Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.04.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.04.43

Michael Gehler, Robert Rollinger (ed.), Imperien und Reiche in der Weltgeschichte: epochenübergreifende und globalhistorische Vergleiche (2 vols.).   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz Verlag, 2014.  Pp. ix, 1762.  ISBN 9783447065672.  €198.00.  

Reviewed by Janneke de Jong, Leiden University (

Table of Contents

The volumes under review are the result of an international congress on ‘Imperien und Reiche in der Weltgeschichte – epochenübergreifende und globalhistorische Vergleiche’, organized in Hildesheim in May 2010 by the editors, as a fruitful conclusion of their collaboration in a joint project supported by their respective institutes at Hildesheim and Innsbruck. The purpose of the conference was to compare a substantial number of empires from antiquity to the present, in order to explore the notion of ‘imperium’ from a global historical perspective. The product of this epoch-transcending and global-historical approach has materialized in some sixty contributions by a host of prominent scholars. The majority of these deal with historical empires (or realms), but some thematic discussions are also included. Given the number of contributions, it is impossible to assess each of them individually.1 Instead of doing so, I will focus on the introduction, where the editors explain the background and aims of this work, before discussing the design of the book and making some general evaluative observations.

In the introduction, with the same title as the book, Gehler and Rollinger observe an increased interest in ‘Imperiumsforschung’ in the past decades, resulting from contemporary developments in international relations. In order to explain such changes, the term ‘imperium’ came to denote a universal phenomenon and functioned as a framework in which structures (such as origin, zenith, decline) and agents (such as leaders) were identified and analyzed (pp. 1-3). However, as Gehler and Rollinger point out, imperium is not a clearly demarcated concept, as it is used for various forms of rule throughout history: “Die geschichtliche Verwendung des Begriffs “Imperium” umfasst somit sehr differente Herrschaftsformationen und Staatenbildungen” (p. 5). Apart from this, different scholars have come up with different definitions of imperium and, as the editors repeat on p. 26, the problem is that the term’s analytical potential diminishes. On top of this absence of an unambiguous definition of imperium, Gehler and Rollinger criticize studies of empires because of their limited nature, as they often focus on isolated cases or aspects only and because of the lack of a theoretical foundation of the criteria that define an imperium. Rome and China are often taken as paradigmatic empires, without further reflection or explanation. It is with an eye to deal with these shortcomings that Gehler and Rollinger propose to explore the notion of imperium in global historical perspective, with the aim to “einen weiteren Schritt in der Forschung zu setzen, um der komplexen Thematik der Imperiums-definition besser Herr werden zu können” (p. 17). Their method is to analyze empires for their ‘Realgeschichte’ and ‘Rezeptionsgeschichte.’ In order to enable comparison between the different empires they have developed a catalogue of characteristics (Kriterienkatalog) of imperia, both for the ‘real history’ and the ‘reception history.’ This serves as a directive for the contributions on historical empires and should facilitate comparison. Next, they attempt to give a new definition of imperium, which they base on the findings from the various contributions (pp. 16-19). Again, several points are mentioned that in varying manifestations recur in empires, many of which had already been addressed in previous pages. To me, this did not add clarity to the notion of imperium or to what the novelty of this notion would be. Moreover, given Gehler and Rollinger’s criticism of lack of theoretical foundation by others, it is noticeable that they do not explain how and why they chose their criteria. On p. 21 they announce their ‘preliminary attempt to define’ (Definitionsversuch) imperium as the result of the observations they made from the individual contributions. However, this gives the impression of the same circular reasoning for which they criticize others on p. 15: attempting to deduce a definition of imperium based on contributions that are based on a set Kriterienkatalog seems to be curious. Furthermore, as Gehler and Rollinger indicate, this publication does not claim to be comprehensive: not all historical empires are included, and aspects of or topics relating to empire remain to be studied, for example ‘architecture’, ‘language’, or ‘meta-empires.’ That a publication on empires is not comprehensive is understandable. However, their remark on ‘aspects’ leads to the question in how far the criteria in the Katalog are hard criteria for a state to be designated as empire, or whether they should be considered as aspects. In short, in spite of – or perhaps due to – the discussion of the various aspects of empire, in my view its essence is still not pinpointed; or rather, its essence seems to be exactly the wide-ranging divergences implied. The question then is whether this is a problem, as Gehler and Rollinger note, or not, if Greg Woolf’s opinion is followed.2

