the Roman Empire, and that distracts from what would otherwise have been a focus on tributary land empires centered on the Near East. The wish to be comprehensive moreover impels the authors to review at length subjects related secondarily to their main theme, for instance the Phoenician cities' overseas expansion, the cultural achievements of the Greek world, or the history of the Israelite kingdoms of David and Solomon (where Biblical accounts are too easily taken as historical fact), so that it often feels as if one is reading a general textbook of Ancient History instead of a book specifically concerned with the theme of empire. The book furthermore would have benefitted from consulting recent scholarship on empire for a more solid theoretical foundation. As it is now, the only analytical instrumentarium informing Ancient Empires is the recognition, following Michael Mann's model of state power, of four overlapping "sources of social power": ideology, economics, military, and politics. But these parameters together cover all aspects of Ancient societies. A fascinating, more in-depth theme that runs through the book is the emphasis on responses such as resistance to empire, though the oppositions are often over- simplified and over-reliant on partisan sources (for instance in the accounts of the Greco-Persian Wars or the Makkabean Revolt).

Tributary Empires in Global History, edited by Peter Fibiger Bang and C. A. Bayly, focuses on “pre-colonial” agrarian land empires, mainly in western Eurasia. It is not a conference volume but the outcomes of several meetings of the international comparative project Tributary Empires Compared that was launched in 2005.

Historians studying ancient empires can benefit from this volume devoted to broad world-historical themes. Of the thirteen studies collected in the book, four pertain to the ancient world directly (Salmeri, Bang, Scheidel, Wickham) and two indirectly (Bayly and De Donno, both discussing perceptions of the Roman Empire in the context of nineteenth-century British imperialism). The titles of the contributions are listed at the end of this review.

The ancient world is represented almost exclusively by the Roman Empire. There is no Assyrian, Persian, Seleukid, Parthian, or Sasanid Empire. But the emphasis on the historiography of empire (Part I of the book, containing three chapters), theoretical perspectives (Part II, five chapters), and comparative approaches (Part III, five chapters) means that for the student of ancient empires there is also a lot to gain from reading the non-ancient sections. The military land empires of later ages like the ones created by the Timurid, Mughal or Ottoman dynasties faced essentially similar geo-political constraints on logistics and communication to, say, the Seleukids or Sasanians, and upheld basically the same universalistic ideologies presenting empire as a peaceful, united world meant to integrate the heterogeneous cultures and polities that had forcefully been brought under the umbrella of imperial hegemony.

The introduction by the editors emphasizes the latter aspect. The authors explain the book's remarkable cover illustration – a photograph from 2005 showing the leaders of the eastern churches performing funeral rites for Pope John Paul II in Rome – by showing how the imperial symbolism and ritual of the monotheistic Roman world empire live on in the universalistic aspirations of the Roman Catholic Church. The ecumenical church also serves to illustrate the paradigm of empire as essentially a network of power relations. Empire, the editors claim, is a composite, hierarchical ordered system characterized by the central paradox of, on the one hand, the creation of (seemingly) strong state capacities and, on the other hand, the existence within the imperial system of local and regional forms of autonomy that both facilitate the mechanisms and limit the reach of imperial control. Working from Michael Mann's understanding of states as open-ended systems "constituted of multiple overlapping and intersecting sociospatial networks of power",4 the volume "seeks to explore from a number of complementary perspectives the tension in our understanding of the extensive empires of the agrarian past between widespread notions of unrivalled imperial might and frequent weakness in government" (p. 4). Empire is neither a centralized state nor a federation, as W. G. Runciman defines the subject in his helpful contribution on "Empire as a topic in comparative sociology".

Imperial strategies to deal with diversity, logistical constraints, and recurring crises can vary widely and develop through time even in one and the same empire. Ancient historians can benefit from such insights. For instance for a field as obsessed with the continuity of previous (Achaemenid and pharaonic) imperial practices and ideologies as the present-day study of the Hellenistic Near East, where the respective competing empires of Seleukids and Ptolemies are increasingly studied in isolation, it may be refreshing to consider that the later Ottoman Empire may have had less in common with its own premodern antecedents than with contemporaneous Austria-Hungary or Tsarist Russia, as the result of interaction, competition and adaptation to global developments that affected all three of them. The responses to global crisis in the Ottoman, Habsburg, and Tsarist empires are discussed by Karen Barkey and Rudi Batzell in their contribution on "Comparisons across empires", showing how the divergent adaptations to the economic and political emergencies that occurred in Eurasia in the mid-seventeenth century prompted in these empires processes of transformation that would eventually result in the modernization policies of the nineteenth century.

One of the most successful pieces was contributed by one of the editors, Peter Fibiger Bang. In "Lords of all the World: The state, heterogeneous power and hegemony in the Roman and Mughal empires", the author compares universalistic ideology in the Roman and Mughal Empires, showing how, besides being traditional and competition- driven, the claim to universal empire served the practical purposes of connecting the heterogeneous cultures, religions and polities that make up an empire. In line with the main problem formulated in the introduction, it is argued that because premodern agrarian empires claimed unity but were never in a position to really homogenize their realms, they accentuated the paradox, emphasizing universality to make sense of diversity. While the only advanced organization at the disposal of ancient empires was the army, government was usually "left in the hands of people and groups commanding great influence in local societies" (p. 185). The hyperbole of universal empire provided a framework that enabled imperial powers to negotiate, compromise and strike alliances with diverse polities and elites (p. 173).

