Thursday, August 27, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Frédéric Hurlet (ed.), Les Empires. Antiquité et Moyen Âge. Analyse comparée. Histoire. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2008. Pp. 252; maps. ISBN 978-2-7535-0604-6. €18.00.
Reviewed by Peter Fibiger Bang, University of Copenhagen

Les Empires is the fruit of a series of research seminars organised by Frédéric Hurlet at the Université de Nantes and contains a set of eleven papers written by French historians as well as an introduction and a concluding comparative chapter. The theme, as the title indicates, is ancient and medieval empires. These were in many respects quite different from the colonial empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which generally shape present notions, Hurlet and Tolan rightly argue in the conclusion (p. 240), and therefore invite comparison to broaden our historical experience. As such this collection is a very welcome contribution to the growing number of studies dedicated to comparison of pre-modern empires. During the last decade, the comparative approach to Roman history has generated several books and projects, including Alcock et al. Empires, Bang and Bayly, Tributary Empires in History, Bang, The Roman Bazaar, Scheidel and Morris, The Dynamics of Ancient Empires and finally Scheidel, Rome and China.1 While several of these volumes advocate comparisons with India and the far East, Hurlet has chosen to explore examples from Middle-Eastern, Mediterranean and European history. These may be closer to home, but not necessarily less interesting.

Pierre Villard opens the proceedings with a clear analysis of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Christophe Pébarthe follows with a discussion of Athens, "l'empire oublié", before Laurent Capdetrey presents an interesting treatment of the Seleucids. One important point to emerge from these essays is the resilience of traditional Babylonian political institutions. Both the Assyrians and the Seleucids had to accept the title and perform the traditional functions of the old kings of Babylon (cf. pp. 25 and 65). Another important theme in these chapters, the city-state as an imperial institution, is picked up by Eric Guerber and Frédéric Hurlet in their analysis of the Roman Empire before late antiquity. In this essay, which serves as a programmatic statement for the volume as a whole, the authors emphasise the need to distinguish between Rome as the quintessential model of empire for later generations and the Empire of the Romans. The latter "n'est pas réductible à un idéal-type qui aurait surpassé les empires antérieurs et qu'auraient cherché à reproduire plus ou moins fidèlement de nombreux empires ultérieurs. Il doit être analysé plutôt comme une forme originale..." (p. 81). It is the Roman Empire as a unique political organism Guerber and Hurlet wish to stress. The fact that eventually under Caracalla almost the entire free population of the Empire was granted Roman citizenship and thus included in the conquering city-state is, to their mind, what really distinguishes the Roman achievement and sets it apart. From there, Brigitte Beaujard takes the analysis into late antiquity. She sees expansion of the administration proceeding in tandem with growing corruption -- a phenomenon which in the end sapped the powers of the state and undermined the Empire.

The volume now moves into its medieval section. Jean Claude Cheynet treats the Byzantine Empire. Geneviève Bührer-Thierry perceptively discusses the relationship between centre and periphery in the Carolingian Empire, emphasising the absence of one hegemonic centre and the importance of local networks in articulating political power; state hierarchy and society were not yet clearly differentiated. Pierre Monnet traces the further career of Charlemagne's realm and political heritage down through the middle ages. His treatment of the Holy-Roman Empire labours to free it from the assumptions of nineteenth century historiography intent on German unification. The Reich was not a centralised state, not even in aspiration, but a political organisation which provided an umbrella for the co-existence of a plurality of states and cultures (p. 176). This European reading of the Holy Roman Empire as a form of commonwealth is followed by Michel Ballard's analysis of another "truncated" empire, the commercial network and factories of the Genoese merchants. Finally two papers take the discussion into Muslim territory. François Clément presents an analysis of the tangled and fractured character of political power in the later centuries of the Abbasid Khalifate. Political ideals and theories of universal dominion had to be adjusted pragmatically to a situation where regional monarchs were able to claim considerable autonomy from the power of the Abbasid Khalif. While Clément's paper is dedicated to a detailed exposition of the juridico-political doctrines of Al-Mawardi, Pascal Buresi presents an excellent analysis of the Almohad Khalifate, comprising much of North Africa and the Iberian peninsula in the twelfth-thirteenth centuries. From the perspective of comparison, this may be the most successful paper of the volume. Buresi has allowed his case to be illuminated by making explicit comparisons drawn from the other analyses in the book; the dâr al-islâm is thus likened to the commonwealth of citizenship which Hurlet and Guerber saw produced by the Roman Empire (p. 223).

Mostly, explicit comparative analysis is confined to the short concluding chapter, where Hurlet and John Tolan identify five broad common themes: the ideological claims of historical continuity, exercise and representation of imperial power, relations of centre and periphery, empires and universalism, identity and ethnicity. But the emphasis of the book remains heavily on documenting historical variety. The editor has, accordingly, dispensed with any kind of general theoretical model or ideal-type, indeed declares this as a point of principle. Instead some thematic unity has been attempted by asking authors to deal with three common loosely defined themes in their individual cases: terminology of empire, the function and structure of government, and finally communication (p. 241). Starting with the terms which people of the empires used about themselves may come natural to students of ancient history, often trained in philological disciplines, but does not necessarily facilitate comparison and systematic analysis. It is, for instance, instructive that imperial tribute extraction and military mobilisation are barely touched upon in many of the otherwise excellent individual chapters. Yet, how these issues played themselves out would have been crucial to the functioning and articulation of imperial power. Here a stronger theoretical model to guide analyses would surely have been helpful, as well as a more active use of cross-cultural comparison. Documenting historical variation is certainly a valuable exercise, but not simply to confirm experts in their automatic conviction that their own field is unique. We read books, such as this one, to take inspiration from related examples in order to develop and inform our own analyses. Explicit comparisons teach us to look at our own cases in a different light. But, of course, it is precisely when this is done that established experts will often complain that the analysis is wrong and fails to do justice to their familiar topic, admittedly some times with good reason, but more often than not basically because the result looks, well, different from conventional accounts. Hurlet's Les Empires is not the only volume to find itself caught between the ambition to compare and the wish to assert the unique historicity of individual cases. It is a conflict which characterises the field in general, but it is perhaps reflected with particular force in a volume taking care to articulate the need to uphold the "liberté d'auteur de chacun des spécialistes (p. 11)." Inviting reflection about how to overcome this tension is not the least important result of this volume.

Les Empires by Frédéric Hurlet is a welcome French contribution to the growing field of comparative studies with its dedication to present a less "romano-centric" image of empire and thus to broaden the canvas of our historical imagination.


1.   S. Alcock et al. (eds.), Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History, Cambridge 2001; P. F. Bang and C. A. Bayly, Tributary Empires in History: Comparative Perspectives from Antiquity to the late Medieval, The Medieval History Journal, Special Issue, Vol. 6:2 (2003), a trial volume for the European research project, Tributary Empires Compared (cf.; P. F. Bang, The Roman Bazaar. A Comparative study of trade and markets in a tributary empire, Cambridge 2008; W. Scheidel and I. Morris (eds.), The Dynamics of Ancient Empires. State Power from Assyria to Byzantium, Oxford 2009; W. Scheidel (ed.), Rome and China. Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, Oxford 2009.

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