The introduction is followed by 60 chapters that are clustered in six parts:

Part 1: Imperien des Altertums (18 contributions)
Part 2: Mittelalterliche und frühneuzeitliche Imperien (13 contributions)
Part 3: Neuzeitliche Imperien (12 contributions)
Part 4: Zeitgeschichtliche Imperien (7 contributions)
Part 5: Imperien in Theorie, Geist, Wissenschaft, Recht und Architektur (5 contributions)
Part 6: Wahrnehmung und Vermittlung von Imperien (5 contributions)

The first four parts contain discussions of individual empires in a chronological-geographical arrangement. These chronological demarcations are not discussed. Admittedly, these demarcations may be well-known enough, but given the global historical perspective and recent views on, for example, historical demarcations of Antiquity and Middle Ages, some elucidation of the editors’ conception of world history would have fitted well. The contributions in these parts are generally uniform in format, thanks to the specification of topics presented in the Kriterienkatalog in the introduction. The use of common literature as guideline for the divergent articles contributes to considerable correspondence in the conception of empire by the different authors.3 Most contributions to a greater or lesser degree discuss the same aspects of empire, offering solid and up-to-date accounts of current views. Yet, due to the extensiveness of a topic as empire, it is not surprising that there is little room for profound discussion of the aspects. The result is that many contributions are best characterized as overview articles, the majority of which provide good introductions to a specific empire (or a not-empire) with valuable bibliographies.

Parts 5 and 6 are a receptacle for contributions that do not specifically focus on one empire (with the exception of Bichler on the reception of [the achievements] of Alexander the Great, a chapter that could have been included in Part 1), but have a thematic focus. As such they offer a better opportunity for in-depth discussion, with more room for diachronic discussion and hence for comparison, such as Vietta’s chapter on rationality as a directive force adopted and adapted by consecutive empires, and to a lesser degree Reginbogin about international law.4 Well-suited for comparison would also be Naredi-Rainer’s chapter (on the architecture of the building where the symposium was convened) that now stands as an isolated case; it would have gained value had there been other contributions on the use of architecture for political-divine legitimation. Still others have a more theoretical approach. Leitner, Pittl, and Menzel’s contributions deal with criteria for empires, and once more illustrate the concomitant difficulty and subjectivity accompanying attempts to come up with strict delimitations. Lekon proposes a model to conceptualize paradoxality in perceptions of empires. Schulz pleads for integration of the subject of empires in the curriculum of secondary schools. May’s examples of political postcards conclude the book.

Turning to the book’s editing, the following remarks can be made. The book is nicely designed and the contributions have a clear structure. Yet, some inconsistencies and deficits are noticeable. For a book that brings together so much ‘globalhistorische’ and ‘epochenübergreifende’ information, it is a bit surprising that it contains only one index, of persons (Personenindex, pp. 1741-1762). Perhaps the explanation for this is the fact that many chapters focus on recurrent topics, which would congest a general index, but some selected terms (e.g. ‘diadochs’, ‘iconoclasm’) could have been included. A geographical index would also contribute to completeness. An ‘imperial overview or timetable’ at the end of each chapter as appendix might have been useful as a kind of resumé, offering a quick overview of each empire discussed in chronological relation to other empires. Inconsistency in the references in the bibliographies following each chapter is another point of notice. Whereas the bibliography following the introduction and other contributions lists the authors’ surnames first, in many other contributions authors are referred to by her/his first name preceding the surname (of course still the alphabetical order of the surname being followed), having a distracting effect (at least, on the reviewer). Most contributions use footnotes, but some have a different reference system (e.g. Radner). Some authors (e.g. Halm, Wende) have remarkably short bibliographies and others (e.g. Salvini, Chrysos, Thamer) give full bibliographical information in footnotes only. The use of maps can only be welcomed, and fortunately many contributions add one. However, the inclusion of the maps only after the bibliographies is awkward: a geographic visualization in the beginning of the chapter is more likely to catch the reader’s attention. Less important is the difference in the quality of the maps; some maps are not so straightforward, which can be ascribed to a too high level of information or detail. As random examples the maps on pp. 362 and 815 may serve. The latter combines two different legends in grey-scale, one indicating Aztec leagues, the other indicating heights. Apart from the question whether indications of height are crucial here, the grey scales unfortunately have not come out clearly in print. The aerial photos on pp. 312, 319-321 would be more useful if they would have been put in perspective in a proper map.