Comparison is also at the heart of the papers by Walter Scheidel and Chris Wickham. In "Fiscal regimes and the 'First Great Divergence' between eastern and western Eurasia", Scheidel addresses the question how the political development of China and the former Roman world diverged after c. 600 CE. After having gone through a converging development of increasing state centralization and intensifying fiscal regimes, western Eurasia experienced political fragmentation while (northern) China eventually continued on a route of unity and relative stability, whereby the state survived even if power came into the hands of different dynasties, usually conquest elites from the nomad fringes of the empire. Drawing on the work of Chris Wickham, Scheidel argues that in the west post-Ancient successor states failed to continue to pacify local elites and thus were faced with decreasing revenues while in eastern Eurasia after the collapse of the Han Empire, new dynasties restored an intensive fiscal regime and were able to maintain a strong standing army that was directly answerable to the ruler -- the crucial difference being that in the west the invading conquest elites that became the new administrators and military forces were given land allotments or guaranteed stipends from land worked by others, while in the east the foreign invaders who came to constitute the main military power continued to receive government salaries derived from generalized taxation (p. 200). One question remains however: can we really speak of the preservation of one and the same state in China, or is what we see there the establishment of a sequence of successive empires in more or less the same geographical region (but often with different centers of gravity), sometimes separated by an interval of political fragmentation – precisely as happened in the Middle East from the establishment of the Neo-Assyrian Empire until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918? The fact that in the Roman Empire the state existed independently from the dynasty may be a singular phenomenon in world history, caused by the empire's background as a city state and a republic.

The paper by Chris Wickham sets up a comparison between the Late Rome Empire and the early Arab Caliphates of the Umayyads and Abbasids. Wickham argues that one basic difference between the Roman and the Umayyad empires was the fact that in the latter participation in centralized "state" power was disconnected from landownership: in the early Islamic world, "landowning did not bring rights to wider political power" (p. 209). Under the subsequent Abbasid dynasty, regional landowning elites and rulers gained more independence from the central power of the Caliph, precisely because they were cut off from political power. "The Romans were more successful here, because … they gave more power to landowning elites, integrating them more organically into the structures of imperial government, thus making provincial breakaway more risky and messy" (p. 212).

There is more, of course, mostly concerning non-Ancient empires. Volumes like this can be help to integrate the discipline Ancient History better in the historical social sciences in general. Although many contributors do their best to achieve a relevance that transcends the specific properties of their respective historical expertise, the book would have benefitted from a stronger focus on a specific subject such as city-empire relations, the court, the military apparatus, universalistic ideology, or taxation.5 Still, there is enough to think about for Ancient Historians; for them I recommend especially the papers by Runciman, Fibiger Bang, Scheidel, Wickham, Blake, and Barkey and Batzell.

Table of Contents

1. P. Fibiger Bang and C. A. Bayly, Towards a global and comparative history.
2. C. A. Bayly, Religion, liberalism and empires: British historians and their Indian critics in the nineteenth century.
3. F. De Donno, Orientalism and classicism: The British-Roman empire of Lord Bryce and his Italian critics.
4. B. Tezcan, The new order and the fate of the old: The historiographical construction of an Ottoman Ancien Regime in the nineteenth century.
5. W. G. Runciman, Empire as a topic in comparative sociology.
6. M. Tymowski, Early imperial formations in Africa and the segmentation of power.
7. A. Wink, Post-nomadic empires: From the Mongols to the Mughals.
8. D. Ludden, The process of empire: Frontiers and borderlands.
9. G. Salmeri, The emblematic province: Sicily from the Roman Empire to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies
10. P. F. Fibiger Bang, Lords of all the World: The state, heterogeneous power and hegemony in the Roman and Mughal empires.
11. W. Scheidel, Fiscal regimes and the "First Great Divergence" between eastern and western Eurasia.
12. C. Wickham, Tributary empires: Late Rome and the Arab Caliphate.
13. S. P. Blake, Returning the household to the patrimonial-bureaucratic empire: Gender, succession, and ritual in the Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman empires.
14. K. Barkey and R. Batzell, Comparisons across empires: The critical social structures of the Ottoman, Russian and Habsburgs during the seventeenth century.


1.   See i.a. K. Barkey, Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge 2008); S. Faroqhi, The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It (London and New York 2004); D. J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven 1992); H. Kamen, Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763 (New York 2003).
2.   J. Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 (London 2007); H. Münkler, Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States (Berlin 2008); J. Burbank and F. Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton and Oxford 2010).
3.   See e.g. S. E. Alcock et al. eds., Empires: Perspectives From Archaeology and History (Cambridge 2001); W. Scheidel ed., Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires (Oxford 2009); I. Morris and W. Scheidel eds., The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium (Oxford 2009).
4.   M. Mann, The Sources of Social Power. Volume 1: A History of Power From the Beginning to A.D. 1760 (Cambridge 1986) 1.
5.   For (imperial) courts in a comparative perspective see now T. Artan, J. Duindam, M. Kunt eds., Royal Courts in Dynastic States and Empires: A Global Perspective (Leiden and Boston 2011).

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