Inevitable Empires?

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.

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10 thoughts on “Inevitable Empires?

  1. So, wouldn’t the Chinese dynasties, like the Ming dynasty be considered an empire, if a short lived one? Just curious…

    • I think she pretty explicitly says yes.

      I say yes.

      You can look at it as one big empire with a series of succession disputes, or as a series of empires drawing on similar claims to legitimacy. Or you could argue that some of the proto-Emperors, like Zhou, were closer to ceremonial religious rulers, like the Pope. Some of the dynasties lasted a fairly long time.

      My history is probably weak compared to some of the regulars here, I’m short on sleep, and I’m not sure I ever really researched the exact lifespan of short lived non-Chinese empires. So I couldn’t give a comparison.

    • Yes, because Chinese historians don’t sub-divide the Imperial period into discrete empires. So the Qin Dynasty is the first imperial dynasty,but the next major period is still, oh, let’s say Tang Dynasty Imperial China, not the Tang, Han, or whatever Empire. The reason is because there was so much cultural continuity that while dynasties came and went, a lot remained relatively unchanged. By the rise of the Qin Dynasty, Confucianism, the doctrines of filial piety, and a number of other bedrock Han Chinese cultural patterns had solidified and would continue almost unchanged until 1949.

      • Though the five element succession legitimation narrative did see a couple of major changes in its usage. (I forget who changed it between types of elemental succession, and the Yuan (Lit. Original, Mongol) essentially froze things at Earth until the Qing.) That was the only bit of Academic history I’ve ever done.

      • Also, it goes something like Xia (which was still possibly mythical when I was learning), Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, and I forget.

        The Qin dynasty was explicitly Legalist and opposed to Confucianism. The Han Dynasty was the one that established the lasting political power of Confucianism. It is also probably responsible for demonizing the Qin Shi Huangdi, the traditional Chinese Hitler, who was essentially the whole Qin Dynasty. Not that he necessarily needed the help. The Han claimed his laws were inhumanly barbaric, but we do know from magistrate tombs that Qin laws were used during part of the Han.

        • Last I’ve seen, which is a translated archaeological monograph from 2013, the Xia is still iffy, so Shang is the first proven dynasty.

          My understanding is that Qin Shi Huangdi went round-the-bend in his later years and got “a wee bit” paranoid and slightly more psychotic. Not the the available sources are *ahem* objective in their discussions of his reign.

  2. It is probably an artifact of the Chinese genres I read, but I don’t see that sort of distinction made in the Chinese stories I read. I think think any discussion of Life, Liberty, and Property versus the PRC’s system might be politically fraught enough that people can be hesitant to compare them even in world building. Plus, maybe our own cultural fixations increase the rate at which we write such stories.

    If tyrannical things happen in a setting fairly heavily based on communist China, I do not think I’ve ever seen any explicit discussion of the CCP’s role. Okay, corruption, sure, but I’m pretty sure they mostly keep any subversive messages at the level of deniable and only there if you are also drawing subversive conclusions along those lines. There was one that dodged the issue by insisting that described issues in the PRC’s government were largely the result of Evil Foreigners, and complained about the government’s favoritism towards non-Han Chinese minorities. I’m not sure if that was seen as politically necessary, audience appeal, or if the author was just racist.

    I can recall a story that spent some time in New York City. The vampires and werewolves were inside genre justifications. The underground illegal deathmatches beneath Central Park were also genre, and NYC is certainly a hole, but I don’t think I’ve ever really come across a depiction of America whose verisimilitude in political world-building has impressed me.

    Most of the political worldbuilding I’ve seen is clearly inspired by famous Chinese historical literature, martial arts political worldbuilding of the wuxia genre, and quite possibly modern Chinese living where it intersects with organized crime.

    You have empires that take and hold cities with vast armies, which involves soldiers, generals, emperors and succession disputes. You have martial arts sects who war over martial arts resources. You have families in all sorts of occasionally murderous disputes over financial resources. Plus also the Asian light fantasy stuff which is based on CRPGs.

    The Chinese genre I’m most interested in is Xianxia, which often involves starting out mortal and gaining ever greater levels of mystical and martial power. Typically once the hero has killed or coopted all threats at their current power level, they move to an area dominated by threats at the next level of power. So this can eventually reach multi-planet empires of mortals owned by bronze age empires, kung fu sects, families or medieval European kingdoms as telephoned through dozens of videogames, who use the planets mainly for magic kung fu mountains or to collect tolls from travelers.

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