Skip to main content

Rule of Empires: Who Built & Endured Them, and Why They Fail -- Review

Jim Cullen: Parsons's most important contribution to a discourse of empire: his attention to the issue of assimilation-which runs between conquering and subjecting.

Timothy H. Parsons has an agenda in this book whose ambition is suggested by its simplicity: to show the underlying dynamics of empires across history and why they inevitably collapse. One the whole, his reach exceeds his grasp. But he makes some good points along the way.

british empire

Parsons's most important contribution to a recently quickening discourse of empire is his sustained attention to the issue of assimilation, which, as he shows, runs both ways between conquering and subject peoples. In her recently published Day of Empire, Yale law professor Amy Chua somewhat glibly suggests that cultural pluralism is the hallmark of all great imperial powers.(See my review of Chua's book here.)

Parsons more credibly views assimilation as a much as a dilemma as an opportunity. Hegemonic powers need the cooperation of local elites to stabilize and thus legitimize their rule. But literally and figuratively buying such cooperation eventually leads to demands for equality, and a blurring of the line between ruler and subject that makes the extractive dynamic of empires harder to sustain, because citizens simply can't be exploited as easily as subjects. This growing difficulty in exploiting people is what Parsons says sapped Roman Empire, as well as the Umayyad Caliphate in Iberia, where Muslim religion became a vehicle for acquiring rights. Later empires, like the Spanish and British, tried to avoid this problem by drawing a firmer line between citizen and subject, with race as a convenient marker. But such sharp demarcations prevented occupying powers from sinking deep roots, ultimately resulting in strong and eventually decisive resistance.

An important sub-theme of this argument is the critical role of women in the dynamic of assimilation. In all empires, Parsons says, women are a prize to be claimed, often brutally. But women are also the crucible of social and political integration over the course of generations, and in some cases an important form of (usually passive) resistance. This dimension of imperialism is often overlooked in the recent discourse of empire, and as such represents a real contribution. Had Parsons limited his ambitions, and called this book The Dilemma of Assimilation or some such title, it would have had a much firmer intellectual foundation. Alas, whether out of a sense of academic overreach (or, as likely as not, sharp prodding from marketing people who like to pitch wide to perceived audiences), he tries to do too much with the material at hand.

The most obvious manifestation of this problem is definitional: Parsons fails to offer a workable definition of the term "empire" at the outset. In his introduction, he makes distinctions between terms like achieved "imperialism" and a process of "empire building," and contrasts "empire," which involves subjugation of a people, with "colonization," which involves their displacement in favor of settling conquerors. But in a project like this, you really need to nail down your key term in a single-sentence assertion that can subsequently pull forward the analysis that follows. Ironically, such a sentence surfaces in passing on page 447 of a 450 page book: "Empires are, by definition, a form of permanent authoritarian rule that consigns a defeated people to perpetual subjecthood, most often for purposes of exploitation and extraction."

That's not bad, but it should have come a lot earlier. So should a rationale for the choices Parsons subsequently makes to illustrate this point. Almost inevitably, a book of this scope will use a case-study approach, which makes sense. But Parsons never really establishes the basis of those cases. Why, for example, do three of the seven involve England (once as a subject of Rome and then as an imperial power in its own right in India and Kenya)? Why not the Belgian Congo, for instance? And if, as in the example of the British in India, the point is to illustrate how private enterprises no less than governments can establish empires, why not the Dutch? Why no cases from east Asia? You're never going to completely satisfy all readers in what will always be perceived by some to be a subjective slate, but Parsons doesn't do enough due diligence to counter a perception that his choices are merely idiosyncratic. (A professor of African history at Washington University, his chapter on Kenya is the most nuanced, which constitutes justification for that one. The reason for others is less clear.)

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

This lack of discipline extends into the case studies themselves. The subtitle of this book is "those who built [empires], those who endured them, and why they always fall." Parsons (and his publicists) repeatedly emphasize the importance of looking at history from the bottom up, in contrast to scholars like Niall Ferguson. But for a big chunk of this book -- the first two chapters, at least -- Parsons doesn't really deliver. To a great extent, that's because he can't: the sources for ancient Britons or indigenous Incas to articulate their grievances in an intelligible way are largely lacking. To be fair, the situation improves in the latter part of the book, and Parsons is attuned to behavioral choices, like banditry in Napoleonic Italy, that can plausibly be viewed as forms of resistance. But for far too much of the time, he narrates a traditional string of dynastic intrigue and factional maneuvers that are largely indistinguishable from previous treatments of the specific subjects.

Yet even when Parsons gets to the kernels of individual chapters, those case studies fail to fit snugly into his criteria. As he is explicitly aware, Parson pushes the interpretive envelope in asserting that the Nazi occupation of France was essentially congruent with the other examples in the book. And in a narrow sense, it may be true. But at the very moment the Third Reich is orchestrating a Vichy regime in what Parsons considers a classically imperial pattern, it's also conducting the Holocaust -- genocide as opposed to extraction -- and "clearing" Eastern Europe in what Parsons himself would taxonomically consider a colonial operation of replacing one people with another. So is Nazi Germany an empire or not? More or less than the Soviet Union? (The USSR would appear to be a tidier example, except for the fact that Josef Stalin was about as vicious toward Russians as he was peoples of the satellite republics.) And if empires "always fall," is not the quantitative difference between the dozen-year Reich and the centuries-long empires of Rome, the Umayyads or Spain so great as to be qualitative as well? Sure, empires always fall. In the long run, we're all dead.

Indeed, what may be the most serious problem with The Rule of Empires is that Parsons never really offers what he considers a viable exception or alternative. Which people don't subjugate others in one form or another? Athenians? Mongols? Apaches? (Americans sure do, Parsons says: Iraq is exhibit A.) He asserts that empire became a lot more difficult to create since the twentieth century, leading him to conclude that "imperial methods are no longer viable in the trans-national era." (Isn't his point that they were never viable?) Then, on the very next page, he says "there was never a static, idealized Aristotelian model of empire," that "imperial institutions evolved over time." So have we reached the end of history? A "viable" empire can't "evolve" any further? This strikes me as a failure of imagination.

Actually, there's a part of me that's less inclined to blame Parsons for such lapses in logic than the state of a publishing industry where editorial supervision, much less careful copy-editing, have become unaffordable luxuries. Professor Parsons embarked upon this book with good faith and moral energy. Regrettably, it could have turned out a good deal better.


Jim Cullen

Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of ten books, among them The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003) and Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History (Blackwell-Wiley, 2009). He blogs at American History Now.]

Reposted with permission from the History News Network