Ancient Rome. China from the time of the First Emperor until 1912. The Mughals in South Asia. The Ottomans. The Inca, Aztecs. The Holy Roman Empire and its successor, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations, 800 – 1806. The British Empire. The Russian Empire. We humans seem to have a habit of building super-kingdoms and calling them empires, to the point that science fiction and fantasy have absorbed the pattern. What causes people to do this? And are they all truly empires?
How do you define an empire? We all know what one looks like, and can say, “Yes, the Chinese had an empire, maybe the Aztecs, but not the Zulu.” Although I suspect certain Zulu leaders would differ with that. A quick general description would probably be centralized political and economic and military authority extended over a large geographic area for the benefit of the power holders, and that is recognized as a political or economic entity by others.
Why the latter point? Because once you get into details, a whole lot of hands shoot into the air and protest certain “empires” as not really being empires. If those involved all agree that it is an empire, then I’m going to call it an empire. For example, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations rarely held full political and economic control over its entire geographic area, because the cities bought their liberty (Imperial Free Cities such as Nuremberg and Frankfurt, for example) and the various nobles and electors within the empire recognized certain imperial claims to power but not others. From outside, the whole thing looks a bit shaky if you compare it to Imperial Rome or early Ming Dynasty China. If you asked the people involved in the HREGN at the time if they were residents of an empire, they would have said yes, pointing to traditions, courts of law, the moral and military authority of the emperor, the symbols of the empire, and other things.
So what is this fascination with empires? Is it something in human nature? I’m not ready to go that far. I think that for western writers and thinkers, the idea of the Roman Empire imprinted on us. It was the archetype to which every other large polity gets compared, and provides the checklist for “empire.” Central power? Check. Economic as well as military domination? Check. Traditions? Check. Generally recognized by outsiders as a polity? Check. Remembered for long after it faded out of practical existence? Very check. Everyone wants their own Roman Empire – the Franks, the German-speakers, Napoleon, the British (sort of), the Prussian Germans, the Russians… The Imperial eagle gets borrowed, the Legions get borrowed, all sorts of things that most people don’t think about turn up if you start scratching the surface, even though they are transmuted over time and distance. How many Americans would look at Russia as the heir of the Roman Empire? Not many, but the Imperial Russians took their claim very seriously, leaning on Christian tradition and the idea of Constantinople as the Second Rome, with Moscow as the third Rome.
If Rome provided the pattern for westerners trying to sort out what to call large political entities, the pattern worked fairly well. China, South Asia, both compared to Rome and declared empires, even though there is at best minimal direct connection between Babur or Shah Jehan and Augustus. The Aztecs and Inca also received the title of empire, although no connection existed between Rome and Lima before the descendants of the Romans arrived, led by Pizarro.
Empire serves as a useful shorthand when people are trying to describe something larger than a nation-state, smaller than the planet (historically speaking), not governed as a democracy or republic, with a single recognized leader and expanded through military conquest. of course there are exceptions, but the British declared themselves an empire, outsiders called them an empire, so empire it was. We all know one when we see it.
Not every culture aims for an empire, and many started through accretion rather than deliberate planning. Alexander the Great had a super-kingdom, although we tend to look at it and think, “Hmm. Empire.” Empire sounds better, being emperor outranks chief or king or palatine. So once a pattern is established, ambitious individuals or cultures seek to create a super-polity that can be said to be an empire. Why be king of China if you can be emperor? The title has picked up a weight that allows a lot of short hand by historians and novelists.
Are empires something humans tend to create? In a way, if you consider that we are an expansive species and that some cultures lean toward political as well as territorial expansion. We tend to have itchy feet, and if an individual has ambitions toward holding more and more territory, traditionally she could do so if she organized and army and conquered territory, or established herself as leader and exerted control through economic means and was recognized as the primary leader. Once she had a kingdom, why not expand? That much seems to be common to most cultures once they get past a certain population size. Now, which comes first is the subject of much debate, but ever since the city states of Mesopotamia and the reign of Qin Shihuangdi, super-polities have existed.
In fiction, we have The Empire in Star Wars, the various Earth-based empires that spin out of the Co-Dominium (Pournell et al), non-Earth Empires (Feist and Wurms trilogy), the Andermani Empire of David Weber’s Honorverse, and a number of others. I’m not familiar with enough non-English-language science fiction and fantasy to speculate well, but I suspect that Chinese and possibly Indians writers might be inclined toward interstellar empires, as bad guys perhaps.* Some Russian sci-fi has empires, or at least what I’ve read are empires in reviews. Ditto German-language sci-fi.
Will humans form something called an empire once we leave the planet and expand? I suspect we will. The pattern is convenient as is the name. Will we call something we encounter Out There an empire in messages home? That I guarantee, assuming the outside polity doesn’t destroy us before we get past the “What’s that? Is it friendly? Is it edible?” stage.
*Given the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party, I am inclined to think that in officially approved stories they would insist that single-monarch governments be evil, especially if they have free-market economies, and Communist governments good, at least in the long run of the series.