The rise and structure of imperial entities are major themes in both global and comparative history (cf. Bang and Kolodziejczyk 2012). While ancient history provides a variety of perspectives for comparative research particularly with respect to the emergence and dynamics of autocratic rule, urban development, conceptions of universalism, and the formation of legal systems (cf. Cline and Graham 2011, Machado 2012, Mittag and Mutschler 2010, Turner 2009), medievalist research complements the historiography of empire by placing particular emphasis on the roles of economic systems, social hierarchies, diverging developmental trajectories, and cross-civilisational conflict in explaining both the rise and decline of imperial rule and the transformation of political order (cf. Bayly and Bang 2003, Barkey 2008, Bisson 2009, Folz 1969, Lewis 2009, Robinson 2004).

As the study of imperial structures has become a dominant factor in political and economic history alike, the array of applied analytical methods, ranging from traditional narrative to new cliodynamic and econometric approaches (cf. Goldstone 2008, Schulze and Wolf 2009), has significantly widened. This methodological expansion may yield advantages specifically for the analysis of political microstructures such as elite and non-elite social networks and their interdependence, patterns of communication and economic exchange, and the incentives for political competition within imperial structures of governance in both historical and contemporary societies (cf. Hardt and Negri 2000, Turchin 2005). 



The discussion will be centred on three topics in the comparative analysis of empire: the formation and maintenance of imperial structures; the political significance of empire, which includes a consideration of political and economic advantages of imperial structures and as well as their inherent ritual order and symbols; and the micro-structures of empire such as elite networks. Against the backdrop of traditional scholarship on the formation of empire, Turchin’s article presents a new model that examines the role of geography, specifically the vicinity of farmland to nomadic steppes, in creating the conditions for large territorial empires to emerge and persist. While the model is said to account for the persistence of imperial structures in Chinese history, it is limited to land-based empires and does not account for the rise of maritime powers and related imperial concepts (such as trading post empires, cf. Brady 1994). Hence additional explanations are needed to illuminate the meaning of empire from a European perspective. For this purpose, Muldoon’s book chapters provide a useful overview of the main characteristics of the medieval European empire, highlighting the role of the Christian religion as a unifying force, the significance of the papacy, and changing conceptions of imperial legitimacy. Finally, O’Connell’s work illustrates the micro-dynamics of imperial structures by examining intra-elite dynamics in the “imperial” administration of the Venetian Stato da Mar, holding that the Venetian experience is comparable to that of territorial empires in terms of the political significance of elite networks.

Against this background, we particularly want to consider the following aspects:

  1. State formation: does the emergence of centralised bureaucracies further or impede societal development (cf. Mann 1986)?
  2. Identity: what are the roles of political imaginaries in shaping imperial and national political narratives (cf. Abramson 2008, Anderson 1991, Cooper 2005, Kumar 2010)? Are political identities causational factors in, or ramifications of, the emergence of imperial entities?
  3. Religion and society: is there a developmental correlation between religious and political institutions (cf. Angelov and Herrin 2012, Eisenstadt 1962)?
  4. Territorial size and social organisation: what are the main differences between elite structure and intra-elite interaction in maritime and territorial empires and how can these be detected in comparative analyses (cf. Eisenstadt 1979, Rothman 2012)?
  5. Economic development: are there economic incentives for the maintenance of imperial structures of governance (cf. Bang 2007, Mitchener and Weidenmier 2008)?
  6. Institutions: what is the role of imperial rule in spreading political and economic institutions (cf. Diamond 2005, Ferguson 2011, Morris 2010)?

More generally, we want to inquire into the long-term effects of imperial structures on macro-social developmental trajectories and the causes of political disintegration of imperial entities. How can comparative history contribute to identifying patterns of decline and transition?


Core reading:

Muldoon, James: Empire and Order: The Concept of Empire, 800-1800, Basingstoke: Macmillan 1999. [Introduction + Chapter 4: The Emperor as Dominus Mundi]

O'Connell, Monique: Men of Empire: Power and Negotiation in Venice’s Maritime State, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. [Introduction + Chapter 5: Negotiating Empire]

Turchin, Peter: "A theory for formation of large empires", in: Journal of Global History 4 (2009), No. 2, pp. 191-217.


Recommended further reading:

Abramson, Marc S.: Ethnic Identity in Tang China, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. [part. chapter 5: The Geopolitics of Ethnicity]

Anderson, Benedict: Imagined Communities - Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1991. [Chapter 6: Official Nationalism and Imperialism]

Angelov, Dimiter, Herrin, Judith: "The Christian imperial tradition - Greek and Latin", in: Bang, Peter Fibiger, Kolodziejczyk, Dariusz (eds.), Universal Empire - A Comparative Approach to Imperial Culture and Representation in Eurasian History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 149-174.