These notions are of course only secondary to the question whether this volume fulfills its intention: did the editors succeed in creating a new notion of empire in a world historical perspective? Drawing up the balance, Gehler and Rollinger deserve to be praised for their effort and success in producing this voluminous work. Bringing together so many different scholars and contributions is quite an achievement and they have succeeded in producing an ‘epochenübergreifend’ and ‘globalhistorisch’ work. However, in my view the attempt to create a new understanding of empire on the basis of ‘Vergleiche’ is less successful. Notwithstanding their Kriterienkatalog, the general question what was exactly compared with what, and why, remains unanswered. Comparing the political organizations under consideration with the criteria formulated in the Katalog is rather ticking the boxes than assessing uniqueness or commonality in relation to other empires. Fortunately some authors have added a more or less elaborate assessment, by relating empires to immediate preceding, succeeding or rival empires and to their use as a point of reference in later periods, and also by referring to the global perspective. But an overarching discussion of how the different empires discussed fit in a global-historical perspective is absent: how did the empires and realms contribute to world history? Are there decisive differences between empires of antiquity and of other periods and if so, what would they be?5 Or is the chronological compartmentalization just a way to structure the book without further implications? Do the Roman and Chinese empires stand the test as paradigmatic empires and why? If not, which alternative paradigms can be brought in? Of course it cannot be expected that conclusive answers are given, but a concluding chapter or epilogue with some afterthoughts on the main results and a general assessment of how each of the individual empires contributed to the course of world history would have been in place.6 If anything has become clear from the publication, it is that all empires originated and evolved in their own specific historical and dynamic contexts, resulting in different evolutions and outcomes. This would suggest that ‘empire’ defies a strict definition, even if several aspects such as power relations, territoriality, and chronological span – to name but a few – can be identified as recurring. Be this as it may, Gehler and Rollinger’s effort has resulted in a substantial collection of historical empires and realms, which are by no means exhaustively discussed, but offer plenty of opportunities for further discussions.


1.   My main focus has been on the contributions of Part 1 and 2. Even then, my comments are only generalizing.
2.   Greg Woolf, Rome. An Empire’s Story . Oxford, 2012, pp. 24-27, especially 26.
3.   See introduction, pp. 3-8. Many authors refer to Herfried Münkler, Imperien. Die Logik der Weltherrschaft – vom Alten Rom bis zu den Vereinigten Staaten (Berlin 2005) and Hans-Heinrich Nolte, ‘1.2.3. Reich? Zum Begriff Imperium’, in: Hans-Heinrich Nolte (ed.), Imperien. Eine vergleichende Studie (Studien zur Weltgeschichte). Schwalbach/Taunus, 2008.
4.   Also Schima’s article on papacy is diachronic (and thematic) and would have fit well in Part 5.
5.   Cf. Vogtherr’s observation on the impossibility to define ‘imperium’ in the Middle Ages, p. 707.
6.   As for example was done in Peter Fibiger Bang, Dariusz Kołodziejczyk (ed.), Universal Empire: A Comparative Approach to Imperial Culture and Representation in Eurasian History, Cambridge University Press, 2012. Cf. also some remarks on the utility of a comparative approach by Phiroze Vasunia, ‘The Comparative Study of Empires’, JRS 101 (2011), pp. 222-237.

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