Bang, Peter Fibiger: "Trade and Empire — In Search of Organizing Concepts for the Roman Economy ", in: Past & Present 195 (2007), No. 1, pp. 3-54.

Bang, Peter Fibiger, Bayfy, C. A.: "Introduction: Comparing Pre-Modern Empires", in: The Medieval History Journal 6 (2003), No. 2, pp. 169-187.

Bang, Peter Fibiger, Kolodziejczyk, Dariusz: "'Elephant of India': universal empire through time and across cultures", in: idem (eds.), Universal Empire - A Comparative Approach to Imperial Culture and Representation in Eurasian History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 1-42.

Barkey, Karen: Empire of Difference - The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. [part. chapter 2: Emergence: Brokerage across Networks]

Bisson, Thomas N.: The Crisis of the Twelfth Century - Power, Lordship and the Origins of European Government, Princeton (N.J.): Princeton University Press, 2009. [part. chapter III: Lord-Rulership (1050-1150): The Experience of Power]

Brady, Jr., Thomas A.: "The Rise of Merchant Empires, 1400-1700: A European Counterpoint", in: Tracy, James D. (ed.), The Political Economy of Merchant Empires, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 117-160.

Cline, Eric H., Graham, Mark W.: Ancient Empires - From Mesopotamia to the Rise of Islam, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Cooper, Frederic: Colonialism in Question - Theory, Knowledge, History, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. [Chapter 6: States, Empires, and Political Imagination]

Diamond, Jared: Guns, Germs, and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, London: Vintage Books, 2005. [Chapter 16: How China became Chinese – The History of East Asia]

Eisenstadt, Shmuel N.: "Communication Patterns in Centralized Empires", in: Lasswell, Harold D., Lerner, Daniel, Spier, Hans (eds.), Propaganda and Communication in World History, Vol. I, Honolulu: The University of Hawaii Press, 1979, pp. 536-551.

Eisenstadt, Shmuel N.: "Religious Organizations and Political Process in Centralized Empires", in: The Journal of Asian Studies 21 (May, 1962), No. 3, pp. 271-294.

Ferguson, Niall: Civilization: The West and the Rest, London: Allen Lane, 2011.

Folz, Robert: The concept of empire in Western Europe from the fifth to the fourteenth century, London: Edward Arnold, 1969.

Goldstone, Jack A.: Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History, 1500-1850, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Hardt, Michael, Negri, Antonio: Empire, Cambridge (Mass.) and London: Harvard University Press, 2000. [part. chapter 2: Passages of Sovereignty]

Kumar, Krishan: "Nation-states as empires, empires as nation-states: two principles, one practice?", in: Theory and Society 39 (March 2010), No. 2, pp. 119-143.

Lewis, Mark Edward: China's Cosmopolitan Empire - The Tang Dynasty, Cambridge (Mass.): Belknap Press, 2009.

Machado, Carlos: "Aristocratic Houses and the Making of Late Antique Rome and Constantinople", in: Grig, Lucy, Kelly, Gavin (eds.), Two Romes - Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 136-160.

Mann, Michael: The Sources of Social Power - Volume 1: A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760, Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 1986. [part. chapters 4, 13-15]

Mitchener, Kris James, Weidenmier, Marc: "Trade and Empire", in: The Economic Journal 118 (November, 2008), No. 533, pp. 1805–1834.

Mittag, Achim, Mutschler, Fritz-Heiner: "Empire and Humankind - Historical Universalism in Ancient China and Rome", in: Journal of Chinese Philosophy 37 (Dec., 2010), No. 4, pp. 527-555.

Morris, Ian: Why the West Rules - for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, London: Profile Books, 2010. [part. chapter 9: The West Catches Up]

Robinson, Chase F.: Empire and Elites after the Muslim Conquest - The Transformation of Northern Mesopotamia, Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Rothman, E. Natalie: Brokering Empire - Trans-Imperial Subjects between Venice and Istanbul, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. [part. chapter 1: Trans-Imperial Subjects as Supplicants and as Brokers]

Schulze, Max-Stephan, Wolf, Nikolaus: "On the origins of border effects: insights from the Habsburg Empire", in: Journal of Economic Geography 9 (2009), pp. 117-136.

Turchin, Peter: War and Peace and War - The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations, New York: Pi Press, 2005.

Turner, Karen: "Law and Punishment in the Formation of Empire", in: Scheidel, Walter (ed.), Rome and China - Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 52-82.


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